Wednesday 8 June 2022
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
Government Action on Suicide Prevention
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government action on suicide prevention.
As always, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone.
Three weeks ago today, I hosted an event on mental health and suicide prevention in Speaker’s House. We heard from two members of the band Joy Division/New Order because the event took place on the 42nd anniversary of the death by suicide of the singer, Ian Curtis. I want to take this opportunity to thank Stephen and Bernard from the band for coming along, because if it had been just me speaking about this subject, not as many people would have listened, although I am sure a mass audience is hanging on to my every word today.
At the event, we also heard from Simon Gunning, chief executive officer of Campaign Against Living Miserably, or CALM, whom I thank for meeting me yesterday in advance of the debate. I also thank Mr Speaker, who spoke movingly about his daughter’s suicide and the recent loss of his brother-in-law. We also heard from the leader of the Labour party and the Minister. I thank the Minister for speaking at the event, but I hope she will forgive me for seizing the opportunity of securing today’s debate to press her further on some of the issues we discussed then. It is good to talk, but it is even better to see action.
I am sure the Minister will remind us that the Government are consulting on their 10-year mental health plan, which will also be used to inform a refreshed national suicide prevention plan—the previous one is 10 years old. I am a little concerned that the issue is being bundled up within the one consultation and that there are only passing references to suicide in the consultation overview, which is what most people will read. In fact, suicide is not mentioned at all in the chapter on crisis, which is where I would most expect to find it, and people have to go to the mental health and wellbeing plan discussion paper to find any detail. I hope that that does not mean that suicide is being treated as an afterthought.
We are told that the details of the suicide prevention plan will be set out in due course, but given that suicidality is recognised by the Government as needing its own separate strategy, I do not understand why it does not warrant its own consultation. The latest coroners’ statistics show that deaths by suicide are at a record high, and it is obvious that the Government have not met their target of reducing suicide by 10%. Clearly, a better strategy is needed.
I accept that setting any kind of target is complex. We saw a spike in suicides after the 2008 financial crash; we are now emerging from a pandemic that has taken a terrible toll on people’s mental health and the cost of living crisis is starting to bite. A lot of factors are not in the Minister’s control, but as is often said, what is measured is what gets done, so there has to be something to aim for. To help us to get there, several organisations have raised with me the need for real-time data. The Government are developing a national real-time suicide surveillance system, so perhaps the Minister will update us on progress with that.
As the British Psychological Society has explained, suicidal behaviour cannot be understood from any one perspective alone. Suicidality is best explained as a complex interplay between risk factors across domains. Not everyone who experiences bereavement or relationship breakdown, or who is under massive pressure at work or is struggling financially, will feel suicidal. There is often an accumulation of pressures and events, sometimes stretching back to adverse childhood experiences and exacerbated by adult trauma, although sometimes it is just that something bad has happened.
It is difficult to unpick all that, but Professor Louis Appleby has suggested some priority areas for the suicide prevention plan: where rates are high, such as among middle-aged men; where rates are rising, even if they are quite low, which relates to children and young people; where there is proximity to prevention, such as among current mental health patients; and where there is public concern, such as for university students. Professor Appleby also suggests, for political reasons, that the north should be a priority. That might also be because he is based at Manchester University and he is perhaps pushing his home turf, but as part of levelling up. Economic aspects such as poverty and unemployment can be big factors.
In 2017, my constituent Jack Ritchie took his life at the age of 24 as a result of gambling addiction. I am pleased that his mother and father are in the Gallery with us today. It is estimated that there are more than 400 gambling-related suicides each year. The national suicide prevention strategy recognises high-risk groups, and my hon. Friend has highlighted the comments from Professor Appleby. Does she agree that as gambling-related suicides account for almost 8% of all suicides that group should be recognised in future strategies as high risk?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I know there was a very good debate in this Chamber yesterday morning, which unfortunately I could not attend, where such issues were raised. There are some discrete areas where a specific intervention suggests itself, such as gambling addiction, alcohol abuse, post-natal depression, or veterans’ mental health. I certainly feel that such risk factors ought to be reflected in the suicide prevention plan.
A quick win would be to obstruct people from accessing the means to die by suicide, with obstacles placed in their way. A lot of suicides are opportunistic. For example, the British Transport Police is very good in terms of how it polices stations and watches out for signs that somebody might be thinking of jumping in front of a train, and helplines can be flagged up at places such as the Humber bridge and the Clifton suspension bridge, but there are also physical measures that would make suicide more difficult. People might say, “Well, perhaps people will just go somewhere else,” but it does not always happen like that. If the moment is lost, there is a good chance a life will be saved.
Will the Minister tell us a little bit about the plans for the revised suicide prevention plan? Will it have clear priorities, with an evidence-based, tailored plan in each case for how we will bring rates down, and then targets set on that basis? One organisation described the current approach as very much a “throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks” approach. We need a far more tailored approach.
Will the Minister also tell us where the boundary falls between what is in the remit of the Department of Health and Social Care and work that requires action by other Departments? We have already talked about gambling, and the debate yesterday was answered by the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston). The Online Safety Bill is another example of where another Department is taking the lead, and I am worried that the Government will not fully seize that opportunity to crack down on sites promoting suicide and self-harm. I gather there is a bit of a difference of opinion between the two Departments, which is particularly disappointing given that the current Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), was the first Minister for Suicide Prevention. Does the Minister agree that we need to strengthen the Bill’s provisions on this issue, or has she lost the battle with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care? I hope not, and I hope that, if the Bill is not strengthened in Committee, we can improve it on Report.
The review of special educational needs and disability is another potential missed opportunity. It is meant to be a joint effort by the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care—there is a joint foreword—but there is very little in it on child and adolescent mental health services. Given the overlap between children struggling at school who cannot get the right diagnosis and cannot get a timely education, health and care plan and children who end up in the mental health system, joint working is really important.
Obviously, it is not just children with SEND who struggle. One in six children are now said to have a probable mental health condition, up from one in nine in 2017. More than 400,000 under-18s were referred for specialist mental health care between April and October last year. These are children at the more severe end of the spectrum—those who presented with suicidal thoughts, self-harming or eating disorders. The number of attendances at A&E by young people with a diagnosed psychiatric condition has tripled since 2010.
We know that CAMHS is at breaking point. There are huge waiting lists, and severely mentally ill children are being cared for in inappropriate settings or being sent hundreds of miles away from home for treatment. It is said that half of all mental health problems are established by the age of 14, rising to 75% by the age of 24. If we do not want today’s children to be tomorrow’s suicide statistics, we need to do much more, much faster, to help them now, and I just do not see that sense of urgency from the Government. This consultation is all wrapped up in a 10-year plan, but we need a 10-day plan. We need action now.
One issue we discussed at the event in Speaker’s House was how schools could better nurture children’s creativity and give them an outlet for their emotions through music and art. We also talked about whether the current trajectory of education, with schools very focused on grades—someone described them as “exam factories”—places undue pressure on children. I agree with that to a large extent and worry about cuts to things like music education, which mean that creatively inclined children do not have that outlet. It is not plain sailing for the other 50%, the academic ones, either. Just because a child does well in education does not mean that they are set up for success in the wider world, whether that means higher education or the world of work.
I am sad to say, as a Bristol MP, that Bristol University has become known for the number of student suicides in recent years. It is obviously not the only university to have experienced this, but it has come to particular attention. There needs to be a constant process of reflection and review. We have just had the court ruling in the tragic case of Natasha Abrahart. She was a very able student at Bristol University, but she suffered terribly from social anxiety and just could not handle the oral side of her course and having to do presentations. Rather than trying to force all young people into one model of what success and achievement look like, institutions need to adapt to them. I hope that Natasha’s parents will be able to pursue their campaign to ensure that that happens in the future.
I have also spoken to various groups about data sharing, which I appreciate is a complicated area. When should parents of university students, who are adults, after all, be informed? What are the boundaries of patient confidentiality? Some students might be deterred from speaking to mental health services at uni if they think that their parents might be told, particularly if they are grappling with something like their sexuality or if they have become involved with drugs. There are all sorts of things that young people would not want their parents to know about. Some might come from abusive family backgrounds and their parents would not be helpful or supportive, but in many cases the parents would have desperately wanted to know that their child was struggling to the extent that they were.
Steve Mallen from the Zero Suicide Alliance thinks that more could be done within data protection laws to protect students, and I hope that that is under active consideration.
I was at the Speaker’s House reception, and one of the most shocking things I heard was that two thirds of people who commit suicide have never sought any support for their mental health. What does my hon. Friend think are the consequences of that, and how should we be trying to deal with it? I think that we need to ensure that we have a holistic approach that offers support, because we all have mental health needs; we all need support. What does she think?
I thank my hon. Friend and agree with him, but I have some reservations about going down that path. A lot of the conversation about mental health in recent years has focused on the importance of getting people to open up and talk about their problems, and an obstacle in the way of doing that is that it can be very difficult for people to access GP appointments or to get the help that they need. I very much support Labour’s policy of publicly accessible mental health hubs in every community, as well as mental health support in every school. There needs to be swift and easy access to talking therapies or even to something less formal—just to someone who will sit there and be prepared to talk to the person. There is also campaigning to try to get people just to ask others how they are feeling, and that would help. I am a bit worried because there is a danger that we will focus totally on the softer end of things and talk a lot less about the more difficult areas, where people are well past the point where a nice cup of tea and a friendly chat would make a difference. At the moment, there certainly seems to be a huge problem where people are considered to be past the point where talking therapies would help. It might be that they are too high risk or too unwell to benefit from primary mental health services but not quite ill enough to access secondary services, such as the community mental health teams; they are not totally at crisis point. Often, they are left to fester somewhere in the middle, and when they reach crisis point, they finally get help, but that is too late in many cases to actually turn their mental health around. Too many people fall by the wayside because the right pathway is not available.
Currently, 40% of patients waiting for mental health treatment are forced to contact emergency or crisis services before they receive treatment. One in 10 of them ends up in A&E, and I have real concerns about whether A&E is appropriate, particularly if someone has experienced psychotic episodes. I cannot think of anything worse for them than being in an A&E department, with the sirens, flashing lights and people who have probably turned up there because they have drunk far too much or are off their heads on something or other and have got into fights on a Saturday night. Some hospital trusts are experimenting with trying to triage people very quickly away to mental health provision in A&E, which I think is a very good move.
We have waited a long time for the Government to bring forward the mental health reforms outlined in the Queen’s Speech. We are right to be concerned about the misuse of powers under the Mental Health Act 1983. We have heard terrible stories of people with autism being detained long term against their will, and the disproportionate use of those powers against people from ethnic minority backgrounds, particularly young black men. I hope that, as part of that debate, we can also talk about how the system fails people who do need to be in hospital, whether by voluntary admission or being sectioned, because a lot of people would benefit.
We see people on the streets talking to themselves, heads bowed, and everybody side-steps them. Sitting on public transport next to someone who is clearly unwell can be uncomfortable. If people have physical health problems, the expectation is that the health service is there to treat them. I know there is a question of capacity and whether people consent to treatment, but I feel we write people off when their mental health reaches a certain state, unless it gets so bad that they are a danger to themselves or others. The system needs to gear up to help people who are broken to that extent. It might not be possible to fix them, but their lives could be made better.
The number of beds in NHS mental health hospitals has fallen by a quarter since 2010, with almost 6,000 beds lost in England alone, despite big increases in the number of people needing mental health support, and cases where people are sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Figures obtained through freedom of information requests show that on a single day in February this year, all of England’s high and medium-security hospitals were operating above the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ maximum bed occupancy rate of 85%. The NHS pays £2 billion a year to private hospitals for mental health beds because it does not have enough of its own. Nine out of 10 mental health beds run by private operators are occupied by NHS patients.
It was also revealed last month, again through FOI requests, that over a five-year period from 2016 to 2021, more than half of the 5,403 prisoners in England assessed by prison-based psychiatrists as requiring hospitalisation were not transferred from prison to hospital. Those were not people with what might be called run-of-the-mill mental health concerns; they had major psychotic illnesses or chronic personality disorders. They needed to be in hospital, not in prison, but they did not get those transfers. We can only speculate on the problems that might store up for the future.
Where there are hospital beds, the pressures on the wards and staff are immense. There are way too many tragic stories of patients being discharged too soon, being wrongly assessed as low risk, and not getting the help they needed, with inevitable results. For example, 22-year-old Zoe Wilson died at Callington Road hospital in my constituency in 2019. She was put on a low-risk ward, despite ongoing psychosis. In January this year, the inquest jury returned a narrative conclusion, having found that multiple failings contributed to her death. The prevention of future deaths reports—the regulation 28 reports—published with the latest coroners’ statistics, make very grim reading. So many of the reports point to failings such as those noted in Zoe Wilson’s case.
I am not convinced that lessons will be learned from these reports, because what is required in many cases is not actions by individual hospital trusts. I should explain what happens. The coroner notes that an institution—a university, or any organisation that might have had contact with the person prior to their death—should learn a lesson and do something in future to try to save a life. Those comments are usually directed at a hospital trust or another organisation, but I would like to know what notice the Government take. Patterns showing where there are failings in the system emerge in these reports. I would be reassured if I felt that, rather than just informing the actions of an individual institution, the reports also informed future suicide-prevention strategy. I am sure the Minister will tell us how much more is being devoted to mental health spending, but we need to acknowledge the simple fact that, despite any figures she might produce today, our mental health services are drastically underfunded, under-resourced and under-staffed, which is why they are at crisis point.
I want to finish today by paying tribute to people who have spoken up about their own family experiences, as Mr Speaker did at the event in Parliament. He spoke so powerfully, because he was clearly very upset about what had happened. I, too, lost someone to suicide last year, as many other people will have, including people who are listening today. I started off by talking about how Bernard and Stephen from Joy Division/New Order came to speak about how, even 42 years later, they are still affected by the death of their singer Ian Curtis. Another musical genius and a musical hero of mine, David Berman, took his own life a few years ago. His last album, “Purple Mountains”, was basically a suicide note. He can be very funny at times—he has this real lyrical genius—but listening back to the album now, you can see where he is going. He suffered from depression for a long time, and he has this song, “Nights That Won’t Happen”, which says,
“The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind…
When the dying’s finally done and the suffering subsides
All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind.”
I will finish on that note, because that is very true. He felt that he was escaping from something. He escaped from it, but I hope that support services for people who have recently been bereaved by suicide is at the top of the Minister’s agenda, because those are the people who really need it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for securing this enormously important debate, and for her excellent introduction to it.
The first thing I want to say is that, according to the most recent figures we have, 4,912 deaths by suicide were registered in 2020 in England alone. Men aged 45 to 49 are at greatest risk of death by suicide, and sadly for me, the north-east region is the area with the highest suicide rate, at 13.3 per 100,000. I am certainly unhappy about that and I am working with people locally to address the issue.
Some of the issues I want to touch on have already been covered, such as the refreshed national suicide prevention plan. This is hugely important, and something I have raised with Ministers before, as the Minister is aware. The consultation is welcome, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East that we must make sure that suicide is properly addressed within it. It is enormously important that we have that dedicated attention and drive forward innovation in this area.
We also have to talk about funding for suicide prevention services. The NHS long-term plan allocated £57 million for suicide prevention and bereavement services, which are hugely important to local areas, but £25 million of that funding only ran until 2021, and all funding supporting local areas will cease in 2023-24. We need renewed ringfenced funding, which is also something I have raised as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on suicide and self-harm prevention. I know from speaking to my local services, both NHS and public health, how important it is that the funding is there to continue that collaboration and detailed work at local level.
Another thing I want to touch on is the situation for middle-aged men—one of the highest-risk groups. Suicide is the leading cause of death among men under 50 in the UK, and men account for three quarters of all suicides. As I have said, men aged 45 to 49 are most at risk; rates among this group have been persistently high for many years. Men who are less well off and live in the most deprived areas are up to 10 times more likely to die by suicide than more well-off men from the most affluent areas.
I am grateful to the Samaritans, who provide the secretariat to the APPG, for telling me about some in- depth research they have done with less well-off middle-aged men who have been struggling with their mental health, including having suicidal thoughts over a period of time. The themes those men told the Samaritans about included a lack of many meaningful social connections, often throughout their life, and having relationships connected to substance abuse. The other main theme was financial instability, which could include an erratic work history or long-term unemployment. There is no getting away from the fact that socioeconomic factors—deprivation, unemployment and other issues—have a real impact on the figures. It is really important to recognise those issues and work with colleagues in other Departments on them.
The Samaritans are calling for a focus on early intervention and support through the full range of statutory services that men may be in touch with. Research suggests that nine out of 10 middle-aged men who died by suicide in 2017 had been in contact with at least one frontline service or agency a week prior to their death. We also need further investment in voluntary sector and community provision to provide the services and initiatives that middle-aged men often find helpful in building connections and having conversations.
The other group that I want to refer to is people who self-harm. The all-party group conducted an inquiry into self-harm in younger people. We know that not all people who self-harm proceed to suicidal ideation or completing suicide, but there is a clear link. We need to ensure that people have readily available access to support at an early stage, because self-harm is such a strong risk factor for suicide.
In that inquiry, many people told us that they were considered too high-risk for primary mental health services, but not ill enough for secondary health services such as community mental health teams, or CAMHS in the case of younger people. We need to increase capacity and build expertise within talking therapy services to support people who self-harm, allow self-harm to be discussed in a safe, supportive way, and carry out assessments of people who disclose self-harm. We should get away from the stigma, because it still happens that, when people self-harm, they are thought to be attention-seeking. Instead, we need to ensure that it is picked up as a possible sign of a path. Preventive issues are also key. Having access to the appropriate services quickly is really important, so that people can get support.
On inequality and levelling up, I mentioned that people in disadvantaged communities faced the highest risk of dying by suicide, and that financial instability and poverty could increase suicide risk. Insecure income, unmanageable debt, unemployment and poor housing conditions all contribute to higher suicide rates, so we really need a cross-Government approach that recognises those risk factors and does something to address them. Specific actions would be to prioritise in the plan tackling inequalities as suicide risks across Government policy interventions, including through employment support, social security and economic planning. We should ensure that money advice and financial support is consistently available to everyone. We should better utilise what the Samaritans call the touchpoints of the state, such as work coaches in jobcentres and others that people come in contact with.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East mentioned the need for real-time suicide data. That is being developed, and it is absolutely essential. We cannot continue with the system of waiting for the coroner’s inquest to decide the cause of death. We need to know, so that we can highlight issues early and respond.
On the Online Safety Bill, which I have raised previously with Ministers, it is important that health takes a leading role to ensure that people do not have easier access to sites that promote self-harm or suicidal plans. There need to be new offences, and suicide and self-harm content needs to be addressed.
On alcohol use and suicide, I am sure others will speak in more detail, but we had a quotation from a Samaritans survey respondent:
“My hope is that professionals start to see that alcohol use is often the result of an underlying issue and not simply tell people to sober up without offering further support for how to deal with the root cause”
of the problem. We need integrated commissioning and provision of mental health and alcohol treatment services, training for all healthcare staff around the relationship between alcohol and suicide, and further funding for local drug and alcohol recovery and treatment services, many of which have seen huge cuts in the last 10 years.
Finally, suicide is preventable, not inevitable. It is important that we take real steps to ensure that we prevent unnecessary deaths and have real plans in place to make that happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for securing this debate. I can see that the subject is really difficult for her to talk about and I thank her for sharing her experience. I was struck by what she said at the end about how it is the people left behind who take on the suffering. I have had a bit of an insight into what she talked about.
I have a constituent here today, Mr Philip Pirie, who I am glad has been able to join us; he is in the Public Gallery. Philip’s son Tom took his own life in July 2020. I have been working with Mr Pirie since then and talking to him about his experience of suicide and how it has impacted him and his wider family and Tom’s family and friends. Mr Pirie highlighted a particular issue in Tom’s experience, and I have been happy to work with him on a campaign. We have previously spoken to the Minister about it.
Tom was a schoolteacher. He loved to travel and spoke three languages. He was much loved by his friends and family. Subsequent to his death there was a memorial football match, which was held to commemorate him, between his former school and club teams. Tom did seek help for his mental health issues, and he spoke to a therapist just a day before he took his own life.
A troubling feature of Tom’s experience is that he was assessed by his counsellor, at that meeting the day before his death, as being at low risk of suicide. That is something that has caused Philip and the wider family a great deal of distress, because if Tom had not been deemed to be at low risk of suicide, more might have been done to save him. So Philip has taken up with me the issue of suicide risk assessments by counsellors and how they are being used. It is a big issue.
We heard from the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) about the extent to which suicide is a public health issue. The thing that has struck me is that suicide is the most common cause of death among young people aged 20 to 34—that is how much of a risk it is to our young people. More than anything else, that is how they are losing their lives.
Of the 17 people who die by suicide every day in this country, five would have been in touch with mental health services. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) mentioned that that is not enough, because so many people do not seek help. Of the five who have been in touch with mental health services, four will have been assessed as at low or no risk, as we have seen Tom Pirie was. That raises questions as to how we assess suicide risk, and I would like the Minister to address that.
Mr Pirie and I have organised an open letter and had a wide range of signatories to it. These include Steve Mallen from the Zero Suicide Alliance, who has already been mentioned, Mind, Samaritans, Papyrus, General Sir Nick Carter—we were very privileged to have his engagement with us—and a cross-party selection of MPs. This is really about discussing the current suicide risk assessment procedure, because we think that it needs some serious and urgent attention. We think that the standardised risk assessment tools as they are currently being used are poor predictors of suicide, and national guidelines have determined that they should not be used for that purpose. There is widespread concern that risk assessment tools are being used ineffectively, and that it is leading to the outcomes that we have seen in the case of Tom Pirie and others. We think that suicide risk assessment tools have a positive predictive value of less than 5%, which potentially means that they are wrong more than 95% of the time.
In its “Self-harm and suicide in adults” report from July 2020—the month that Tom Pirie took his life—the Royal College of Psychiatrists stated that
“the current approach to risk assessment is fundamentally flawed.”
The Government published a suicide prevention strategy for England in 2012, and they have recently announced a review and issued a call for evidence. The National Suicide Prevention Advisory Group is preparing to issue its recommendations for the review of that strategy, and the letter asks that:
“The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care ensure that the new suicide prevention strategy includes a review of the use of suicide risk assessments in breach of current guidelines and to take appropriate steps to ensure that existing guidance around not using these tools to assess suicide risk be strictly followed by both the public and private health sectors.”
That is a really important point, because there is a lot of mental health support that happens outside the NHS. Informal and unqualified support can sometimes be provided, and it is really important that the public understand and can have faith in the kinds of people who are advertising their support services for mental health patients, and that there is guidance and regulation around what is available.
In 2007, the Department of Health published a document entitled, “Best Practice in Managing Risk”, which underpinned and gave approval to some suicide risk assessment procedures. That important document is relied on by a number of institutions, including the Care Quality Commission and the coroner service, but has not been updated since 2009. We would really like to see the Department of Health and Social Care commit to updating the document alongside the strategy review, to ensure that the best current guidance is available to mental health practitioners in all sectors, that there is appropriate use of suicide risk assessment tools, and that we do not see a repeat of the situation that happened to Tom Pirie, who was assessed as a low risk the very day before he took his own life. I learned, in speaking to Tom’s father Philip, that it gave Tom the sense that he was not being listened to, and that his concerns and troubles were not being taken seriously. Obviously we will never know, but that cannot have been a helpful indicator for him at that moment in his life.
I pay tribute to Philip, who has been incredibly brave, and I know this has been a very difficult time for him. I am here today to urge the Minister to take on board my asks around risk assessment tools, because it would be a great tribute not just to Tom, but to Philip and his wider family.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for securing this important debate, and for her opening speech.
Many people in the UK are, and have been, fighting silent battles for quite some time. The Government have shown their commitment to tackling this by removing the dedicated Minister for Suicide Prevention. I have struggled with mental health from a young age and in recent years, due to online abuse, threats and other life events, I have suffered with mental ill-health and suicidal thoughts. I have had to have brave conversations with my children and family but, luckily for me, I have pulled through due to my family support network, my friends and colleagues, and my access to therapy and coaching.
However, many people across the country do not have access to a strong network, as I know through my lived experience of my own struggles. Having been a trained Samaritan volunteer for a number of years in my local branch in Bradford, as a former NHS commissioner and a former chair of one of the largest black, Asian and minority ethnic mental health charities outside of London, I know that accessing mental health services through the NHS is extremely different. It has been extremely difficult previously, but covid-19 has exacerbated that, particularly in areas like Bradford.
The Office for National Statistics recorded that in 2020, 5,224 suicides were recorded; those were 5,224 preventable deaths. In 2021, 4.3 million referrals were made to mental health services in England, which the Royal College of Psychiatrists rightly labelled as an “unprecedented demand” for services. According to public health data, there were 99 cases of suicide among men or boys aged 10 or over in Bradford between 2017 and 2019; that means that the area’s male suicide rate was 15.6 in every 100,000 men, up from 14.6 between 2016 and 2018. Men accounted for the majority of suicide deaths in Bradford over that period.
While the Government have rightly committed to a national suicide prevention strategy to reduce the rate of suicides in England, clinical commissioning groups across the country are experiencing high demand, backlogs and stretched budgets at a local level. The reality is that the Government must not only reduce the backlogs but provide a fully-funded recovery plan for specialist mental healthcare provision, which should include race equality programmes, be impact-assessed, be UK-wide and also level up access to mental health provision.
A survey conducted by NHS Digital found that one in six children in England had a probable mental health condition in 2021. Over the years, many families in my constituency have contacted me regarding their inability to secure child and adolescent mental health services, such as autism assessments or mental health provision, for their children. Indeed, I have spoken about that in Westminster Hall.
It is shocking that children in my constituency of Bradford West have to wait longer for assessments and treatment than their wealthier peers. Psychiatrists have accurately described that disparity as a scandalous postcode lottery. A child in Bradford had to wait 807 days to access CAMHS services, while in Staffordshire children waited an average of seven days—800 fewer days than a child in Bradford. The Government must urgently address that disparity and provide a plan of action to ensure that people no longer suffer in silence. I look forward to the Minister’s response in today’s very important debate.
As my party’s health spokesperson, I am happy to speak in this debate and to look at how we can improve the mental health services we have in place.
I thank the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and congratulate her on her consistent efforts in tackling issues around suicide prevention and normalising the feeling of not being okay. There is no doubt whatsoever that more needs to be done to support those feeling low and I am pleased we can discuss that today.
This is a difficult subject to address because we all know people who have passed away as a result of anxiety or depression, and whose difficulties meant ultimately they could not cope with life. The framework for the NHS five-year plan in tackling suicide was first published in 2012. It aimed to help those directly affected by suicide and recognised the lasting impacts suicide can have on family and friends. I am grateful that the Government, and the Minister in particular, have set aside £57 million in funding allocated for mental health services by 2023-24. We should welcome that because it shows that the Government and the Minister have recognised the need to do something specific. I hope that that will address issues across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as I understand some of those moneys will come to us in Northern Ireland through the Barnett consequential.
For me personally, the subject of the debate is quite difficult. The current suicide rates back home in Northern Ireland are devastating, and I use that word on purpose, because they are. Figures indicate that suicide has increased since 2015, with levels increasing from one registered suicide in 2015 to a shocking 100 in 2019. The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency has not yet provided the figures for registered suicides in Northern Ireland over the two-year period of the pandemic, but I have no doubt in my mind that, unfortunately, some may have struggled all too much over the covid period. That is not to mention that, in 2018, it was revealed that more men died by suicide in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the United Kingdom: an average of 29.1 per 100,000.
My constituency of Strangford has unfortunately had those experiences as well. In Newtownards, the largest town that I represent, there was a period that saw a spate of suicides among young men—a group of young friends. If someone takes their life, those around them are deeply affected. What thoughts does the Minister have on how to address that issue? Every one of us here can probably confirm that that is an issue—I know that I can. It was quite difficult when some of the funerals took place: that circle of friends was decimated and devastated by what took place. In addition, data is presented in the year the suicide was registered, so as inquests are a long process, there are many still to be discovered. I see that in my own constituency.
There is more that can be done in all aspects of government. In health, education, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and transport, there is a lot of room for much-needed improvement in suicide prevention. There are also increased suicide rates among young children. Another thing that grieves me and, I think, others in this House is that social media is one of the most prominent confidence-killers in modern society: children being nasty to other children online. We read truly horrendous stories in the press of young boys and girls taking their lives because they feel pressurised by other children, or sometimes exploited by adults. We have a duty to ensure that, through legislation such as the Online Safety Bill, they are protected and not subject to abuse. I understand that that is not the Minister’s responsibility, but it might be helpful if she can tell us about any discussions with other Ministers on how the Government can address those issues.
We have spent a lot of time discussing the pandemic and its impact on our daily lives, which is not always good—sometimes it is uplifting, but sometimes it is quite disheartening. We must not underestimate the effects of isolation on mental health. As we come out of the pandemic—in England, there are no longer requirements for isolation—people have the opportunity to seek proper face-to-face help. The issue is now whether the support is readily available and accessible for all, which is where we must step in to help with suicide prevention. We should be ever conscious of where we are and how we move forward. I know that the Minister is a lady with a deep interest in her portfolio, and that she understands the issue only too well. I am hopeful that in her response to all our requests, she will speak about what extra help there will be after the pandemic to ensure that those who face today’s complications, problems and overwhelming issues will receive the assistance that they need right now.
Suicide affects many people, and it leaves a nasty scar for friends and loved ones left behind. That is the story in my constituency, and in the cases that I have seen; there has been a spate of young lives lost. As the hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned, Mr Speaker made some powerful comments on the death of his beloved daughter. He stated:
“When it happens, you never get over it”.
How true that is for everyone. For those I know who have lost loved ones, that scar, deep pain and hurt are right in their heart. We can see it in their eyes; they do not have to say a word—look at them, and there is the story. We must learn from this and put our words into action; through legislation, through support, through normalising talking and breaking barriers, we can tackle suicide and initiate support for those who need it. Everyone here is all too aware that there is a fine line and balance between normalising talking and keeping your life, and perhaps tipping over the edge. We all have to face that line; some people have faced it and unfortunately ended their life as a result. It is about how we step in, how the Government step in and how the Minister steps in to make a difference.
Mental health has been characterised as a silent killer, but it affects us all at some stage, through our families, through our friends and through our constituencies. We all share the heartache of suicide and what it can do to families. I commend and thank the hon. Member for Bristol East for bringing forward this timely debate on such a crucial issue. As a former member of the all-party parliamentary group on suicide and self-harm prevention, I can assure her that in this House we all share the desire to do everything we can to help to address suicide prevention. We look to the Minister, as we often do, for the answers to our questions, which we seek not for ourselves, but for our constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing the debate, in which we have heard some really powerful contributions. I add my support to what has already been covered in the debate, including for a new suicide prevention plan. I will concentrate my remarks on suicide in the LGBT+ community, and on the important role of alcohol in this debate.
According to surveys, young LGBT+ people are three times more likely to self-harm, and twice as likely to contemplate suicide as their non-LGBT+ peers. Depending on the study we look at, gay people are between two and 10 times more likely as straight people to take their own life. We are twice as likely to have major depressive episodes. Surveys of gay men regularly find that three quarters of the community suffer from anxiety or depression, abuse drugs or alcohol, or are in abusive relationships. That is the case despite social progress and greater acceptance, and despite the fact that we have got rid of many discriminatory laws. Rates of depression, loneliness, substance abuse and suicide among gay men remain many, many times higher than for the general population.
A book that was very important to me was “The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World” by Alan Downs. The important message in that book is that when someone comes out about their sexuality or gender identity, the trauma is not overcome at that point. Growing up gay leaves trauma, so many people in the LGBT community require support to overcome trauma, shame and other issues of that nature. That is why counselling and therapy are important.
When we in this House talk about mental health, we rarely mention or acknowledge that addiction is a chronic mental health condition; addiction is an illness. Alcohol is a depressant that can exacerbate low mood and suicidal thoughts. It is probably the most normalised way of coping with mental health issues, trauma or suicidal thoughts; it is a fast-acting way to change how we feel. The relationship between alcohol and suicide is well established and a cause for great concern. Research by the Samaritans shows that people who are dependent on alcohol are two and a half times more likely to die by suicide. In England, nearly half of all patients who are in the care of mental health services and who die by suicide have a history of alcohol misuse. They account for almost 600 deaths a year on average.
Despite that harrowing evidence, there has been no national alcohol strategy since 2012. I welcome the Government’s recent efforts on tackling illicit drugs and gambling and tobacco harm. My question is: where is the effort on alcohol? To fully understand the current scale of alcohol harm, and to provide targeted recommendations to improve outcomes for people with co-occurring mental health and alcohol-use conditions, I would like to see the Government conduct a Dame Carol Black-style independent review of alcohol harm. I hope the Minister will respond to that point.
I will finish by mentioning a place in my constituency that I have visited over the years. Paul’s Place was set up by the parents of Paul Williams; Paul and I went to school together, and he took his own life in August 2015. Paul’s Place offers bereavement support to families who have lost members to suicide. I invite the Minister and the Opposition spokesperson to visit Paul’s Place to talk about the important work it does for communities across Walton, and how its funding can be sustained.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I start by thanking the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and commending her work—she is an absolute champion for this matter. She spoke extremely powerfully on the need for data collection, which I think is the crux of taking good service delivery forward. She spoke very emotively about her own personal experience, and her words resonated with many people here when she advocated for services for those families who are left behind. I thank her for being a champion of this important issue. It is often neglected, and is something that for many years has been difficult for people to speak about. The more that it can be spoken about and raised in this place, the better for everybody right across the United Kingdom.
The hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) spoke about how difficult it is to access mental health services, particularly for children and young people. I think there are gaps—chasms, actually—in waiting times across the United Kingdom that need to be addressed. As chair of the all-party parliamentary health group, I hear about that constantly. No matter where someone lives, it is very difficult for them to access services. It takes far too long and people are falling through those gaps. The hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) spoke about the importance of levelling up regional and gender disparities. I am interested in the point she made about adult males being particularly at risk.
There has been good work going on across Scotland— I am sure these exist across the United Kingdom— through the Men’s Sheds developments. I have two in my own constituency that I have visited—one in Lesmahagow and Blackwood and one in the Stonehouse area. They are doing fantastic work to reduce loneliness and isolation, and to create environments where people can begin to speak about issues and receive important social support from like-minded people. We still have a society where there is more stigma for men who speak up about those issues, so such developments are crucial. The hon. Member for Blaydon is also an advocate for this issue in her role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on suicide and self-harm prevention. She has made key recommendations for the Government to take forward.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) spoke about the LGBT community and about alcohol-related harm. What is key—and I know this from my professional life prior to Parliament, working in psychology —is that often having an addiction diagnosis on someone’s medical records can make it more difficult for them to access mental health services. That just should not be the case because, exactly as he says, having alcohol or drug-related problems is, in itself, a risk factor for suicide. Therefore, it should be something that heightens people’s access to services, rather than diminishing it. I would therefore like to thank him once again for the work that he does on these matters.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—who is in his place in most of the debates that I happen to attend because he is such a strong advocate for his constituents—spoke about the devastating suicide rates in Northern Ireland, and something else that is very important, which was the impact of and bullying on social media. I think that that is something that really must be tackled. I know, from some work I have been doing with the Diana award in Parliament, that it has been supporting young people’s advocates across schools in the UK—anti-bullying ambassadors to give children and young people peer support—because often young people prefer to speak to peers than to parents. I know that myself, particularly from having adolescents at home who do not want to be seen with or speak to me at this stage in their life.
The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) also raised an important constituency case—I am so pleased that the family is here today—that families are not listened to enough. Well, if we are not listening to families, who are we listening to? Families know people better than anybody else. I think that long gone is the time when we say, “Well, professionals know best.” It should be an assessment that involves everybody, wherever possible. Families who want to reach out to services are doing that because they have anxiety that something that is traumatic is going to happen in that case. They know that person better than anybody else, so they must be listened to.
When I worked in mental health, the training and risk assessment were very clear; it is not a static assessment; it is dynamic—it changes. That is the thing about it. The British Psychological Society issued guidance on risk assessment. A risk assessment is not a questionnaire; it is a clinical judgment with tools that help that. However, it also must highlight risk indicators. Importantly, it is not just that an assessment is completed; it is that there is a risk-management plan as well—people are aware of their risk indicators, they know when risk is heightened, they know who to seek help from, and that there is a risk-management plan that can protect them and prevent harm coming from risk. The point made by the hon. Member for Richmond Park is key, and I wish her all the support that I can give for her campaign for these matters to be taken forward and for key frontline staff to be given adequate training in risk assessment.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary health group, I hear constantly that the bar is set too high for access to services. Some of the things said are that because someone might have a personality disorder, they could not benefit from treatment. Well, we know that people with personality disorder diagnoses still suffer from mental distress, so of course they should be able to access treatment for that mental distress. That should not be a barrier to treatment. There are also psychological therapies that have been shown to be clinically valid for use in those cases, but people cannot access them.
People who have drug or alcohol problems may present at accident and emergency and be told, “Well, you’ll have to deal with your addiction and then come back and deal with your mental health problem.” However, that is not right either, because we know about the risk and the importance of services being integrated and created for dual diagnosis. Where people have more than one clinical condition, it is very important that both are treated together because, as has been said, mental health might be one of the triggers for alcohol and drug use, which, of course, exacerbates it.
It is really important that we send a clear message that it is absolutely nonsense to send people away to recover from their addiction without the mental health support they need, as happens up and down the country. We should send a clear message that the guidance needs to be rewritten, and that support for mental health and addiction services must be delivered.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that important point. I wholeheartedly agree. If we are serious about preventing harm and suicide, and about helping people, their care must be looked at holistically. We cannot syphon off parts of people’s diagnosis and say, “Deal with this first, then that.” People’s lives are not like that. As we know, the formulation means that it is interwoven, so both conditions must be dealt with simultaneously.
Other things I have heard include, “It is attention-seeking,” “It is a behavioural issue,” “It is not a psychiatric illness,” “There’s no diagnosis,” but surely people who suffer acute psychological distress should have access to services without having to qualify in diagnostic terms as having a major mental illness. Many people need help at such time, and it should not need to be exacerbated to the point of mental illness if we can use prevention. Equally, many people who go on to harm themselves and even commit suicide never have a diagnosis of a mental illness such as depression or schizophrenia, but they still deserve help, so there must be services for them.
GP access is very important, as has been said. I know from my constituents and from chairing the all-party parliamentary health group that that is another issue that must be dealt with. People find it very difficult to see GPs face to face, and if they are in mental distress, speaking to receptionists on the telephone is really not adequate. They must be able to sit down and speak to a GP they know. It is hard enough to open up at that point, but without that access, I am afraid that so many people will fall through the net.
The Scottish Government have committed £120 million for a recovery fund following covid. They are committed to doubling the current £1.4 million of annual funding for suicide prevention, and they have a new strategy coming out.
I thank the services in my constituency, which have been on the frontline when people have been languishing on waiting lists, including the Trust Jack Foundation, set up because someone lost their life. The lady in charge of it is a wonderful individual who has taken her personal tragedy and turned it into support for other people across our constituency. Victorious People in East Kilbride is providing counselling for young people, and Talk Now in East Kilbride is providing services for trauma survivors. That is just to name a few of the fantastic services that have been developed.
I plead with the Minister to fill those gaps and make sure there are services for people suffering acute mental distress, crisis and suicidal ideation. They should not have to have a mental illness diagnosis to access treatment. That is why we are losing people, and families are being hurt in the process.
It is a pleasure to wind up for the Opposition with you in the Chair, Mr Bone.
I first thank those of you in the Public Gallery. It cannot be easy to be here today, and you are a testament to the love you hold for the ones you have lost. You are incredibly brave, and I want you to know how much we value your presence here and how important you are to our discussion. Part of our fight to make this better for people around the country is thanks to your work and your never-ending belief that things can get better. Thank you so much for being here. We see you. We recognise your pain and we send all our love and condolences to you.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for securing this extremely important debate and all hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions. Shadow Ministers often attend debates in which we have to make the closing remarks, and we do that because it is part of our job, but sometimes, although people might not know it, we have a personal and deeply vested interest in the subject matter. Today’s debate is of great importance to me for many private and professional reasons.
Many of us were together a few weeks ago in the Speaker’s chambers thanks to the hard work of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East, who put together a heartfelt event to mark the 42nd anniversary of the death of Ian Curtis. I applaud my hon. Friend for placing the issue of suicide at the heart of Parliament, bringing together parliamentarians, metro Mayors, staffers and musicians, and encouraging people to talk of their own experiences, which is never easy.
I thank my hon. Friend for sharing her personal experience of a loved one passing from suicide last year. We all send our condolences and are sorry for my hon. Friend’s loss. She did not share that experience in order for us to do so, but I would like her to know that we send our condolences.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist)—eloquent and insightful as always—highlighted the issue of self-harm, in a safe and supportive way and rightly placed particular importance on combating stigma around the issue. I thank her for all the work she does in that space.
The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) was such a powerful advocate for Tom, Philip and their whole family. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah), whom I am proud to call a friend, was so honest about her own experience and emphasised the scandal—that is what it is—of the postcode lottery for people seeking child and adolescent mental health services in Bradford. Unfortunately, the people of Bradford are not alone in what they face because it is rife across the country. That has to be addressed.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) characteristically made many heartfelt points, and we always value his contributions to such debates.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) that I would be delighted to visit Paul’s Place, and I will set that up with him at the first opportunity. I thank him deeply for his comments on LGBT mental health, especially as June is Pride Month. It takes a certain bravery for someone to put their head above the parapet and talk about multiple personal experiences in a way that can effect change. My hon. Friend is testament to the fact that we can use the most painful parts of our lives to change the lives of others.
I want to draw on my personal professional experience as an A&E doctor in addressing the point made by the SNP spokeswoman—the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), with whom I love sharing a platform—about addiction and mental health services. I cannot stand to have another night shift in A&E when I yet again have to tell someone who has come in while intoxicated with alcohol or following a drug overdose that I cannot plug them into mental health services because they tick the addiction box. I cannot stand another shift begging the drug and alcohol liaison team to come to see somebody who has also admitted that they have mental health issues. This is a deeply flawed system, Minister. I know her to care about the issue greatly, but it absolutely has to be addressed because lives are being lost as a result.
We have a duty in this place to break down barriers and improve people’s lives, and breaking down the stigma around suicide and mental illness is an area in which there is still so much more work that needs to be done. It is a tribute to people’s hard work that we are hosting events and debates in Parliament to break down the stigma, and we are getting fantastic coverage such as that in NME so as to reach more and more people, but four decades on from the tragic death of Ian Curtis, there should not still be so much work to be done to tackle suicide rates.
Over the past decade, it has been incredibly welcome to see the strides taken to tackle suicide and mental illness at a parliamentary level, to hear talk of parity of esteem and to hear colleagues open up about their own struggles, but since the publication of the national suicide prevention strategy a decade ago, what progress can the Government genuinely be proud of? We are talking about a life or death issue here: we need more than warm words while people are still losing their lives, and there are things we can tangibly do to resolve it.
A commitment was made in 2016 to reduce the rate of suicide in England by 10% by 2020, but by 2020 the rate was almost the same. In 2018, the Health Secretary announced a zero-suicide ambition for mental health patients being treated in hospital. That has still not been met. If the Government are genuinely serious about achieving their zero-suicide ambition, they need to look at the impact that social factors such as debt, employment, housing and benefits have on mental health. It is evident that insecure housing and employment, racism and discrimination, being pushed into debt and poverty because of cuts to universal credit or to other benefits, and loneliness and isolation have a considerable impact on a person’s mental health. We know that and must do something about it.
Three quarters of suicides are of men, and the rates of suicide in England are significantly higher in the north-east, Yorkshire and the Humber than in London. Those figures cannot be ignored. We must have the data to ensure that there is not simply a one-size-fits-all approach. That is a crucial point that must be addressed if the Government are serious about tackling the issues once and for all. I am proud to back the Samaritans’ call for the Government to launch a national real-time suicide surveillance system, in line with what is in place in Wales. We need to understand what is happening now, not two years down the line. How is anyone supposed to tackle a problem that they simply cannot see?
I urge the Government to work with the mental health sector, and consult on what is truly needed to drive down suicide figures. There is a looming mental health crisis in the wake of the pandemic. The backlog for treatment was already huge before covid. Now, with the sheer rise in referrals, the NHS is at risk of being completely overwhelmed and patients are unable to receive treatment.
That is why Labour is committed to improving access to mental health services. We will guarantee access to treatment within a month for all who need it, and expand the workforce, recruiting 8,500 additional staff to ensure a million more people can be seen. Crucially, we understand the need for prevention, reaching people before they hit crisis point. That is why the next Labour Government would ensure that every school had access to a mental health professional, and every community would have an open access mental health hub to ensure that every young person could access the support they need, safely and securely.
It is about offering people respect and dignity in their treatment. As it stands, two thirds of people who take their own lives are not in touch with mental health services in the year before they die. We have heard that this morning. Services need to reach out to people; they have to be accessible and be designed with the service user and families in mind. At a time of economic turmoil and after two incredibly difficult years, it is so vital to have this conversation, but please let us not lose any more lives needlessly to suicide. I urge the Government to act on what has been said today, and make real change in memory of those lives lost.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for securing this debate on suicide prevention and for hosting the recent event, “Breaking the Silence”, during Mental Health Awareness Week. I have a feeling there will be many such meetings and conversations, to which I look forward. Awareness is something we often struggle with in Government, to ensure that people are aware of what we are trying to do and the consultations to hear their voices. That event was brilliant and put a spotlight on that. I also thank Bernard and Stephen, who came along. It was powerful to hear from them, as they marked the death of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis 42 years ago, as well as all the other personal experiences expressed there.
I very much agree with my shadow Minister that such personal experiences are so important. They are important in every aspect of my job, but none more so than in suicide prevention. I must admit that when I first saw that in my job title, it felt overwhelming. Every life lost to suicide is a tragedy. Everybody wishes they could go back and reverse time. It is so, so sad. We heard from the Speaker about his personal tragedies. Every single suicide is a tragedy, but every suicide is, on some level, preventable. That is what we are here for: to work towards preventing as many suicides as possible.
Sadly, like many here today, I know the pain of losing a family member—we lost my cousin Sallie, who I babysat for from a very young age. When someone takes their own life, it affects everybody. I thank Mr Pirie and Mr and Mrs Ritchie, who I have met before, for sharing their stories of Tom and Jack, and for coming up with constructive suggestions on how we can work to help other people who are in those situations, to improve our systems and to learn from those experiences. We know that the right support at the right time can provide hope and prevent a crisis, and can prevent a crisis from becoming a tragic loss of life. We look forward to continuing to work with Mr Pirie and Mr and Mrs Ritchie, and many others.
I wonder whether the Minister will address gambling-related harm. This is a complex issue—we all get that—and it will require cross-departmental co-operation to find some sort of solution. There is an imminent opportunity coming along—there is a White Paper on gambling reform due, I am told, within weeks. Will the Minister engage with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and help it to understand the issue, so that it can strongly regulate gambling, which would help to alleviate the number of gambling-related suicides?
The hon. Gentleman has my assurance that I will definitely work cross-Government, with the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) who actually sits in the office next door to me—he finds it very difficult to escape. I think that answers the questions from the hon. Member for Bristol East about whether there are ongoing conversations, which will also continue into the future.
I am happy to visit Paul’s Place. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) knows, I am often back in Liverpool, visiting my parents and friends. The first visit I made in this role was actually to James’ Place, also in Liverpool, which was set up by a constituent of mine, Clare Milford Haven, who set up the charity after the tragic death of her son, James. We met in Liverpool, but she was a constituent of mine down in Chichester. Every time I go to one of these places, I learn—every time. There are so many families trying to help the next family avoid the tragedy of losing a loved one.
I also met Tim, Mike and Andy—the 3 Dads Walking. They have done a fantastic job, walking round the whole country. They came to tell me the stories of their three daughters, Sophie, Beth and Emily, who all tragically died by suicide. They told me about the number of people who came out to take part as they walked around the country. There is that saying, “Walk a mile in someone’s shoes.” They were walking a mile together, talking about their experiences. They said that many people had never spoken about their experiences before, because they still felt there was some stigma attached to it. One of the fantastic things about having these conversations is the de-stigmatisation of not only suicide, but mental health conditions in general.
One of the things I have learned as Minister for Mental Health is that anybody can have a mental health issue at any point in their lives. One, two or three things happen that they were not expecting, and anybody can be in that situation, but everybody can recover and manage their mental health. If I can achieve one thing in my role it would be for everybody to really understand that and for us to put the services in place to address it—that is what I hope to do.
I recognise that the last two years have been exceptionally difficult. They have impacted on the mental health and wellbeing of many people, and many will have experienced harmful or suicidal thoughts. The shadow Minister for Mental Health, the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), raised the concern that too many people are having to resort to A&E in a crisis. That is why mental health service providers worked across the country at pace during the pandemic to establish a 24/7 urgent mental health helplines for anybody of any age in crisis. Those services are now operational in every area of England, handling 230,000 to 250,000 calls each month. That service was not there before the pandemic; we have tried to respond and to respond quickly.
The long-term plan also committed to increasing the forms of provision for those in crisis, including safe havens and crisis cafés, providing a more suitable alternative to A&E. We know we need to do that. There are some excellent examples throughout the country, including the Evening Sanctuary at the Mosaic club in Lambeth.
In the case of my friend Ric, we learned at the inquest last week that he had phoned a mental health crisis helpline. In that conversation, he revealed that he was in the middle of a psychotic episode. When he later went to A&E at the suggestion of the helpline and spoke to a mental health nurse, he did not reveal that. In the prevention of future deaths report, the inquest recorded that there should have been real-time updating of his medical records, because the people at the hospital would not have let him leave A&E that night if they had realised that part of the problem was psychosis. I talked about taking note of what is said at inquests, and I hope that we can pick up the recommendation on real-time updating.
Absolutely. I read all the prevention of future deaths reports, which come to me, and I take them very seriously. There is always so much to learn from them, and I agree with the hon. Lady. Sharing data between services sounds easy and trips off the tongue, but it is actually quite difficult to ensure that data is there in real time. That does not mean that we do not have the desire to achieve that; we absolutely do.
Talking therapies were mentioned by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), and we are improving access to those. I remind people that they can self-refer, rather than going through a GP. I am sure that many people are not aware of that. We are building up mental health support teams in schools. They will really help by providing our young people with first-level support in school, but we realise that we have to invest more in mental health. That is why we have £2.3 billion more to invest in mental health services in 2023-24. We need to build up the workforce, which is a challenge, because it takes a long time to train people for many of these roles. In fact, I had another meeting on this issue earlier this morning.
I want to address the use of risk assessment tools. I am running out of time, but I am happy to respond on the situation; it is important, and I definitely want to take the time to do so, particularly as Mr Pirie is in the Public Gallery. The guidelines published by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence in 2011 make it clear that risk assessment tools should not be used to predict future suicide or repetition of self-harm, or to determine who should or should not be offered treatment, as the hon. Member for Bristol East said. We would expect health professionals to have regard to that, but it is clear that further work is needed, and discussions are under way right now to find out what further actions are necessary to achieve this.
I acknowledge the valuable role of the voluntary sector in complementing all the things we do. We have given more money—£5.4 million—to voluntary and community organisations. That money has supported 113 organisations, which do a fantastic job at helping people who are struggling. They are in lots of areas, and have often been set up by families who have lived experience. We have also provided funding to support the Hub of Hope, which was set up by a charity in Liverpool, and which is crucial in signposting people to services locally. For people who are at risk, we now have a fantastic opportunity with the call for evidence on mental health and the updated suicide prevention plan.
We have learned a lot more, and we know that there are a lot of things that we need to fix. We have mentioned debt, drugs and alcohol, and men’s sheds—I have visited those, and they are fantastic. Our LGBT expert advisory group is meeting tomorrow to discuss suicide prevention, and to see what more we need to do. I know that Members present are genuinely committed to working with me on situations that it is difficult to prevent, and we are absolutely convinced that we can do a lot better. We will work with colleagues across the Department for Education—we have mentioned the SEND review—and DCMS. It is vital that we work cross-sector, cross-Department and cross-party, because everybody has a role to play in suicide prevention. It is not just my job—if it was, it would be overwhelming. We all have a role to play.
There have been a lot of significant steps since the national suicide prevention strategy was published in 2012. Professor Louis Appleby is mentioned a lot in these circles and has put a lot of work and effort into this endeavour. Real-time surveillance is on the agenda, and the National Suicide Prevention Strategy Advisory Group will continue to work towards making things better. We have made a lot of progress, but everybody accepts that there is more to come. We have recently launched a call for evidence, and we have had about 2,500 people respond so far, but I would like a lot more to do so—particularly those from marginalised groups, or groups that find it harder to talk about these subjects. We need to hear their perspectives and get hon. Members’ help in making sure that everybody responds to the call for evidence, which is an opportunity. I am serious about this, as is the Secretary of State. I thank everybody for their contributions.
Historical Discrimination in Boxing
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered historical discrimination in boxing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. Keen observers of proceedings in this House will be forgiven for thinking that this is not the first time I have led a debate on historical discrimination in boxing. For those who might not be glued to proceedings in this place, I will recap.
Cuthbert Taylor is a local sporting legend in my constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. An amateur and then a professional boxer, he had over 500 bouts in a career lasting almost 20 years between 1928 and 1947, many in his native Merthyr Tydfil and across south Wales, but also across the United Kingdom and Europe. He was knocked out only once in his entire career. Justifiably, Cuthbert Taylor was once described as “the best in Europe”.
In 1927 he won the flyweight championship title. He defended the title in 1928, when he also became British amateur flyweight champion. That same year, he represented Great Britain at the Amsterdam summer Olympics, reaching the quarter-final stage in the flyweight category. He was the first black boxer to represent Britain at the Olympics. Although well known by some in his hometown of Merthyr Tydfil, and despite a very successful and exciting career, Cuthbert Taylor never got the same recognition on a national or international stage as other boxers. That was because of one simple thing: the colour of his skin.
Cuthbert Taylor was born in 1909 in Georgetown, Merthyr Tydfil, to parents of different ethnic backgrounds. His father, also named Cuthbert and formerly a notable amateur boxer in Liverpool, was of Caribbean descent. His mother, Margaret, was white Welsh. Cuthbert Taylor was judged at the time to be
“not white enough to be British”
by the British Boxing Board of Control, and he was prevented from ever challenging for a British title or a world title professionally by the body’s colour bar rule.
I have spoken to the hon. Gentleman before about this. There is a modern-day example, which I feel quite concerned about. I have written to the Secretary of State and I have spoken to the hon. Gentleman about Rhys McClenaghan in my constituency. He is a superb gymnast who is up against discrimination; it is similar to what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. He has been made aware that he is unable to compete in the Commonwealth games for Northern Ireland because he has previously represented Ireland, as is his right under the Belfast agreement. Cuthbert Taylor deserves an apology, but does the hon. Member agree that Rhys McClenaghan needs immediate action as well?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is important that all forms of discrimination, particularly in sport, are not allowed to go unchallenged. I wish him well with his campaign.
The colour bar rule was in place between 1911 and 1948. It stated that fighters had to have two white parents to compete for professional titles. Due simply to the fact that his parents were of different ethnic backgrounds, Cuthbert Taylor would never have the professional recognition and success that his remarkable talent deserved. That was all because of a rule that left a stain on the history of one of our country’s most popular and traditional sports—one that has otherwise been known for bringing together people from many different backgrounds and communities.
The colour bar rule serves as an uncomfortable reminder of a very different time. Although we cannot go back and give Cuthbert Taylor the professional titles and success that his career deserved, we can ensure that he has true and just recognition for his talent and abilities, and that his name is not forgotten in boxing history merely because of the colour of his skin.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I want to mention Len Johnson, the famous Manchester boxer, who held a British Empire middleweight title. He was known for his exceptional boxing skills, and he also campaigned for racial equality and against the shameful colour bar, which applied in some pubs in Manchester. Will my hon. Friend and the Minister join me in recognising Len Johnson’s contribution to British boxing, sports, and his campaign for racial equality and dignity for everyone?
It is important that we recognise how bad the colour bar rule was, even though it was many years ago. Even at that time, it should not have caused discrimination to people in sport and across our communities. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
It is a sad fact, but there is no doubt that had Cuthbert Taylor had two white parents, instead of one, he would have gone on to challenge for British and world boxing titles, and he may well have been successful. His is by no means an isolated case in British boxing, as we have heard, let alone in other sports. Many black or mixed-race British fighters in that period were held back by the racism of the colour bar rule.
Cuthbert Taylor’s family still live in Merthyr Tydfil, and for many years they have been campaigning for an apology from the British Boxing Board of Control for the injustices of the colour bar rule. After previous debates, some have argued that such apologies are merely gimmicks—pointless, empty gestures—but I could not disagree more. Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Shamefully, however, the British Boxing Board of Control has refused to engage on this issue with the family, with me as the local MP, and with the Minister. After debates and questions in this House, countless stories in the press and personal correspondence from families of the victims of the colour bar rule and MPs, I had hoped that the British Boxing Board of Control would do the right thing and offer a long-overdue apology. Its intransigence only compounds the historical wrong of the colour bar rule and its effect on the families of its victims.
British boxing today is a wholly different sport. It is inclusive, and a showcase for a diverse, modern Britain. However, as long as the boxing authority refuses to acknowledge the sins of the past, this stain will remain, not just for the families but for Britain as a whole. I hope the Minister will join me in calling on the British Boxing Board of Control to engage with Cuthbert Taylor’s family and me, and right this historical wrong.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) for securing a debate on this subject again. I also thank those who participated in it. We last discussed historical discrimination in boxing in October 2020, but I warmly welcome the opportunity to revisit the topic today for the reasons the hon. Gentleman outlined.
I fully appreciate the frustration the hon. Gentleman feels in his ongoing campaign for an apology for the discrimination faced by Cuthbert Taylor and other boxers, including Len Johnson—mentioned by the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra)—Dick Turpin and others, all of whom were denied the opportunity to fight for a British title between 1911 and 1948 simply because of their race. I applaud the efforts of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney to commemorate Cuthbert with a plaque, which was unveiled in October 2021.
I should say at the beginning, in response to the hon. Gentleman’s request that I write again to the BBBofC for an apology, that I will be happy to do so. I am somewhat disappointed, as he is, that he has not received the response that he would have liked, so I will put in that request again. This is a very important topic.
I recognise, of course, that some of the institutions and bodies with responsibility for boxing are now different from the entities that existed at that time. However, sport needs to look back on its history, and those entities—whatever they are—need to acknowledge past events and take some responsibility for them, although we recognise that the people in charge now are not the people who were in charge then, and that the world is different. We think differently and things have moved on, but stories like Cuthbert’s should not be forgotten. They are part of our social history, and as we noted before and has been highlighted again today, the history of boxing contains fascinating tales of triumph and defeat. It also tells us much about social trends, norms and prejudices of the past. Sport is an integral part of our national life, and we should not be surprised that it often reflects the values of the time—values that are not necessarily shared today.
By modern standards, the prohibition that was in place in the early part of the last century was blatantly racist. We must not brush uncomfortable truths about past discrimination under the carpet; we owe it to those who suffered to understand what they went through, in order to learn from the past and make sure that future generations do not have to go through the same painful experiences. I want sport to be welcoming to everyone and a reflection of our diverse society.
Today, boxing is one of our most diverse sports, and some of our highest-profile sporting stars are boxers from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Boxing has made great progress across other aspects of diversity, too, with its great reach into deprived communities, inclusive boxing hubs for people with a range of health conditions, and the nurturing of female boxing talent. Women’s boxing, in particular, has gone from strength to strength since Nicola Adams won the first female Olympic boxing gold in London in 2012. The recent fight between Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano at Madison Square Garden in front of a 20,000-strong fan base has been lauded as the greatest women’s boxing fight in history. That incredible encounter lived up to all the hype and showed sport at its best.
For a long time, though, women were barred from boxing competitions. It was not until 1997—so very recently—that the British Amateur Boxing Association sanctioned its first boxing competition for women, and the BBBofC sanctioned the first domestic professional fight the following year. As we know, women’s boxing only fully entered the Olympic games in 2012, so change can be slow to happen, but women’s boxing appears to be on a clear upward trajectory, and long may that continue. We want to help the sport nurture the next superstars of the future and give everyone the opportunity to take part, no matter their background. That is why we continue to support our elite boxers through UK Sport funding. We also support community boxing clubs across the country through Sport England funding and the National Lottery Community Fund.
I welcome the Minister’s comments regarding inclusion, particularly in boxing. He and I discussed the ongoing racism scandal in cricket when I tabled an urgent question a few months ago, and I thought the Government were reasonable on the matter, but did not go far enough. Will the Minister comment on current issues, such as the lack of progress for men and women of colour in cricket, and the long-standing issues with governance in that sport? I take his points about football, and I welcome them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his ongoing interest in this matter. I will come on to some of those points in a moment—it relates to some other sports and I do not want to test the Chair’s patience by diverging too far from the topic of the debate—but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Entities, particularly those that receive Government funding or public money in some way, shape or form, such as through Sport England, have an obligation and a duty—a requirement, in fact—to make sure that they are truly open to all, not discriminating and making efforts to be inclusive. If they are not, they will not and should not get public money. Of course, many other sports are private entities and self-organising bodies, but we still expect them to put in place parameters and governance structures through their governing bodies to do the same things—to be inclusive and open to all.
We have seen some very unfortunate, high-profile incidents in certain sports recently that have let everybody down. They should not taint everybody involved in those sports. We all know that sport is a great unifier and can bring people together in a way that very few other things can. Some of the incidents are extremely worrying, but they should not taint everybody, because a lot of people work day in, day out in all sports across the country to be inclusive. Those people have been somewhat disappointed by incidents they have seen happen in their own sports, because they are working day in, day out to do the exact opposite of what they are seeing in the newspapers and on television.
We should not underestimate the incidents that have happened—unfortunately, particularly in cricket. We are keeping a close eye on it, as is the whole House. We have had multiple debates and will continue to do so, because we expect and need further change. I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Stockport. I will continue with my speech, because his point is very much the theme of my next few pages.
Sport does not need to rest on its laurels. We must take steps to ensure that discrimination and inequality are identified and addressed. Like many sports, boxing continues to look at what more it can do to promote inclusion and diversity. England Boxing published the results of its equality, diversity and race review in January this year. The report made a number of recommendations around training, leadership and culture, all of which England Boxing is implementing. I am pleased to see the sport engage with the issues in that way.
We know that it is not only boxing that is facing these challenges. In June 2021, Sport England, UK Sport and the other home nations’ sports councils published the results of a detailed, independent review into tackling racism and racial inequality in sport. The review brought together data and gathered lived experiences of racial inequalities and racism in the sector. The findings make clear that racism and racial inequalities still exist within sport in the UK—it is sad that I have to say that. These are long-standing issues that have resulted in ethnically diverse communities being consistently disadvantaged.
The sports councils agreed on a set of overarching commitments that they will work on together, relating to people, representation, investment, systems and insights. Updates on progress are being provided every six months, and I am keen to ensure this momentum is sustained over the long term. In addition, last year, Sport England and UK Sport published an updated version of the code for sports governance that sets the standards all sporting organisations must meet in return for public funding. As I said, if they are not performing in that way, they should not receive public funding.
The code has proved successful in setting clear expectations around good governance and diversity since its launch in 2017. However, four years on, I called on the two sports councils to review the code with a particular focus on equality and diversity, and that is what they have delivered. The updated code places an increased focus on diversity in decision making and on ensuring that sports organisations reflect the community they serve.
The code now requires sports organisations to produce individual diversity and inclusion action plans. These have to be agreed by Sport England and/or UK Sport, published and updated annually. This process, combined with support provided by the sports councils along the way, will help sports set clear ambitions for improving diversity and inclusion throughout their organisations, and not just at the senior board level.
The Government feel strongly about diversity of representation and thought, and I hope the changes in the code will help the sport sector become even stronger in that respect. Diversity and inclusion are essential to sport. We want people to enjoy taking part in their chosen activity, and we want to attract and retain talented athletes. That cannot happen if people do not feel welcome or respected.
It should go without saying that there is no place for racism, sexism, homophobia or any other kind of discrimination in sport, and we continue to work with our sports councils, sport governing bodies and others to ensure everyone feels welcomed and can enjoy sport. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney has raised many important points today, and I thank him for his ongoing interest and passion for this subject. History cannot be changed. For Cuthbert Taylor, and many others like him, nothing can bring back the chance to fight for a British title. We must acknowledge the past and learn for the future. I have made the BBBofC aware of this debate, and I will also write another letter.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised a point about the situation we have with the Commonwealth Games and gymnastics—I am aware of the situation. The sports team at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth Games Federation are in discussions with the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique to make it aware of the sensitivities and concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised. We are engaged in constructive dialogue, and I continue to appeal to FIG to change its decision because, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is inconsistent with existing agreements. I hope FIG will understand that.
I want to thank both the Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who I know is directly involved in this matter. We hope that the combination of all of us together—MPs, the Secretary of State and the Minister—can make the difference. It is central to the Belfast agreement, so I cannot understand why the issue has not been addressed. I am hopeful that the endeavours of the Minister and others will make a difference. If the Minister does not mind, I would like to be kept aware of what is going on.
I absolutely commit to making sure that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are aware of the situation. We have respectfully appealed and provided the full information, background and sensitivities regarding those three athletes. We all want them to compete and to proudly represent Northern Ireland—that is what they want to do. This issue is somewhat unique to gymnastics, because no other sport seems to have taken that approach. We are respectfully asking FIG to reconsider the situation and I will keep the hon. Gentleman informed of developments.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak today and I thank the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney for securing this debate. I will do what I can to ensure that the BBBofC hears what we have said today.
Question put and agreed to.
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the accountability of Ofsted.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, for the first time, I think.
I applied for the debate after I was contacted by a small village primary school in my constituency which has recently had a difficult experience following an Ofsted inspection. I thank everyone at Naburn Church of England Primary School, as well as the residents of Naburn for their engagement in the issue, with a special mention for headteacher Jonathan Green, for his invaluable input and for his skilful leadership of the school in these challenging times.
I also thank the Chamber engagement team here in Parliament for all their work in publicising the debate and for organising a survey of members of the teaching profession. My sincere thanks go to everyone around the country who took the time to complete the survey and to provide their own experiences of the Ofsted inspection process. Little did I realise when I organised the debate how widespread some of the concerns about Ofsted are among those involved in our school system. The survey for the debate alone attracted nearly 2,000 responses. Time prohibits me from mentioning every contribution, but I hope to provide a useful summary to inform discussion and the debate today, grounding it in first-hand experience of teachers and governors.
Last month, I attended a packed public meeting in the village of Naburn to discuss the future of the village school. The school is small, with only 56 pupils across two classes, but its importance to the community life of the village is significant. The school was inspected by Ofsted in 2007, when it was found to be “outstanding”. As a result, there was a 14-year gap before the next inspection in December last year, a gap that in itself I find worrying. The result of the inspection has been a finding of “inadequate”, which has put the school in the precarious position of having to find an academy sponsor within a tight timeframe of just a few months.
Many of the concerns expressed by Ofsted in its report were fair, but there was widespread frustration with how the inspection was carried out and the unconstructed nature of the findings, above all the fact that the school and the local community felt completely powerless to challenge oversights or omissions, or to add any sort of context to the report’s findings. That left them asking an important question, which I would like the Minister to answer today: to whom, if anyone, is Ofsted ultimately accountable?
To me, there seems to be no obvious answer to that question, which I find quite staggering. The Ofsted website sets out a four-stage process by which a school may pursue a complaint. Three of the stages are internal, with only the final stage bringing in external lawyers from the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution to make non-binding findings on the narrow question of whether Ofsted has handled the complaint in line with its own procedures. Above and beyond that, the only means by which a school can ultimately force an about-turn by Ofsted is through the courts—an expense that is, to be honest, completely out of the question for the vast majority of schools. Over the past 10 years, I think, there has only been a handful of such cases, but the Minister will have the figures.
Turning back to the first stage of its complaint process, Ofsted is, to its credit, good at encouraging schools to take an active part in the inspection process and to discuss any concerns with the inspectors informally; inspectors are under an obligation to record and acknowledge any such concerns before continuing with the inspection. As the report is being drafted, there is an ongoing opportunity for the school to comment, to object on any issue in any particular way, and to contest the accuracy of the facts given, particularly in the report; and the lead inspector must then respond to those comments.
That may sound like a collaborative process, and for some schools that have positive experiences of Ofsted inspections it is. However, what comes through very strongly from the feedback that I have received from teachers is that inspection really is a lottery, and the experience depends to a large degree on the attitude of the inspector.
Of the nearly 2,000 respondents to the survey, just over half reported experience of the complaints process. Within that sample, there were plenty of examples of the system working well, with some respondents asking the inspector to see something in action during the course of the inspection, to correct the false impressions. There was praise for the flexibility of the system, with schools challenging the findings of the inspector partway through and finding that their grade was raised by the end of the process by that individual inspector. After the inspection, challenges to specific statements in the draft report were duly accepted and the wording was amended in the final report.
I think we can all agree that that is how the system should work. An Ofsted inspection should not be a walk in the park; it should be a rigorous process by which we ensure that appropriate standards are being maintained. After all, teachers and schools are given an enormous social responsibility of looking after and educating our children. However, there should be some humility on the part of Ofsted to recognise the fact that what its inspectors see during an inspection is, in the words of one of the respondents to the survey, “a snapshot in time”, with the outcome of the inspection not always capturing the reality of the school.
Time and resources permit inspectors to see the school for only one or two days, and in quite highly pressurised and therefore unrepresentative circumstances. It is right, therefore, not only that a significant opportunity is given to teachers to add context or to correct the record, but that appropriate weight is given to this feedback when the final assessment is being made. The unfortunate truth, however, is that that was the minority experience among respondents to my survey, with most of them reporting real concerns about how receptive inspectors were to comments and complaints at that stage.
Several teachers were frustrated with the “rude and dismissive” attitude of the inspectors and the lack of professional respect given to teachers. Many respondents felt that they were not given significant opportunity to highlight evidence of the excellent work done in classes, with the inspector focusing only on perceived weaknesses. Consequently, they felt that Ofsted inspection was a blinkered, tick-box exercise—or worse, an exercise in picking them apart on specific issues—rather than a fair, holistic assessment of how well the school was performing.
Respondents also highlighted unprofessional conduct by Ofsted inspectors, referring to deliberately combative attitudes and inspectors making judgments based on preconceptions. Points of concern included thinly disguised prejudice against faith schools and a perceived agenda against the type of school under inspection or the teaching methods being used. As one respondent put it:
“Some come in with a preconceived idea and nothing that they see or do will change it.”
Another respondent was of the view that the inspectors’ line of inquiry was very much about proving that their own initial decision was correct. If that is the case, it is extremely concerning.
This is more a criticism of the system than of individual inspectors themselves. Indeed, the headteacher of Naburn School was at pains to highlight the pressure put on the inspectors by operating to such a short timescale, and clearly a great many inspectors uphold the high professional standards expected of them. However, a recurring complaint in the feedback that I received was about the rigidity of the inspection criteria and the lack of focus on the context of the school. This was a concern among parents and teachers at Naburn.
One of Ofsted’s primary concerns in its report was the poor attendance rate and the steps that the school had taken to address it. On the face of it, that is a fair criticism, but it does not take into account that about a third of the children at the school are from a local Traveller community with very specific and well-documented issues around school attendance—something that is arguably beyond the sole control of the school leadership. Lauren, a constituent of mine who teaches at another local school, said that although she thought the outcome of her school’s last Ofsted report was fair, she was concerned to see how little Ofsted seemed to take the area and its demographics into account. She works in a school that has a higher than average pupil premium rate, with high numbers of students on free school meals and those for whom English is an additional language, but the school is judged in exactly the same way as schools without these difficult challenges. When such concerns are raised, schools feel that they are falling on deaf ears because they do not form part of the inspection criteria, and that a major part of the factual background to explain the school’s weakness is simply being overlooked. The complaints procedure does not seem able to accommodate these sorts of concerns.
If the subject of a complaint is the conduct of an Ofsted inspector, the situation is arguably even more difficult, because the complaint is reviewed in the first instance by the individual who conducted the inspection, leading to frustrations about how objective the exercise could really be. The informal complaints procedure is therefore an important part of the process. It can be valuable and effective when it works well, but it is important to recognise its limitations and the need for a robust mechanism by which the substantive findings of the report can be independently reviewed.
At stage 2 of the complaints procedure, schools are given a short window to submit a formal complaint prior to the publication of the final report. This is the only opportunity given to schools to put their substantive case before anyone who is not the initial inspector.
The final two stages narrow to an almost exclusive procedural focus, in which an internal scrutiny panel reviews how a stage 2 complaint has been handled. If the school decides to take it further, the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted will perform a similar exercise. It is specifically not within the remit of the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted to review the professional judgment of the decisions made by Ofsted, meaning that there is no external means of challenging the outcome of an Ofsted inspection, short of going to court—a reality that my constituents in Naburn found unbelievable.
Even within its narrowly prescribed remit, the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted faces certain limitations. Its determinations are not binding on Ofsted; all it can do is offer an independent view on the complaints and provide individual recommendations, advice and guidance to Ofsted to help it achieve best practice in the complaints-handling procedures. Ofsted does not have to comply with the recommendations, but if it does not comply, it must explain its reasons. In short, far from being an ombudsman-type of service with real teeth, the role of the ICASO is more of a mediator, albeit in a relationship in which the power balance between Ofsted and the school is heavily skewed towards the former. Its limited role is reflected in the small number of cases it reviews every year—about 20, which represent a tiny proportion of Ofsted’s overall workload. That figure is surely not reflective of the number of schools with concerns about their Ofsted inspection that are simply unable to ask for a review under one of the heads of complaint available.
Given the problem that I have set out, the question is: how can the system be improved? By way of comparison, it is useful to look at the complaints procedure used by the Independent Schools Inspectorate. The inspectorate also accepts contributions from schools during the inspection and drafting process, but it is treated as a given and is not explicitly part of the complaints procedure. Schools have the opportunity to submit a formal complaint for internal review, much like Ofsted’s procedure, but they are given a 10-day window, which seems much more reasonable than the five-day timeframe given by Ofsted. Crucially though, there is then a procedure by which the complaint can be submitted to an independent adjudicator, whose decision is considered final and binding on both ISI and the school. The independent adjudicator has before them all the relevant documentation and, crucially, can both investigate whether the complaint was handled correctly and adjudicate on whether the decision was reasonable. As a result of the adjudicator’s findings, the report can be amended on a full or partial reinspection ordered by ISI at its expense.
I appreciate that the comparison is slightly limited, as the case load and remits of ISI and Ofsted are very different, but it does provide an example of the sort of checks and balances that would go a long way to alleviate many of the frustrations felt by schools that have had difficulties dealing with Ofsted.
Another point worth considering is the relationship between Ofsted and the Department for Education. First, I recognise and acknowledge that a system where a Minister can be accused of intervening in an individual case on the basis of political pressure is undesirable, and it is completely right that Ofsted operates at arm’s length. However, the result is that parents, schools and local communities feel completely powerless in the face of an organisation that does not appear to have to justify its decisions to anyone.
If there is reluctance to reform the standard complaints procedure to give the independent element more teeth, one alternative could be to create a safety mechanism by which the Secretary of State can order a reinspection with a new team of inspectors or an independent review, so that Ofsted can no longer mark its own homework, which it seems to be doing on a regular basis. This mechanism would have the dual effect of providing an outlet to enhance accountability for local communities if they feel their school has been treated unjustly, while ensuring that the final decision is taken independently of political pressure and purely on the basis of the relevant criteria.
There is a debate to be had about the school inspection system more generally and its impact on the wellbeing of teachers and the effectiveness of the education system. I was interested to receive feedback in my survey on those points, and I am sure they will be picked up by many other colleagues. I have sought to confine my comments to the specific issue of the accountability of Ofsted and the procedure available to challenge its decisions. I am not opposed to having a robust school inspection system, and I believe that a strong inspection body is central to achieving that. Many teachers, as evidenced by my survey, have had nothing but positive experiences with Ofsted, but it is also clear that there are many who have not.
My concerns came to a head when I spoke to teachers and parents at Naburn school in my constituency. They are frustrated at how powerless they felt and incensed at the lack of accountability. The national response I have had since publicising this debate shows that their concerns are not isolated, but are widely shared in the teaching profession. The Government need to address this issue, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. I know him well, and I am sure he will take a lot of what I have said on board.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, not just because you are the Chair, but because you are a colleague and a friend. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), who presented the case. We are debating the accountability of Ofsted, but the Minister will know that we have different arrangements back home in Northern Ireland. I always like to sow into these debates the things that happen in Northern Ireland.
I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said. I share his concerns and I want to talk about some points that concern me. In recent years, there has been a breakthrough in the education system. We have tried to improve our educational standards by miles, and I believe we are on the right path to ensuring that every child has a fair shot at education. That is the ambition. Some people will say that we are on the pathway to achieving that, and others will say that we are not there yet. Saying that, we must address some of the current issues, so it is great to be here today to discuss how we can move forward.
The hon. Gentleman said that Ofsted visits give only a “snapshot in time”. It is important to recognise that the inspection does not sum up all that happens in the school over a 12-month period, as it only captures the things that happen in that one-day snapshot. I understand the purpose of Ofsted and why inspections are necessary, but let me explain why I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the stress that inspections have on teachers, schools and pupils. He said that some faith-based schools have expressed concerns, and are particularly annoyed at Ofsted inspections. Some felt, rightly or wrongly, that they were targeted because of their faith. I am sure that is not the case, but some felt it to be.
Something has to be done about the situation if the only way for schools to challenge the conclusions of the Ofsted inspection is on a legal basis. I very much look to the Minister for a response to that point. There cannot always be a legal challenge to the inspection’s conclusions and recommendations. The Minister always replies sympathetically and helpfully, as he did when he was in the Northern Ireland Office—we miss him there, although we are very glad he is here to respond to this debate.
Ofsted is accountable for school inspections and the inspection process. The devolved nations are covered by different arrangements, but I like to give a Northern Ireland opinion in these debates. Back home, the Education Training Inspectorate is responsible for school inspection duties. Although we are grateful to it for ensuring that our schools are of the highest standard, there are undoubtedly issues to be addressed. When it identifies issues, it highlights where improvements can take place, and it does so in a way that encourages schools, but also ensures that they make the necessary changes.
I have been contacted by many teachers who first and foremost must deal with the ongoing pressures of inspections. It is usually the principals who take on that responsibility, but the teachers and pupils are also part of it. While an inspection is a necessary procedure, it can severely disrupt the routine of the school day. There is often a slight disregard for the disruption that inspections can cause to not only the school day, but the pupils. There is a need to be sympathetic, careful and cautious when it comes to inspections.
We are all aware that our respective Education Ministers in all the regions have worked tirelessly to support pupils with special educational needs and to provide an organised, strict routine to help them learn. My plea is on behalf of those with special educational needs who are disrupted by Ofsted inspection, and who find that it affects them as individuals and in their schooling.
The discomfort and frustration that pupils with special needs can face when their routine is disrupted is unnecessary and could be handled much better. Ofsted and other inspection agencies must be held accountable for ensuring normality in the school day. In addition, our teachers have been feeling extreme pressure to perform as “perfect” in their profession. None of us is perfect. As you know, Mr Paisley, there is only one person who is perfect: the man above. We are just humble human beings with all our frailties and mistakes.
The National Education Union has stated,
“Able teachers, repeatedly assessed as ‘outstanding’, still have their preparation, teaching, management of behaviour and marking of students’ work evaluated incessantly. The pressures created by Ofsted cascade down through the system, increasing teachers’ stress and workloads to the point of exhaustion and burn-out.”
How are Ofsted inspections affecting teachers? Is consideration being given to teachers as it should be, ever mindful that teachers are under incredible pressure as it is? They have a responsibility to deliver for their pupils and they want to do that well, so they do not need extra pressures.
The NEU also notes that Ofsted has failed to address the impact that poverty and the cost of living are having children’s learning. Other factors need to be considered when Ofsted carries out its inspections and draws conclusions about education. One such factor is poverty and the cost of living. The moneys that parents have for their children has an impact on them when they are in school. Another is the responsibility of schools to ensure that pupils have a meal to start the day and are getting fed. Sometimes—I say this very respectfully—a child may not be the best dressed or the tidiest, but that may be because of pressures at home. What is being done to consider that?
The pandemic has already seriously disrupted the education of pupils without the familial and technological resources to study at home. With the increasing fuel and electricity payments, it is estimated that thousands more will be plunged into working poverty, with 3.9 million children having parents who are in in-work poverty. What consideration has been given to the direct impact of in-work poverty on pupils?
There needs to be more support for our teachers. After a horrid, terrible two years due to the pandemic, there has been much judgment as to how schools are operating. I gently suggest there should be a wee bit of flexibility in Ofsted inspections, to ensure that all those factors are taken on board and the pressures of the inspection do not overload teachers and schools.
The workload pressures are concerning, with many teachers working late into the night as it is. There have also been judgments of schools based on limited evidence. The hon. Member for York Outer referred to the pressures on schools, and the importance of ensuring that there is evidence to back up the Ofsted inspections. Most pressures are due to the pandemic. Indeed, many feel that Ofsted inspections should be more circumspect when it comes to other factors—life outside of schools—that have an impact on schools. Ofsted must address basic errors and misunderstandings, and work alongside Ministers to support schools and teachers.
I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I will conclude, ever conscious that others have the opportunity to speak. I welcome the debate and hope that we can be a voice for our education system—to help make teachers’ and principals’ lives easier, to ensure that pupils in schools are not disadvantaged by all the things that are happening outside school that have an impact inside schools. The Minister always strives to give us the answers we look for, and I look forward to hearing him, but I am ever mindful that there can be difficult periods of inspections, which, by their very nature, disconcert, annoy and disrupt school life.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and it is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing the debate, and highlighting some of the challenges of the Ofsted system.
Everyone recognises the importance of having a school inspectorate that is independent and able to support schools to uphold the highest standards, but there are undoubtedly imperfections in the current inspection regime, which have been highlighted admirably by my hon. Friend.
I want to draw on an example from my constituency that I hope will help the Minister to understand where the Ofsted inspection regime could be improved. Thomas Mills High School has always had outstanding academic results. It is now an academy, but was a high school when I first became a Member of Parliament and I still slip into calling it that. Its academic prowess is well known in Suffolk, with a high proportion of students annually progressing to Russell Group universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.
The school had historically always been considered outstanding. During the pandemic it was inspected by Ofsted and was unfortunately rated as inadequate. In many areas, the school was still considered outstanding, but on the issue of safeguarding, the school was unfortunately rated inadequate. As the Minister will be aware, that forces the global rating of the school to be inadequate.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer commented on the challenges of monitoring pupils from deprived and marginalised communities, and he mentioned the Traveller community. Indeed, Thomas Mills academy had challenges supporting some pupils during the pandemic who came from more difficult backgrounds. I believe that was the primary reason for the inadequate rating.
It is unfortunate that that one issue—in an inspection carried out at a particularly challenging time—resulted in the global rating being downgraded to inadequate. As a result, the regional inspector of academies has been involved and taken action. The normal step taken in such situations would be for the regional schools commissioner to send in additional support to the academy from other schools. The great irony is that the headteacher at the Thomas Mills academy, Mr Hurst, is the very person that the regional schools inspector has gone to in the past to be that troubleshooter in other failing schools, and he has been instrumental in helping to turn some of those schools around. The school knows that the appeals process is challenging to navigate. It is now likely to be asked to become part of a larger academy schools trust, which in itself may bring challenges.
I think it is worth the Minister considering how we can help schools that have previously been outstanding—and are still outstanding in many respects, in their inspections—not to be dragged down or judged on one single aspect of that Ofsted inspection. That has had far-reaching consequences for Thomas Mills and the future of the academy. Joining a multi-academy trust—possibly one that does not have links to Suffolk—will have significant consequences for the way in which that school is managed and run, when it has always been considered to be an outstanding school, until recently, by Ofsted.
The other point that the inspection regime raised was the challenges that schools experience in attracting high-quality governors, or trustees in the case of an academy. Clearly, attracting a governing body, or a trustee body, with the right skillset to support schools in an increasingly complex modern environment—navigating safeguarding issues through to issues relating to the mental health and wellbeing of pupils—is important, but many schools find it challenging. Often, that group of trustees or governing body is there to support the headteacher or the school in navigating inspections successfully.
I wonder what comments the Minister may have on how we can support schools—not just Thomas Mills in my constituency, or the school mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, but all schools—in attracting the governing body or trustees that will provide the necessary skillsets to support them, and ensure they put in place the right governance and processes to ensure the pupils have the best education and are safe- guarded in everything that they do.
I hope that my brief contribution has been helpful in highlighting some of the challenges for schools and why they have concerns with the current Ofsted regime. We must recognise that this is about moving beyond the impression of one inspector, or one group of inspectors, looking more globally at a school, and recognising some of the challenges those schools have had in supporting people from marginalised communities and supporting pupils during the pandemic. That should all be considered as part of an Ofsted inspection. One inspection can now have far-reaching consequences for the future of single academies or smaller schools.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. If he will excuse me, I have another school from Suffolk visiting me this afternoon, so if I do have to leave early, I look forward to reading his remarks. I thank him for his time and congratulate, once again, my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer on securing today’s debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) for securing this important debate. As we have heard today, the role of Ofsted is an issue that prompts much discussion among teachers, parents and constituents.
The hon. Member for York Outer spoke about concerns shared with him by a village school in his constituency, and the impact on staff, parents and the wider community. He cited the impressive response to his efforts to seek the views of others, on which I congratulate him. It is great to hear that nearly 2,000 responses were received, but it is also a sad reflection of the concerns about existing inspectorate arrangements. He raised particular concerns about the complaints processes and the limited effective opportunities to challenge the inspectorate and its outcomes; those points were well made.
We also heard, as ever, from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who shared his insight and considered views from a Northern Ireland perspective. He spoke passionately about the pressures that Ofsted places on teachers and the need for more support for them, which I will address later in my speech. Finally, the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) also shared helpful insight from his constituency about the impact on schools and communities of one-word judgments.
It is true that the majority of schools are now rated good or outstanding, but that masks an estimated 210,000 pupils stuck in schools that for 13 years or more have received ratings of inadequate or requires improvement. There are also significant regional inequalities. More than 200,000 primary-age children live in areas in which there are no good or outstanding schools. Eleven out of 12 local authorities in the north-east have a higher-than-average share of pupils attending underperforming schools.
School inspection must be a crucial part of our education system to deliver the best for our children, but I fear that the framework drives a tick-box culture, as echoed by other Members in the debate. It does not necessarily encourage the delivery of excellent education to every child. It also contributes to a growing recruitment and retention crisis in the teaching profession, which will inevitably have an impact in the classroom. For too many school leaders, teachers and governors, inspection has become emblematic of all that is wrong with the profession. Time and time again, in conversations that I have had since becoming shadow Schools Minister, teachers tell me that they feel punished, not supported, by Ofsted.
Earlier this year, I visited the National Education Union advice line in Doncaster. I spoke to teachers desperate to find a way to stay in the profession that they love, but the pressure of inspections was listed by teachers and staff as a significant factor in their decision to leave. I visited a school in Gillingham where people described the relief that the inspections were suspended during covid, because they could then
“focus on doing what was best for the children”.
That seems completely counterproductive to me, and to many parents and teachers too.
I want to say to school leaders, teachers and governors: “I hear you loud and clear.” Unlike this Government, Labour has a clear plan to tackle the challenge. This year, Ofsted turns 30 and, in that time, the role of schools has changed immeasurably; so, too, must the inspection framework. Getting the best out of people means respecting their efforts and supporting improvement, as well as challenging their performance. Ofsted should be an ally to every teacher and school leader, determined to set their school on the right path. In government, therefore, Labour will undertake fundamental reform of Ofsted to ensure that it supports school improvement proactively, and does not just deliver high-stakes, one-word judgments on the hard work of teachers and governors.
First, we would free up inspectors to work more closely with schools requiring improvement. They would be empowered to put in place plans to deliver sustained change in struggling schools, similar to the peer-to-peer support that worked so well in the London challenge. We would connect teachers and leaders with the training they need. Next, we would require Ofsted to report on a school’s performance relative to other schools in its family, or those with similar characteristics. That would recognise the short and long-term improvements that teachers plan, helping parents understand inspection results more clearly. We would also require Ofsted to report on areas of excellence within a school, so that we can celebrate what is great as well as what needs improvement. Working with school leaders and staff, we can reset the adversarial culture and refocus on the delivery of excellence for every child.
While important, however, reform of Ofsted is not a panacea. I recognise that the challenges that children and teachers face, and that this Government choose to ignore, go beyond that. As I said, the inspection regime is contributing to an increasing recruitment and retention crisis. Ministers have met teaching recruitment targets only once in the past decade. DFE data released earlier this year shows that the number of applications to initial teacher training has plummeted by almost a quarter from the same time last year. Forty per cent. of teachers now leave the profession within four years.
I am clear that the world-class education we want for all children need not come at the cost of the high-quality teachers we need. That is why Labour has introduced the most ambitious programme of school improvement for a generation, which contains practical steps to tackle the day-to-day issues that teachers face in the classroom. First, we will recruit 6,500 new teachers to help close the vacancies gap, and we will make a real investment in teachers through a professional development fund that gives them access to the skills they need during their career. Aspiring headteachers will be given the support they need to lead outstanding schools. Our excellence in leadership programme to support new headteachers throughout their first years in the job will be well supported. We will work together with school staff and leaders to give them time to teach and to deliver the outcomes we need for our children. Labour is clear that inspection should apply to the whole system, with multi-academy trusts properly responsible for provision in schools, as Ofsted itself has called for.
Labour is relentlessly ambitious for children’s success. We want to build an education system where children thrive once again and staff have the time to teach. Making that a reality requires curiosity, an understanding of the problem and a real plan, but what we see from this Government is a White Paper full of bluster and gimmicks and a Schools Bill that fails to tackle the day-to-day challenges facing our school system. Yet again, Conservative Ministers simply do not have the answers that teachers, children and parents need. That is why the next Labour Government will transform education again, as we did in the past, and place children at the centre of our national approach. That is the very least they deserve.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, for what I believe is the first time. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) for opening the debate. I greatly value the opportunity to listen to his insights and the detailed research that he has done, supported by the Chamber Engagement Team, before holding the debate.
I extend that appreciation to other colleagues who have spoken today and brought up individual cases. It is always a great pleasure to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon); that is not unusual for Ministers responding to a Westminster Hall debate, but it is a particular pleasure for me. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) raised an important case in his constituency, as did my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer. I will try to address those cases towards the end of my remarks, so I fully understand if my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich has to leave the Chamber before then. It is rare to have an opportunity to speak at such length in the Chamber, but I remember PPS-ing one debate in Westminster Hall in which I was asked by officials to pass a note to the Minister saying, “You don’t actually have to use all the time, you know.” The Minister was not entirely pleased to receive that advice from his officials, who clearly felt he was being much too long-winded.
As the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) has pointed out, the debate is timely, given that it comes in a symbolic year for Ofsted with its 30th anniversary. Such occasions rightly demand that we pause to reflect, and I am pleased that the debate has provided another opportunity to do so. I will try to set out some of the context and some of the broader points about accountability that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer has asked me to address, and then come to the specific cases towards the end of my remarks.
This period in Ofsted’s history has added significance, with the resumption of routine graded inspection programmes taking place at the start of this academic year—an important milestone that comes after a period of enormous disruption to our society caused by the pandemic, which has required significant adaptation in the education and children’s services sector and in Ofsted as an inspectorate. I join my hon. Friend in thanking teachers and heads for all they have done through that period. It is right to acknowledge the enormous pressures they have been under and the additional work that heads in every school, no matter its rating or relationship with Ofsted, and their teachers and all school staff have been facing.
The fact that schools and other providers face challenges and disruption in their work only reinforces the importance of parents, the Government and Parliament having independent assurance through Ofsted that children are receiving the best possible education and are safe at this critical time. It is encouraging that when inspections have taken place this academic year, the outcomes have often been very positive and in many ways similar to, or an improvement on, what was there before the pandemic. For example, the large majority of good schools continue to be good, or have improved to outstanding, and a large majority—a higher percentage than before the pandemic—of schools that were previously less than good are now being graded as good or better. It is the case that a significant proportion—around half—of formerly exempt outstanding schools, which are often receiving their first Ofsted visit in a decade or more, have not maintained their former grade. However, even the change from outstanding has more often than not been a change to good.
As we turn to recovery, it is clear to me that every part of the education system, including Ofsted, has its role to play. Before moving on to the specific matter of Ofsted’s accountability, it is worth reflecting for a moment on the significance of Ofsted within our system.
Ofsted, or the Office for Standards in Education, was established in 1992, introducing for the first time universal, regular and independent inspection of all schools, with inspectors working to a national, published inspection framework. Much has changed over the years and I do not want to go into a detailed blow-by-blow account of all that, but it is worth noting that Ofsted’s remit has grown over the years to encompass early years, children’s services and skills. It was reconstituted, as the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, by the Labour Government in 2006. The legislation establishing Ofsted in its current form—the Education and Inspections Act 2006—also stipulated a set of responsibilities for Her Majesty’s chief inspector and, separately, Ofsted’s statutory board, comprising a chair, members and Her Majesty’s chief inspector.
The fact that Ofsted was established by a Conservative Government and expanded under a Labour Government signifies the broad cross-party consensus for its independent inspection role that has existed for most of the last 30 years, and I was pleased to hear from the shadow Minister’s comments that he is restoring at least a degree of that consensus in his approach.
Despite the various changes and developments over the years, Ofsted’s central role in our systems has remained a constant. Inspection provides key and trusted information for parents. When it comes to choosing a school, school proximity is usually the decisive factor in making the final choice, followed by the ethos of the school and then Ofsted’s judgment. That shows how important the judgment is, and 70% of parents feel that Ofsted reports are a reliable source of information on their child’s school. Beyond that, though, Ofsted’s inspection gives recognition and validation to effective practice where it is seen and prompts self-improvement. It provides assurance not only for parents but for the wider community and it triggers intervention where necessary. It also provides evidence both to Governments and to Parliament.
In that context, it is entirely legitimate to reflect on and examine the inspectorate’s accountability. It is of great significance that Ofsted was established as, and remains to this day, a non-ministerial Government Department and an independent inspectorate, a duality that brings benefits as well as a degree of complexity and which has implications when it comes to considering accountability.
Starting with a rather obvious point that will not have escaped the attention of hon. Members, I am standing before Members in Westminster Hall today, not Her Majesty’s chief inspector. That reflects Ofsted’s non-ministerial status and means that the Government have a line of accountability to Parliament for Ofsted and its work. Sitting beneath that, however, are lines of accountability between Ofsted and the Secretary of State, between Ofsted and the Government more generally, and directly between Ofsted and Parliament. I will address those lines of accountability now.
Even a cursory look at the legislation underpinning Ofsted demonstrates a clear link between Ofsted and the Secretary of State. For example, the Education and Inspections Act 2006 provides that, in addition to specific inspection and regulatory responsibilities, Her Majesty’s chief inspector has a general responsibility to keep the Secretary of State informed about the quality and effectiveness of services within Ofsted’s remit. The chief inspector must provide information or advice to the Secretary of State when requested, and in carrying out her work must have regard to such aspects of Government policy as the Secretary of State may direct. Inspection legislation also places a duty on Ofsted to inspect schools when requested to do so by the Secretary of State. Furthermore, although the position of Her Majesty’s chief inspector is a Crown appointment, the chief inspector holds and vacates her office in accordance with the terms of her appointment, and those terms are determined by the Secretary of State.
It is clear that Ofsted’s relationship with the Secretary of State and Ministers provides one important dimension to its accountability, and means that Ofsted inspects within the context of the Government’s policies. I, the Secretary of State and my colleague in the Lords regularly meet Her Majesty’s chief inspector—the regularity varies from about once a month to every six weeks—to discuss a wide range of matters relating to Ofsted and its work. The debate has certainly given me some further issues that I will raise and discuss in such meetings.
As for examples of Ofsted’s broader accountability to Government, hon. Members will wish to be aware that Ofsted is expected to comply with various Government rules, for example those set by Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Cabinet Office that relate to Departments. For the purpose of illustration, these include requirements to publish equality objectives and to report on them annually, and requirements to publish information on pay, gender and so on.
I turn now to Ofsted’s accountability to Parliament, starting with a simple example. On a day-to-day level, Ofsted regularly responds directly to correspondence from hon. Members, and Her Majesty’s chief inspector also responds directly to written parliamentary questions relating to Ofsted’s work, with a record of her responses being placed in the Library. Her Majesty’s chief inspector can also be called to give evidence to Select Committees. In practice, that line of accountability usually operates through the Education Committee, which I understand holds regular sessions on Ofsted’s work, but it is also the case that Ofsted may appear before other Committees, such as the Public Accounts Committee. That scrutiny of course extends to the other place, where I know that Ofsted recently gave evidence alongside me on the issue of citizenship education.
Accountability implies a sense of responsibility. It is right that Ofsted should respond to Members of Parliament, but at the regular meetings that my hon. Friend, Secretary of State and the Minister in the Lords have with Ofsted, what ability do Ministers have to influence Ofsted?
My hon. Friend asks an excellent question. The meetings often involve frank discussions in which we do not always necessarily agree. We are certainly not in a position to give Ofsted orders, but we have the opportunity to raise concerns that have been expressed by colleagues, and those meetings can be influential and important. I will give an example. During the course of the covid pandemic and in the immediate recovery, we had many discussions about the process of deferrals. Ofsted brought forward a generous deferral policy that allowed schools that felt that they were facing disruption to defer their inspections, and many schools took advantage of that and benefited from it. However, there has to be a degree of independence, and that is all part of the balance.
Beyond the accountability mechanisms in place that relate to the Government and Parliament, the Government’s arrangements for Ofsted also provide a separate line of accountability. As I mentioned earlier, the 2006 Act established a statutory board for Ofsted with a specified set of functions relating to setting its strategic priorities and objectives, monitoring targets, and ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of Ofsted’s work. The board has an important challenge and support role in relation to the inspectorate’s work and performance, and it is notable that Her Majesty’s chief inspector is required to agree her performance objectives and targets with the chair. It will also be of interest to hon. Members that Ofsted’s board is currently carrying out a routine board effectiveness review, as confirmed by Dame Christine Ryan when she gave evidence to the Education Committee last September. I understand that Dame Christine will update the Education Committee on this work in due course.
So far I have provided an outline and we have discussed various elements of the accountability that applies to Ofsted, but I turn now to the other side of the coin, which is its independence. Independence is a necessary pre-requisite for the inspectorate, providing credibility and value to Ofsted’s work. Ofsted’s ability to inspect and report without fear or favour remains as relevant today as it always has been, and it has to be carefully guarded. Operating within the constraints of legislation and broad Government policy, Ofsted has appropriate freedom to develop and implement its own inspection frameworks through consultation, and to offer advice on matters relating to its remit.
Ofsted is also responsible for the conduct and reporting of its inspections, and it is perhaps here that Ofsted’s independence is most apparent. No Minister or Committee member in this House, however powerful, can amend Ofsted’s professional judgments, and I recognise that that is one of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer. Parliament has chosen—I believe rightly—to protect the inspectorate from interference in these matters. To put it simply, when it comes to inspection judgments, Ofsted has complete independence. The buck stops with Her Majesty’s chief inspector.
I absolutely recognise that independent inspection can sometimes mean that there are difficult messages for individual schools, colleges and other providers about the quality of their provision. I am conscious that Ofsted’s independent view can sometimes result in uncomfortable messages—even for Ministers—but as challenging as that can be at times, the benefits of independent inspection and reporting are undeniable and should be carefully protected in the interests of pupils and parents, as well as staff and leaders, across the country. There will always be debate when it comes to judgments on quality, and I accept that. After all, an inspection is not, and should not be, a tick-box exercise. It requires professional judgment to weigh up multiple factors that contribute to a school being assessed as good or, much less often, not good.
When it comes to assessing safeguarding of pupils, I hope hon. Members will agree that we need Ofsted’s assessments to be robust and absolutely clear where there are concerns. It is also important that Ofsted’s inspection approach is proportionate to risk, with more extensive and frequent arrangements for weaker schools. That is not over-surveillance but responsiveness to provide additional scrutiny and the assurance that parents, Governments and Parliament need.
With the power to provide a published judgment on the provider comes the clear responsibility to ensure that those judgments are evidence-based, fair and accurate. I know that Her Majesty’s chief inspector is absolutely committed to ensuring that inspections are of the highest quality. That requires, among other things, a careful selection of inspectors, effective training led by Her Majesty’s inspectors, and strong quality assurance arrangements, all of which are taken extremely seriously by Ofsted.
In that context, it is particularly encouraging that the evidence from Ofsted’s post-inspection surveys indicates that the vast majority of schools with experience of inspection are satisfied by that experience. The data shows specifically that almost nine in 10 responding schools were satisfied with the way in which inspections were carried out. A similar proportion felt that the inspection judgments were justified based on the evidence collected, and nine in 10 agreed that the inspection would help them to improve further. I think that is a strong sign that the inspection framework can and does support schools. I recognise, however, that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich has his own survey data, and it is important that we look at that in detail and take it into account.
The hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), the shadow Minister and I referred to the impact on teachers. I am not saying that the Minister’s figures are not right, but if we are all getting that sort of feedback about teachers, perhaps it is not as straightforward as nine out of 10 schools saying that inspections are okay.
As I said during my speech, I am conscious of those with special educational needs. We all know that it does not take a lot to throw those children out of kilter for a while, so sensitivity and caution around them are important. The Minister was perhaps going to respond to those questions anyway, and if so, fair enough, but I would like answers to them.
The hon. Gentleman makes an absolutely fair point. He is right: I was coming on to the workload challenge. I think we have to be honest and accept that independent inspections leading to a published report will inevitably be a source of some pressure on schools. I recognise that he and my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer have raised concerns about the workload impact on teachers. I have discussed that many times with Her Majesty’s chief inspector, who is committed to ensuring that pressure is kept to a minimum and that inspectors take all reasonable steps to prevent undue anxiety and minimise stress.
As part of that, Ofsted has taken steps through its new framework—for example, including a section designed to dispel myths about inspections that can result in unnecessary anxiety and workload in schools, and ensuring that inspectors consider the extent to which leaders take into account the workload and wellbeing of their staff as part of an inspection. We at the Department take seriously our responsibilities when it comes to workload. That is why we have worked with the unions on a workload-reduction toolkit for the sector and on a well- being charter.
I recognise that there is a balance to be struck here. My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer raised the issue of the short period of inspections. Of course, under previous inspection regimes, there had been a longer period of inspections, or notice given for inspections, and that was criticised for increasing workload because it required people to spend more time collating and preparing data for Ofsted visits. That is a challenging balance to strike.
There will be some occasions when providers are unhappy with their inspection experience or outcome, and yes, there will be occasions when inspectors do not get everything right first time, despite the quality assurance processes that we all want, but it is important to see that in perspective. Ofsted’s annual report and accounts documents provide interesting data on complaints about inspections. They show that, across Ofsted’s remit in 2018-19, 1.8% of inspection activity led to a formal complaint being received. In 2019-20, that figure was 2.5%, and in 2020-21, which I appreciate was a different year in many respects, it was just 0.3%.
I want to give a little context on that point. My local primary school in Naburn, which I mentioned, felt that there was no need and that it was irrelevant to complain because nothing in the process would change. The worrying aspect is the lack of accountability in individual cases. Some schools do not challenge inspections because they feel that there is no opportunity to do so. I would like the Minister to address those concerns.
I recognise that point, and I recognise that my hon. Friend said that the school has not submitted a formal complaint. I will come to that school in a bit more detail in a moment.
Of the 320 complaints that were that were closed last year, 26% had an aspect upheld or partially upheld, which shows there is a degree of responsiveness in the complaints process. I encourage that school to submit a formal complaint so that its views can be taken into account. In most places where a complaint was upheld, that was because an aspect of the process could have been better or a small change was required to the report. In three cases, Ofsted decided to change the overall effectiveness judgment following complaint investigations, and five inspections were deemed to be incomplete, which in turn led to inspectors carrying out a further visit to gather additional evidence.
My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Strangford raised questions about the complaints procedure. I am very interested to hear the detail of the survey that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer conducted, and I will be happy to meet him to discuss it in more detail after this debate.
Ofsted gives careful consideration to its complaints procedures and introduced some improvements in September 2020 after consultation. As step 1 of the process, providers can now submit any comments on their draft reports—I believe my hon. Friend’s school will have engaged with that already. Inspectors consider them and write a response in a cover letter with the final report. Once the final report is issued to the provider, that opens the five-day complaints window, to which my hon. Friend referred.
A complaint received during that window triggers step 2 of the process. It means that the report publication is held until the complaint response is sent. Ofsted investigates the concerns and sends an outcome letter. Five days later, it publishes the inspection report with any changes identified in the outcome letter. If a complainant remains dissatisfied on receipt of the step 2 letter, they have 15 working days to request an internal review. That review will consider whether Ofsted’s policy or procedures on handling complaints were followed correctly at step 2, based on available information from a step 2 investigation.
At the end of a review, a panel will discuss how the complaint was handled and come to a final decision. Panels are never held in the region where a complaint is from to ensure added independence. Where available, the panel includes an external attendee, such as a head- teacher or a nursery manager.
If the provider remains dissatisfied, it can then complain to the independent adjudicator to Ofsted, appointed by the Secretary of State, and the adjudicator will consider Ofsted’s handling of the case and come to a view on it. Ultimately, as my hon. Friend said, schools and providers have the option to pursue a judicial review, although I absolutely accept that there is a high bar to that, and we hope that is not where most people need to go.
My hon. Friend asked whether I knew the number of cases that had gone to judicial review. I have to be honest: I do not, but I do have some figures, which are hopefully helpful to him, on the complaints reviewed by the independent adjudicator. The numbers are small. For example, there were 13 in 2019, 17 in 2020 and six in 2021. The adjudicator consistently reports that Ofsted takes very seriously any recommendations put forward. In 2021, none of the six cases were upheld, and there were no recommendations for the inspectorate to improve its complaints arrangement.
My hon. Friend, totally understandably and quite rightly, has spoken up for and championed a small rural school in his constituency, as any of us would want to do as MPs championing our constituencies. The Department absolutely recognises the importance of rural schools and the need to maintain access to good local schools in rural areas. Rural schools are often at the heart of their communities, which is why there is a presumption against the closure of rural primary schools. The possibility of closure would be a hugely difficult issue for all involved. The legislation requires that decisions be made by local authorities, which are required to follow a well-established statutory process, including a period of representation when they must gather comments and opinions from affected groups, and they must consider them during the decision-making process.
Our national funding formula reform has meant that the funding schools attract through the sparsity factor has more than doubled from £42 million in 2021-22 to £95 million this year. That is one of the ways we are supporting rural schools.
My hon. Friend rightly raised concerns about the length of the gap between the 2007 inspection and the more recent one. It is absolutely vital that we remove the exemption to ensure that schools and parents have an up-to-date assessment of the quality of education being provided in every school. I would have made that change myself on my appointment, but I was very pleased to find that the decision had already been taken by my predecessor. I think it was not before time. The Government were rightly concerned that over time the exemption was starting to lead to a loss of confidence in the outstanding grade, particularly as many exempt schools were judged outstanding under previous Ofsted inspection frameworks. Over time, we have increased expectations in order to raise standards across all schools. Ofsted’s new framework presents a tougher test for a school to be judged outstanding. It is also the case that Ofsted is focusing at this time on those schools that have gone longest without inspections, including those that have gone a decade or more without inspection.
Where Ofsted inspects and finds a school is no longer outstanding, it makes a point in the report to recognise that the declining grade is not necessarily a reflection of the work of the current leadership in the school. The vast majority of former exempt outstanding schools inspected since September 2021 have been judged either outstanding or good.
I recognise the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich has raised regarding Thomas Mills High School. I will raise the issue with Her Majesty’s inspector when we next meet. However, I should reflect that in the many debates I have listened to and attended over the years, I would be pressed hard to make sure that we did emphasise the importance of safeguarding.
I am happy to discuss with my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer all the opportunities in the White Paper on how to attract strong trusts to his area. He also asked about guidance and support. We have been looking at revised guidance on behaviour and attendance, and at clear guidance on keeping children safe in education to support governors and school leaders to navigate their responsibilities more effectively.
My hon. Friend raised concerns about the outcome of the inspection at Naburn primary school and the implications for the future of the school. Our priority is always to ensure that pupils receive a high standard of education. That is why the regional schools commissioner, acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, will take responsibility for ensuring that an inadequate maintained school becomes a sponsored academy as swiftly as possible.
Our expectation is that schools with directive academy orders convert within nine months. In the case of Naburn primary school, following an Ofsted judgment of inadequate and the subsequent issuing of a directive academy order, all parties are acting quickly to support the school, particularly as safeguarding concerns have been identified. The local authority, the Department for Education and Ofsted are in agreement that the standards at Naburn were not good enough, as pupils did not have access to high-quality provision. The Ofsted inspection report from December 2021 indicated that the school curriculum is not developed and does not meet the needs of pupils, that the teachers do not have high expectations for all pupils and that there is not a strong culture of safeguarding at the school. This does put pupils potentially at risk.
The Ofsted report also notes that the local authority identified the school as being vulnerable in 2019 and gave leaders extra support. However, the support provided has not prevented the overall decline. The local authority knows that intensive support is now needed in order to ensure the quality of education becomes acceptable. The diocese agrees with the local authority that there are significant areas of the school’s work that need improvement. There are a number of strong trusts already operating in the York area that collaborate well across the York Schools and Academies Board, but we need to be realistic about some of the challenges that my hon. Friend has raised on the viability of the school, given the small number of pupils currently on roll and the lack of applications for September. This is a small school with 57 pupils on roll and at 66% capacity. At this point, there are two sponsors who have conducted due diligence on Naburn primary and early indications for sponsorship are promising. Should a potential sponsor be identified, that sponsor will need to explore options it might take to rapidly bring about the necessary changes at the school.
The Department has made it clear that school closures are necessary only in exceptional circumstances, which are detailed in our statutory guidance. We will continue to work with my hon. Friend and with the local authority to try to make sure that this situation reaches a good outcome for the school and the community that he represents.
I have tried to cover a lot of ground this afternoon, and I hope I have addressed some of the specific points raised by hon. Members in what has been a thought-provoking discussion. I take into account the concerns that have been raised. I want to make sure that we explore fully the outcomes of the survey that my hon. Friend has conducted and discussed today.
I have outlined the various lines of accountability for Ofsted which, taken together, provide what I believe are appropriate checks and balances, with Ofsted being answerable to Government and Parliament and to its statutory board, but at the same time having appropriate and demonstrable independence in carrying out its work. Its independent insight and judgment remain just as important today as they were 30 years ago, perhaps even more so as we seek collectively to ensure that all children, pupils and students are able to recover following a period of substantial disruption to their education and lives more generally. Ofsted has its part to play—a key part, as I have outlined—and while we must never be complacent, I believe that the accountability mechanisms are in place to allow for appropriate challenge and support as it carries out its work.
Thank you, Minister. I think that is one of the longest speeches a Minister has ever made in response in a 90-minute debate in this Chamber. I saw his Parliamentary Private Secretary twitching—he was going to send one of those notes, but he resisted. Mr Julian Sturdy, you have the opportunity to wind up the debate.
I will be brief. I thank the Minister for his response, but I want to pick up one quick point before thanking everyone else. He talked specifically about Naburn school, which is what led me to bring this debate on Ofsted’s accountability to the Chamber. The new headteacher, Jonathan Green, has been tasked with turning the school around. He has the full support of the parents and is doing an amazing job, but he was in place for only 24 days before Ofsted came on site to inspect the school. Is that normal, or should he have been given more time to try to turn the school around? There was a huge amount of frustration in the local community that that was how the inspection came about, and that context needs to be laid out in response to what the Minister has said.
I would like to thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) for their valuable contributions and for raising different aspects of Ofsted’s accountability. I agree with one of the points made by the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) that many schools, headteachers, teachers and parents, at times, feel punished by Ofsted. We have to change that.
I agree with the Minister on the issues of the overall accountability of Ofsted and its wider policy. He raised the fact that he and the Secretary of State have regular meetings on that. However, it still goes back to the real concern over individual cases and how schools can challenge decisions made by Ofsted. I do not think that that has been properly addressed. There is real concern out there.
The Minister referred to the ICASO review, but we have to remember that it is not binding on Ofsted, as I said in my speech. I wonder whether the Minister feels that a change such as making those findings binding on Ofsted could ensure more individual accountability when schools feel aggrieved by an Ofsted inspection and need some form of redress to be able to challenge that. I do not feel that they have the confidence to do that at the moment.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the accountability of Ofsted.
Cancer Care: Young Adults
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
I will call the Member to move the motion and the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, unfortunately, because this is a 30-minute debate and that is the convention. I understand that several Members have indicated to the Member moving the motion that they intend to make an intervention, and she has very kindly agreed to allow that.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered cancer care for young adults.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. Normally I would say that it is a pleasure to be here in Westminster Hall speaking on a particular issue but, of course, it is not a pleasure today. I wish I was not here raising the issue of cancer in young adults.
It is an issue that is horrible to confront and contemplate, but what I feel is nothing compared with what Simon and Andrea Brady feel. Every day they have to confront the reality of what happened to their daughter Jessica, who tragically passed away on 20 December 2020, aged just 27. They are here today because of Jess. I am here because of Jess. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) is here because of Jess, and the Minister is here because of Jess—I thank them both for that.
I pay tribute to Simon and Andrea. They are utterly determined in the face of their terrible loss to effect change in Jess’s name. I hope I can do justice to them and to Jess in supporting their call for that meaningful change. We are asking for Jess’s law—a practical change designed to save lives. Jess’s law would be that after the third contact with a GP surgery about a condition or symptom, a case should be elevated for review. After five contacts, it should be red-flagged and set procedures and guidelines should be followed, including a referral to a specialist.
We are clear that this should not be a tokenistic exercise, such as a simple, inconclusive blood test with the patient given an all-clear. The investigations need to be thorough and conclusive to make a real difference and to save lives.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this debate forward. I am moved by her plea on behalf of her constituents. I thank her for her dedicated efforts and for consistently raising the importance of cancer care for young adults like her constituent Jessica, who she has spoken about on a few occasions.
In Northern Ireland, trusts that run screening tests for certain types of cancer, such as breast, cervical and bowel. Does the hon. Lady agree—indeed I think she is asking for this—that it is time to introduce early intervention blood testing for those with symptoms of cancer to ensure early detection? Doing that would mean catching these cancers earlier.
The hon. Member is quite right. Early diagnosis saves lives. I will mention some of the figures that prove that using technology and the right processes and procedures during that diagnosis phase is critical to saving lives. These are real people and real lives. I absolutely agree with the hon. Member.
The hon. Lady has done excellently in getting this debate today. I have done a lot of work with young adults and children, and quite often with children bruising, rashes and tiredness are dismissed. Parents are told, “That is just children” or “That is just the way they are.” The danger is that conditions get picked up far later than they should be. We really need doctors to start thinking outside the box and looking at what these conditions could actually be, rather than just saying, “Oh, it is all fine.”
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will go on to talk about the danger of not expecting to find symptoms of cancer in children and young adults, and the terrible consequences that delays and misdiagnoses can have, as they did in Jess’s case—it is too often the case.
I want to talk about Jess, because to understand how important this is, and why the Brady family are so committed to this approach, it is important that I tell Jess’s story. In mid-2020, Jess was feeling unwell with abdominal and back discomfort. It was during the pandemic, and Jess was given an online consultation at her GP surgery, and prescribed antibiotics for a suspected kidney infection. Over the ensuing weeks she was prescribed numerous other medications, including more antibiotics and steroids. Jess contacted her surgery on more than 20 occasions in five months. None of the four GPs who provided her with a consultation—17 of which were conducted remotely—took her symptoms seriously. Her requests for blood tests were granted, but a raised D-dimer was dismissed after a preliminary scan, and not investigated further. Blood results showing poor liver function were left for a six-week follow-up review, which proved fatal.
Jess was told for months that she was suffering from long covid, despite two negative coronavirus tests. She was finally diagnosed with cancer following a private referral on 26 November. Her dependency on oxygen from that date meant that she did not leave the hospital or ever return home. Jess discovered that she had stage 4 adenocarcinoma with an unknown primary. It had spread throughout her body to her spine, liver, stomach, lungs and lymph nodes. Jess was a talented satellite engineer for Airbus. She had so much potential and so much life to live. Her loss has shattered her family’s world.
Devastatingly, had someone taken the initiative to closely review Jess’s case and examine the evidence, cancer screening would have been an obvious requirement. A consultant recently said to her parents:
“If a diagnosis cannot be made from initial tests then not enough tests are being carried out”.
In Jess’s case, a request to be referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist was laughed off. Letters written to the surgery listing her symptoms, including dramatic weight loss and vomiting, were ignored. Jess felt powerless and distressed. She tried so hard to be heard and taken seriously. It was heartbreaking for her family to watch her deterioration.
It is obvious really, but when people are desperately ill and at their lowest ebb, they do not possess the stamina to fight the system—nor should they have to. Jess’s age was a key issue. Many people, including GPs, do not expect to see, as the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said, a young adult with cancer, and that affects their diagnostic processes and judgment.
I join my hon. Friend is expressing admiration for the way in which the Brady family have campaigned on this issue. In reality, is it not necessary for each general practice to have at least one doctor who is seriously knowledgeable about cancer diagnosis and able to take a lead, so that if the symptoms are not diagnosed that doctor gets to look at the case and perhaps send it to a rapid diagnosis centre? Otherwise the patient is being let down. The Health and Social Care Committee, in its report on cancer services, said that we need more support for GPs in that area. I commend my hon. Friend for what she is doing and ask if she agrees with me?
I appreciate my right hon. and learned Friend’s intervention. I will come on to talk about some of the things he raised, because he puts his finger on some of the most important aspects of how GPs manage their diagnosis process. The diagnostic centres are fantastic, but they need to have patients referred to them, which goes back to what we are trying to achieve with Jess’s law.
Cancer charity CLIC Sargent found that around half of young people visited their GP at least three times before their cancer was diagnosed. Almost 10% of all new cancers are diagnosed in people aged between 25 and 49, with almost twice as many cases in females as in males in that group.
Simon and Andrea Brady created a petition in Jess’s name. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire and I joined them to hand it into Downing Street. Its plea was to increase the awareness of diagnosis of cancer in young adults. It currently has an incredible 240,000 signatures, and has highlighted the scale of the problem for young adults. The petition makes for heartbreaking reading. Countless people tell stories of their young family members who have had their lives curtailed by late or non-existent cancer diagnoses. The disproportionate occurrence of females is also deeply troubling.
Being told you are too young for cancer has been happening for years, and it is simply not acceptable. Young people have their symptoms explained away with other diagnoses. As I said, Jess was told she had long covid, despite never having tested positive. The explanations given to other patients for poor health are endless: irritable bowel syndrome, pulled muscles, fatigue, stress, migraine—the list goes on.
I welcome the significant roll-out of rapid diagnostic centre pathways across hospitals in England. I know we have just achieved one million tests and scans via our community diagnostic centres, which is a huge achievement and critical in tackling the covid backlog. Of course, patients still have to be referred by a GP, and that vital link is what we are focusing on here today, particularly the escalation of patients with undiagnosed symptoms within a GP’s surgery or to a specialist, as per Jess’s law.
There are other issues that relate to GPs, including having a dedicated GP lead for a patient. The general practitioners’ contract requires practices to provide a named accountable general practitioner to all registered patients. That GP must take the lead in ensuring that any primary medical services considered necessary to meet the needs of a patient, including appropriate referrals to specialist care and liaison with other health professionals involved in the patient’s care, are co-ordinated and delivered to that patient.
However, Jessica’s case demonstrates that that does not always happen. Jessica was not seen by just one GP at her surgery. In her case, four doctors spoke to her and prescribed medication. Although Jess was told on one occasion that she had been discussed at a practice meeting, it was obvious that there was no one person overseeing her case. She was never seen or contacted by her named GP. It is also vital that GPs are required to maintain their continuing professional development through up-to-date training and awareness of cancer, including in young people.
CLIC Sargent’s Young Lives vs Cancer is a charity dedicated to supporting children and young people with cancer, and ensuring that their voices are heard in the context of cancer care. It has identified several challenges faced by GPs that hamper early diagnosis. Those include limited training and awareness, and time pressures. Of course, the effect of the pandemic is exacerbating existing issues. One third of GPs reported inadequate opportunities to gain experience in the care of children and young people during their initial training as one of the top barriers to identifying cancer in children and young people.
The Health and Social Care Committee’s review into cancer services, published on 5 April, concluded:
“The single most effective way to improve overall survival rates will be to diagnose more cancers earlier. Diagnosing bowel cancer at stage 1 means that 90% of people will live for five years compared to just 10% of people diagnosed at stage 4.”
The hon Lady is making a powerful speech. I apologise for missing the start of it. My condolences to Jessica’s parents. That point on early diagnosis is absolutely key. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on ovarian cancer and vice chair of the APPG on breast cancer. I have done a lot of work in this area. The number of people—especially women with ovarian cancer —who are diagnosed only in A&E, when it is almost stage 4 or too late, really has to stop, and that all starts with symptom awareness. What is being called for in that petition, therefore, is so necessary. Sometimes people have been back and forward to the GP so many times. Does the hon. Lady agree that that is the one thing that would have made a massive difference in Jessica’s case?
I very much welcome the hon. Lady’s intervention. She is absolutely right. Her work to raise awareness of ovarian and breast cancer is all part of that hugely important process. I lost a dear friend to ovarian cancer, and it is a very difficult and unspecific thing to diagnose, or even for someone to realise that they might have the relevant symptoms. Breast cancer we have made a lot of progress with, and we have to keep that up. There are different cancers, with different symptoms, and awareness of the range of symptoms and how those might impact on different people is key to early diagnosis, to self-diagnosis so that people say, “Let’s go to a GP now”, and to get that GP to take things forward to identify the real underlying issue. I thank the hon. Lady.
The pivotal role that general practice doctors play in diagnosing patients early cannot be overstated. People—our sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, family, friends and neighbours across the board, regardless of age, race, sex or any characteristic—are equally deserving of diagnostic testing and referral. Patients must be accorded the time, space and physical contact to voice their concerns when presenting with recurrent and progressively aggressive symptoms. Listening and acting are key.
I know that the Minister is listening. We have met and discussed the issue, and her own experience in the nursing profession gives her great empathy and insight. I look forward to hearing her response in a moment. I also take this opportunity to thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who is arranging to meet Mr and Mrs Brady to discuss Jessica’s experience, what we can learn from it and how we might be able to implement Jess’s law.
I am also grateful to all those who have contributed today, in particular my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire, who stands shoulder to shoulder with the Brady family. Finally, but most importantly, I reiterate my thanks to and deepest sympathy for Simon and Andrea Brady and their family. We do not want to hear tragic stories such as Jess’s—not because we do not care, but precisely because we do.
To conclude, I will repeat a detail of Jess’s story that I think illustrates the high regard in which she was held. On the day of her funeral, a satellite that she helped to design was launched into space from Cape Canaveral. It was inscribed with the words, “Thank you, Jess!” In honour of Jessica Brady, let us implement Jess’s law, so that other young adults who face the trauma of cancer in future can also say, “Thank you, Jess.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson) for securing the debate, which as she said is not one we want to have but is one we need to have. I offer my apologies and condolences to Simon and Andrea, who are with us today. Nothing we say in the debate will make things easier for them, but if we can prevent a similar tragedy from happening to another family, we must do absolutely everything we can to make sure we do.
In Jess’s case, it is true that two factors did not help her diagnosis. First, cancer is not as common in children and young people as it is in the rest of the population. It is not unusual for a GP, or even a GP practice, to see only one or two cases across the lifespan of their service. Just under 4,000 young adults between 15 and 29 are diagnosed with cancer in England each year; across the country, those are small numbers, so GPs often do not have experience of dealing with young people who present with symptoms that—as the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said—are often non-specific and can be attributed to other causes. The other factor is that if there is an unknown primary, those cases are more difficult to diagnose across the board for all age groups, because there is not an obvious breast lump, an obvious shortness of breath or an obvious mole that has changed. That often makes it difficult for GPs to get to the bottom of what is happening.
Despite that, it is very clear from Jess’s case that there were many opportunities where further investigation could have revealed what was going on. She should not have had to go back so many times with the same symptoms without being investigated further. That is precisely why the Government have put a lot of funding—£2.3 billion—into the roll-out of community diagnostic centres, so that patients with non-specific symptoms that GPs cannot get to the bottom of can be referred straightaway. They do not need a hospital referral to an oncologist or a surgeon to investigate: GPs can refer those patients directly to the community diagnostic centre, where a range of tests is available, including MRI scans, ultrasounds and CT scans, to get that early diagnosis as quickly as possible. If it is not cancer, those patients can then pop back to the GP for further referrals elsewhere, but if it is, they can get started with treatment as quickly as possible. We are also introducing non-specific symptoms pathways, in order to do exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford has said: bring together diagnostic equipment, expertise and support, so that discussions do happen about patients who are coming back on a frequent basis and for whom a diagnosis has not been helpful.
To mention two additional things that the Government are doing, my hon. Friend is absolutely correct that the nub of this issue is getting people diagnosed as early as possible, so we have now set a target that, by 2028, 75% of all cancers should be diagnosed at stages 1 or 2. Doing that means diagnosing people as early as possible. Screening will help, although it would not have helped in Jess’s case. However, the rapid diagnostic and community diagnostic centres definitely will help. This is about enabling pathways through which, if GPs are not able to find the source of a problem, they can get some extra expertise or diagnostic tests that will help them to do so.
Meeting that 75% target means addressing all cancers, not just the ones that are easier to spot, either because they have screening tests in place or because they give rise to more obvious symptoms. It includes the rarer cancers and those that have no known origin, so I hope that that gives some reassurance that we are absolutely focused on trying to diagnose people as early as possible. We are also piloting a nurse specialist route into pathways, so if someone like Jess was meeting their GP regularly and still not feeling that they were getting to the bottom of their problems, they would be able to phone the cancer nurse hotline. If the cancer nurse feels that that person needs to be seen by a cancer specialist or to go into the cancer pathway, they can do so as quickly as possible. Again, this is not about blaming GPs, but it will be another route through which patients can access specialist services.
Turning to Jess’s law, the Secretary of State is currently formulating the 10-year cancer strategy. We are looking at that in detail, and I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford that the strategy will contain a section on children and young people, because they have specific needs, particularly around diagnosis but also around treatment. I am very happy to discuss a flag-style system with the Secretary of State, as my hon. Friend has. There may be some technical difficulties with that: I am doing work with GPs on a flag system for gun licensing, and the issue we have, from a purely practical point of view, is that most GPs have their own independent IT system—they are not part of a national IT system—so if we introduce one nationally it will be quite difficult for each GP practice to implement it. My hon. Friend has made some suggestions, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility to introduce a system that ensures that, if a young person is seen four times and is still coming back with the same symptoms, that is raised to another level—a red flag level, as my hon. Friend said—to indicate that interventions need to take place.
Many of the points that my hon. Friend made, particularly on named GPs, are very important and I will certainly follow them up with her. In terms of the timing of this debate and the 10-year strategy, including some of work she has done within the cancer strategy would be a real opportunity.
The Minister makes a really important point about the practicalities and technicalities of implementing something such as Jess’s law, and I absolutely appreciate that. The example she gave of IT systems being different across GP practices illustrates how important it is to standardise procedure. Patients should not be reliant on whether a GP has a particularly efficient or good procedure; practice should be standardised across the board.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are introducing non-specific pathways so that if someone does not have a specific, clear diagnosis and the GPs are not sure what to do, there is a pathway to follow, consistent across every GP practice throughout the country, and people do not slip through the net. Early cancer diagnosis is one of the priority areas in the Core20PLUS5 approach, which we introduced last year to reduce health inequalities across the country. It is crucial that we use that opportunity to flag some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised.
Crucially, GP training across the board is important. Because many GPs will not have come across a young person with cancer in the course of their practice, Macmillan Cancer Support, CLIC Sargent and Cancer Research UK are doing work to roll out training with regular updates—it is not just one-off training—for GPs and other members of the primary care team. It is much more common now for people to be seen by the practice nurse, the paramedic or the physio if they have back pain or joint problems. It may seem like a physio problem, but there could be an underlying cancer diagnosis. It is important that we educate and keep up to date the whole team, not just the GP.
I am very happy to take away my hon. Friend’s suggestions and to see whether we can put in place some proper measures that will reduce the chances of this happening again. We will not necessarily be able to make sure that no one is missed, but my hon. Friend raises some flags that cause me concern and that suggest we are not where we should be. There are certainly things that we can put in place to stop cancer diagnoses being missed in young people with non-specific symptoms.
Question put and agreed to.
Solar Farms and Battery Storage
I beg to move,
That this House has considered planning for solar farms and battery storage solutions.
May I say what a great pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley? This is the first time it has happened to me, and it may well be a less pleasant experience than I am anticipating, but let us hope it all goes according to plan.
Let me divert any suggestion that may arise during the debate that I am somehow anti-solar, anti-renewable or anti-environmentalist. On the contrary, I suspect that everyone in the Chamber is a passionate environmentalist. I went to the first COP, in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, as a special adviser, and I have been on the Environmental Audit Committee ever since. I am passionate about the north and south poles, which I have visited often, and where we can see the effect of climate change, and in every way I would consider myself to be an environmentalist. I would not want my credentials to be lessened by my remarks this afternoon, and I am sure other right hon. and hon. Members around the room feel the same.
I am proud of the fact that we have a proud environmental record in Wiltshire. We declared a climate change emergency in February 2019, and we plan to make the county carbon-neutral by 2030. Renewables play an extremely important part in that, and I am proud of the contribution that we have already made with regards to solar. For example, at the former RAF Lyneham in my constituency, we have a 250 acre solar farm with 269,000 solar panels, providing 69.8 MW —enough energy to power 10,000 homes as well as the base itself. That is not a bad way to do it, but the point is that it is entirely invisible. It is on the base, it is on former Army land, it is within the wire and it is entirely invisible to anybody nearby. Equally, RAF Wroughton, which is nearby, has 150,000 solar panels on 170 acres. A number of similar ex-military sites are invisible to the passer-by and are making a huge contribution to renewable energy. By contrast, at Minety in my constituency, planners recently agreed to a solar farm with 166,000 panels on 271 acres of agricultural land despite massive local opposition, which seems to go against what is said in the national planning policy framework. I will come back to that in a second.
What seems to be happening in Wiltshire, Dorset and one or two counties in the west country is that the grid is full in Devon and Cornwall. It is no longer possible to get a link from a solar farm to the grid in Devon and Cornwall, and developers have moved north. I am told that the connections to the grid in Wiltshire are nearly full, but that gives me little satisfaction, because the technology is moving so fast that the situation may well change in time. Secondly, even if Wiltshire became exempt, as it were, from further solar farms, all we would then do is move the blister further north or east, and many Members present would find that their constituents were being targeted just as much as mine are.
Right now, we have a gigantic number of applications in my constituency for solar farms—I know of at least four. Many of them would feature battery storage units, which are horrible, industrialised containers that often take up an entire field. There are some safety risks attached to them, as they burst into flames from time to time, so they are quite dangerous. They are turning a rural area into an industrialised centre, which is really unacceptable.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the NPPF, which I understand is meant to be updated in July this year. Does he agree that there should be rigorous rules around planning permission for solar panels and that we should use commercial units for them first, instead of using agricultural land?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, which I will come back to in one second. The NPPF is central to this, and when the Government come out with their update to it, it must include strict rules on solar farms.
We in Wiltshire are being targeted. I have huge sites at Derry Hill and at Leigh Delamere, and many sites have huge battery storage facilities attached to them. Something like 25 battery sites are currently being considered by Wiltshire Council. There is a proposal for a huge battery farm at Lea near Malmesbury. It is perfect, first-class agricultural land. I went to a public meeting in Lea the other day on the subject, and 250 people turned up in that tiny village—that must be more than the entire population of the village. That shows the strength of local feeling, but none the less the battery farm may go ahead—we will have to see.
I testify to my hon. Friend’s environmental credentials. He wrote the excellent book “Poles Apart”, which I have read, about the Arctic circle—in fact, I visited the North Pole with him some years ago. I completely agree that we need solar farms and sustainable energy and that we need to diversify our energy sources, but I also agree that we need to ensure that planning does not override the current use of agricultural land, nature reserves and sites of special scientific interest, which often happens with solar farms. I therefore agree that any review of the planning guidance needs to ensure that those other factors are fully taken into account, rather than being overridden by solar farms on their own.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am grateful to him for the plug. The book is only £10 and it is available in decent bookshops near you, or I could perhaps arrange for it to be sent directly. He is absolutely right: we must not allow the planning system to override good environmental and nature principles because of some need to have renewables.
This is not just happening in the west country; we are getting it in Hertfordshire. We have a number of applications for quite substantial areas of productive farmland. We are talking about 150 or 200 acres, and quite a few of these pieces of land are all in one area, which is causing a lot of concern. It is probably right, when we look at revising the planning framework, that we look at the balance between productive agricultural land and sustainable energy, because both are important. I will just mention Protect the Pelhams and the Bygrave Action Group, which asked me to make that point.
The action group will be reassured that my right hon. and learned Friend takes a keen interest in the matter.
Before I come back to the national planning policy framework, which must be central to this afternoon’s debate, I will touch briefly on battery storage solutions, which are springing up all over the place. They are absolutely hideous. There is a fire risk attached to them, and they do not make a single contribution towards renewables. All they do is store electricity that has been produced at a cheap time, when there is low demand overnight, instead of at an expensive time, such as during the day. In other words, they increase the electricity producer’s profits but do not reduce the amount of electricity used, even slightly. They do not increase the amount of renewable energy produced; they are merely a convenience for the developers. They are a hideous new development. Technology will soon overtake them, and we will be left with hundreds of acres of countryside with these vast industrial sites on them. They will then be redundant and the planners will turn around and say, “They are brownfield sites. Let’s put houses or factories on them”—on what was, until recently, farmland.
The hon. Gentleman is raising an important issue. In my constituency, one farmer diversified by putting in a solar farm—one that is acceptable because, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is not obtrusive and it is not seen. After substantial consultation, the local community agreed with it as well. As we look ahead to the need for green energy, and as we look to the war in Ukraine, it is clear that the demands on highly productive land will be greater than ever. Does there come a time when solar farms and battery installations have to take a backseat to food production?
The hon. Member makes a good point. Of course, food security will be central to our considerations as we go forward. He made an interesting point: he said the solar farm in his constituency was built with the enthusiasm of local people. That is, of course, how it should be. There will be places where local people say, “I am committed to environmentalism and renewables. I want to see a renewable farm near my village or in my town. I want to see it behind a high hedge,” and they will lay down certain conditions under which it can be put in. That is great. By contrast, when local people—such as the people of Lea, in the public meeting I mentioned a moment ago—are absolutely unanimous in their determination not to have one, they must be listened to. That becomes an important part of the consideration.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing forward this important debate. Is there not a danger that we swap the drive towards energy security for food security? Should we not set a balancing target for food security in this country from the current 60% to, say, 75%, where it used to be? That would prevent planning consent being given for sites such as the one near Old Malton, in my constituency, which is 70% best and most versatile land. Does he agree that giving consent for such land is absolutely inappropriate, and that councils should take food security into account in their decisions?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the great considerations that we are currently battling with is the question of food security. Post-Ukraine, or during Ukraine, we are facing a real crisis in food production in this country. Why we are taking perfectly usable agricultural land and covering it with vanity mirrors and industrial battery storage units, I simply cannot imagine. It is extraordinary.
Just yesterday, we had a debate in this Chamber on a similar subject—the question of housing in planning—and, to some extent, we are discussing the same thing. Developers should, of course, be encouraged to reuse brownfield sites in town centres, but, given the choice between a brownfield site in a town centre or a greenfield site in the countryside, they are going to go for the greenfield site. We therefore have to change the planning system to focus house building on previously used land. A little off the subject, Mr Paisley—thank you for not picking me up on that.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. We have car parks that are good places to put overhead solar farms, as they do in many other parts of the world. Every factory that is built should have solar panels on the roof. Massive areas in town centres should have solar panels attached. However, those solutions cost developers quite a lot more money, and they are not going to do that if they can just buy a nice greenfield site and stick the solar farm out there. It is much easier for them to do that. That is why the planning system has to constrain what they do, so that they are forced to come back into our town centres and use the kind of solutions he describes.
We ought to move on to the central question, which is about planning. Wiltshire Council is being particularly targeted at the moment because it is being a little too cautious. The council is very concerned that, if it turns applications down, unless it can demonstrate that the application absolutely did not fall within the current planning guidance, the inspector will overturn that decision at appeal, and the council will then be faced with substantial barristers’ costs.
Wiltshire Council is saying, perfectly reasonably, “We need to be guaranteed that we are within planning law when turning down these applications.” That is why the detailed definition of planning law and the NPPF is incredibly important in order to give some comfort to councils such as Wiltshire Council when they say, “This is going to be turned down. Here’s why.” The wording of the NPPF should therefore be clear. I have been saying to my council that, at the moment, it is clear. Paragraph 155a of the NPPF says that local plans should provide a
“strategy for energy…while ensuring that adverse impacts are addressed…including cumulative landscape and visual impacts.”
The guidance says:
“It is for each local authority to determine a planning application to include the consideration of intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside, as well as whether the best quality land is being used for agricultural purposes. Large-scale solar farms can have a negative impact on the rural environment, particularly in undulating landscapes.”
There is not one inch of Wiltshire that is not undulating, so, if that were to be applied in detail, there would be no solar farms in the county of Wiltshire.
As has been said, guidance also states very clearly that solar farms should be focused on
“previously developed and non agricultural land…that is not of high environmental value”.
The guidance actually says that at the moment, leaving aside the upcoming review.
On 9 March, in this Chamber, the Science Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), confirmed that interpretation of the NPPF. He said:
“In 2021, the Government set up a national infrastructure planning reform programme,”
which will be reviewed
“later this year”.
We would be interested to hear when that happens; we want to know the outcome. He continued:
“As part of that, the Government are reviewing the national policy statements for energy.”
Importantly, speaking as a Minister from the Dispatch Box, he said:
“It seems to me that”
“a clearer national policy statement…The draft revised national policy statement for renewables includes a new section on solar projects, providing clear and specific guidance to decision makers on the impact on, for example, local amenities, biodiversity, landscape, wildlife and land use…It requires developers to justify using any such land and to design their projects to avoid, mitigate and, where necessary, compensate for impacts”—[Official Report, 9 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 127-8WH.]
on agricultural land.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. The comments that we heard earlier from colleagues about the use of agricultural land is a particular concern in my constituency as we have a proposed large solar farm that is nationally significant infrastructure because of its size. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is it important for local communities to be at the heart of that decision-making and be consulted properly, so that they can ensure that these solar farms—which we are not opposed to in principle, but they must be in the right places—do not take away from things that we want to preserve?
My hon. Friend is right and I am grateful for his intervention. It must be done with local consent and enthusiasm. The notion that solar farms can be good for biodiversity is, of course, complete nonsense. No shepherd worth his salt would graze his sheep on a solar farm. The grass is low quality. I do not think there is one single solar farm in the west of England currently being grazed, and the notion that they could be is nonsensical. Equally, the notion that, somehow, wildflowers thrive on solar farms is simple nonsense; it is simply not true. There is not a single wildflower that I have ever seen on any of the solar farms that I have ever visited. Therefore, the notion, which the developers put forward, that solar farms are somehow biodiversity-friendly is absolute nonsense.
The heart of the problem is that Wiltshire Council, and probably many other councils too, interprets the nation policy framework very conservatively. For example, the NPPF seems to indicate that it thinks that grade 3a land should not have a solar farm on it, but that grade 3b land could do. It is not absolutely clear, but it seems to be moving in that direction. Anybody who knows anything about a farm will know that some of it will be grade 3a and some will be 3b; it is extremely hard to make out which is which. One field may be half 3a and half 3b. Therefore, what we should be saying is that all viable agricultural land should not be used for solar farms—full stop. Never mind grade 3a, 3b, 2 or 1: all agricultural land should be exempt, under planning law, from solar farms.
Equally, we ought to be making much more use of carve-outs for protected designations such as national parks and areas of outstanding national beauty. Most of my constituency is an AONB, and if AONBs were exempted, there would be no solar farms. We must take account of a landscape’s special characteristics, which we are not doing under the NPPF.
Councils also ought to be more ready to make the argument about the cumulative impact of solar farms. The NPPF seems to intimate that cumulative impact is allowable, but the planning inspector is unclear about that. We must be certain that the more solar farms there are in a particular place, the less likely it is that planning permission will be granted.
We must also develop arguments about food production as a legitimate economic consideration. Under the NPPF, if there is a legitimate economic consideration connected to a planning application, it will not go ahead. It is currently unclear whether food production is a legitimate economic consideration. Officers—and indeed, I think, officials in the Department—have said that it is quite hard to know whether or not agriculture could be classed as a legitimate economic consideration. I think that it definitely should be.
Let me give the Minister a list of things that I would like him to consider. He will not be able to answer them this afternoon, I am sure, but I have taken the opportunity of sending the list to the Department, so that he can consider it at his leisure if he wants to. I and—it seems—many of my colleagues in the Chamber this afternoon have a wish-list. There should be changes to national planning policy, allowing local authorities more scope to object to applications so that they can object on a much wider scale. Perhaps we should make the process similar to that for wind turbines. At the moment, it is much easier to turn down a wind turbine plant than a solar farm, but I think that solar farms and wind turbines should be treated in the same way in planning applications.
As I have said, there should be a prohibition on using grade 3 land, whether it is 3a or 3b, and we must not allow battery storage solutions to take land out of food production for use for solar. There should be much more of an imperative towards smaller installations on barns, factories, warehouse roofs and all the kinds of places that the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) mentioned a moment ago, instead of huge installations on greenfield sites and farmland.
An interesting point is that the prescribed limit on the distances involved must be shorter. We cannot have these solar farms 10 miles away from grid connection; the distance to grid connection must be shorter, so that we have solar farms where there is a grid connection. At the moment, partly by using battery storage solutions, developers are coming up with sites that are miles and miles away from the connection to the grid, which of course produces even further damage to the countryside.
Visibility is an important point. In my opinion, no solar farm should be generally visible within one mile of listed buildings or protected landscapes; I think the Minister would probably agree with that. That limit should also be extended to cover views, which planning law does not currently cover. Under planning law, people have no right to a view and a view cannot be considered under planning law. In the case of solar farms, a view is terribly important and therefore we should allow people to object to a solar farm because it damages their view. The views in the countryside are incredibly important. Such a change would demand a change to the NPPF, but only a very small one, and I think that allowing local people to object to a solar farm because it would destroy the view is perfectly legitimate.
In general, the point I am making is that at the moment local authorities are scared. They are scared that if they do not interpret the NPPF correctly—if they get one word wrong—the inspectors at appeal will, perfectly correctly, overturn their decision. What our local authorities need is absolute clarity. At a time like this—post-Ukraine—we value our agricultural land and we do not want to see our countryside being covered in solar farms and battery storage solutions. We think that producing food is important; indeed, food security is an incredibly important issue for the future.
We must provide local authorities with clarity of language in the revised NPPF, so that they can say straightforwardly, “No, you will not have that solar farm on this particular piece of agricultural land”, with the confidence that the inspector will agree with them rather than overturning their decision, which is what seems to be happening more or less automatically at the moment. We need to give local authorities that strength, that clarity and that power. If we do so, and if the developers, who are watching this debate today, know that they will not get permission for a development, they will not put in the application and will go somewhere else.
I just want that clarity. When the NPPF review comes out—I hope that will be shortly and certainly this year: the Minister may be able to update us on that soon—let us see some of these things written into it, to give local authorities that clarity and that strength when they come to turn down some of these ghastly applications.
I will see who else is bobbing and feels worthy to follow Mr James Gray today, after his Sermon on the Mount. Members themselves can see who is bobbing. I want to call the Opposition spokesman at around 5.10 pm, so we are talking about four to five minutes each for each contribution; I do not want to set a formal time limit.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Paisley, and it is a pleasure to serve under you as Chairman.
I thank the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) for securing this debate and I obviously thank Mr Speaker for granting it. It is very timely, certainly for me and for my constituency, because we, too, have an application for a battery energy storage system in an area called the Duckery—hon. Members can imagine what it is like—in Chapel Lane. It is a beautiful part of Walsall South and has a large amount of green belt around it, with St Margaret’s Church, Great Barr, very nearby. Anesco Ltd put in a planning application on 6 December 2021: I always worry about applications that go in just before Christmas, which makes it really difficult for local residents to be consulted.
The hon. Member is absolutely right—he does have green credentials. I have served on the Environmental Audit Committee with him. In fact, I seem to remember he was arranging an expedition to the south pole. Sadly, I will not be able to take part because I am not on the Committee anymore, but I might join him anyway. Maybe another book will come out of that.
I am really pleased that the hon. Gentleman focused on the national planning policy framework, because that is key, as it says the green belt should be protected. That is why it is concerning that this battery energy storage system is going to be placed on green-belt land. The Black Country core strategy says that green-belt land should be protected, and the Walsall site allocation document reaffirms that. In the main Chamber at the moment, they are discussing the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. Notes on the Bill state that green-belt land will be made greener. We might think that means it will be protected, but we cannot be sure that will happen, which is why it is important the Minister gives us confirmation that green-belt land will be protected.
The area of Walsall South, near the Duckery, is grade 1 and grade 2 agricultural land. Previously, rapeseed oil was grown there. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, the Ukrainian war means we are short of sunflower oil and are looking to alternatives, which is why it is important that the area should be protected and not built on.
On 26 May, Anesco Ltd put in further documents looking at alternative sites. Let us look at those alternative sites. The planning officer from nearby Sandwell has said that the applicant should demonstrate why this development is necessary at the sensitive location of the Duckery on Chapel Lane, and why this proposal could not be adjacent to a substation power line on nearby land. There is a place called the Oldbury national grid substation, which could be used. It is near the national grid and that is where this facility should be placed.
My concern is that councils do not always take into account what is said and so I want a commitment from the Minister. A planning officer can make a recommendation in a report, and then the application goes through the cabinet or the planning committee, and they do not take local residents into account. I have suffered such a case for a site in my constituency, where 2,000 residents were against a particular site called Narrow Lane. We want a commitment from the Government and the Minister that they are committed to protecting the green belt. I ask the Minister to confirm that commitment, which is set out in the national planning policy framework, the Black Country core strategy and the site allocation document.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire also mentioned that there have been fires in battery energy storage systems in Australia and California. Has an assessment been done on the safety of these sites?
The bottom line is that my constituents do not want green-belt land to be built on. They want it preserved. The pandemic has shown, like never before, how they need green-belt land and that such areas need to be protected.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) for securing this important debate, which gives me the opportunity to speak about solar. I, too, would like to stress that I am not anti-solar or anti-renewables and I am not anti the environment. I have the privilege of being the Member of Parliament for a beautiful rural constituency. The subject of planning for solar farms is incredibly important to rural communities.
As the MP for Ynys Môn, the island of Anglesey, I represent communities particularly concerned about the threat of mega solar farms on our landscape, our culture and our heritage, in particular a proposal by Lightsource BP for a 1,200-acre solar farm on Anglesey. Yes, that is correct—1,200 acres. To put that huge amount of land into some perspective, it is equivalent to around 900 football pitches. It is the largest project in Lightsource BP’s development portfolio.
Our island community, like other rural communities, is under threat from a slew of solar proposals. Smaller applications are managed by the Isle of Anglesey County Council, with local councillors representing the views of the community. It has rejected some previous applications, including one for a 200-acre site near Cemaes. However, larger applications are considered by the Welsh Government, who are six hours away in Cardiff, and local communities are concerned that that will take large-scale development decisions away from them.
In 2019, 27% of energy in Wales came from renewables, of which solar formed a very small proportion. In recent months we have all felt the problems caused by being dependent on other countries for our energy. Like the Welsh Government, we are fully behind the move to net zero, and we recognise that renewables must form part of our future energy strategy.
We must implement solar with extreme caution. For developers, it is an attractive solution, as land is relatively cheap, solar panels can be imported at low cost, and there is minimal upkeep and maintenance, which means that little local employment is generated. That must be balanced against the energy generation capacity. The huge 1,200 acre solar farm proposed by Lightsource bp for Anglesey would generate enough energy for 133,000 homes. A new nuclear plant such as Hinkley C in Bridgwater has a small fraction of that footprint, but with the potential to generate energy for 6 million homes.
There is another, possibly more important, consideration. Ynys Môn was known historically as Môn Mam Cymru—Anglesey, mother of Wales—because our fertile agricultural land fed the Welsh people in times of need. We need a strong agricultural community, and it is those great swathes of fertile, historical agricultural land that are particularly attractive to solar farm developers. Earlier this year, FarmingUK wrote that the UK is on the verge of food security concerns not seen since world war 2, and in 2020 the UK imported 46% of the food we consume.
I hope that the Minister will take on board the risk that, in the rush to achieve net zero, however laudable, we may sacrifice vast areas of agricultural land, and hence our food security, to solar panels, which do not offer the dependable, large-scale solution we need to the energy crisis.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and the other speakers, who made some very interesting points.
I am very much in favour of a sensible approach to this issue that balances the importance of energy security and tackling the climate emergency with not creating eyesores in the countryside. I am proud of our record in my area of central Berkshire. I represent an urban seat, but we have a strong tradition of solar power from our borough council and neighbouring local authorities, and in land nearby. Much of it is on the roofs of buildings and on brownfield land. I want to get across the positive message about using those types of land. There is a large amount of brownfield land in southern England, although I appreciate the points made by colleagues from slightly further west. There is also the issue of developers looking for land in the south, where sunlight is slightly more plentiful.
I want to say a few words about Reading Borough Council’s excellent work over many years of putting solar panels on the roofs of council houses, schools and other public buildings. Wokingham Borough Council was Conservative-run—I am afraid to say to Government Members that it is now under a different administration—when it planned a large solar farm in its area of Berkshire, which is suburban and semi-rural. The councils there were mindful of the visual impact, and I respect their work on that. I hope we can progress in a sensible, cross-party and consensual way and look at the opportunities.
I want to pay tribute briefly to the private individuals and charitable bodies that have driven alternative energy schemes in our area. I also want to highlight the importance of low-flow hydro. We have a small scheme on the Thames, the Queen has one at Windsor castle, and other landowners along the Thames have such schemes. They use water power, which in the past would have been used to drive mills, to generate electricity. It is a simple, low-tech but very effective form of hydroelectric power at a local level, which has a very limited impact on the environment near the river.
I understand the concerns raised by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, but my experience of solar farms has been somewhat more positive. I draw his attention to the site at Pingewood in Berkshire, which is next to the M4—indeed, he may well drive past it. It is on a former landfill site next to a motorway, and is very close to grid connectivity because of the pylons running through our county. It makes one realise that there are actually sites in locations that already have visual intrusion from infrastructure, which could be used and perhaps should be prioritised. I had the pleasure of visiting there with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who I shadow. We were looking at the scheme on that land, which is supported by one of the energy providers and is used for pension investments. I know that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) is a huge enthusiast for auto-enrolment. Auto-enrolment savings are being used to invest in solar on brownfield sites. Surely that is the sort of model that we want to encourage.
In the south of England, as the hon. Member for North Wiltshire rightly said, there are sites that used to be airfields or military installations, as well as transport land, the roofs of car parks and many other things, which should be prioritised. I genuinely hope that we can come to some agreement to do that. In my constituency there are many flat building roofs, whether on garage blocks or large businesses. The tragedy is that there is not enough incentivisation to use the large acreage of land that exists in areas with high amounts of solar radiation where it would be ideal to place solar panels, such as in the south of England and London.
I hope the Minister can address that point about whether it is possible for the Government to look at incentivised development of that type of site, and to support local authorities and community groups more. There is obviously going to be an economy of scale with the very big sites. However, is it somehow possible to encourage development in a sensitive way that makes good use of currently wasted space in areas with high levels of sunlight? When large public buildings are built, such as hospitals, schools and stations, could the default position be that solar is included in the roofs? Will the Minister consider that? As a way of removing pressure from valuable agricultural land, and given that build costs would be lower if solar was installed at the point of construction, is there a way of incentivising that through the planning system? That way, businesses would have a genuine incentive to put solar on new builds, in a way and on a scale that does not currently exist.
I think about that every day when I go to Reading station, which is a wonderful new piece of infrastructure in our area, and one that serves colleagues further west. The trains there are electric, so why on earth does that station not have solar panels all over its roof? It is a huge area of space that could be used for solar without any intrusion into green space, and would actually protect rural areas by giving us more capacity. Can the Minister address those points? It has been a pleasure to speak today and I hope we can agree a consensual way forward.
Thank you, Mr Paisley; I shall be brief. You were very kind to describe the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) as a sermon on the mount, and I am happy to be a disciple on this matter. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue; as ever, I find that when we talk about planning there is the opportunity for Members across this House to come together.
I have four points, which I will make quickly. First, as I heard in yesterday’s debate on neighbourhood planning, the new NPPF policy will come forward in July. It is absolutely essential, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire said, that we engage with local communities and listen to the voices of both local authorities and residents. We must take that opportunity to do so.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, given the limited time. He is absolutely right that it is vital that local voices are heard when it comes to solar farm planning applications. Will he join me in encouraging all of my residents who may be impacted by the Mallard Pass development to contribute to the consultation? That is a vital part of the process, and their voices can be heard through it.
It should come as no surprise that even in south Devon we have heard about the issues concerning Mallard Pass. I encourage all residents of Grantham and Stamford to take part in that consultation, and to register their voices—as indeed should all our constituents.
Secondly, we have a food security crisis at the moment, but we also have a global supply chain crisis. We must now have a national target that pushes us to produce food. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) mentioned 75% as a potential target, and we should look at doing that. Anything that takes out productive agricultural land from farming must be reviewed. Solar panels have got to be in the sights of Government to stop that from happening.
Thirdly—I will make this point in my last 33 seconds—a year ago, the Local Electricity Bill was tabled as a private Member’s Bill. We should look at finding local sources to power the network and feed back into the grid. The hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) was bright and clever enough to make an excellent point about his station in Reading: every time I pass through that station, I will think about that proposal, and I would certainly support it. Tidal, wind and solar, in the right places and the right spaces and used in the right way, are absolutely essential.
My last point is about brownfield sites. If I understand correctly, the CPRE report on brownfield sites identifies 21,000 sites across the country totalling 26,000 hectares, equating to what would be 1.3 million houses. Let us use those brownfield sites and commercial spaces, and make sure we keep our countryside as beautiful as possible.
It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Paisley. Naturally, I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) on securing this important debate and acknowledge his track record on environmentalism, which was stated clearly at the beginning of the debate and throughout.
Many Members have today taken the opportunity to talk about developments in their constituency, with a common focus on what is termed brown-belt and former industrial sites first, such as the roofs of car parks, warehouses, schools and housing developments—I think even trains were suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda). That was acknowledged and concurred with by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and others. A significant number of interventions were made by Members who are no longer present.
I have a sizable farming community in my Weaver Vale constituency. At a recent meeting of the National Farmers Union at Warburtons Farms in Frodsham, the consensus was that fertile agricultural land should not be used at scale for solar farms, a point that has been eloquently made in today’s debate. Unfortunately, too many farmers feel that they have little choice but to sell land for development, whether that is housing development or solar farms. In part, that is driven by the insecure nature of the financial support in the new subsidy arrangements that farmers now face. They were promised not a penny less, but the reality is somewhat different.
The justified concerns about the local impact of solar farms must be weighed against our inescapable need to build renewable energy, and lots of it, over the coming years in order to meet our net zero target by 2050. Renewable energy, including solar energy, must be built, and it must be built somewhere. It is always easy for someone to say that they are in favour of renewable energy in principle; it is much harder to say that they are in favour of renewable energy in a specific location. Members from across the Chamber have made very considered speeches about the circumstances in which we should build solar farms, and I agree that we need to be clear about the need for a strategic approach, so that we can understand exactly what we need and where it needs to go. However, it certainly needs to go somewhere, and that should be our starting point.
With the costs of fossil fuels soaring, wind and solar power are the keys to bringing down costs for customers, ensuring energy security in the face of the Ukrainian war and fighting climate change, yet the Government are intentionally limiting access to the cheapest, quickest and cleanest forms of new power by stopping the production of enough onshore wind and solar energy to power 3 million homes. Members have today made some great suggestions regarding where that energy capacity should be built. Instead, we have a Chancellor who has just handed a £1.9 billion tax break to producers of oil and gas that could pump nearly 900 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. Our climate and our constituents will pay the price for the Government doing the unthinkable and backing the fossil fuel industry, despite claiming to have the admirable target of reaching net zero by 2050. What assurances can the Minister give that the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s apparent green light for the fossil fuel industry will be revisited with a sense of urgency and with funding redirected to renewables, developed in the right places? Why not incentivise, as people have said? We simply cannot reach the kinds of targets that we need to be reaching by limiting ourselves to small-scale urban solar farms. That will involve larger-scale projects over the 50 MW rate that at the moment qualifies a proposal as a nationally significant infrastructure project.
Where we have common ground in today’s debate is in our desire on location. The negative impacts should be minimised using sensitive planning that focuses on previously developed and non-agricultural land that is not of high environmental value. Indeed, that is stated in the national planning policy framework. Surely a locally led planning system should shape developments and they should not be dictated—that could be done by the current Secretary of State or, certainly, future ones.
Unfortunately, the centralisation and power grab by the current Secretary of State is given rocket fuel by proposed new subsection (5C) of section 38 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, in clause 83 of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which is having its Second Reading today. That subsection states that any conflict between the development plan and a national development management policy
“must be resolved in favour of the national development management policy.”
I look forward to seeing the amendments, which will inevitably be laid, and attempts to remove that provision in favour of locally led planning systems and arrangements.
Testing has been carried out on the benefits of solar energy, and the overwhelming evidence is that, despite small impacts, the benefits of solar outweigh the costs as long as appropriate land is used. The public support a move to renewables, but they know that we need to build in the right place, using the appropriate land. I ask the Minister—I think the need for this has been reaffirmed today—to look again at some of the clauses in the current Bill that centralise the planning process and override local concerns, but also, very importantly, to incentivise renewables.
It is a true pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. Not only will my performance not live up to that introduction, but sadly I am a very poor substitute for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, who is currently in the main Chamber and preparing to steer the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill through Parliament. I will not be able to answer some of the questions that have been asked, but I will ensure that we get answers from a very learned source to ensure that hon. Members get some response.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) for his fine speech. We have all acknowledged how well informed it was and how intrepid he is, and his environmental credentials are unequalled in the room. I also express thanks for the contributions from other hon. Members. Some of them have already gone, but they were fine contributions none the less.
In our net zero strategy and British energy security strategy, the Government committed to securing and fully decarbonising the UK’s electricity supply. Crucially, we are considering how the planning system can further support our commitment to reaching net zero. The British energy security strategy sets out our plans to consult on some specific changes to the planning system to support delivery of renewable infrastructure, including solar farms. That energy strategy sets a clear ambition for a fivefold increase in deployment of the UK’s solar capacity, up to 70 GW, by 2035. That obviously means shifting up a gear in terms of deployment, but what it categorically does not mean is seizing large swathes of countryside and turning them into industrial solar farms and storage units. Yes, large-scale ground-mounted farms will be needed, but smaller commercial and domestic rooftop projects will be just as essential.
I will respond to some of the points made in the debate. On toughening up planning regulations in the NPPF to make sure that ground-mounted solar panels are not blighting the countryside, I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire that we will consult on amending planning rules in England to strengthen policy in favour of solar development on non-protected land. We intend to do this while making sure that local communities continue to have a real say over applications, with all the existing environmental protections remaining in place, and we will publish the consultation in due course. We are also committed to delivering on the commitments we made in the net zero strategy to review national planning policy, to make sure it contributes to climate change mitigation and adaption as fully as possible.
My hon. Friend referred to a few specific examples of planning applications in his constituency, as did others. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will understand that, given the quasi-judicial role of Ministers within the planning system, I am unable to comment on specifics; however, I can explain the Government’s position on planning policy for the matters raised. Currently, planning applications for projects up to 50 MW capacity in England are determined by local planning authorities. The vast majority of solar projects in England fall into that category, although clearly not the one mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie). Councils will consider a range of factors when assessing applications, including the environmental impact.
For projects over 50 MW in England, and over 350 MW in Wales, planning decisions are made by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy through the nationally significant infrastructure project regime. This allows for rigorous scrutiny of such projects through an impartial examination process run by the Planning Inspectorate. Under the NSIP regime, developers must undertake considerable community engagement as part of the application process. Communities can participate in a formal examination process run by the Planning Inspectorate, which gives residents ample opportunity to make their views on a project known long before any decisions are taken. As right hon. and hon. Members will know, the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will increase opportunities for community involvement even further.
It is probably a good idea for me to move away from my speech and respond to some of the points that have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire mentioned battery facilities being of no use, but my understanding is that where we have battery facilities, we need less solar. The performance of solar obviously depends on the sun shining, whereas a battery facility allows us to capture the energy created while the sun is shining. We therefore do not need quite so many solar panels, because the scheme operates on a more efficient basis.
Regarding brownfield versus greenfield, the Government have a clear preference for brownfield development in many of our planning areas, and that also applies here. An excellent scheme in Wolverhampton has taken a landfill site and built a considerable solar facility that will feed the local hospital. We certainly have a preference for that in the Black Country.
My hon. Friend asked whether it is possible to have grazing continuing in and out of solar facilities. I am sorry to say that there is not a single solar farm in Walsall North, or not many of them, so I do not know whether grazing will continue. I will take his expertise on board and I will discuss this issue with our right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing when the opportunity arises. Hopefully my hon. Friend will forgive my lack of knowledge in that area.
The question of roof versus field was raised by the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury). At the moment, my understanding is that there is more or less a 50:50 balance between the production of solar energy in fields and on roofs. The Government intend to maintain that balance and we have some interesting things happening—for example, a part L uplift in the building regs, which is coming into force this month. When we change the building regs, we create notional buildings that show how we can achieve the new standard. The notional building for the part L uplift includes solar panels, so we expect that, from now on, further building regs will see more buildings—houses and commercial—built with solar panels in place.
I understand that my hon. Friend is not the Minister responsible, but did I understand him correctly to say that he intends to maintain the split between green fields and roofs at 50:50? The whole thrust of the debate this afternoon has been that we do not want that maintained. We want significantly more solar power to be generated on brownfield sites and on buildings, and significantly less on fields. I would like to see it going to 70:30 or 80:20, or, come to that, 100% of solar farms being on reused land.
I am terribly sorry and I am grateful to the Minister for giving way away. I do not want to enter into an argument, but that is not in the least bit reassuring. The reason why all these Members are in the Chamber today is because solar farm applications are being made in their constituencies. We do not want them to happen; we want them to stop. We want the land to remain agricultural land that can produce food. Just saying, “Oh, don’t worry, ladies and gentlemen, it will be absolutely fine. It is going to remain as it is now,” is no reassurance at all. We want the situation to change. We want to see fewer solar farms on agricultural land, not more or even the same number.
Given that we need to achieve a fivefold increase in solar generation, we are going to have great difficulty in finding places to put that in a way that does not compromise people’s enjoyment of the countryside, at least in some small way. We need to find a way through this that means we achieve our net zero objective while not upsetting too many Members of this House or the public more generally.
I associate myself with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire. If the Minister is going to run a consultation, that has to be run, completed and responded to before the NPPF is published in July. We must have a consultation that enables us to introduce legislation to allow us, as Members of Parliament, and local authorities to make decisions. Will the Minister commit to that, or at least commit to asking the Department to make sure that the consultation will be brought forward quickly?
In the absence of the Minister responsible for housing and planning, I undertake to share with him the views that have been raised, although I am sure he is aware of this debate and will read it subsequently.
The right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) mentioned a current planning application in Walsall. As a planning Minister, I cannot comment on that. I feel a degree of assurance that Walsall Council will be able to handle that application. In relation to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, I can assure her that this Government certainly intend to continue to protect the green belt.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn raised a scheme that I can only imagine is of national significance and therefore will be determined by the Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. That falls outside my purview, but I will make sure that BEIS Ministers are aware of her concern.
I share the ambition of the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) to maximise the use of brownfield sites or put more solar on top of existing buildings, squeezing solar in everywhere that will not impact on the enjoyment of the countryside.
Finally, it is good to see the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) at the Dispatch Box again. The war in Ukraine has told us that we need to maximise our energy security by making sure that we have access to oil, because that is clearly how we generate lots of our electricity, while continuing our commitment to a transition to net zero by doing things such as scaling up our solar power production dramatically.
As I said at the start, Mr Paisley, I am a poor substitute for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing. I will convey the thoughts of Members present to him and I look forward to him responding to Members in due course.
It has been a unanimous debate this afternoon, Mr Paisley. All of us, on all sides of the House, agree that we want to see fewer solar farms and fewer battery storage solutions. We want to see agriculture and food production increased.
It was unanimous until we came to the Minister’s response to the debate, which I have to say was extraordinarily disappointing. I am horrified to hear the Government intend to increase the number of solar farms by 500% and that the Minister thinks that a ratio of 50:50 between fields and roofs, which is where we are at the moment, is reassuring. We want to see far, far fewer solar farms in the countryside.
I am extremely disappointed that the Minister was unable to tell us when the NPPF will be renewed. He was not able to reassure me that somehow or other these matters would be considered in that NPPF. I hope the Secretary of State will listen carefully to what has been said today.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(14)).