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Westminster Hall

Volume 716: debated on Thursday 16 June 2022

Westminster Hall

Thursday 16 June 2022

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Backbench Business

Low-carbon Off-gas Grid Heating

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of low-carbon off-gas grid home and business heating.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating today’s debate, which I hope will give hon. Members the opportunity to discuss the options available to the owners of rural homes and businesses that are not connected to the gas grid to decarbonise their properties. I hope to hear from my right hon. Friend the Minister how that might be done, always bearing in mind the principles of choice and fairness.

One of the clear outcomes that emerged from the Climate Assembly that was commissioned by Select Committees of this House was that the path to net zero must be fair to people who live in different parts of the UK. Hon. Members will be aware of the need to phase out boilers using fossil fuels in all homes to meet the net zero challenge, and it is the Government’s aim to ban replacement natural gas boiler installations from 2035. Most homes are connected to the natural gas grid, and the debate continues as to whether those homes may eventually be powered by hydrogen or whether they will have to resort to electric heat pumps, but little attention has been paid to rural homes and businesses that are not connected to the gas grid. The primary solution proposed by the Government appears to be electric heat pumps, which are very costly and disruptive to install, or biomass boilers, which come with air pollution concerns.

Over 4 million people live and work in our rural communities. Many rural homes and business properties, such as hotels and pubs, tend to be old and draughty; 47% of such homes were built prior to 1949. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, only 3% of off-gas grid homes achieve an energy performance certificate rating of band C, and many rural homes need significant energy efficiency investment if they are to be suitable for electrified heating: for example, they may require replacement hot water tanks and additional radiators, and some homes will need to be rewired or have external wall insulation to accommodate heat pumps. Electricity grids in rural areas will also need to have their resilience improved and built up as heating and transport become increasingly electrified in future.

It is therefore surprising that the Government apparently intend to pursue a “rural first” approach to the roll-out of heat pumps, committing to ban the installation of replacement fossil fuel boilers in rural homes from 2026 and in larger businesses from 2024. By contrast, they aim to start phasing out replacement installations in on-grid homes from as late as 2035. Given the extra cost and disruption of installing heat pumps compared with existing boilers, rural homeowners will quite reasonably wonder whether this is fair. Under the proposals in the heat and buildings strategy, homeowners off the gas grid will not be permitted to replace an existing fossil fuel system with a new one after 2026. For rural businesses, changes will start even earlier: in 2024—only two years away—for larger business premises over 1,000 square metres, and from 2026 for many rural small and medium-sized enterprises, including those in the hospitality and agricultural sectors. I hope that in his reply, the Minister will explain why rural homes and businesses will be required to switch from fossil fuel so much earlier than their on-grid counterparts.

We should remember that nearly 2 million rural off-gas grid properties will be impacted by these proposals very soon. Most rural off-gas grid homes are heated by oil, which historically has been the cheapest fuel, although hon. Members will be aware of the current price spike. There are hundreds of suppliers of heating oil across the country, enabling consumers to shop around for the best price. There are also liquefied petroleum gas suppliers for those who wish to use gas for home heating and cooking, with some homes using electric panels as well as solid fuels such as peat and coal, but oil is the most commonly used fuel for heating. It will be a significant undertaking to replace oil-fired systems in the normal boiler cycle unless affordable alternatives are available to those who use them. Indeed, I wonder whether the Government have seriously underestimated the scale of the challenge that they have set themselves.

According to the heat and buildings strategy, the current cost of a heat pump for the average off-gas grid home is £12,000. A further £2,000 may be required to fit cavity wall insulation, loft insulation and draught proofing to upgrade a home so that it is heat-pump ready. Rural household incomes are, on average, smaller than urban ones. Although some rural householders will receive limited Government support in the form of the boiler upgrade scheme and the home upgrade grant, many will not be able to afford the cost of heat pumps and the associated energy-efficient retrofit work that is required for them to work efficiently. Put simply, the cost of installing a heat pump could be out of reach for many, and the associated disruption will be extremely inconvenient.

There is a significant policy gap in the heat and buildings strategy in relation to the so-called “able-to-pay” households, which may not qualify for any Government assistance. Many such households may lack the savings and income to pay for a heat pump. The Government are considering using the mortgage market to improve the EPC scores of such homes, and requiring homeowners to make changes at the point of sale of their property or, alternatively, to increase their mortgages to cover the cost of installing a heat pump. However, it would be deeply unfair to saddle homeowners with more debt as interest rates rise, as indeed they have done today.

Some able-to-pay households may receive a £5,000 grant, via the boiler upgrade scheme, towards their air-source heat pumps or biomass boiler installation. However, a maximum of just 90,000 households will be helped under that scheme, which applies to both on and off-grid properties. That simply does not cover the boiler replacement cycle in off-grid homes. There is no support for energy efficiency improvements in able-to-pay households, and it is not clear how they will afford the transition—especially if they are required to change their boiler at short notice—or accommodate the significant disruption and time taken for a heat pump to be installed. Notably, the strategy contains very little detail on the Government’s position on the cost-effectiveness of the measures they propose.

A study by Gemserv found that 44% of rural off-gas grid homes that currently use heating oil can be considered hard to treat when the cost of transition is taken into account, and heat pumps are not the cheapest low-carbon heating option for them. The Federation of Master Builders suggests in its national retrofit strategy that hard-to-treat homes should be last to be retrofitted rather than first, to allow the energy efficiency industry to drive down costs and increase its skill base to meet the challenge.

The Government also appear to assume that the cost of heat pumps relative to traditional boilers will halve by 2025 and reach cost parity by 2030. That is ambitious. The heat-pump market is already at a mature stage of development—many thousands are manufactured each year—so it is hard to see where those cost reductions will come from. Delta-EE, the independent analyst and Government adviser, recently published a paper stating that even in an ambitious scenario, reductions of only 34% could be achieved by 2030. That means that rural homeowners will be required to pay a significant premium to decarbonise their heating unless extra support and a more affordable range of choices are provided.

What do rural homeowners themselves think of the proposed measures? According to the Calor rural attitudes tracker, they are not very happy with them: 59% think that it is unfair that off-gas grid homes will see their traditional boilers phased out earlier than those connected to the gas grid; 69% do not think that it will give them enough time; and 83% cited cost, and 64% cited technical constraints, as the main barriers.

Last year, the Prime Minister wrote in The Sun, “Boiler Police are not going to kick your door in & seize your trusty combi”. That is a reassurance and it may well be true, but it appears that the only option available for off-grid households after 2026 will be a heat pump. I would suggest that a greater range of affordable, low-carbon heating options will be required if rural homes are to decarbonise fairly and affordably, so how can the Government make the transition fairer for rural off-grid consumers?

First, they should reconsider the 2026 deadline and bring the deadline in line with their plans to phase out all fossil fuel boilers by 2035. The Government should adopt a “heat-pump ready first”—not a “rural first”—approach. All homes from post 1970, both on and off grid, should be targeted first, not just the more challenging, off-grid homes. That will help the Government’s ambition of 600,000 annual heat pump installations by 2028 to be achieved and will reduce the risk of negative installation experiences for rural householders.

Secondly, the Government should provide a choice, not a mandate, on the heating system that may be used. Heat pumps should be installed because householders want them, rather than because they are forced to have them. The Government should also give greater support to other technologies, such as hybrid heat pumps. These run alongside traditional boilers, which, in times of high heat demand, will allow more difficult-to-heat rural homes to use the traditional boiler element to keep those homes warm. The Government should also incentivise the development of alternative renewable fuels, including bioliquids and biogases such as BioLPG and HVO—hydrotreated vegetable oil. BioLPG is already on the market, but its uptake is hindered by a lack of policy support and by the fact that it is not currently recognised in building standards. These fuels, if adopted, would allow existing central heating systems to reduce their emissions significantly and could see hard-to-treat homes decarbonised more affordably.

I hope that the Government will pause for thought as to how they treat rural homes and businesses in the transition to lower-carbon heating. It is essential that the principle of fairness should be upheld. The Government should give rural homeowners and businesses access to a full range of options to decarbonise their homes and premises. The extent of the challenge is great indeed—too great to rely on heat pumps alone.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) on bringing this very important and timely debate before the House this afternoon. I will underline and support most if not all of the remarks that he made. He made a very powerful case in favour of the Government pausing, taking a step back and reconsidering their approach to decarbonisation of heating fuel for rural households, for the following reasons. On average, rural households tend to have been built a lot longer ago, so the energy efficiency is somewhat lower. Also, something that we need to bear in mind—we do not do that enough, in my opinion—is the discrepancy between average rural incomes and those of our urban counterparts, which the right hon. Member made very clear in his speech.

I am very grateful for this opportunity to speak not only about the impact that the transition will have on households, but about the impact on businesses. In recent times, when we have understandably been focusing a lot on the cost of heating for domestic households, the impact that rising prices are having on businesses has often been missed, and many of my constituents have raised it as a real concern for them. I would like to elaborate in a moment on their case studies.

I fully support the right hon. Member’s calls for the Government to pause and reconsider their approach. I was particularly struck by his argument about needing a just and fair transition as we decarbonise the economy. I fully agree that we need to decarbonise our society and economy, but it has to be done in a just and fair way. Otherwise, it is not realistic and will, at worst, place a substantial cost on the shoulders of those who can least afford it. I very much endorse his remarks.

This debate is timely. Rising prices have caused a great deal of concern and worry for households and businesses across the country. Following April’s energy price cap increase, the Welsh Government estimated that some 45% of households in Wales could fall into real fuel poverty. Although the energy price cap offers some solace to those lucky enough to be included in it, it is not applicable to off-grid homes and businesses. They have been exposed and are vulnerable to sky-high prices that are increasing at a rapid pace. This is especially true in rural areas such as Ceredigion. According to the mid Wales energy strategy proposed by the Growing Mid Wales partnership, as many as 72% of properties in Ceredigion are off the mains gas grid.

My constituents are therefore particularly exposed, both to the recent increases in the price of heating fuel and to any policy changes the Government might bring in to decarbonise their fuel source. We know—but it bears repeating—that prices have typically increased by some 150% over the past year. Eye-watering sums have been quoted for some of my constituents. On top of the fact that so many households and properties in Ceredigion are not connected to the mains gas grid, our housing stock is very inefficient, primarily because it is quite old. In neighbouring Gwynedd, some 56% of the housing stock was built before 1945. In Ceredigion, only 36% of homes reach a C rating on the energy performance certificate standard.

As part of this conversation about how we transition and decarbonise fuel sources for off-grid properties, we seriously have to look at energy efficiency measures. The right hon. Member made the case far more eloquently and persuasively than I could, but I will reiterate that if we are serious about this, we need to improve the energy efficiency of our housing stock. Only 2% of homes in Ceredigion were built after 2012. The vast majority of the housing stock to be built for Ceredigion by 2050 has already been built. We need to renew our focus on energy efficiency measures.

We also need to accept the fact that for many rural households this will entail greater Government support. The case has been made already, but I want to reiterate it. Rural households tend to have lower incomes than our urban compatriots. We cannot afford some of the measures that have been proposed. Many of my constituents would desperately like to insulate their homes, improve the efficiency of their homes and install a number of measures, including in some instances heat pumps—be they air-source or ground-source heat pumps—but they simply cannot afford the cost.

I would like to mention the impact that the current crisis is having on businesses. We need to think about how we include them in our efforts to decarbonise our off-grid properties. One hospitality business in Ceredigion —it is off-grid—has informed me that its energy bills have increased by some 450%. It is, without putting too blunt a point on it, making them consider whether they can continue in business. It is otherwise a very profitable, successful business, but this hike in fuel prices for off-grid heating has caused them to consider their future. I do not think that good businesses like that should be allowed to fail because of the current crisis. As part of the debate, we need to look at interim measures that the Government may wish to consider in order to give them some short-term support. That business is very confident that if it can ride out this current storm, it can return to a very profitable, successful situation.

In addition to businesses, we need to remember the community groups and assets in rural areas and in off-grid properties that are also suffering. This morning I spoke to the people who run Calon Tysul, a community-run swimming pool in in Llandysul in the Teifi valley. They informed me that they are now spending as much as £1,500 a week just on fuel to heat the swimming pool, not accounting for the heating costs for the other section of the facility. They are already having to consider very difficult decisions, which they do not want to make, about scaling back swimming lessons and the like.

That group is in an interesting situation, because it does have plans to decarbonise its heating sources—for example, it plans to instal solar panels, which will drastically reduce elements of its heating and energy bills. The problem is the timescale. The group cannot quite make it through the current six-month period without having to seriously scale back their operation. So my question for the Government is: what interim, short-term measures can we put in place to help organisations such as Calon Tysul, and other community swimming pools and leisure facilities, to see out the current storm?

I fully support the need to decarbonise our housing emissions and the fuel for off-grid properties in general. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has estimated that some 20% of our off-gas grid homes are technically unsuitable for low-temperature heat pumps, but analysis, undertaken by firms such as Equity, found that 44% of rural homes currently using heating oil can be considered “hard to treat” when the cost of the transition is taken into account.

I have already mentioned the age of the housing stock in many rural areas, which is a real issue. As the right hon. Member for Clwyd West mentioned, we not only need to consider the cost of the measures themselves, whether heat pumps or something else, but the associated installation requirements have to be put in place for people to get the best out of the technology. The right hon. Gentleman quoted the heat and buildings strategy and its assessment of the current cost of heat pumps, but for the average off-gas grid home it is £12,000, and potentially a further £2,000 if measures such as cavity wall insulation are included. I realise that the heat and building strategy refers to the cost for the average off-grid home, but we need to reiterate the fact that in many parts of the UK the cost will be far greater.

I think of my own constituents in Ceredigion, where some 35% of homes were constructed before 1900. Over a third of the properties in Ceredigion were built in the 19th century, which is striking. I am not an expert, but I would imagine that the cost of insulating those homes and bringing them up to the relevant EPC rating to allow them to benefit from measures such as heat pumps will be significant. I am not surprised in the least that a whole range of analysis has suggested that households living in such areas will find it almost impossible to afford the up-front cost of many of these measures.

I know I am repeating myself, but it is important to make the point that we need to improve financial support for these households. Many of them will be able to afford other measures—I am not saying they are struggling, as such—but they will not be able to afford the additional cost of retrofitting their homes and installing some of these low-carbon technologies.

I am conscious that I am at risk of detaining the Chamber for too long, but I would like to ask the Minister a couple of questions and I would be grateful if he could address them in his response. We know there are various support measures for hydrogen development, for example, but there are questions about the extent to which they will be applicable to rural off-grid homes. The Minister and I had an exchange in the Welsh Affairs Committee on this point, and I am interested to know his thoughts on supporting the roll-out of local carbon gas alternatives such as BioLPG, as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Clwyd West. It is drop-in technology that could well offer us a short to mid-term solution if we are keen to decarbonise homes in rural setting.

I end by asking the Minister how we can support rural properties, whether domestic households or businesses and community groups, to weather the current storm. I know that there are a whole range of exciting projects in Ceredigion, where we have housing associations retrofitting houses. We have groups such as Llandysul, with some plans in the pipeline, but they face a period of six to nine months of real difficulty. Is there something that the Government could do as a short-term measure, just to see them through?

One couple who live in an off-grid house have contacted me to say that they have been quoted over £1,000 to fill their oil tank. That is more than their monthly income as a couple, and the problem is that they have been told they cannot place orders for volumes less than 500 litres. If it were possible to have some clarification on that point, it would be very welcome, because other households in Ceredigion have also told me that they would be able to afford 250 litres at the moment, but the 500-litre minimum is a stretch for them at current prices, and they cannot quite make it. I appreciate that that is a very short-term measure and that it is addressing an immediate problem rather than something in the future, but if we are talking about a just transition, we need to make sure that everybody comes along with us and that nobody shoulders a disproportionate amount of the cost of what we should all hope will be a shared endeavour.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) on securing what is an incredibly important debate for many of my constituents, a huge proportion of whom are off-grid. For the sake of total transparency, my house is among those in my constituency that are off-grid.

I will pick up on the points made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), focusing my comments on drop-in fuels and the options that are available for off-grid homes, other than heat pumps. As has been mentioned, installing an electric heat pump in some of the country’s oldest rural homes can indeed cost the £12,000 figure that we have had quoted, plus £2,000. However, I have also seen estimates for some particularly unique houses—those built out of forms of cob or, in my constituency, wychert—where the cost of installing a heat pump with all the necessary additional retrofit installations can be as high as £30,000. Of course, those heat pumps only work efficiently if—it is a huge “if”—the house in question has the highest standards of modern insulation. Many older houses do not, and indeed cob, wychert and thatched properties cannot be insulated because of the way they were built—the walls simply cannot be allowed to become wet or damp; otherwise, the materials will come apart.

At a time when the cost of living is rising sharply, it is critical that consumers and businesses across our United Kingdom have a range of technologies at their disposal, so that they are not obliged—this is about choice, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd said in his opening speech—to pick an option that may not be suitable for their property or that, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion mentioned, would be unaffordable. There are clearly many options out there in the marketplace—some are available today, and some are clearly still in development but are close to being scalable to the point of production and wide-scale consumer use.

I have looked at this issue across not just the home energy sector but the transport sector, and I sincerely believe that drop-in fuels have to be part of the solution. An example is renewable liquid gas, which is a liquid fuel that resembles the same chemical and energy content as LPG but can be used as a drop-in fuel for existing infrastructure, boilers and solutions in people’s homes and businesses. However, it is produced through technology that utilises renewable feedstocks, meaning it has a low carbon content when compared with conventional LPG. Due to the drop-in nature, renewable liquid gases effectively utilise all of the existing infrastructure to deliver affordable decarbonisation solutions, particularly to the most hard-to-treat domestic and non-domestic properties that are off grid.

As rural electricity grids might need costly reinforcements as electrification marches forward in our country, as more and more people have a greater demand for electricity, not least for their personal transport and their cars, choosing a drop-in fuel solution for home heating and cooking may save not just the taxpayer money, but money and hassle for the citizens of our country as the infrastructure upgrades involved are either non-existent or very minor, as some heating engineers have told me—perhaps one or two filters in boilers having to be swapped out.

However—this is the problem that I bring to the debate this afternoon—there is currently a lack of recognition, particularly for renewable liquid gas and drop-in fuels more widely, from the Government and some suppliers. The key to enabling the supply and production of renewable liquid gas is a supportive political framework orientated to the long-term benefit of many families and businesses in off-grid locations. Are we not all seeking cost-effective and convenient decarbonisation solutions? It is critical that the upcoming biomass strategy explicitly recognises renewable liquid gas to ensure continued funding and development in this area. Affordable clean energy for families and businesses is key if we are to meet the 2050 net zero ambition.

Electrification is not always economically and technically feasible, especially not in the short term. Purchasing or, worse, borrowing to purchase expensive heat pumps and energy renovations is simply not a realistic option for many of my constituents and many off-grid people and businesses across our country, so I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to give us the good news that drop-in fuels and renewable liquid gas can be seen as a core central plank to the Government strategy going forward, so that we can avoid the cliff edge where people who cannot afford it or people whose homes cannot be fitted with it are not left with a singular option that does not work for them in future.

Thank you for calling me to speak, Sir Christopher. I thank everyone who has spoken, particularly the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), who opened today’s debate and has given us all an opportunity to participate and add our comments.

Like the hon. Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith), I live in the countryside—I have been fortunate to do so all my life. The options for me and for my neighbours are very limited, when it comes to gas grid homes. Also, many people now use their homes for their businesses as well. We have a high number of small and medium-sized businesses and self-employed people. Many people work at home, perhaps working with other directors in the firm, so there is a real issue for the rural community to perhaps try to do things better.

I have been fortunate to take part in many debates on the greener environment, but it is great to be here to discuss how it will work in the workplace and at home. We must all take personal responsibility for it. It is certainly something I would love to know more about, so this debate is an opportunity to listen to other regional opinions. We will hear shortly the Scottish opinion, which I very much look forward to. Most of all, I look forward to the Minister’s response, because he is the gentleman with the answers. Hopefully we will all benefit from that.

I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for healthy homes and buildings. For us in the APPG, there is more focus than ever on having efficient heating in our homes and looking at how that can be done. At the same time as looking at efficiency, we need to address the issue of a low-carbon commitment. Those are the twin tracks of the debate, and I hope the Minister will respond on them.

We have set a legally binding target to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and the sixth carbon budget is another indication of our shared dedication to a green industrial revolution. While we are certainly on the current path in terms of sustainability, some issues have been brought to my attention by the organisation Calor, and I would like to briefly address some of them. Others have mentioned liquified gas. There are options that need to be considered, and I believe that that is one of them.

First, there have been concerns that rural homeowners and businesses will not be able to afford the high costs associated with heat-pump installation, and I believe that is the reality. There is an understanding that Ministers are “hoping” that costs will come down—I am not sure quite how realistic that is. Perhaps the Minister could say whether we are beyond hoping, and that we are looking at the practicalities. We must do that to be honest with people as we move forward.

The average cost of a heat pump in an off-gas grid home is £12,000. I think the hon. Member for Buckingham referred to £30,000—I suppose it depends on location, but the costs could range from £12,000 to £30,000. On the cost of living crisis, there is already an average fuel poverty gap for rural households of £1,213 compared with £856 for urban households. Again, that underlines an issue that every hon. Member has referred to: the clear poverty gap between rural and urban communities, where the cost is high in urban areas but not as high as it is in the countryside. There is a much earlier transition phase for rural homes, so Calor is asking for clarity on how the Government plan to support that early transition. The Minister has great knowledge, energy and interest in the subject, so we are looking for some answers, which I am sure are already at his fingertips. We look forward to what he has to say.

In relation to Northern Ireland, residential heating is increasingly important. As of 2019, the residential sector accounted for 14% of Northern Ireland’s total greenhouse gas emissions, primarily through fossil fuels. That evidence highlights the need for more off-grid gas homes. Great efforts have been made to compensate for the potential lack of progress. The Government’s Climate Change Committee has recommended that at least 25% of heat supply in Northern Ireland should come from low-carbon sources by 2030. Why not start in the most residential places—our homes? Some may feel that their home is where their business takes place most of the time.

I know that the Minister, who was in Westminster Hall on a different issue earlier this week, has regular contact with Gordon Lyons, the Minister at the Department for the Economy. I know they are in contact regularly—if not every week, certainly every time an issue comes up—so I would be keen to know whether discussions have been held on the matter with the Minister responsible in Northern Ireland, and what has come out of those discussions. I believe that we can always learn from each other. I certainly would like to hear the Minister’s impression of what contact or co-operation he has had with the Minister in Northern Ireland to see how we can take the issue forward.

It has been argued that heat pumps are the most feasible low-carbon system for domestic settings. These buildings are not seen as hard to treat, and energy can be improved at a lower long-term cost. There are countless alternatives to consider for low-carbon homes and businesses, the most popular being solar, heat networks or hybrids. Whether people use one method of heating or two, many want to have the option.

Further to what was said earlier, we rely on hope that the price of heating pumps will go down; the Minister might be able to give us some realistic figures for how that can be achieved, if it can be achieved at all. A heating pump is seemingly the most sustainable way to attain a low-carbon home. However, if that is not the case in the coming years, I believe that the Government must make efforts to incentivise people into becoming more eco-friendly when it comes to heating their home.

Belfast Telegraph, one of the provincial papers in Northern Ireland, reported:

“70% of people in Northern Ireland cut back on food payments, to pay energy bills and heat their homes.”

Big decisions have to be made, perhaps more so today than ever before, and I am sure that that percentage is similar across all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; I do not think that we are any further behind or further ahead in Northern Ireland.

We must do more to support people through the transition to sustainable and green energy, as it is a process that we were all encouraged to be part of; indeed, we are happy to be part of it, although I acknowledge that that comment applies within the confines of the financial constrictions that everyone is facing.

To conclude, I am in full support of discussing and putting into action the process of achieving a low-carbon future. However, we must acknowledge that there are some issues that need to be addressed; I think the Minister is the person to give us answers in that regard. Cost is certainly a major factor in this discussion and I, for one, hope that the Minister and our Government can communicate with the devolved nations to make the transition as smooth as possible, so that we can all move forward together. As I always say, we are always better together. Let us share our points of view; I look forward to our doing things better.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.

I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) on securing this debate in Westminster Hall today, because he has brought forward yet another aspect—something that needed to be highlighted—about a growing crisis for people living in off-gas grid areas regarding the need to adjust for the future. Having said that, there are other issues for them right now, which are causing them great difficulty; I will reflect on that in a moment or two.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the need to address rapidly some of the issues in the heat and buildings strategy, with rural businesses having to act by 2024 and hospitality businesses by 2026. There are really tight timescales for those involved, given the circumstances that we face just now. He also rightly talked about the cost of insulation being out of reach for many homes and businesses.

UK Government support is inadequate; the right hon. Gentleman referred to a maximum of 90,000 households being eligible and there is no support for energy efficiency within that. He is absolutely right to call for far greater ambition in that regard. Low-carbon heating and buildings can help significantly in tackling both the climate crisis and the spiralling costs for families, but first they actually need to exist.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) talked about the rural properties occupied by families who are really struggling just now, with 45% of households in Wales in fuel poverty, which is a shocking figure to have to think about at the moment. The worst thing about that figure, which is replicated in other rural communities across the nations of the UK, is that it will get worse. That is just the fact of life that we face at the moment. It is also why the UK Government need to take more action, both to address the long-term issues and to help people in the short term.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the affordability issues, as did the right hon. Member for Clwyd West, and the impact on rural businesses, some of which are being hammered just now; these are successful businesses that are off-gas grid, but they are being hammered by increasing costs. If these businesses are struggling with bills at the moment, where on earth do they find the money to invest in changing to new technology, if there is not more support, which is what the Minister must come up with now? The hon. Member for Ceredigion rightly asked how we can support people and businesses to weather the current storm. It is worth pausing to consider the fact that inflation is now at 11%. This is an absolute crisis that we are in just now.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) pointed out, absolutely correctly, that the efficiency of heat pumps relies on high-standard insulation. However, in rural communities—this was a point well made—buildings are often older, draughtier and not perhaps the ones that can best cope with new technology. And all the people who live in those buildings and all the businesses that operate in such buildings face a crisis, right now as well as into the future. The hon. Gentleman also talked about drop-in fuels; that is another issue that needs further debate, but I come back to the fact that these things still involve a high cost, and there is a current crisis.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about options being very limited for those who live in countryside areas, which is absolutely bang on the money, and is also true for businesses. A theme is building here, which the Minister and his Government will have to address: this is a growing crisis for all these people. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, Ministers should have the answers, and we need to hear those answers. We need to know what the Minister is going to do, because the hon. Gentleman was absolutely right that hoping that costs will come down is just fantasy; it is not going to happen, so what will be done to address these average costs of £12,000 that we have talked about, or even higher—£30,000? The hon. Gentleman said that we must do more to support people through the transition. We should not only be doing more to support people through that transition, but doing more to support them right now.

I am pleased to be summing up this debate for the Scottish National party, because I tabled a ten-minute rule Bill in recent months dealing with the issues that people in off-gas grid areas are facing at the moment. We need measures across the piece to ensure that households do not have to pay more for their energy because they do not have access to a mains gas supply. The current price cap introduced by the UK Government and Ofgem is based on the assumption that households across the nations of the UK consume energy with a split of 80% gas and 20% electricity. However, that is not the case in rural areas, where if people cannot afford the fuel oil or to have the LPG on, they are using more electricity—they are using more electricity anyway, because they have to.

Across the nations of the UK, one in six households are living off the gas grid, not just those in rural areas; we must be aware of those figures. The rise in fuel costs that those people are facing at the moment is more than twice that of those on the gas grid. If we treat the average household as having to pay £2,000 per year now —as we know, it will be more—those off the gas grid will have to pay £4,416, according to the most recent calculation. Again, that figure is probably out of date; it has probably gone up as inflation rips through the economy. Rural areas have higher transport costs, higher costs of living, older properties and lower than average incomes.

I have to ask, because I have the opportunity to do so, what is the point of a UK energy regulator that is not regulating for people who live off the gas grid? That deficiency has to be challenged by the Government; I know they will lay the blame at Ofgem’s door, but the Government can do something about it as well. We need an urgent review of regulated energy prices and an end to the discriminatory system for people who are off the gas grid.

The Climate Change Committee said recently that it is still disappointing not to see more energy efficiency, or support for households to make changes that can cut their bill. The UK Government have fallen short in that area time and again. As has been pointed out, they can do a lot more to help people, such as by using some of the additional VAT they are getting in or cutting VAT. The Scottish Government have helped 150,000 households that are either in, or at risk of, fuel poverty, and Scotland is way ahead of England when it comes to spending per capita, spending £27 on insulation as opposed to £8. This UK Government need to do more, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister whether he will take action to address these problems—not only the future problems that people off the gas grid will face when they have to make these changes, but the current problems that people are facing across rural areas in all the nations of the UK—problems that are deeply affecting them, their families and their businesses.

This has been a good debate about a very troubled subject. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) on securing the debate and putting forward comprehensively just what trouble we are in as far as off-grid properties and decarbonisation are concerned. We heard very thoughtful contributions from the hon. Members for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), for Buckingham (Greg Smith) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon); the latter is something of a fixture in these debates but always has something relevant and useful to say, whatever the subject. We also heard a thoughtful contribution from the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), who was supposed to be summing up the thoughtful contributions of everyone else, but made one himself.

This is a really thorny subject, because the imperative of decarbonisation heavily hits off-grid housing and businesses. There are, as hon. Members have mentioned, a surprisingly high number of properties in England, Wales and Scotland that are off-grid. I think it is about 1.1 million houses in England, 230,000 in Wales and 550,000 in Scotland. Put together, that is a very large number of homes. Not only do they often have different characteristics from the mass of on-grid housing in urban areas, but they also have limited choices for decarbonisation.

I only have the figures for the split of fuel for properties in England, but we can see straightaway that people are at present heating their homes with arrangements that are as heavily carbonised as they could be: 78% in England are heating with oil, 13% with LPG—slightly less polluting, but still pretty high-carbon—and 9% still with coal. It is imperative that we get all those properties off high-carbon heating arrangements and on to low-carbon heating arrangements as soon as possible.

Far more off-grid homes are poorly insulated and of a lower standard assessment procedure rating than their urban comparators. They are generally larger and more free-standing than properties in urban areas. Therefore, in the solutions we put forward to decarbonise them, we must take account of those issues, particularly so that we can get the energy efficiency quality of those homes up to the standard where they can take those low-carbon arrangements.

Off-grid properties do not have the same range of longer-term choices available to them. We cannot decide that all the off-grid properties will go on to hydrogen, because we cannot get hydrogen to the off-grid properties. We cannot go for district heating solutions with off-grid properties, because they are generally in too sparse a layout to make district heating efficient or feasible. There is a narrow range of choices for off-grid homes.

I would not be in favour of taking a break in our plans to move to low carbon, as the right hon. Member for Clwyd West suggested this afternoon, to get our choices right. The replacement turnaround time for the types of heating in those off-grid properties—the boilers and other apparatus—is about 15 years. That is slightly longer than for boilers in urban properties, because oil-fired arrangements and so on are often set out differently. If we take that normal replacement turnaround time, and we pretty much start now with replacing those boilers with low-carbon alternatives as they come up for replacement, the cycle will have been completed by the early 2040s. That is within the 2050 target for low-carbon replacements. If we put our plans off, we simply would not replace the boilers as quickly as otherwise. That suggestion assumes that we are being very careful to undertake the replacements with the active will and participation of the people who live in those homes, as the right hon. Member for Clwyd West enjoined us to do—that we are not marching in and ripping boilers out, and demanding they do things on the spot, whether or not their arrangements are obsolete and whether or not they can afford the changes.

I have considerable sympathy for the Government’s problem of how to go about decarbonising the sector. The Government have chosen, in the first instance, to go for a heat-pump-first solution—to prioritise heat pumps as the replacement arrangements in those homes. As hon. Members have pointed out, heat pumps do not always work in those homes, and they certainly do not work unless the energy efficiency is substantially upgraded. Given the homes we have in that group, heat pumps might require a whole-house refit, including the gauge of pipes and various other things related to the central heating, in order to work as well as they should. The cost of the heat pump is therefore not the only cost for those off-grid homes. Quite a lot of other work is also required.

I think we can question whether heat-pump-first is the right way to go about this plan. It is not that they should not be a substantial part of the process but, as has been said, a number of other options are available that ought to and could be considered alongside heat pump installation. We might undertake a more horses-for-courses arrangement, because of the variety of off-grid homes that we need to decarbonise.

I am sorry to say that such an approach was not apparent in the consultation that closed just recently, “Phasing out of the installation of fossil fuel heating in homes off the gas grid”. I hope right hon. and hon. Members all got their submissions in; if they did not, it is a bit late now, but never mind—we are making up for it this afternoon.

The consultation missed out on providing a realistic appraisal of what alternatives to heat pumps there might be for off-grid homes. The consultation mentioned some, but merely said it would look at and appraise them and possibly consult at a later date. That is not the way to go about it—we our ducks in a row before we start consulting about what we will do on alternatives to high-carbon heating in homes.

As right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned, the alternatives are several. Some are very promising, some less so. Certainly, as the hon. Member for Buckingham mentioned, hybrid heat pumps—I have been to see a couple in operation in south Wales—do a very good job of arranging for the boiler to continue to operate, but as an auxiliary to other kinds of heating, which was an air source heat pump in this instance. The pumps do that in such a way that completely redoing the central heating, and so on, in the home is not required. The house can work very well with a combination of technologies working together effectively to decarbonise the heat in the home.

Biomass pellet boilers certainly can be considered in homes, as indeed can renewable LPG. As hon. Members have mentioned, LPG is a drop-in fuel that can be put straight into systems—more or less, but not quite—as they stand. The issue with renewable LPG is whether we can get enough of it to work well in systems if we use it on a widespread basis, because it is a particular by-product of other processes that are limited in total size.

The Government also ought to be considering, just as they should with hydrogen, the best uses for the alternative fuels. For example, what are the lowest-carbon uses for LPG or hydrogen? Do we put all our hydrogen into heating homes, transport and logistics, decarbonising heavy industry, or whatever? The Government must make that choice in terms of the priorities they put forward for those different forms of low-carbon fuels, and bioLPG is certainly one of them.

I would criticise the Government not on their timescale or their ambition to decarbonise the off-grid area, but on the fact that they have not looked properly at the options that could be available to decarbonise those off-grid properties in the most efficient way. The Government will have to work on rectifying that if they are to get public backing for that decarbonisation over the next period. That is essential in getting not only off-grid properties decarbonised efficiently but, in general, our homes heated in a low-carbon way. Certainly, if the wider debate ends up with people marching down the street protesting that the Government are ripping out their boilers in an assault on their liberties—because they do not have a decent option to decarbonise by consent —then we will not have achieved our objectives at all.

In the debate on energy prices, as hon. Members have mentioned, we ought to recognise that off-grid properties are suffering far worse than on-grid properties from the energy price crisis. First, the average bill for an off-grid property tends to be higher, but also the fuels used for off-grid properties are not subject to the price cap. Off-grid fuel price rises have far outstripped those for on-grid customers. That, I think, is something that the Government ought to take account of in their approach towards underwriting and assisting those properties with their energy costs in future.

The issue is not strictly the subject of today’s discussion but clearly comes into how we ensure that the public are properly behind the decarbonisation of their properties across the board, and particularly in off-grid areas. I do not envy the Minister the task of getting that right, and I know that it is a real knotty problem, but I am sure that he will be able to provide us with some good pointers to ensure that we decarbonise our off-grid properties in the most efficient way that we can, and with the most public support that we can get.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) on securing this important debate. I reassure him that decarbonising heat remains a key priority. We recognise that this is a deeply worrying time for most of our constituents, for whom the impact of rising energy bills is perhaps the biggest concern. That applies as much to rural communities as to any other.

I commend my right hon. Friend for his long-standing work as one of the key voices for north Wales ever since we were both first elected in 2005. At the time, he was the first Conservative Member to be elected in north Wales in about eight years, and he has consistently stuck up for his constituents ever since.

We are taking action on bills. The Chancellor recently announced a £15 billion package—as part of an overall £37 billion this year—to help families who are struggling with their bills. However, as we set out in our recent British energy security strategy, which was launched by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State in April, if we are to keep prices down for ordinary households and businesses for the long term, we need to rely on affordable, clean and, above all, secure sources of energy.

Off-gas-grid households and businesses already understand those challenges as well as anyone. Many of them rely on traditional forms of energy such as oil for their heating needs, so they have been particularly exposed to the impact of rising global energy costs. Of course, compared with other buildings, properties off the gas grid are some of the biggest emitters, so transitioning those properties to low-carbon heat is a key Government priority. That will not only put us on track for our different obligations, but it will help to move us off imported oil, build our energy independence and help to protect consumers from high and volatile energy prices.

As Members from all four nations of the United Kingdom have recognised during the debate—showing that we are better together when it comes to approaching these matters—the problem is not necessarily confined to the remoter parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith), and I know that parts of Kent and other counties that might be regarded more traditionally as the home counties also have large numbers of off-gas-grid properties.

As my right hon. Friend very ably said, most off-grid properties will ultimately transition to heat pumps, which are a proven and highly efficient technology. In electricity, they benefit from a secure energy source that is not subject to the same price spikes as oil, and critically, they are consistent with net zero as the electricity grid decarbonises. Heat pumps have been successfully deployed in high numbers across the world, including in countries that are colder than the United Kingdom, such as Sweden and Norway.

The up-front cost of installing low-carbon heating may be prohibitive for some, however, and I think that is the core of the question before us. That is why we are investing £450 million through the boiler upgrade scheme to provide £5,000 grants towards the cost of installing a heat pump, and £1.1 billion through the home upgrade grant to help lower-income households off the gas grid to upgrade their energy efficiency, save on bills and transition to low-carbon heating. That funding will help to kick off our wider plans to grow the heat-pump market to 600,000 installations by 2028 and to deliver on our ambition to reduce the cost of a heat pump by between 25% and 50% by the middle of the decade.

Alongside our action to remove distortions in energy prices—starting with the launch of our proposals to rebalance energy costs later in 2022—we anticipate that heat pumps will be no more expensive to install and run overall than gas boilers by the second half of the decade. That is why we consulted last year on regulations that would end the installation of high-carbon fossil fuel heating systems off the gas grid later this decade. I reassure my right hon. Friend that we will take every step to ensure that the transition to clean heat will be fair and affordable for off-gas grid households and businesses.

I also reiterate that our continued support for decarbonisation policies relying on heat pumps is contingent on the industry taking action to drive down the costs. By signalling now our intention to take the action later, once the cost of heat pumps is much lower than today, we aim to give industry the long-term confidence to invest and drive the costs down. We will also keep the cost of heat pumps under constant review. Making sure they become more affordable is a key part of Government policy and, well ahead of implementing any regulation, we will set out what additional actions may be needed to support the phasing out of high-carbon heating systems.

I also take the chance to reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West that no one will be required to install an unsuitable technology in their home or business. We know well that heat pumps will not work everywhere, at least not with the current technology. Some off-grid properties are simply too poorly insulated or have certain characteristics that would make installing the technology impossible. We will take care to ensure that that group of hard-to-treat properties will have access to suitable alternatives, such as high-temperature heat pumps, solid biomass and so on, which I will explain in a little more detail.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West raised various points. I believe his central question was: why off grid first? Off the gas grid, there is currently no strategic option to decarbonise heat with hydrogen or other technologies. That is why we are taking a range of actions to bring forward the decarbonisation of this critical group of buildings. If we can make heat pumps affordable, there are considerable advantages in moving forward, including for off-grid households and businesses, even if that means that they will be required to switch from fossil fuel heat earlier than their on-grid counterparts. My right hon. Friend asked me to reconsider the 2026 deadline. Equally, the pace at which we can make heat pumps become affordable will guide our decisions on the right time to introduce regulation and the other actions needed to make a fair transition.

My right hon. Friend asked how many off-grid homes are hard to treat. Our analysis shows that 80% of off-grid homes already have sufficient insulation for a heat pump to work effectively. They have already been deployed successfully in high numbers across the world; I mentioned Sweden, Norway and other countries. On his questions about hybrids and biofuels, along with those from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, we would like to see those fuels become another solution, particularly for off-grid properties that cannot use a heat pump. We are working closely with industry to build the evidence that will inform the biomass strategy mentioned by my hon. Friend, due to launch later in 2022. The strategy will review the amount of sustainable biomass likely to be available to the UK and set out how this can be best used across the economy to achieve our net zero targets.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham asked for some good news. I think I have been bringing quite a lot of good news so far. However, we are also investigating whether hybrid systems could give hard-to-treat properties additional choices and that is an area of active investigation, as we also ask whether they have potential to help us stretch limited bioresources further. I urge my hon. Friend to wait for the biomass strategy later this year. There are key considerations there in biomass production, alternative uses and trying to get a sense of where that overall market will be heading. In time, renewable liquid fuels such as HVO and bioLPG may also play a role, although they are currently in short supply and more expensive for households to use. We need to better understand the scope to expand production of those fuels for use in heat, consistent with very low emissions while remaining affordable for consumers.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) mentioned those not subject to the energy price cap. It is worth remembering that the energy price cap, which predates me in this job, was not introduced to provide a blanket level of protection for all consumers, but was instead a specific protection brought in to remove the penalty for people who did not switch between their grid gas or electricity provider. That was the purpose of the price cap. I do not think it would be fair to say that the heating oil market or the market for off-grid properties is any less competitive. There is a highly competitive market in heating oil companies, and there is the ability for the Competition and Markets Authority to look at the issue. If the hon. Member for Ceredigion has evidence of anti-competitive practices, I urge him to bring it forward, send it on to me or speak to the CMA. That is exactly what the CMA is there for.

The Minister is saying that if there is an issue with off-gas grid households, it should be brought to the CMA. Does he support the basic ask to get Ofgem involved in regulating off-gas grid areas? A very simple solution would be for Ofgem to take action directly.

We have to think about the nature of that market, which I am satisfied the CMA has the ability to regulate. Although it involves an energy product, that does not mean that Ofgem, rather than the CMA, is best positioned to provide the oversight to prevent anti-competitive practices. There is a lot of Government support for off-grid properties, as there is for on-grid ones, including the £400 payment and the £150 council tax discount in England, with Barnett consequentials for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Minister has jogged my memory. Some farmers have told me they have commercial electricity contracts to service their homes, and are therefore worried that they may not receive the £400 payment. I know the Government are looking at the technical details, so perhaps he could take that point back and ensure that it is addressed.

Of course, energy prices for businesses attract a lot of very keen Government attention. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that there was a consultation on the workings of the scheme, which has closed; the Government will respond shortly. Energy costs for businesses is an area of active Government interest. We provide a lot of support for energy-intensive industries, and want to ensure that overall we have a sustainable position, whereby businesses are able to afford energy bills in order to continue the vital work that they do for us across the rest of the economy.

Many of the additional Government support measures, including the warm home discount, the winter fuel payment and the cold weather payment, are also available for those off the gas grid. Energy efficiency measures are a major area of Government investment, with £6.6 billion to be provided over the course of this Parliament. I have already mentioned the boiler upgrade scheme, which costs £450 million, and the home upgrade grant, which amounts to £1.1 billion.

As somebody who used to work in a swimming pool, I was intrigued by what the hon. Member for Ceredigion described as the difficulties facing the swimming pool in his constituency. The great news is that one of the Chancellor’s key announcements this year was the reduction of VAT on solar panels. I am sure Plaid Cymru was very supportive of the Chancellor’s overall package of measures, which will bring particular benefit to the swimming pool in the hon. Member’s constituency.

The use of hydrogen is an interesting question. Decisions will be made in the coming years on where we think hydrogen can be used as a source of heat. We will have to think about our hydrogen production capacity, and the alternative pressing needs for hydrogen, such as decarbonising industry and major forms of transportation, including maritime, heavy goods vehicles and aviation. There are a lot of potential uses of hydrogen, we will need to look at the option of using it to heat buildings before taking a decision, particularly given the other alternative uses of hydrogen.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion mentioned the rules around heating oil providers not providing less than 500 litres. I urge him to speak to the UK and Ireland Fuel Distributors Association, which is a helpful trade body. I think the basic problem is that providing small volumes of heating oil is likely to raise fixed costs, and therefore to make an inefficient market with ultimately more expensive provision. His motive is a good one—to try to make heating more affordable, in smaller pieces, for constituents who are facing trouble with their bills—but the perverse impact might be to raise the fixed costs of such deliveries, but I urge him to speak to UKIFDA, which is the real expert.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on being the chair of the healthy homes and buildings all-party parliamentary group. We are of course keen to see Northern Ireland, like all parts of the United Kingdom—I stress that it is fantastic to have all four nations represented here today—play its full role in decarbonisation, and to ensure that it is supported during times of high prices. He said that he had learned that I speak to Gordon Lyons, the Northern Ireland Minister for the Economy, frequently and perhaps even weekly. In fact, I spoke to him only yesterday about ensuring that Northern Ireland’s renewable energy opportunities are boosted. The hon. Gentleman will also know that one of the key reasons that we are taking the approach that we are on the Northern Ireland protocol is to ensure that things such as the VAT cut on solar panels can be enjoyed as much by the people of Northern Ireland as by the people of England, Wales or Scotland. Watch this space; we are always keen to help in Northern Ireland.

The SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), called UK Government support inadequate. Well, almost regardless of what we had announced as the level of support, I could have predicted that he would say that it was inadequate. I remind him—

Just let me explain what the support is: £37 billion for consumers so far this year and a £450 million boiler upgrade scheme. The hon. Gentleman might talk about fuel poverty, which is a very serious issue, but I remind him that it is of course a devolved issue in Scotland. I have reason to believe that he may know one or two people in the Scottish Government, so I urge him to direct his inquiries on fuel poverty to his party colleagues in the Scottish Government. Of course I am happy to take his intervention, if he will tell us whether he has raised the issue of fuel poverty with the Scottish Government.

I am delighted that the Minister has allowed me to intervene. Can I just clear up a couple of things? I raise the issue of fuel poverty in every way I possibly can with every Government, but I think he has forgotten that energy is reserved to the UK Government; he should have a wee look at his brief just to check. My question is this: does he think that £8 per head spent on insulation in England is good compared with the £27 per head spent on insulation in Scotland?

Insulation is only one part of the picture when it comes to energy efficiency. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has recognised, and reminded us all, that energy is reserved to the UK Government. That is always refreshing to hear. I keep telling people in Scotland, “Thank God it is reserved, so that we don’t have to embark on the anti-nuclear policies of the SNP, or the anti-oil and gas sector policies,” even though the main emphasis of the oil and gas sector is indeed in Scotland.

On the regulator of the gas grid, as I have said, the CMA can intervene. Gas and electricity markets are considered natural monopolies when it comes to the grid. They are characterised by high fixed costs and start-up costs. For those reasons, these markets fall under the remit of Ofgem regulation. The heating oil market—

On the subject of support for these measures, the Minister does not appear to have spent any time talking about what support there might be for heat pumps. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) would be interested to know how the support that has been put forward so far— 90,000 heat pumps installed up to 2025 under the boiler upgrade scheme—relates to the turnover of boilers in off-grid properties. Replacing all of those with heat pumps would take up the entire support scheme for heat pumps in one go, when that support is supposed to be for the whole United Kingdom. By the way, the target of installing 600,000 heat pumps by 2028 will clearly fail miserably.

The hon. Gentleman raises a good question. It is born out of a common misconception, particularly in the Labour party, of what the boiler upgrade scheme is all about. He is expecting—maybe because that is ingrained in the Labour party—that it is the role of the Government to come by and install a new heat pump for everybody across the country. That is not the role of the Government. The role of the Government here is to help stimulate the market and ensure that the private sector makes the adjustment and provides the heat pumps. That is what it is about—not dividing up a £450 million boiler upgrade scheme by the number of people in Britain and working out that it is not enough money for every person to get a new heat pump.

The idea is to provide enough stimulus to the market so that it responds, and also to go with the grain of human nature; the phase-out date is 2035, because people’s gas boilers will naturally come up for renewal in the course of the next 12 years, and during those 12 years, they will be incentivised to purchase a heat pump, rather than a replacement gas boiler. The idea is to stimulate the market. I remember the response of the market when we announced the heat and buildings strategy. I clearly remember Octopus Energy saying that the grant should quite soon enable the cost of a heat pump to be comparable to that of a gas boiler, and to become competitive over the lifetime of that installation.

I need to leave a few minutes for my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West to respond, so I will not take a further intervention.

The basis behind the boiler upgrade scheme is not to provide everybody with a new heat pump. The idea is for the Government to prime the private sector to be able to do exactly that. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test says that heat pumps do not always work, but they frequently do. They are the only proven, scalable technology to decarbonise heating, although there might be hydrogen and other technology developments in the future. As I have said, Sweden and Norway have done this at scale. We will ensure that heat pumps can only be installed on suitable properties, and that there is a greater degree of choice for less suitable properties.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Test said that off-grid properties are suffering more from the current price rises. If he is saying that off-grid properties are facing a bigger increase in their energy costs than on-grid properties, I invite him to send me some firm evidence of that.

To conclude, I reiterate that decarbonising buildings off the gas grid will be key to delivering on Government priorities. It will protect rural consumers and businesses from high and volatile energy costs, and further strengthen our energy independence. We are taking action, and will continue to act to ensure the transition is smooth, fair and affordable for off-grid households, and rural customers and businesses.

It has been a valuable and interesting debate. As the Minister has correctly pointed out, we heard from colleagues from all parts of the United Kingdom—united, indeed, in that we come from rural constituencies full of houses lived in by people who are feeling the cold and are worried about feeling the financial cold at some time in the future.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for his reply. I take some heart from him saying that the Government are not going to fossilise heat pumps as the only solution to the problems we are living through at the moment. This is a period of transition, and periods of transition are always difficult, but I hope that the Government will bear in mind the concerns of people living in rural areas who are concerned about potentially very high costs to replace existing boilers with heat pumps.

One point I take from the Minister’s reply that gives me considerable heart is that the Government continue to look at alternatives to heat pumps. He mentioned particularly biomass and biofuels, which I think offer a solution to this problem in the future. I hope that his Department will continue to look carefully at those solutions.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the future of low-carbon off-gas grid home and business heating.

Infant Mental Health Awareness Week

[Mrs Sheryll Murray in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Infant Mental Health Week 2022.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray—I think for the first time. I am delighted to have secured this debate.

Infant Mental Health Week is an annual opportunity to highlight that human beings are the most underdeveloped creatures on earth at birth. Our brains, and therefore our responses, our reactions and our knowledge, are completely undeveloped. In fact, many people would say that we are born about two years premature. What other animal cannot do anything for itself until it is at least a year old? That is the plight of human beings.

Infant mental health is therefore, without any shadow of a doubt, more important than mental health throughout the rest of a person’s life. It is in that critical period when a person is so small and does not know what’s what or where’s where that their ability to have secure lifelong mental health is laid down.

From conception to the age of two, a secure and loving relationship between a baby and his or her carer literally shapes the way the baby’s brain develops. That is when the building blocks for lifelong physical and emotional health are laid down. Like a sponge, the baby’s developing brain will soak up the atmosphere around them and the environment that he or she is born into. In the womb, a baby whose mum is terrified of childbirth or is being treated with violence by her partner, or who is misusing alcohol or drugs, will be profoundly physically and mentally impacted by that experience.

Infant mental health, or, more specifically, early intervention in the first 1,001 critical days of life, from conception to the age of two, has been a passion of mine for more than 25 years. I chaired the Oxford Parent-Infant Project in 1999 and set up NorPIP, the Northamptonshire Parent Infant Partnership, providing parent-infant psychotherapy to families who are struggling to form a secure bond with their babies. I established national charity PIPUK—the Parent Infant Partnership—which went on to establish and support a number of other parent-infant teams right around the country. I also wrote the 1,001 critical days manifesto, which went on to become the First 1001 Days Movement. Infant mental health is a subject incredibly dear to my heart.

Science tells us that a secure and loving relationship with the key carer will shape the way in which the baby’s brain develops, with long-term and positive consequences for that baby’s mental health. Fundamentally, it is about self-regulation. A baby who is secure in his or her earliest relationships will later on be able to experience anger, fear, jealousy and disappointment, and will be able to regulate their own responses appropriately. It is the earliest relationship between parents and their babies that constructs that ability to self-regulate and hence delivers that pathway to good lifelong mental health.

Research released today by the Royal Foundation shows that 91% of parents and carers agree that early years are important in shaping an adult’s life, but only 17% recognise how uniquely important the period from birth to five is. As the Duchess of Cambridge has said,

“Our experiences in early childhood fundamentally impact our whole life and set the foundation for how we go on to thrive as individuals, with one another, as a community and as a society.”

In 2015, the National Childbirth Trust found that one in three first-time dads were worried about their mental health following their baby’s birth, and according to the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, up to one in five mums, sadly, suffer due to the lack of focus on support for mental health in the perinatal period. Unfortunately, we do not really have the granular information on perinatal depression among parents and carers that we would need to properly impact-assess the mental health effect on babies, but the mental health of the parent clearly impacts on their baby’s development. A good example is that a pregnant mum who, for whatever reason, suffers from stress will produce more cortisol—the stress hormone—in her bloodstream, which will pass through the placenta into the unborn child. The more stressed the mother, the more frequently the foetus is exposed to higher levels of cortisol, and we know that exposure to high levels of cortisol in the womb can lead to modifications in gene expressions before the baby is even born, so even in the womb, the potential for lifelong emotional and physical health is already being determined.

Once out of the womb, being left to cry unattended for continuous, lengthy periods of time, or being terrified by witnessing violence and anger within the family or loud and aggressive behaviour in their environment, will have the same impact on the baby: raising their levels of cortisol. Over lengthy periods, there is evidence that this damages the baby’s immune system and will give him or her a lifelong predisposition towards higher risk-taking behaviour. When a baby is born, they have no cognition at all: they can only cry, sleep or look around. They do not know if they are cold, hungry, bored or in pain. They only know that something is wrong, so a baby cries to attract the attention of a loving adult carer. When that carer turns up and takes the time to soothe, change, feed or sing to the baby, the impact of that tender and loving response brings the baby back to a state of calm and reduces their level of stress. This continues until the baby is old enough to understand how to regulate his or her own feelings.

Even more important is the fact that at birth, a baby’s brain is only partially formed. It is understood that a baby’s brain puts on up to a billion neural connections every minute during the first year of life. Those neural connections are stimulated by the quality of attention of the principal loving carer and the baby’s experiences of the world around them, which is why parental attunement and loving attention are fundamental for the healthy brain development of a baby. Simply put, what we do with a baby from conception until the age of two is about building the human and emotional capacity of that infant; what we do after the age of two is almost all about trying to reverse damage that is already done. A wealth of evidence demonstrates that poor mental health, substance dependency and domestic abuse among parents lead to significantly poorer outcomes for babies and young children. Research from the Maternal Mental Health Alliance highlights that the locations with some of the greatest levels of socioeconomic deprivation are also those where poor maternal mental health is at its highest. When they start school, children from such disadvantaged backgrounds are on average four months behind their peers, and it gets worse from there.

The quality of attachment that a baby has to their principal adult caregiver therefore has a profound impact on their lifelong mental health, and our society’s ambition should be for every baby to achieve a secure attachment to that caregiver, be it mum, dad, kinship carer or adoptive parent. Secure attachment is the foundation for good lifelong mental health, its possible effects having an impact on parenting from one generation to the next: if a person was well parented, there is a high likelihood that they will become a good enough parent, and their baby will form a secure attachment to them. Examples of insecure attachment are therefore found where care giving is inconsistent.

Babies who suffer from insecure attachment are not given the consistent, loving care that they need in order to feel that the world is a good place and that people are generally kind. Neglect of a baby has a very damaging impact. The baby with insecure attachment will of course have other chances in life; we never write anyone off. Babies who are insecurely attached in the very early stages will have lots of other opportunities to make good friends and to have other key adults in their lives who might help to turn things around and help them build their own emotional capability, but there is no doubt that insecurely attached infants will always struggle a bit more in later life to deal with life’s ups and downs. It will be those babies who might struggle to keep friends and relationships and also to cope without help with parenting when their time comes. This is sometimes known as the cycle of deprivation, where a general lack of good mental health is passed down from one generation to the next.

The most challenging early mental health impact is reserved for babies who develop a disorganised attachment with their principal caregiver. That is where the person they rely on to look after them, soothe them and keep them alive is also the most dangerous person in their life. The person they turn to for comfort might one moment hurt them and the next moment hug them. Such babies often find that making sense of the world becomes very difficult, and many of the most damaging outcomes in society—criminality, suicide, self-harm, sociopathic behaviour—are enacted by those who suffer disorganised attachment as a baby. It should be blindingly obvious to all that whatever we do to invest in giving every baby the best start in life will pay us back a million times over—a billion times over—in terms of general wellbeing, healthy communities and a stronger society.

We had a long way to go before the covid lockdown, but there is no doubt that Infant Mental Health Awareness Week is vital because it shines a spotlight on the huge damage done by two years of pandemic lockdowns: dads and co-partners not permitted to be with mum and the new baby; face-to-face health visits and other support such as family hubs moving to virtual only; wider family and friends unable to meet the new arrival and provide support; babies not able to meet other babies; and an exacerbation of existing problems such as addiction, domestic violence and poor mental health.

Above all else, there was the devastating isolation at a time when we all know that new parents are desperate to get out of the house to go and chat to another parent about the sleep that they did not get last night, what size nappies the baby should have, what they are doing about weaning, and whether the baby has had its first tooth yet. All the chats, empathy and consolation that new parents give each other were missing during the covid lockdown. A report carried out by the Parent-Infant Foundation, Best Beginnings and Home Start, titled “Babies in lockdown”, revealed that six in 10 parents were concerned about parental mental health in lockdown, and two thirds said that covid had affected their ability to cope with caring for their baby.

We know that health visitors provide a vital support service to families who are struggling. Every family in England should be offered five mandated reviews from a health visitor between pregnancy and age two and a half as a minimum. Local authorities, many of which are still using phone and virtual appointments to count as reviews, have reported in their latest quarterly data, from May, that 18.6% of babies missed out on their nine to 12-month review and more than a quarter of toddlers missed out on their two to two-and-a-half-year review. That includes all those who got the telephone-only service. There were still many who did not get anything at all.

Data, again published in May, shows that only 85% of children in England were at or above their expected level in communication skills, compared with 89% before the pandemic, and 79% were at or above the expected level in five key development assessments at the review stage, compared with 83% pre pandemic.

A report by Ofsted in April 2022 found:

“The pandemic has continued to affect young children’s communication and language development, with many providers noticing delays in speech and language…The negative impact on children’s personal, social and emotional development has also continued, with many lacking confidence in group activities”


“social and friendship-building skills have been affected.”

There continues to be an impact on children’s physical development, including delays in babies learning to crawl and to walk. Lockdown has caused many challenges and exacerbated many existing ones.

The early years healthy development review, which I chair, could not have come at a more important time. Since the summer of 2020, the review has focused on ensuring that every baby gets the best start in life. Its vision sets out six key action areas, which were made Government policy in March 2021. The action areas will deliver, first, a joined-up set of Start for Life services for every family in England; secondly, the roll-out of family hubs as a welcoming place, providing physical, virtual and outreach services for every family in England; thirdly, trusted digital, virtual and telephone support designed to meet the needs of the baby and their carers, as well as the development of the digital red book, which will allow much greater continuity of care for every baby; and fourthly, a modern, mixed-skills workforce that will provide much greater continuity of care and that works, with the baby at the centre of everything we do, to deliver wraparound, empathetic support.

Fifthly, we need much more understanding of the impact and potential of early intervention, so we will improve data collection and evaluation, and outcomes for the mental health and wellbeing of babies and their families, and we will develop proportionate inspection of services. Sixthly, these action areas will require real leadership locally and nationally. Fundamentally, we need to ensure that the Treasury will continue to fund the “Best Start for Life” vision in the long run.

I am delighted that the vision is shared cross-party, and I have no doubt that the spokespeople here today on both sides of the Chamber will want to support giving every baby the best start for life. It is a fantastically cross-party issue, and I pay tribute to the many colleagues here today, as well as to those who could not be here, who have lent their support to this agenda over so many years.

The views and lived experiences of babies and their carers have been at the heart of the early years review. From Blackpool to Stoke-on-Trent, from Worthing to Bexleyheath, from Camden to Cornwall, parents have shared with us the good and the bad. My “1,001 Critical Days” podcast has highlighted the mental health journeys of parents and their babies, and an LBC phone-in made clear the challenges faced by so many dads and co-parents, and the particular support they need, which is currently lacking, in their amazing journey to parenting.

Time and again we have heard that every parent wants to know how to be a good a parent, where they can access early years support, what is on offer for them and why they might need that support. They want companionship and not to be isolated, and they want to be able to share their stories with parents in a similar situation.

We heard from parents of babies with disabilities that they do not want to be left out, stigmatised and treated as different. We heard from many parents from different ethnic backgrounds, as well as LGBT parents, single parents and foster parents, that they do not want to be treated any differently from other parents either. All parents, of every type, asked for a seamless, joined-up approach to accessing the support they need. Face-to-face support is a priority, but in this 21st century, parents and carers also want access to services virtually when things are urgent, they are pressed for time or they just have a quick question.

Parents also want to avoid telling their story over and over again to different early years professionals, and there is huge support for a digital version of the red book, where parents can keep a permanent record of their baby’s birth experience, first tooth and first photo with Granny, along with all the other lovely records that parents want to have, as well as communicate with the professionals who are supporting them.

The positive to take away from today’s debate is that if we provide support and reach out to make sure that every family knows where to go to get help, and we educate families as to what good looks like, we can transform our society for the better. To end, in this platinum jubilee year, I would like to use the words of the Queen, who said:

“in the birth of a child, there is a new dawn with endless potential”.

I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at a few minutes before 4 pm. I hope Members will bear that in mind. I call Munira Wilson.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) on securing the debate and for championing this issue with such expertise and passion for so many years. It is great to see her commitment and the support she has managed to secure from the Government recently. There is always much more that we can do, which is why we are here debating that today.

I will not take up much time—others can expect to have plenty of time to speak—but I want to touch briefly on the social care system for children and mental health, and how poor mental health affects infants in contact with the children’s social care system.

As we have heard, according to the Parent-Infant Foundation, a major predictor of the effect of an adverse childhood experience on a child’s development is how strong and secure their relationship is with their parents. For looked-after children or for children in kinship care, the relationship with their birth parent may be strained or non-existent. Abuse and neglect by caregivers will sometimes be the reason why babies are not living with their birth parents in the first place.

The foundation notes that this relational trauma can be more damaging than other forms of early trauma. The independent review of children’s social care—the MacAlister review—published a couple of weeks ago makes the same point. As we have heard, safe, stable and nurturing relationships serve as a buffer to adversity, build resilience and support children to develop skills to cope with future adversity in an adaptive and healthy manner. It is vital that the children who are most likely to have suffered early trauma are able to access the therapeutic support that they need.

I want to mention a couple of points. The first is NHS child and adolescent mental health services support for infants. I was struck by a Health Committee report, which found “highly concerning” the findings of a Parent-Infant Foundation survey of CAMHS professionals. Some 26% of respondents had not been trained to work with children aged zero to two, and only 36%—just over a third—agreed that there were mental health services in their area that could effectively work with children aged zero to two. Given that the NHS long-term plan commits the Government to achieving 100% access to specialist support for all children and young people aged zero to 25 by 2029, I would be interested to hear from the Minister how she expects that goal to be achieved for the under-threes.

Outside of the NHS, there are some fantastic voluntary sector organisations that are doing amazing work, and I particularly want to call out to an amazing charity in my own constituency. It is based in Twickenham itself and is called the Purple Elephant Project. The word “Elephant” is there because family bonds within a community of elephants are very strong apparently—more so than among other animals. Elephants display emotion when they are grieving or when the herd is under threat.

The charity was founded by a fantastic, inspirational woman called Jenny Haylock, who is a therapist herself. On their small site—they have just been able to install a beautiful little sensory garden thanks to funding secured from Richmond council recently—they offer play therapy, art therapy and other categories of therapy, including filial therapy, which is where parents and caregivers are part of the therapy with the children. The whole ethos is that parents and carers come in with the child. Even if the child is having separate therapy, there is a lovely space where parents can go to relax and recharge or have somebody to talk to. The charity is looking after the whole family, not just the child who has suffered whatever trauma. Jenny is also a specialist in adoption support.

I welcome the Government’s extension of the adoption support fund until 2025. Several of my constituents have told me how vital it is. We and the Minister are all well aware of how difficult it is to access CAMHS and therapy—that is well documented and we regularly hear examples in the main Chamber. I know that the adoption support fund has been a lifeline for a number of parents in my constituency whose children have needed therapy and support and have used the ASF to buy it in when they cannot access it in a timely manner from the NHS. Although the fund has been extended to 2025, I urge the Government to put it on a permanent footing.

Most of the 150,000 children in kinship care in England and Wales are not eligible for that funding, however. The ASF supports children who were previously in care but who are now subject to a special guardianship order or a child arrangement order, but those eligibility criteria are clearly nonsensical, because the majority of SGOs and CAOs are entered into by grandparents. Again, there are examples in my constituency of grandparents looking after their grandchildren because something has happened to the parents, who are no longer able to care for the children. That stops those children going into the care system, which saves the taxpayer a lot of money. We all know that the outcomes for children who enter kinship care—as opposed to care by people with whom they have no connection—tend to be better.

Kinship carers are unsung heroes. They save the taxpayer money, but they do not have the same rights as foster carers to weekly allowances or the entitlement to the ASF that adoptive parents have. There are almost twice as many children in kinship care as there are looked-after children—many would be in the care system were it not for their kinship carers—but many of them will have suffered the same or worse experiences of early trauma.

I urge the Minister to support Kinship’s campaign to widen the eligibility criteria for the adoption support fund. That is probably a matter for the Department for Education, so the Minister might not be able to give me a commitment today—the Chancellor might have something to say about it if she did—but I hope that she will take my request and see whether her colleagues at the DFE will consider widening the eligibility criteria for the ASF so that all children in kinship care can access the therapeutic support that they need.

The right hon. Lady said that every party believes that every child, regardless of their background, deserves the best start in life, and I echo those comments on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Too often, money spent on children’s services, the education system and therapeutic support for children and young people is viewed as a cost. To my mind, we should look at those as huge capital investments. We are not investing in buildings or roads, but we are investing in tiny little people who could be our future entrepreneurs, teachers, doctors and politicians. The return on investment from investing in children is huge, and I do not think that the Treasury fully appreciates that.

If there is another campaign that we can all gather around and make the case for, it is investment in children and young people. Although we would not see the return on investment in one, two or perhaps even three election cycles—it is a long-term thing—I hope that we can all come together to make the case for that investment, which will pay huge dividends. We all want our children to grow up happy and healthy, and to thrive and reach the very best of their potential.

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. The right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) deserves every credit. She and I came to this House in 2010, and she has spoken about this issue in Westminster Hall and in the main Chamber on many occasions since. She will correct me if I am wrong, but I do not think that there has been a time when I have not supported her in such debates.

I do that for a number of reasons: first, because of our friendship as MPs, but secondly, because I fully support and endorse the right hon. Lady on this issue. I am always challenged by her contributions because they are so full of detail and knowledge about the right way to do things. The input of mothers is so much greater than the input of the dad. As a father and not as a mum, I cannot take any credit for how my children turned out; it is really down to my wife. She is the lady who did all the hard work—I was very rarely there—so I recognise the role of the mother in particular is critical, and it moulds the child for the future. For that reason, I am really pleased to come along to this debate.

Will the hon. Gentleman join me in saying that it is a wonderful thing to see cultural change and dads taking a much more active role? My husband is the primary carer of our two children and is very much the dad at home, and he has been since they were tiny, while I have always been out there working.

I was reminded when the hon. Lady mentioned that that I was at a function last Friday for the centenary of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. One of the councillors of my party is a house dad and he looks after two children. I will not mention his name, but he said to me last week, “Jim, I’d rather be working.” I said, “You are working, you’re just looking after the children. It’s slightly different.” But yes, the hon. Lady is right; society is changing, and sometimes that is the way it is. I have to say that I do think the role of the mother is much more important. That is just me; maybe I am old fashioned. I just see a slightly different and more critical role for the lady.

A growing body of evidence from the fields of clinical and social science shows that the areas of the brain that control social and emotional development are most active during the first three years of a child’s life. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) referred to that, and referred to three to five years as well. That is important. Careful nurturing of a child’s social and emotional health during their early years is vital to provide them with the skills necessary to form relationships and interact with society later in life. It is so critical to get that right in those first few years. The hon. Lady has always said that in debates in the Chamber and elsewhere. I am my party’s health spokesperson, so I am pleased to be here, given my personal interest in the issue and as a grandfather with five grandchildren. The sixth is on the way, so we will shortly have a sixth one to nurture and look after. It means that the Shannon name will live on, and more so when the sixth grandchild arrives.

Developments start during pregnancy, and the choices and experiences of the mother during that period can have a significant impact on maternal and infant social and emotional health. With that in mind, Northern Ireland has a dedicated mental health strategy. I know that the Minister is aware of all those things, not just because some of her ancestry comes from that part of the world, but also because she makes it her job to be aware of what is happening in the regional Administrations. Although we have a mental health strategy in place, the pressures of lockdown and covid have greatly impacted child mental health, and any strategy must take that into consideration.

I want to focus on that issue, which the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire referred to in relation to covid. Covid has put extra pressure on what the right hon. Lady is trying to achieve, and what we are trying to achieve in this debate. We have more children than ever who, as we say in Northern Ireland, make strange with strangers. I will try to explain what that really means. The right hon. Lady referred to isolation during covid, and it is as critical and stark as that. Covid babies were literally prevented from seeing other children; that is a fact of life. “Being strange with strangers” means nothing more than not knowing how to act with wee children of their age or how to react to adults who want to be friendly and acknowledge them. Children being strange with strangers, having not seen other children and adults during formative periods of their lives, is a critical issue that needs to be addressed.

Ever mindful that health, education and so on are devolved matters—although the issue for Northern Ireland will be similar to here—I have a major ask of the Minister, which I will be happy if she can respond to. What extra assistance, help, funding or advice can be given to parents whose children were born or were between two and five during covid—those two stark years when life was so different and we could not interact? What can be done to address that issue as we come out of covid and move forward in a constructive way?

Naomi from my office—who is my speechwriter, by the way; I keep her busy and make sure that she is across all these things—and I are of a kindred mind and spirit, so it is easy for us to discuss the issues that I want to speak about, because we look at how to do things the same way. She helps with the creche and the children’s church on Sunday morning, and she has told me, based on her personal experience, that it is only after a full year of being back that some mothers can slip back into the main service without their children getting upset. Let me explain what that means, Madam Chair. In the last two years, the covid pandemic put pressures on families like never before, which meant that the children probably did not leave their mum very often. Now that the creche and the children’s church is back, the children are able to stay there and their mums are able to leave.

That wee period is an example. In Naomi’s opinion, it has taken a year for those children to feel safe, even in a safe place—wow!—if their mother is not there. My fear is for those mothers who have been unable to leave their children—those who do not attend church, do not have a creche or nursery, or do not have access to other adults who could help. The right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire said how important it was for mums to have another mum to talk to, and even that was partially lost in the pandemic. I also wonder about pre-school and nursery children.

We must consider the effect of lockdown in a very detailed way. It is a genuinely big question to ask the Minister, but I see it in my constituency, and I am sure that everyone in this debate will be on the same page. I recently read a report by the National Children’s Bureau that highlighted the post-covid position. Although support for babies and infants, and their families has always been critical, the unprecedented covid-19 pandemic has refocused efforts on prevention and early intervention to address new or increasing risks, which is what this debate is really about.

Although it will be some time before the long-term impact of the pandemic is known, evidence already suggests a number of areas for concern, including the rising cost of living. The pandemic has moved on, but other things are impacting on young children, from babies right through to five-year-olds, including the cost of living and increasing fuel poverty. These are real things that every mother and every dad has to look at every day. I am no different from anybody else in this Chamber; I think that we are all the same. We are hearing regularly from our people and our constituents about these issues, and we worry about that. Again, that is not all the Minister’s responsibility; it is just to show the impact that these things are having.

Many people and families are increasingly reliant on food banks, which comes on top of already unacceptable child poverty rates, and against the evidence about the links between poverty and adverse childhood experiences. I never fail to get quite upset when I read those stories in the press about wee children who have been abused or, in the cases that make the press unfortunately, killed. I just cannot understand how those things can happen. I cannot understand the mindset of anybody who does that, and I cannot understand how social services did not step in earlier. This is just me, speaking from the outside. I find those stories quite painful to read, Madam Chair; I think we are all the same in that regard. Sometimes, you just have to flick over the page—not that you are disregarding it, but because it is so awful that you just cannot read it all. Those are some of the things of the day, along with concerns about parental mental ill-health, which is being driven by isolation, job uncertainty or the loss of a job, the loss of loved ones, illness and anxiety, among other factors.

I will just make a couple of quick points—I am coming to the end of my remarks; time is flying on here. I am greatly encouraged by foster families. The right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire is absolutely right about that. I know foster families who do some fantastic work, and they have a love for their children. Although they are not their biological children, they are their children. Those children get the love they did not have in their own homes, for whatever the reasons were. I know some foster families who have adopted maybe 20 or 30 children—that is incredible. They give affection and love, which is so necessary for a wee baby or small child between three and five, which are such important years.

Increased pressures in the home and the rising incidence of domestic violence—which is unfortunately another issue that happens with a regularity—are putting young children at risk of witnessing or experiencing abuse, and it impacts parental wellbeing. They see their mummy or daddy—let’s be honest, more often their mum—getting beaten, and that affects the child. The right hon. Lady is right: the experience of that three to five-year-old seeing that will have an impact for years to come. That is why this debate is critical and why over the years, when she has brought us to Westminster Hall and the Chamber, I was always there. I understand—not as good as the right hon. Lady does—what she is trying to achieve.

Services are facing pressure as they seek to continue the delivery of essential support to infants, parents and their families within the constantly changing environment that they find themselves in. The environment is changing all the time, and the pressures are great. There have been delays in access to services and support during lockdown and the pandemic, particularly for isolated and vulnerable families with newborns. Sometimes mothers have difficulty dealing with their children—it happens. It is a fact of life, but having someone to speak to and to help at that early time is so important.

The hon. Member for Twickenham is absolutely right about the need to invest in our children and young people. I see it as an investment and an opportunity to get it right, so that the children of the future can grow up to be Ministers, Chairs of Committees, doctors, teachers or MPs. We should give them the opportunity to do that. Let us get things right at the early stages. Every child deserves a good start in life, as the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire said. I agree wholeheartedly with that, and I hope the debate can in some way move us towards that.

The need is clear, and we need to be just as clear in our pathway to support and help and in how this will be funded and promoted in every area of this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am pleased to be an MP here and part of a nation that is united across the four regions. I say that to the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron)—she and I are good friends. It is important that we have a strategy and a way forward for all four regions to achieve what the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire said: giving every child a good start in life. If we could do that, we would be doing well.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) not just on securing the debate but on her ongoing passionate advocacy for our youngest citizens. It is a mission I am always happy to support her in.

One of the things that awoke my interest in this area was during the covid lockdown; both the right hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have spoken movingly about the impact that lockdown had on many families. I spoke to mums in my constituency who were having their first child in lockdown, with all those pressures on them, such as not having contact with their partner or their family during labour, or with informal or formal networks afterwards. I reflected on how different their experience was from mine over a decade ago, when I had my babies. My first impression was of the impact of that on maternal mental health—I was pleased to secure a debate on that topic in March 2021—but the issue of infant mental health is so closely linked to that. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire for her really detailed opening speech. We have the data and the evidence, and it very much underpins the anecdotal evidence from our own personal experiences and those of our constituents.

A number of great points have been made about how much the baby’s mental health is based on the quality of the parent-infant relationship, and how the parent’s responses shape how babies experience emotions, regulate their own emotions and express themselves. We have referred a great deal to the research, but 15% of children—more than four in an average classroom—will have developed a problematic relationship with their main caregiver as a result of unpredictable or hostile care. As we have already debated, that troubled start increases the risk of children having poorer social and emotional wellbeing across their lives, and the ongoing and lasting impact that that can have.

My constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), talked about some of the gaps in services to support infant mental health. We really must focus on that. There are currently 42 specialised parent-infant relationship teams in the UK, which focus on strengthening and rebuilding those early relationships. That means that most babies live in an area without access to such a team. They are multidisciplinary teams led by mental health professionals with expertise in working with babies and families.

A key area of focus is working with families that have experienced intergenerational trauma. With the right care, the trauma experienced by parents does not have to inform their infant’s development. However, it is so important that specialised services are there to detect such instances and are equipped with the skills and funding to intervene and support families where needed.

I will briefly touch on the experience of dads, which has been raised on a couple of occasions. I recently visited my local maternal mental health crisis unit, and I was surprised to find that there is no systematic care given to dads who experience mental health problems when their partners are pregnant. It might get picked up if their partner is coming for care, but it very much flies under the radar. In particular, we know that domestic violence can often commence during pregnancy. I see that as a direct result, perhaps, of men’s struggles with mental health as they become fathers. I therefore think it is a matter of real urgency that we pick up the matter of dads’ mental health, particularly from the beginning of pregnancy.

It is also important that mental health professionals can spot the signs of poor mental health in our youngest children, who cannot express their emotions in the same way that older children are able to. The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned the reviews of some of the horrific cases of child death that have been carried out recently—I am thinking of Star Hobson and Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. I do not want to talk too much about them, for the same reasons as he did not. I just cannot—it is just too much. But I really hope that someone is looking at that and thinking about what could have been done to detect the signs of mental distress in those young people who could not express it for themselves. We must be training people for some of these crisis situations, so that they can pick up on the mental health of young people who have difficult, damaged or problematic relationships with their caregivers and do not know how to express themselves, but are at risk of real harm if that mental distress is not picked up on.

Whenever I get the opportunity, I like to highlight the importance of health visiting. That is something that I picked up when I spoke to the first-time mums during lockdown. For full disclosure, my own mother is a health visitor, so I have been raised to regard health visiting as a wonderful thing, but that has been my experience as well. The importance of health visitors is that they visit—or should visit—every new mother, and her family, in her home. For those mothers who are finding it hard to reach out, it is an invaluable service to have somebody coming to them and asking if they are okay. We really must continue to support it. On infant mental health in particular, health visitors are uniquely placed to identify concerns, spot issues in early relationship and attachment forming, and identify where infant mental health may be an issue.

Families should receive a minimum of five mandated reviews by a health visitor between pregnancy and age two and a half, but even before the pandemic, many children were not receiving those core contacts. Over the course of the pandemic, the number of missed contacts has increased further, despite the fact that many reviews were conducted online or over the phone. One thing I am really concerned about is that we must not allow telephone or Zoom visits to become the new normal, because we will miss out so much from not visiting mothers in their home. Evidence of domestic violence and, in particular, the subject we are discussing today—those attachment disorders—will not be so evident if health visitor visits move to some sort of digital contact.

In 2015, responsibility for health visiting was transferred to local authorities. Since then, it is estimated that 30% of the health visiting workforce has been lost, with further losses expected. As with many local services, there is something of a postcode lottery in the availability and quality of support. My team and I have spoken to health visitors in north Kingston—the team that supported me when my children were babies—and they reiterated that currently, their biggest challenge is workforce issues. Almost 25% of their current health visiting team is due to retire in the next few years, and they are struggling to find candidates for the vacant roles. They recently advertised a vacancy that received just one application, and that person then decided that they would not take the post.

Health visitors work in relatively small teams with large case loads; in north Kingston, there are about 600 cases for every health visitor. That is unsustainable, not least because it forces health visitors to focus their resources on the most at-risk families. As we know, these problems can occur in all kinds of families from all backgrounds and income groups, so it is really important that we push for health visiting to remain a universal service with home visits.

I will end by stressing the importance of face-to-face contact, and that the health visiting service needs support and investment in its workforce. More than anything, we want to join up the agencies, so that the Department of Health and Social Care is working closely with the local authorities to make sure that the right information is being passed between agencies. If health visitors pick up anything concerning, they must be able to speak immediately to the other agencies surrounding the family, so that we do not have to read too many more distressing case reports like those I mentioned. The £300 million Start for Life programme that has recently been announced is wonderful—it will be great—but there is no funding in it for health visiting services. The funding sits within the DHSC, which is separate from health visiting; again, joining that up would make a huge difference.

With fragmentation, there is a risk that things will fall through the gaps. The one thing that we have all said clearly today is that the consequences of allowing that to happen are too big, both for our individual children—all those future MPs who we are looking forward to welcoming to this place—and for our society as a whole. We want to do everything we can to give little babies and children in every corner of the United Kingdom—in every part of the country—the best possible start. That includes supporting their mental health from the earliest days.

Thank you, Mrs Murray; it is a pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of such an esteemed lady and parliamentarian, who is friendly to all.

I thank the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), and congratulate her on securing such a vital debate. Having worked all my life as a psychologist prior to coming to the House, I think it is fantastic that there are champions for this issue in this place, because setting the right foundation right across the United Kingdom and giving people opportunities to thrive from their earliest days is a fundamental premise for creating a healthy society. The right hon. Lady should never underestimate the value of the work she is doing in this House, not just today but for generations to come. I wish her all the best with her early years review, and will gratefully give any support that I can offer.

We also heard from the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), who spoke about the social care system for children and the particular plight of children in care, which goes back to the disorganised attachment styles that were mentioned. In fact, this debate has taken me right to my psychology days—I trained a long time ago—and Bowlby’s theory of attachment, which is the foundation for much of what we are speaking about today. It is so important that if a parent is not there, there is a trusted and secure caregiver. It does not have to be the mother. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, it is often the mother, but it can be the father or another trusted adult. The important thing is that there is a secure attachment.

The hon. Member for Twickenham was spot on when she spoke about why having disruption in early childhood—particularly for children who go into care settings—can have an adverse impact. We must make sure that trusted, secure and stable relationships are built and provided throughout every child’s life. That is vital, and we must support it.

The hon. Member also spoke eloquently about CAMHS support for infants and why it is so crucial. Helen Clark, a former MP who leads on the child mental health charter, is doing vital work on that through the charter with Play Therapy UK. There are many therapies that should be open and available to families with infants, including family therapy, behaviour therapy, which I used to do when I was practising many moons ago with very young children, and play therapy.

I will never forget the feeling of looking out of the window during covid when the council was opening up the playpark across the road from my house and seeing the children, including my own, running to it. There is something very therapeutic and nurturing about peer support and being able to play in a positive environment. I experienced that exact sentiment when I visited refugee centres in Lebanon. One of the most fundamental changes for those young children was the building of a playpark in the refugee centre. They were able to smile and laugh and play. Therapeutic involvement is vital, as is having natural environments that enhance wellbeing. I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham for her contribution.

The hon. Member for Strangford is an absolute stalwart of this issue and so many others in the House. He spoke about the impact of covid-19 on children’s development. There will have to be a lot of research done into that, because we may not see the full impact for years to come. Longitudinal studies will be needed to address that. We must all come together to ensure that funding, support and programmes are put in place so that children have every opportunity to catch up with the socialisation and education they have missed during this critical period.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) made an important contribution about gaps in service and maternal mental health. She also gave a shout-out for dads’ mental health, which is rarely mentioned but is so crucial. When I first came to the House, my husband took on many more of the activities I had usually done. The first week I came back from Parliament, I opened the fridge door and there were a whole host of Tupperware dishes in the fridge. I said, “What’s this? Where did it come from?” The neighbours had very kindly handed him food for himself and our children, because they assumed that they would be reliant on me and not him. I do not think he needed the food, because he stepped up to the mark, but it still shows that we cannot value fathers enough. They are all-round heroes when it comes to early childhood development.

The hon. Member also mentioned health visiting and face-to-face contact, which is extremely important. As chair of the all-party parliamentary health group, I know that face-to-face contact is vital for people. Particularly when they are speaking about mental health and wellbeing, they find it very difficult to do that over Zoom. They often do not bring it up at all in that format or over the phone. It is important that they have a personal relationship that is built up over time. The same can be said for GPs: it is vital that people can get back to seeing their GPs face to face, and we will be carrying out an inquiry into those issues.

I want to quickly mention adverse childhood experiences. I worked in and out of young offenders institutions and prisons for adults for a number of years, which involved visiting people because of their mental health issues and doing mental health assessments. Very few of the people I assessed after they had ended up in the criminal justice system did not speak of some trauma in childhood. The more we can do at the earliest stage, the better, in order to give people a path that will lead them to a fulfilling life. Early difficulties do not always lead to criminal justice problems, but there is a significant correlation, if not causation. We know the risk factors, and we must do all that we can. The British Psychological Society has highlighted that preschool children of parents with poor mental health are three times more likely than the general population to have mental health difficulties, so there is an intergenerational aspect, and we have to help with wellbeing more generally and across the lifespan for families.

Having come from being a psychologist to working as an MP, I see that we are not picking up young people who have autistic spectrum disorder or learning difficulties early enough. Those assessments can be done before they start school. The people who come to see me at my constituency surgery often tell me, “I have been saying for years and years that I need an assessment,” yet the waiting lists preclude that happening at the right time. Two years is a long time in the context of childhood development and the developmental milestones that children may not reach at the correct time because they do not have additional support to help them catch up, so we need to get early diagnosis through children and families hubs, or through community health services. As chair of the all-party parliamentary health group, I can say that this is an issue right across the UK, because I hear about it from people right across the UK. Parents are asking for help, and they need to have it.

Parenting programmes are vital. Our school system has become so dynamic that some of the things that we did when I was at school have been lost. Yesterday I spoke to a nutritionist, who told me that he is having to do a lot of work with parents on nutrition for infants. He said that some parents never undertook any kind of cooking at school—it was called home economics when I was there—and are blitzing McDonald’s to feed young infants. These are things that are fundamental for parenting support, and we need to make sure that we put them in place. We need access to paediatric care, including psychology and types of therapy such as play therapy, and we need parity between mental health and physical health. Looking at the wellbeing recovery from the covid pandemic will be key, and parenting programmes for parents who feel that they need a bit of extra support will be vital.

It would be lax of me not to quickly mention some of the work that the Scottish Government are doing. We have the baby box, which has been delivered to more than 200,000 families since 2017. It ensures that we in Scotland welcome every child, and that children have a basic provision for the first few months of their lives. We are saying very positively, “You’re welcome. We want to do our best for you throughout your life.” The Scottish Government also recognise the significant impact of the covid-19 pandemic and are doing work to address the issues that I have raised. We have the Best Start five-year plan for neonatal care, and perinatal and infant mental health programme boards have been set up. A number of increased payments and grants have been made too.

I concur with what I have heard in the debate, and I want to work wholeheartedly with everybody who is working in this vital area. It has been nice to be taken back such a long time—many decades—to my education as a psychology graduate and to Bowlby’s important theory of attachment. We should ensure that the work of Infant Mental Health Week is taken forward every week of the year, and especially that we hold infant mental health as a key issue in our work in Parliament.

It is a pleasure to wind up for the Opposition with you in the Chair, Mrs Murray. I thank the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) for securing this extremely important debate for Infant Mental Health Awareness Week, and all hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions this afternoon.

I know I say this sometimes in Westminster Hall debates, but there really are some debates that unite us all. Infant mental health is one such issue. I am delighted to say that I have learned a lot and am filled with the powerful advocacy that has come out of every single wonderful contribution today. It is good to know that there are such powerful advocates in this room. I thank the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire for all the work that she has done in this space.

We are all here today because we recognise that adverse childhood experiences are the key driver of mental illness in later life. We have many experts in the room today. The last two years have shone a light on the problem. The pandemic has hit the poorest and the most vulnerable children the hardest, highlighting the inequalities in our society that are very hard to escape—children with chaotic home lives; children in overcrowded, noisy housing; and children from black and ethnic minority communities who suffer disproportionately from worse outcomes and worse mental health provision than white communities.

In 2018 it was estimated that 50,000 children aged zero to five lived in homes where domestic violence, adult drug or alcohol dependency and adult mental illness were all present. Children and adults living in households in the lowest 20% income bracket are two to three times more likely to develop mental health problems than those in the highest.

There was already a crisis in child and adolescent mental health provision in this country, even before the pandemic, and the virus has undoubtedly made it worse. The latest report by the Children’s Commissioner shows that demand for child and adolescent mental health services increased, with one in six children suffering from a probable mental health condition, up from one in nine in just 2017—that is one in six. Yet only a third of children were able to actually access treatment, and 42% of child and adolescent mental health services in England do not accept referrals for children aged two and under.

Why should someone’s ability to access preventative services or treatment be determined by where they live? Poor mental health in childhood is carried into adulthood. As we have heard many times, what happens today will impact on demand for mental health services tomorrow. As the old saying goes, prevention is better than cure. That is why we have a range of public health measures in place for children—check-ups for eyesight, hearing and growth; vaccinations to protect against measles, mumps, and rubella. Yet we ignore the wisdom of the ages when it comes to children’s mental health.

Improving infant mental health is all about prevention. With early intervention in those critical 1,001 days, families and infants can be supported. As a doctor, I know that adverse childhood experiences are a key contributing factor to poor mental health in adulthood. In A&E, I see increasingly younger children coming in who have self-harmed or who are living with eating disorders. It is simply heartbreaking. For parents, it is absolutely agonizing.

It should be a badge of shame for the Government that three quarters of children were not seen within four weeks of being referred to children’s mental health services. Imagine being a mum or dad whose child is self-harming or presenting with symptoms of depression, anxiety or phobias, and being without special support for more than a month.

There has been a 77% rise in the number of children needing specialist treatment for a severe mental health crisis between April 2021 and October 2021 compared with the same period in 2019. According to the latest report from the Children’s Commissioner, waiting times depend on where someone lives. When they eventually are seen, services may be hundreds of miles away.

I invite the Minister to please tell the House what new measures the Government are taking in relation to infants and their parents—I am looking for new measures. What new money is being allocated to child and adolescent mental health services, and where is it going? How many new mental health staff will be recruited? Are there plans for specialised parent-infant relationship teams for the infants most at risk? How will they tackle mental health inequalities along the lines of place, race, class and income? With respect, in every mental health debate we hear about the £2.3 billion allocated to mental health, but it seems to get spent five to 10 times over. I would like specific answers to my specific questions.

The Labour Government are committed to improving infant and child mental health. We will guarantee mental health treatment within a month for all who need it, ensuring that patients start receiving appropriate treatment—not simply an initial assessment of needs—within a month of referral. We will recruit 8,500 new staff so that 1 million additional people can access treatment every year by the end of Labour’s first term in office, and we will provide specialist mental health support in every school and put an open-access mental health hub for children and young people in every single community, ensuring that every child has somewhere safe and secure to talk about their mental health.

As it stands, our children are being failed on prevention, on access to treatment and on funding, and we are failing to support their families. The system is stretched to breaking point. The staff are exhausted, the children are suffering, and parents do not know where to turn. I plead with the Minister today to take action before it is too late for another generation of children.

It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) and congratulate her on securing the debate. I soaked up her speech—when she used that phrase, I felt that that was what I was doing. It was insightful and educational, and all of us got the benefit of her 25 years of experience and understanding of what we need to do and how we should do it. As we know, in this place quite often we can appreciate the problems, but it is much harder to come up with the solutions. I know that her work has been vital in doing that and in helping the Government shape policy in this area.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions and their support for this initiative. We are at the very beginning of this journey and we want to keep that collegiate approach. We have a real opportunity to shape this and, as in many of the areas that I am responsible for, it is not particularly party political. It is really about how we impact real people’s lives, and in this case babies.

It is clear to us all that the development of babies is incredible and needs lots of vital support in the first years. They are born with more brain cells than there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy. If a baby is loved and receives care, their brain flourishes, laying the foundations for good future physical and mental health. That is why the first 1,001 days have been described as critical for development. There is a real understanding of that now, and that is undisputed. It is also why I am delighted to speak about this important topic and also work on developing the new services. I welcome being able to do so during Infant Mental Health Awareness Week.

Infant mental health refers to social, emotional and cognitive development. For good infant mental health, babies need parents or carers who will consistently meet their needs, as outlined by my right hon. Friend, because that leads to secure attachment relationships. Over 60 years of research tells us that that is related to positive long-term developmental outcomes, from improved emotional development and school readiness to reduced rates of offending, as mentioned by the shadow spokesperson for the SNP, the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron).

Having a baby can be a time of great joy, but also a time of challenge and change. Many new parents get the support that they need from midwifery and health visiting teams, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), whose mother I thank for her service. I am sure she has helped a lot of parents and families in her time. Many new parents get support from family and friends as well. We talked about how a lot of that could not happen during covid when it was a very difficult time for many new parents. We know that having a baby can be a time of great challenge. With or without a pandemic, it is a time of great change. There are many reasons why a new parent may struggle, from social isolation, as has been mentioned, financial stress, a traumatic birth, relationship difficulties or their own experiences of early trauma. Without the right support this can impact parents and babies alike.

Perinatal mental health difficulties are common. Approximately one in five mothers and one in 10 fathers experience mental health difficulties during the 1,001 critical days. They are critical days, but also difficult days, which is why the numbers are so high, and parental mental health difficulties are associated with increased rates of mental health difficulties in children. As has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, these difficulties can be passed on.

Parent-infant relationship difficulties are common. They can involve a parent struggling to bond with their baby, or may relate to a perinatal mental health difficulty. Although exact prevalence is difficult to establish, some estimates indicate that approximately 40% of babies have insecure attachment and 10% have a disorganised attachment style. Both are associated with an array of long-term developmental outcomes.

I recently visited Knowsley’s building attachment and bonds service, which is one of the new services being trialled and introduced. It is on the same estate where I went to school—I literally passed my old school—so the area was very familiar, and I was familiar with the problems the service was trying to deal with. I saw at first hand that relationships are everything and that early intervention is crucial. I met a mum there, with her baby. She had had several children and had problems, and she was no longer with the children. With this baby, the service had put in a lot of effort to keep mum, dad and baby together, and to make sure that they built that family. It was making a massive difference, and her other children have since come back to join her. The service was changing everything about the outcome not just for the baby, but for the other children in the family as well. These issues are why ensuring that every baby gets the best start in life is of central importance to this Government.

As all hon. Members said, this is an investment in the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society, and it is part of our ambition to level up health outcomes and opportunities across the country. Our vision is for every parent and carer to have access to high-quality universal services in their local area. That is set out in “The Best Start for Life: A Vision for the 1,001 Critical Days”, published by the early years healthy development review in March 2021. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire for her inspirational work enabling us to support the implementation of this vision.

The Government are investing £302 million to improve start for life services and to create a network of family hubs in 75 local authorities in England. The funding will help bring services for families together into one place, improving their access to support, advice and services. This funding package includes £100 million for perinatal mental health and parent-infant relationship support, £50 million for breastfeeding support and £50 million for parenting support. This significant £100 million investment will improve access to mental health support for babies from conception up to the age of two, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson). It will help us build the workforce in order to fill the gap we see at the moment.

The funding will tackle entrenched inequalities in communities, as mentioned by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), and we announced the 75 local authority areas that are eligible for a share of this funding in April. The funding will be targeted at local authorities with disproportionate poor health and educational outcomes, and I am pretty sure that Knowsley, where I am from, has been included in that group. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire once stood for election in Knowsley. Since that announcement, we have been working with the eligible local authorities and a range of expert stakeholders to further develop the programme. We will share a draft programme guide, detailing how local authorities can make the most of the funding, in the coming weeks.

The investment will complement the ambitions set out in the NHS long-term plan, as referred to by the hon. Member for Twickenham. It will deliver the fastest expansion in mental health services in NHS history, with 345,000 more children and young people having access to specialist, NHS-funded mental health care. That ambition is backed by the additional £2.3 billion a year for mental health, but we have not actually spent a penny of it yet, because it is by 2023-24. That is when this amount kicks in, and it will be for years thereafter.

Obviously, the workforce is vital. It is clear that we have to invest in developing the modern, diverse and highly skilled workforce that we will need to support babies and families by trialling and evaluating innovative workforce models in five local authorities. That is what we will be doing to ensure that we have the right mix and blend. Obviously, health visitors are also a key part of that; they were mentioned by the hon. Member for Richmond Park.

With regard to 2029, we obviously know that the training of more clinical psychologists, child and adolescent psychotherapists, psychiatrists and the perinatal workforce will require additional capacity across the current education and service providers, all of which are currently operating at full capacity or are limited. We have immediate action —at the moment—to model the workforce to support the development of new roles, new ways of working, and upskilling, particularly with regard to the perinatal, primary and community workforce, including health visitors. We are working with Health Education England, NHS England and NHS Improvement to ensure that we have this workforce plan to sit alongside the new 10-year mental health plan. When we publish that, we will be putting that together, so we absolutely recognise that this is critical. The training time, as the hon. Lady will be able to vouch for, is a long time, so we have to innovate; we have to do things differently. Otherwise, it will take too long and too many people will not benefit from what we all know is required.

We have heard from families that stigma is a real barrier to their seeking support. I really identify with that; I definitely saw it growing up in Knowsley. My friend used to run the Sure Start centre there, and it was clear that she found it very difficult to access the people that she knew she needed to access, because stigma got in the way. To reduce the stigma associated with perinatal mental health difficulties and parent-infant relationships, we must have a multifaceted approach. That includes ensuring that the family hub is a welcoming place for all families; sharing key messages about perinatal mental wellbeing and good parent-infant relationships; and enabling the workforce, paid and voluntary, to feel comfortable and confident to have conversations with families about mental health, bonding and attachment. Those are difficult conversations to have.

Needless to say, there is little point in tackling stigma if not enough support is available. As has been mentioned, there is currently huge variation in the availability of early intervention and preventative support across the country. Some areas have robust and very good offers, including universal antenatal education classes, peer support services for breastfeeding and mental health, and drop-in sessions at the local family hub. In other places, support may be available only if difficulties become particularly severe. That feeds into the stigma, because only when something is going wrong do people get access to the services. That is why the universal nature of the services is vital.

There is also a discrepancy in the perinatal mental health support that is available for mothers and for fathers and co-parents. That was mentioned by the hon. Members for Twickenham and for Richmond Park. We know that more than one in three new fathers are concerned about their mental health in the perinatal period. We identified that gap in provision of support for fathers or co-parents experiencing perinatal mental health difficulties, particularly if the mother is not experiencing any difficulties—then they will not be picked up in the same way. That inequality of access has an impact on the baby’s mental health and wellbeing. A positive relationship with both carers would lead to better long-term developmental outcomes. That is recognised; it is identified as a gap, so support will be provided.

Lastly, none of this will be achieved and achievable without a knowledgeable, skilled and confident workforce. This investment is an opportunity to improve workforce capability and capacity. We understand the workforce challenges and will encourage local areas to create capacity by incorporating greater skill mix in clinically led teams, relieving the pressure on existing teams. The funding available through the Start for Life programme will enhance capacity across a range of professions and volunteers, and improve capability through training. That will build the knowledge and confidence of the workforce needed to provide mental health support. The family hub model will enable families to receive support with perinatal mental health and parent-infant relationship difficulties. That investment will build on existing provision while responding to local needs.

Before I draw my speech to a close, I want to acknowledge the important contribution of two other Government initiatives. First, there has been an additional £200 million investment in the supporting families programme. That will enable local authorities and their partners to provide help earlier, and promote better outcomes for an additional 300,000 families, including families with babies. Secondly, we have launched a consultation to develop a new 10-year plan for mental health. The consultation is open until 7 July. We are concerned to try and get more people responding to that, particularly from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. Members could help to spread the message, to ensure that we get more representations from people with those characteristics. The mental health plan includes specific questions relating to babies and their parents or carers, in recognition of the distinct needs in the first 1,001 critical days. We look forward to seeing the results of that consultation. As I have said, please spread the word.

I will end by reassuring my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire that early intervention and prevention sit at the top of this Government’s mental health priorities. We are committed to ensuring that babies and their families get the support they need to make sure they get the very best start in life.

What a fantastic debate. We need to keep doing this—it is wonderful. Every time we get together, we have the most positive and constructive discussion about what is, in my view, the most significant contribution we can make to building a happier, healthier and more successful society.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), who recently held a Home-Start celebration. I remind her that one of the people there trying to get money from all of us told a wonderful story about how, sadly, he had lost his mum when he was quite young. His mum was on her death bed, and he was thanking her for being such a wonderful mother, and she said to him, “I’m not a wonderful mother; I was just well parented and I passed it on.” I thought that summed it up. That is what we need to do—we need to make sure that every family gets well parented so that they can parent well.

As a postscript, I will admit to something weird. I chair the review, so all the stuff that the Minister is talking about is well known to me. However, it is so lovely to hear her saying it. It feels like it is actually happening—it is not just a figment of my imagination. I thank colleagues for a wonderful debate.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Infant Mental Health Week 2022.

Sitting adjourned.