Tuesday 21 June 2022
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
World Press Freedom Day
I beg to move,
That this House has considered World Press Freedom Day 2022.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. In the 21st century, speaking truth to power is an increasingly dangerous business. While we have in our minds the war in Ukraine and Russia’s atrocities in that country, I want to start the debate by remembering the eight journalists who, as they have gone about trying to show the world the truth of Russia’s atrocities in that country, have been murdered in their line of work. Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff, a French journalist working for BFMTV, was killed on 30 May 2022. Mantas Kvedaravičius, a documentary film maker, was killed on 2 April. Maks Levin, a photo reporter for Reuters, was found dead on 1 April. Oksana Baulina, a journalist for The Insider, was killed on 23 March. Brent Renaud, a documentary film maker, was killed on 13 March. Oleksandra Kuvshynova was killed on 14 March. Pierre Zakrzewski, a journalist for Fox News, was killed on 14 March. And Evgeny Sakun, a media assistant for the Kyiv Live TV channel, was killed on 1 March.
They are among the 29 journalists and two media assistants who have lost their lives in their line of work this year so far. There have been eight in Ukraine and eight in Mexico. There are also atrocities against journalists and suppression of journalists’ voices elsewhere in the world, particularly among the freedom movement in Hong Kong, and in Ethiopia, where commentary on the brutal civil war has been banned by the Government. These people are trying to inform the world and inform the communities that they serve of the truth of what is happening, and for it they are losing their lives.
When we had the debate last year on World Press Freedom Day and also strategic lawsuits against journalists, I mentioned the case of Catherine Belton, and it is nice to know that people do listen to these debates when we gather together in Westminster Hall. In that case, the person who listened to it was a public relations representative, working for Roman Abramovich, who wanted to call me in to speak about what a great humanitarian he was and why some of the issues raised in Catherine Belton’s book, “Putin’s People”, did not accurately reflect those issues as he saw them. They say a week is a long time in politics. A year is an eternity, and the work of journalists such as Catherine Belton highlighting the activities of Russian oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich has now come to much fuller attention and, as a consequence of the war in Ukraine, some of these issues are taken much more seriously now than they were a year ago.
We now take much more seriously the web of networks and influence of highly wealthy people, particularly oligarchs from countries such as Russia, and the way they have sought to suppress commentary and suppress the active work of journalists to hold them to account. It is right that, under the sanctions regime, the use by such people of London lawyers and London PR firms has been restricted, but we must recognise that that has also been a considerable issue in the suppression of free speech and a free press brought about by wealthy people using British courts to close down British journalists speaking truth to power. The Government want to bring in new legislation, particularly with regard to strategic lawsuits and the abuse of the courts to silence commentary in the press. It is important that we consider a wide range of issues, such as the need for a proper register of people who work for foreign Governments but work in the UK without declaring that interest, as we create a much better legal framework for journalists to operate in.
Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, we have also been reminded of just how vital our own news-gathering services are. I was pleased to see the Government award an additional £4 million to the BBC World Service to support its commentary on the war in Ukraine and political relations in Belarus and in Russia in particular. Even though the Russian Government have sought to close down British reporting and the BBC in those countries, we have still been able to help people to access the news from the BBC through alternative routes. Some people are using, and have been shown how to use and download, VPNs—virtual private networks—so that they can still access BBC services from within Russia without the knowledge or sight of the Russian Government. The use and the ability of our infrastructure to report news, to share news and to get truth to people around the world is increasingly important, and it is right that we continue to support strongly the World Service and the work of British journalists around the world.
We are seeing an important change in the UK as well with the introduction of the Online Safety Bill, which is currently before Parliament, and in the Queen’s Speech, the commitment from the Government to bring in competition legislation in the digital environment is very important as well. First, with regard to digital competition, it is right that all journalists and news organisations have a fair opportunity to reach their audiences, and that all those organisations have the right to be fairly compensated for the use of their media.
One of the biggest acts of suppression of journalistic voices in the past 20 years has been the demonetisation of media as a consequence of the aggregation of social media platforms. It is much harder for newspapers to make money as they used to, by selling advertising to place against news stories to pay for the journalism that goes into reporting them, if they cannot be remunerated. The way in which social media platforms aggregate news by allowing people to share stories but not sharing any of the data or information about that news and information with the journalists and the news organisation that created it in the first place has taken a lot of money out of the market.
We have all seen our own local news organisations hollowed out. They are much smaller than they used to be and can employ far fewer journalists. That has affected national as well as local media, and we should take that issue very seriously. The introduction, through competition legislation, of a news bargaining code, similar to the one already created in Australia, will be hugely beneficial to media in this country. It will mean that the big tech platforms such as Google and Facebook will have to make a contribution to the news organisations whose content they profit from but do not currently share the benefits of that profit with.
The code has been introduced in Australia with considerable impact. It is enabling news organisations to hire journalists again and to beef up their reporting capability in a way that they could not have done before. Canada is looking at introducing such legislation, and it will be welcome if we do that in the UK, too.
The second point about the Online Safety Bill is the protection of freedom of speech and the journalism that can exist within it. The Government have been asked, through the report of the Joint Committee that I chaired, to create a provision that journalistic content from a recognised news organisation should be presumed to have a right to be carried on platforms. It should not be for major social media platforms to become the editor-in-chief of what the free press can write about. There is a great danger that if platforms decide to strike down news content because they disagree with it, that content will not reach the audiences for which it is intended.
In the modern world a media organisation cannot not use services such as Facebook and YouTube to reach their audiences. There should therefore be a presumption that the news content produced by a recognised news organisation has the right to reach its audience, whether it is in line with the platform policies of a company or not. News content should have such an exemption because there are already existing routes to complain or take action against legitimate content when it is there. Ultimately, a news editor is legally responsible for all the coverage that they endorse and place in their publication. There are complaints procedures that people may use if they are unhappy with a story that has been written.
Ultimately, the mark of journalism is that people put their name to what they write. People are accountable for what they say and the stories that they tell to the world, and they can be challenged. Much of what is called journalism that exists on social media often does not correspond to those aspects at all. It is often produced by nameless, faceless people and organisations that do not exist, who seek to hide their identity in order to spread lies and disinformation. We have struggled to hold such people to account for the stories that they tell. In fact, a report and study produced by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate during the pandemic traced back most of the anti-vax disinformation in the world to just 12 sources that used their platforms to propagate disinformation around the web.
So we have to think about how legitimate journalism, written by credible journalists, can have the opportunity to reach an audience when it is competing not just against the forces of demonetisation, taking away the revenue that it should generate from producing good stories, but also against a wall and sea of disinformation that is propagated online. One way in which we can protect that is by ensuring that the news organisations are recognised, that they have a right to be carried, and that when their stories are there and are carried they can be challenged or disagreed with, not just struck down.
In the report of the Joint Committee that I chaired on the Online Safety Bill, we recommended that there should be a presumption to carry. The Government have said that they are interested in introducing special provisions in the Online Safety Bill requiring an online media platform that sought to take down a piece of journalistic content that it disagreed with from a recognised news organisation to give notice to the news company before doing so, and a period of time for an appeal process would be allowed. However, I think we can and should go further and say that there should be a presumption to carry, so that proper journalism from accredited news organisations can reach the audiences that it deserves.
It is now more important than ever that people have the opportunity to be challenged by issues that they disagree with, and that the funnels of social media through which people consume news, which tend to give people more extreme versions of what they agree with, can be challenged with alternative opinions. One of the benefits we have seen from the very brave work that journalists are doing, particularly in a war zone such as Ukraine, is that it is becoming harder and harder for states to suppress real news and information within their countries. The Ethiopian Government cannot cover up the atrocities that are taking place on a daily basis in Ethiopia, because of the way in which citizen journalists and others bring such information into the public domain. Similarly, film from within Ukraine about what is really happening on the ground and in cities such as Mariupol—reported by journalists some of whom I named at the beginning of the debate—cannot be suppressed when people can bring it to the world. We should be opening up those channels and making sure that their voices have a right to be heard.
I had not intended to intervene in this debate, because I am afraid that I have to leave. My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment on the Online Safety Bill; I am chairing it in Committee, so I am not allowed to speak about it. Before he sits down, will he pay tribute not only to the people who we see on “ITV News”, “Sky News” and “BBC News” every night from Ukraine and who are incredibly brave, but to the cameramen and soundmen behind them, who are unseen and unheard but equally brave?
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. As I said at the start, 29 journalists have died, as have two media assistants—exactly the sort of people he refers to. They work together on the frontline, and without the work of those production assistants, the stories that people seek to tell simply would not be heard, because they would not reach their audiences. It is absolutely a team effort. My right hon. Friend is right to say that sometimes we focus on the journalist we see on the screen, but they are just one person in a team who are integral to bringing that truth and that story to the world, and we should remember them as well.
The flashpoint of a war brings home the importance of truth and news. It brings home the reality of the suppression of free media in a world in which we seem to have an increasing number of authoritarian Governments, more restrictions on media and reporting, and a greater challenge to democracy. There is a lot more to being a democracy than holding elections, and the ability of people to speak truth to power, to challenge Governments with information that they do not want to hear, and to tell their stories is increasingly important. We have to acknowledge the fact that democracy is in retreat in many parts of the world. The first sign of that retreat is the suppression of the free press, which is why our ability to discuss that today in this House is so important.
The debate may last until 11 o’clock. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench speakers no later than 10.27 am, and the guideline limits are 10 minutes for the Scottish National party, 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, and 10 minutes for the Minister. Damian Collins will have two or three minutes at the end to sum up the debate. Until 10.27 am, we are in Back-Bench time. Five very distinguished Back Benchers are seeking to contribute. I do not wish to impose a time limit, but if everybody keeps themselves to about eight minutes, everybody will have an equal share of the debate. The individual who will lead by example is Kenny MacAskill.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). His speech was not just wide-ranging, but remarkably interesting and erudite. I congratulate him on bringing all those aspects to our attention, and I concur with him.
We are in difficult times, and it is important that we hold power to account so that the truth will out. To do so, we need to ensure that those who seek to expose it—often benevolently, and certainly under difficult circumstances—are protected. That is why I pay tribute to those whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but I would also put on record the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was sadly murdered by Israeli Defence Forces not that long ago. I was glad to see on Al Jazeera at breakfast time this morning that the matter is being pursued by the news organisation at the International Criminal Court.
The comments I want to make relate to our own country because we are not immune—either in the UK or, indeed, in Scotland. We are in a better position with regard to what is happening in Israel with the Palestinians and those who seek to report on that, and we are in a better position, obviously, with regard to what is happening in Ukraine, but we are by no means a paragon of virtue and we must ensure that we uphold the standards here, which brings me to the case of Julian Assange. I know that others will be commenting on it. The case is important because Mr Assange has brought power to account. He has exposed war crimes, as well as a lot of other malevolent actions—not simply by the United States of America, but by other Governments, including our own, but also, as I will go on to describe, the Government of Sweden.
I read with interest the book, which I think all MPs were sent, by Nils Melzer, “The Trial of Julian Assange”. I did not know of Mr Melzer before that, but he is the UN special rapporteur on torture. He narrated his journey to his conclusions about Julian Assange, and spoke out vehemently against what had happened. I share his position.
When I first heard of Julian Assange, I was surprised. There was reporting of a sexual misdemeanour in Sweden, a country I know well. One of my best friends in Edinburgh was the Swedish consul general, who I still keep in touch with although he has returned to Sweden. My son studied for two years in Gothenburg—not at the Chalmers University, which is a legacy of Scottish immigrants, but at the University of Gothenburg. I was and remain a big fan of Swedish social democracy, and indeed of Olof Palme. Surely this could not have happened in Sweden. Surely Sweden would not be involved in anything that was duplicitous or wrong. The sad thing is that it was. Clearly, Sweden has now exonerated and the investigation of Mr Assange there has come to an end. I have to draw the conclusion that Mr Assange exposed the fact that the Swedish security services were narrating that they were doing things and co-operating with the USA in a manner that their Government did not know about and probably would not have approved of, which may have had something to do with it.
What occurred with regard to Mr Assange in Sweden was shameful, and the United Kingdom is being both supine and sadly complicit in his return to the United States. He has committed no offence in the US other than to expose its war crimes. The US has given an assurance that it will not execute Mr Assange, but we know from the attitude of the US that he is unlikely to see the light of day from a federal prison if he is sent there, and given his current state of health he is unlikely to survive. It is simply unacceptable that we should have had the ongoing UK Government collusion, through the Ecuadorian embassy, with the US, and indeed even the US contemplating a hit job—to put it in its parlance—upon Mr Assange in this country.
Equally, we have to challenge some of the media reporting in this country. I, too, was shocked when I saw Mr Assange looking like some wild man of Borneo, being brought out of the Ecuadorian embassy. That did challenge people’s assumptions about who this person could be—somebody so dishevelled and who could appear like that. How could anybody possibly have any faith or trust in him?
Only when I read the book did I realise that Mr Assange had been detained, that the Ecuadorian Government had changed, that their attitude had changed, and that they had refused to allow in any cleaning equipment, as well as refusing him access to scissors or shaving items. Mr Assange looked like that, not because he chose to appear in such a way, but because he was deliberately set up so that when he was forced out of the Ecuadorian embassy his looks would leave people aghast and turn them against him. That was deliberate manipulation of the media, which is just as bad as a failure to report the truth.
I am conscious of time. I would have liked to say that my own country was exempt. I served for 20 years as a defence agent in Scotland and was proud of Scotland’s distinctive criminal justice system, and indeed its legal system. I also served for almost eight years as Justice Secretary, but something has gone fundamentally wrong, not with regard to Julian Assange, but with the situation of Craig Murray.
Craig Murray has spent almost six months in a Scottish prison for a reporting offence, while others who did similarly were not punished or even brought before the court. I shall leave that matter aside, as Craig Murray will seek to raise it with courts in Europe as appeal in Scotland is precluded, but the logic of Lady Dorrian, the presiding judge, in the actions taken by the prosecutors in Scotland was fundamentally wrong. They took the view that the mainstream media were all perfect—given what I have mentioned about Mr Assange, I have to wonder about that—but that bloggers were in a different category and should be treated differently. As the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe said, we are in a changing world. There are obviously issues with Twitter and social media platforms, with anonymous sources. The points made about those who post anti-vax content are quite correct; such material cannot be given any basis, support or substance. However, Mr Assange was quite clear in his facts. They were checked; everything was there. Mr Murray was doing something not dissimilar to what others had done, and yet he was singled out and picked on.
Her ladyship seemed to be suggesting that no cut or guarantee could be given, and that somehow the mainstream press were to be protected. Given that most incidents of people seeking recompense through claims for damages have involved the mainstream press, not bloggers such as Mr Murray and Mr Assange, that raises questions.
There has to be acceptance that society moves on. Just over 100 years ago, papers were closed down by the British Government because they were viewed as subversive during world war one. They became mainstream, because the Independent Labour party was elected to power. The paper that was the voice of the Independent Labour party was subscribed to by my parents. The logic of Lady Dorrian would be that that paper could not be a legitimate enterprise because it was not part of the mainstream press. It was legitimate almost immediately after the two weeks that it had been closed down. It had been legitimate because it had been bought by many before then.
Things move on and we live in a world where people do not buy newspapers. I say that with some sadness, as I am a fan of paid papers, and write for them. People go to online sites, and those who write for online sites and are legitimate—not the chancers putting up disinformation —require protection. It is right to challenge this situation. We must ensure we protect the media and truth throughout the world, but we must look to ourselves. The case of Mr Assange is a shame upon the United Kingdom, and the case of Craig Murray is a shame upon the current Government and judiciary in Scotland.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing the debate, on the second attempt, after Prorogation got in the way last time. As he said, we had this debate last year, when a great number of concerns were expressed. Since then, the freedom and safety of journalists have deteriorated markedly. The World Press Freedom Day global conference this year set the theme of journalism under digital siege. Sadly, since then, it is no longer under digital siege. Journalists are being killed simply trying to do their job, while displaying enormous courage in doing so.
The good news is that last year I lamented the fact that the United Kingdom was 33rd on the list of countries for press freedom, when I said we should be doing much better. I am pleased that this year we have been ranked at number 24. To some extent, that is not because of dramatic improvement in this country, although there has been improvement. It is more due to the disastrous deterioration in a large number of countries across the world.
I want to highlight some of the things we have done in this country. I was responsible for drawing up the national action plan for the safety of journalists, which has now been emulated in a number of countries. We talked to journalists, the National Union of Journalists, the Society of Editors, the News Media Association, the police, the prosecuting authorities and campaigning organisations, such as Reporters Without Borders and Index on Censorship, to draw up a strategy to improve the safety of journalists in the UK. We also issued a call for evidence, which had 360 responses and showed that a high proportion had encountered threats, violence or intimidation. One in three female journalists in the UK do not feel safe doing their job.
There is clearly still work to do, but measures are being taken. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s comments about the Online Safety Bill. It is an important measure, but we need to make sure that legitimate journalistic content is protected in the Bill. I welcome the measures already taken, but I think more could be done. I also strongly welcome the measure the Government are considering to counter SLAPPs—strategic lawsuits against public participation—which are used by rich oligarchs to try to suppress investigative journalism. I also welcome the measures to establish the digital markets unit, which, as my hon. Friend rightly says, will seek to try and right the balance between the big tech platforms and the news organisations on which they feed but to which they give little remuneration.
The UK’s record is generally good. I am also proud that this country was one of the founders of the Media Freedom Coalition across the world, with 50 countries now signed up to the global pledge. I lead the UK delegation to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly. We will meet for the annual conference in Birmingham next month and I am delighted that the motion I have tabled on the safety of journalists will be debated there.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe was right in saying that there are a large number of countries where journalism is quite a dangerous profession. In many cases, journalists have suffered intimidation, violence, imprisonment or sometimes even death. I want to concentrate on two countries in particular. The first is Ukraine, where journalists are displaying incredible bravery. My hon. Friend was quite right to name the eight who have sadly been killed during the course of the conflict. However, it is not just since the Russian invasion that journalists have been under threat.
I want to highlight one organisation, called Ukrayinska Pravda, or Ukrainian Truth, which was set up by two journalists in 2000. Since then, it has expanded and recently published a leaked list of more than 100,000 names of Russian military personnel inside Ukraine, as well as inventories of oligarchs’ yachts. It has fought corruption in that country. I want to put on record that the news organisation was founded by two people, Olena Prytula and Georgiy Gongadze, to expose corruption. In September 2000, Gongadze disappeared. Two months later, his beheaded body was discovered in farmland near Kiyv. Prytula was urged to flee. She did not; she carried on and established a relationship with another journalist, Pavel Sheremet. In July 2016, he too was murdered—assassinated when her car exploded while he was driving. Journalists have been working in Ukraine against corruption and against the Russian influence for a number of years. In doing so, they have too often paid the price with their lives.
The other country where media freedom has now almost been extinguished in its entirety is Russia itself. We know through Justice for Journalists that there were something like 24 attacks on journalists in the last few years, as well as 78 non-physical attacks, and Russia has now passed new laws that make it almost impossible for legitimate journalism to take place. It is now a crime even to describe what is happening in Ukraine as a war, and journalists are being imprisoned. As a result, independent journalism has been snuffed out. The Russian people are denied the ability to access the truth, because at the same time, Russia has closed down access to international social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, with the result that Russian people are dependent entirely on state-run and state-controlled media.
Most recently, Russia has retaliated against the work of independent journalists seeking to expose the truth of what is going on. I am one of the Members of this House—I have no doubt that others in this debate are also included—who are on the list of parliamentarians who have been sanctioned by Russia and are no longer allowed to visit the country. That list has now been extended to include 29 British journalists, and I have no doubt that Richard Sharp, Tim Davie, Clive Myrie, Nick Robinson and Orla Guerin will be almost flattered to find that they are on that list, in the same way that we almost regard it as a badge of honour to have been identified by Russia as people who speak out against the appalling abuses that are taking place in that country and which they are inflicting on Ukraine. It is not just the BBC but Cathy Newman of Channel 4, Sophy Ridge of Sky, John Witherow, Chris Evans and Kath Viner: some of the most distinguished journalists in Britain are all now banned, like ourselves, from visiting Russia.
I fear that media freedom is suffering very seriously across the world, but no more so than in Russia and Ukraine. The purpose of the debate is to cast a spotlight on that, and I hope that we will continue to do so each year as long as those abuses take place.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing a debate to mark World Press Freedom Day 2022, albeit a little delayed by Prorogation last month.
A lot has happened in the world over the past year, such as the withdrawal from Afghanistan and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. For those stories and many more, if we are interested we have a wealth of detail at our fingertips on mobile phones, laptops, physical newspapers and magazines on almost any issue. Whether light-hearted, serious, international or closer to home, there will be a series of articles available to bring readers the story.
It can be easy to forget the work that goes into each article—the research, investigation and writing itself. More than that, journalists may put themselves in great danger to report a story—often, the stories of the greatest importance that most need bringing into the light of day for public consumption. I want to speak about a woman who paid the ultimate price in the name of journalism. It is still a largely male-dominated field and the achievements of women in the industry are no small success. This story feels quite important in the light of the current situation in Ukraine. I have said before that the crimes of Putin or the Russian state must not be unfairly attributed to every Russian citizen: this story highlights the power of Russian journalists perfectly, should they choose to use it.
In addition to her career as a journalist, Anna Politkovskaya was a dedicated human rights activist. She made her name covering Russian political events, most notably during the second Chechen war. Her reporting of what was happening in Chechnya was award-winning, highlighting many human rights abuses by Russian military forces and the pro-Putin regime. She painted a picture of the brutal conflict and the atrocious acts both throughout the war and after it—torture, abductions and murders. She was highly critical of Putin and the federal security service in Russia, foreseeing how unchecked power would worsen freedoms and human rights in the state. She urged western Governments to consider how they welcomed Putin’s involvement in the war on terror in the aftermath of 9/11. She exposed high levels of corruption in his Administration.
Anna’s work was groundbreaking, but her career was not without difficulties. She was blacklisted from Kremlin news conferences, the target of a campaign of death threats and was victim of a poisoning on a trip to negotiate a hostage situation, in an attempt to prevent her reporting. In 2001, while investigating a story in Chechnya, Anna was detained, beaten and humiliated by Russian troops, before being subjected to a mock execution. I cannot imagine the terror she must have felt but, a resilient woman, Anna did not let it show.
Anna was assassinated on 7 October 2006. She was found dead in the lift in her block of flats, having been shot several times at close range. Most likely it was a contract killing, but no one has ever been held to account for it. Anna’s desk at Novaya Gazeta, the outlet she worked for, was never re-allocated. Instead, it became a shrine and a memorial to an incredible woman. Her legacy has inspired the next generation of female journalists and truth seekers in Russia. Anna’s bravery and that of women like her—Lyra McKee, Marie Colvin and so many others who paid a similar price—is commendable.
In the UK, we might feel we have excellent practices when it comes to press freedom, and we do have it better than many others, but the UK ranked only 33rd in the 2021 world press freedom index, putting us firmly in the yellow category of satisfactory, but definitely with room for a lot of improvement.
As other Members have raised, last week the Home Secretary ordered the extradition of Julian Assange to the US—a decision that has been widely criticised. There are real questions about what that means for press freedom. I understand that Mr Assange has some time to appeal, but while he exercises that right, he remains detained in the high-security Belmarsh prison, despite not being a violent or high-risk offender.
Strategic lawsuits against public participation are a mechanism used against journalists, media outlets, whistle blowers and academics, as a bully tactic to prevent publication or remove publicly available information. They are open to abuse in order to censor matters of public interest. Several states in the US have already removed SLAPPs, with campaigns for federal legislation under way. The EU is considering its options. I would like to see the UK set a gold standard for journalistic integrity and press freedom, and learn from nations such as Norway and Finland, which sit right at the top of the index. I hope the Minister will be able to speak to how that might be done.
While there might be some room for growth here at home, that does not stop us from using our voices to advocate for greater press freedoms in the countries that need it most. There are currently at least 127 journalists detained in China—it is the largest detainer of journalists in the world. According to statistics from Reporters Without Borders, seven reporters and one media assistant have been killed in Ukraine this year. Let us not forget the contributions of those journalists: Maks Levin; Oksana Baulina; Brent Renaud; Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshynova; Pierre Zakrzewski; Evgeny Sakun; and Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff. They lost their lives ensuring the world would see what was happening on the ground.
I thank the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for setting the scene so well, as well as all the other Members who have contributed so far and those who will follow. I look forward to hearing the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and also the Minister’s response. I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. How important World Press Freedom Day is; it is a day on behalf of those who have had their human rights abused and been subject to persecution. The APPG that I am privileged to chair stands up for those with Christian beliefs, those with other beliefs and those with no beliefs. We believe very passionately that everyone across the world has a right to worship their god as they wish. It is the press across the world that highlight those things and enable us in this House to be aware of what takes place.
We speak for those in China, in Hong Kong—we have spoken about Hong Kong before—and in Myanmar, where we know that unbelievable atrocities are taking place because the press have highlighted them. In Iraq and Iran, the press have shown the marked persecution that takes place with the Yazidis and Baha’is. We had an event on Kashmir in this House last week—the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) attended—which I visited in 2018, and I know that it is the world press that highlight the issues there and make us aware of them. I hope that, if God spares me, I will get a chance to go back to Pakistan in September to understand where things are four years on. I think of where, across the world, Hindus and Muslims have their rights violated, as well as the Sunnis, the Sikhs—and the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. There are so many examples. We know of those things because of the world press.
I want to put on record my thanks to the press for doing the job that they do. I associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe, as well as others who have mentioned individuals who have stood up for press freedom across the world and have given their lives as a result. The roll of honour in Ukraine illustrates the impact that the commitment to world press freedom can have on the lives of those who stand up for it. These are really important matters.
I totally understand the concerns that members of the public have with the press—that, rather than sticking to reporting the news, members of the press sometimes seek to create a news agenda. I have seen that in operation more than I would like, and never more so than on the issue of Brexit. I am a Brexiteer—that is no secret. I know you are, too, Mr Hollobone; others present may or may not be. Nevertheless, any knee-jerk reaction to restrict press freedom can only be detrimental to the cause of democracy. I will defend and uphold that to the best of my ability and with all my energy and commitment.
I may not like the way the BBC reports the news. That is probably the truth. A recent example of that was when the BBC decided not to cover the 12 July parades in Northern Ireland live, as it has done in previous years. I think of the people who are elderly, vulnerable and housebound, who are unable to attend but very much look forward to the live coverage on 12 July. I wrote to the BBC Northern Ireland interim director, Adam Smyth, on the matter, but, I have to say, his answer was totally erroneous and wrong. He has not grasped or fully understood the issues. The BBC does sometimes fall down when it comes to fully illustrating the issues.
However, we are very pleased that the answer has come in the form of GB News, which has offered to cover the parades. It just so happens that Arlene Foster, former First Minister of Northern Ireland, features prominently on that channel. With the rise of more online options for news, perhaps the days of the press shaping the news, rather than reporting it, will come to an end. I am pleased that there is at least an answer on that matter.
The rise of the so-called online journalists, many of whom—I say this with great respect—seem to be either bullies or trolls, seems to call for some regulation. However, that must be all it is: regulation, not restriction. There is a fine line there. I am sure the Minister will give us some idea of the Department’s thoughts on that. We must ensure that those who identify as journalists and seek to live under the freedom of press banner also abide by the code of conduct that the press should be under. It is a delicate balance to find, but one that we must certainly take the time to find and get right.
We are living in a world that attempts to say, “If I hate your speech, it is hate speech,” but that is not always the way that I see it. I have a very clear point of view that is, in many cases, a religious and moral point of view. I strongly uphold and adhere to my point of view, and it is my right to have it. It is also somebody’s right to have a different opinion, but it is not their right to say that I am guilty of hate speech, just as I am not saying they are guilty of hate speech. It is about freedom. I absolutely refute the principle of “If I hate your speech, it is hate speech”; we must be careful with personal censorship. I must and will defend the right of the press to report as they choose, in so much as it is factual—even if, sometimes, it might be biased. It is about getting it right.
“Be careful with your words”—I have tried to follow that idea my whole life. Like all Members present, I try to pick my words carefully. Words can destroy, change the mood of a debate and turn into actions on the streets that we do not want. We must always be incredibly careful about what we say. Freedom for one is freedom for all. That is my opinion, and the opinion of all present. I know, certainly, that it is as clear in the mind of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East, as it is in mine. It is worth fighting to achieve that.
As chair of the APPG on international freedom of religion or belief, I am convinced that we need the world press and the freedom it has to give examples of how the world is and to report on countries and dictatorships and what those in power are doing against people of a different religion when they should not. For that reason, I am happy to support what the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe put forward. I want to put forward that point of view and have it on the record.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing this crucial debate. It is always a pleasure to follow a speech by such an assiduous Member of Parliament as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
I will confine my comments to the particular case raised in detail by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), and referred to by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier). It is the case of a journalist who, as we hold this debate, is in Belmarsh maximum security prison, in our country, and who has been languishing there for a number of years: Julian Assange. On World Press Freedom Day, it would be strange not to reflect on a journalist who is in prison in our country—a political prisoner—when the Home Secretary has signed a warrant for his extradition to the United States of America where, because of his journalism, he could be incarcerated with sentence of up to 175 years.
Julian Assange exposed war crimes and human rights abuses in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay that were carried out in our name. It is precisely because, as a journalist, he exposed those crimes, carried out in our name, that he is being extradited to the United States. That has a chilling effect, not only on Julian Assange, whose human rights have been abused—he has languished in Belmarsh prison, alongside convicted terrorists and dangerous people who have been convicted of very serious crimes—and his family, but on other journalists, because by choosing this course of action, powerful politicians in the United States and our own Home Secretary have sent a warning to journalists in our country and around the world. They have made an example of Julian Assange, so journalists who may come into possession of information, such as that revealed by Julian Assange about Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, may think, “If I reveal this as a journalist, what will happen to me? Will my fate be the same as the horrific fate of Julian Assange?” It is an act of intimidation by the US Government and our own Government, not only against Julian Assange but against other journalists, including budding journalists in our society and people growing up with the ambition to be journalists.
Julian Assange worked with The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El País. He was invited to our country by The Guardian newspaper. What he revealed was in the best traditions of journalism and whistleblowing, because it is really important that we know what is done in our name. That is part of the democratic function of journalism. Reporters Without Borders, the International Federation of Journalists, the National Union of Journalists and Amnesty International have spoken out against the action taken against Julian Assange as a journalist. John Simpson, famous for his fantastic work over so many decades with the BBC, said:
“Journalists in Britain and elsewhere will be very worried by the decision to extradite Julian Assange to the US—both for his own well-being & for the precedent it creates for journalism worldwide.”
I am known for being on the left of this Parliament, but this is not an issue that is confined to concerns among those on the left. For example, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) has spoken in detail about the case and said recently:
“Sadly I do not believe Mr Assange will get a fair trial. This extradition treaty needs to be rewritten to give British and American citizens identical rights, unlike now.”
Others from the world of journalism who do not share my politics—people such as Andrew Neil and Peter Hitchens—have spoken out against the decision, which should concern us all.
It is important to reflect upon the fact that Amnesty International has not raised concerns about this issue lightly. The secretary-general of Amnesty International has labelled the case “Politically motivated and unjustified” and said that it
“undermines press freedom, the rule of law, and the prohibition of torture.”
Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists, to which I referred earlier, along with press freedom groups Article 19, Index On Censorship and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, as well as our very own National Union of Journalists, issued a joint declaration, stating that Julian Assange
“is being prosecuted for exposing US rendition, unlawful killing and the subversion of the judiciary. And the UK government is allowing extradition proceedings to continue.”
The declaration makes the point that
“The prosecution of Julian Assange was a political decision taken by the Trump administration”,
and that it
“creates a dangerous legal precedent, allowing any journalist in Britain to be prosecuted and extradited.”
Even the executive editor of The Washington Post has felt compelled to comment on the case, saying that it is
“criminalising common practices in journalism that have long served the public interest.”
That should concern us all.
When we look at the extradition treaty that has been used to sign off the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States, we should be concerned about the fact that when it was brought to Parliament in the first place, assurances were given that the intention was to exclude extradition for political matters or for so-called political crimes. It was made clear in this place that that was the intention, so it seems to me and to others, including the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, that the spirit of that extradition treaty and the intention behind it have not been honoured by the Home Secretary’s decision to extradite Julian Assange.
At the end of the day, people have different views on Julian Assange as an individual—I view him as a hero who has exposed war crimes committed in our name; others take a different view—but people’s view of Julian Assange should not matter in relation to this issue. What matters is the implication for his human rights and the message that it sends to journalists around the world. If we believe in press freedom—as we do—and if we believe that journalism is not a crime and that exposing war crimes is not a crime, and if we want journalists to be able to practise their honourable trade without fear or favour, we should speak out against the extradition and speak out in favour of Julian Assange.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for once again securing this important debate on World Press Freedom Day. Every year it seems to get that bit more important.
Mantas Kvedaravičius, Oksana Baulina, Oleksandra Kuvshynova, Pierre Zakrzewski, Brent Renaud, Maks Levin and Yevhenii Sakun—war has always claimed the lives of those brave enough to report on it, and sadly Ukraine is no exception. The list of names of murdered journalists that I have just read out will unfortunately grow longer, as Vladimir Putin’s futile but deadly war continues.
In last year’s debate, we heard about journalist Roman Protasevich. He had been hauled off a plane by Belarusian forces. Sofia Sapega, his girlfriend, was arrested last month and faces trial behind closed doors for the crimes of “inciting social hatred” and “violence or threats”. She is 24 years of age and faces six years in a Belarusian prison—another victim of Lukashenko and his cowardly regime.
Outside Europe, the killing of journalists continues with the same wretched fervour. Juan Carlos Muñiz is the seventh journalist to be murdered in Mexico this year. Mexico is perhaps the most dangerous country for journalists to operate in that is not an actual warzone. The persecution of journalists is endemic there. In the 10 years since investigative reporter Regina Martínez was suffocated in her own home, 100 reporters have been killed in Mexico.
The reason why journalists are murdered, whether by oppressive regimes or criminal gangs, is always the same: fear—fear of the truths that they want to tell. There may be no more noble cause than pursuing the truth and rooting out corruption around the world, especially in cases of extreme and grave danger. In countries where journalists are persecuted, it is so important that the judiciary defends them. If the perpetrators of these crimes are given impunity, it can only embolden them.
UNESCO’s “World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development” report states that
“85 percent of the world’s population experienced a decline in press freedom in their country”.
Britain, which sits at No. 33 in the world press freedom index, must do better both domestically and abroad. I would never wish to belittle horrific events abroad, but I caution the Minister and ask her to pass this on to the Prime Minister: every time politicians, leaders and Governments are equivocal with their use of the truth, it weakens our institutions.
I am happy to take that point on board. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree that there is still vast room for improvement.
I commend journalists for their tireless work domestically in exposing criminality right at the heart of Government—in Downing Street. Regardless of how much politicians try to wiggle from the truth, journalists should keep pushing for it, even when those whose job it is to investigate criminality seem reluctant to do so.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson), who is unfortunately unable to attend the debate. I wish to impart some of his sentiments, based on his vast journalistic experience. He has done a bit of foreign affairs correspondence and anchored some dramatic moments—none more memorable than the horrors of 9/11. He was on air when the twin towers were attacked and had to find the words to describe the unspeakable brutality and cruelty of the unfolding events. He said:
“I kept my cool, I think, during the hours of live broadcast, but I wept when I got home. Some of the images that we could not show that day, such as the people jumping from the towers, will be forever seared into my mind. However, my work has mostly been confined to political correspondence—a safe place for journalists, even at Westminster.”—[Official Report, 27 May 2021; Vol. 696, c. 203WH.]
There have been so many killings of journalists that it seems almost invidious to single out individuals, but we all remember Marie Colvin, the celebrated Sunday Times correspondent who was killed when Assad’s troops, who were almost certainly targeting her, shelled the building in Homs where she was sheltering as she covered the Syrian regime’s atrocities.
Perhaps not so well remembered is Scotsman Malcolm Rennie, from Barrhead near Glasgow. In 1975, he was tortured and shot by the Indonesian military in East Timor, alongside four Australian-based journalists. Campaigners claim that the UK Government were reluctant to look into the unlawful killings because of important arms sales to Indonesia. In the nearly four decades since, successive British Governments have tried to keep clear of the case, arguing that the murder of Malcolm Rennie and his colleagues is a matter for Australia to investigate. In those four decades, successive UK Governments—under both Tory and Labour leadership—have continued to supply the Indonesians with arms, such as Hawk jets, Alvis Scorpion tanks and other lethal warfare. Like Mr Rennie, each and every one of the journalists was brave and fearless. Armed with only a pen, microphone or camera, they were killed carrying out their duty: reporting the truth.
As we have heard, the threats to journalists take many forms. The spread of disinformation through social media and attacks on professional journalism are perhaps the most insidious new ways. The lies disseminated by the likes of Putin and Assad in order to spread disinformation about the murder of journalists and political opponents, to disguise their responsibility for chemical gas attacks and to blacken the name of—among others—the White Helmets are amplified online by the malevolent and the naive. Here today, as we honour the journalistic craft, I hope that whatever our politics, we parliamentarians resolve to affirm the right of journalists—whether at home or abroad—to scrutinise and examine, and to probe and uncover, without fear or favour.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Hollobone. I want to start by thanking the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for securing such an important debate and for not giving up when the previous date was cancelled because of Prorogation. Freedom of the press is a right that we celebrate in our country, but sadly it is still severely limited across the world. In the hon. Member’s opening comments, he very appropriately remembered not only the journalists who have been killed for telling the truth about Russia in Ukraine, but others among the 29 journalists and two assistants who have been killed thus far this year. It is a tragedy.
The hon. Member mentioned the wealthy people using our British courts to try to silence journalists with whom they disagree—a shocking but true fact. He also mentioned the hollowing out of local and national media in the United Kingdom through the loss of advertising revenue, partly because of the rise of social media. He rightly said that the protection of journalistic content should be part of the Online Safety Bill, and I certainly support that. Finally, he mentioned something even more important: journalists who publish in their own names are truly accountable for what they write and are often exposed to the risks involved. The truth in news is vital to freedom and democracy.
We then heard from the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) , who mentioned Shireen Abu Akleh, who I too will talk about shortly, and Julian Assange. He concentrated on Sweden’s treatment of Assange and his condemnation of Assange’s extradition to the United States, which was mentioned by other hon. Members as well. The hon. Member, who is the former Justice Secretary of Scotland, also mentioned Craig Murray, whom I have met, his treatment in Scotland and the media’s attitude.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), who talked about the achievements of so many women journalists in what is still a male-dominated profession. She made an important point. She mentioned the tragic story of Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered on 7 October 2006 in Moscow at the age of just 48—a brave woman journalist, who was murdered for what she published and the truth that she found and exposed. The hon. Member suggested that the UK should outlaw SLAPPs and also mentioned that 127 journalists are currently detained in China.
After that, we heard from my dear friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who as we know is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. He mentioned China, Hong Kong, Myanmar and the persecution of religious minorities and the journalists who expose those abuses. He said that we know about the persecution of religious minorities only because there is freedom of the press. When that is clamped down on, we no longer hear about the appalling abuses of religious minorities. He rightly said that any restriction of press freedom is an attack on democracy.
Then we heard from my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), who concentrated on the case of Julian Assange, currently in Belmarsh prison as a political prisoner. He mentioned the support for Assange from across the political spectrum and the condemnation of his extradition to the United States, speaking of its chilling effect on other journalists in the UK and around the world. He said that the Assange case was “an act of intimidation” against all journalists, and the fact that so many politicians and journalists, of all political views, condemned it said a lot about why what is happening to Assange is totally wrong.
Just last month, the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and the disgraceful scenes at her funeral served as a stark reminder of the threats journalists face every single day and that many pay the ultimate price simply for doing their jobs. Shireen’s death was also an attack on the freedom of the press and the independence of journalists working around the world. As we have heard from right hon. and hon. Members today, it was sadly not an isolated incident. It is vital that the UK acts urgently to protect journalists who are increasingly under threat and puts diplomatic pressure on those who choose to violate their fundamental rights.
Today I shall focus my remarks on one of our country’s most influential institutions abroad: the BBC World Service, which reaches 465 million people every single week. It is a vital part of this country’s soft power and international influence. However, we have seen journalists at the BBC World Service in Russia and Ukraine under constant threat, with their journalistic freedoms severely limited. In the face of those threats, the United Kingdom must support the BBC in using its considerable influence to extend British values around the world. It is firmly in our interests to act.
The BBC has provided reliable information to the Russian people as Putin continues to wage his illegal and unprovoked war, which he claims to do in their name. We certainly welcome the £4.1 million in emergency funding provided to the BBC World Service so that it can continue its vital work in Ukraine and Russia, but that money took far too long to arrive. The UK must act far more urgently if we are to protect journalists abroad, particularly when we have such an important tool in Britain’s armoury against Putin’s misinformation.
The Russian public deserve to hear the truth about Putin’s illegal war. Whether they work for the BBC or not, the courageous journalists who report from some of the most dangerous areas of the world should not be threatened as a result of providing that service. The limiting of the BBC in Russia is part of a series of measures as part of which President Putin has weaponised his own laws to target independent journalists. The worrying amendments to the law on foreign agents, which expanded the grounds for designating individuals as “foreign agents”, was rightly condemned by the Venice Commission as constituting
“serious violations of basic human rights, including the freedoms of association and expression”.
It is not just Russia that has introduced restrictive legislation. We should apply diplomatic pressure to every country that seeks to undermine the work of journalists. Across Council of Europe member states, many journalists are detained as criminals, with the vast majority in Turkey. I urge the Minister to raise that at the earliest possible opportunity with her Turkish counterpart.
In Afghanistan, a ban on foreign media has formed part of the crackdown to prevent reporting from several media outlets. The Taliban’s attempt to censor the media has led to a huge reduction in the number of media organisations in the country. Will the Minister tell us whether the UK has any plans to help those organisations to continue to report from that country?
It is extremely disturbing that 98% of jailed journalists are local people imprisoned by their own Governments and that 70% of jailed journalists imprisoned globally were arrested on so-called anti-state charges, including, appallingly, terrorism. We all have to do more to bring such appalling repression to an end. Across the House, we must also put an end to the increase in dangerous rhetoric, with journalists who do not agree with one’s political opinion being labelled as enemies. That simply contributes to the problem, as we have seen not only in Turkey but across the world in countries as diverse as the United States and Iran.
The UK must play its part in protecting journalists who deliver high-quality, independent and accurate information to the public at home and abroad. It is completely unacceptable that journalists face so many threats, as we have heard from both sides of this room today. The freedom of the press is an essential part of any democracy, and we all have a responsibility to help to extend the freedoms we enjoy in this country to the rest of the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Like other hon. Members, I will start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for securing this really important debate. I am grateful to him and all the other members of the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom for their dedicated commitment to this cause.
Thriving independent journalism is one of the cornerstones of democracy but, as such, journalists are a common target for those who want to disrupt, disturb and devalue it. Reporters across the world are being intimidated, arrested or even killed, but now more than ever we need journalists to speak truth to power, to counter misinformation and to highlight wrongdoing. The UK is, as ever, a vocal champion of media freedom and of the journalists who do this important work. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) reminded us, we must also always remember the camera operators and others behind the scenes who support the journalists in this vital work.
Like many of us here today, I want first to discuss the appalling and tragic situation in Ukraine. There is an old adage that the first casualty of war is truth, and Mr Putin’s war is built entirely on untruths. The Kremlin has used disinformation and propaganda to create a false pretext for its invasion, to obscure the truth of what is going on on the ground and to cover up potential war crimes. Despite the clear dangers that they face day after day and night after night, brave journalists are putting their lives on the line to expose the truth of Russia’s abhorrent actions. Elected officials, civil society activists, journalists and religious leaders in Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine have disappeared. Russian forces have attacked and abducted journalists. We have seen credible reports of torture.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) reminded us of the names of some of the individuals who have laid down their lives in Ukraine. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, 12 journalists have lost their lives since the war began.
Russia’s abuses also continue at home. The Kremlin’s brutal crackdown on independent media and dissenting voices continues, with journalists who refuse to stick to the script facing up to 15 years in prison. It is vital that the facts, and alternative perspectives to Kremlin propaganda, remain available. We will continue to support Russian independent media, including by providing them with the tools they need to continue their work. On 10 March, with our partners in the Media Freedom Coalition, we issued a statement condemning the brutal crackdown and calling on Russia to respect journalists’ rights. We are giving the BBC World Service more than £4 million in emergency funding for its Ukrainian and Russian language services. We have extended our existing £9 million project to support media freedom in Ukraine with an extra £1 million of urgent support. We have provided journalists on the ground with protective gear and medical equipment, to help them to work as safely as possible. We are also using our programme funding to support media freedom in Belarus, where dozens of journalists, bloggers and media workers are under arrest or in jail, and websites of reputable media outlets have been declared extremist by the Belarusian regime.
Unfortunately, as many Members present have noted, these attacks on media freedom are also happening in many other countries. Like the many colleagues who have mentioned it today, we were all appalled to see the recent death of the Palestinian-American al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while reporting on the west bank and to see those really awful scenes at her funeral. Her death is a tragedy, and the UK has joined calls for an impartial and transparent investigation.
At this sad time, I would also like to reflect on the disappearance of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira in the Amazon region of Brazil. I offer my thanks to all those who have been involved in the search-and-rescue operation to find them. I would like to send my condolences to Dom’s family, whom we continue to support. I pay tribute to both men and to their commitment to improving our understanding of the Amazon, its people and the challenges currently faced there. Both men have left a strong legacy of defending and supporting the rights of indigenous people in Brazil.
Across the world, from 2016 to the end of 2021, 455 journalists were killed either in the course of their work or because of it; almost nine out of 10 of these killings are unresolved. The voices of many thousands more have been stifled by threats, harassment, online censorship and vague security laws that outlaw criticism of authoritarian regimes. Every day our network of embassies and high commissioners works to protect media freedoms through engagement and lobbying, as well as by offering direct support for threatened journalists. Much of that work, quite rightly, happens away from the spotlight, but we do also take a strong public role in promoting media freedoms around the world.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) asked me about some specific countries. In Turkey, we have concerns about media freedom, and we have long encouraged the country to protect freedom of expression—it is essential to the long-term health of democracy. Our diplomats engage in regular dialogue with civil society, and regularly attend high-profile trials, including those of journalists and human rights defenders. We do that alongside some EU member states and other like-minded missions as a sign of how firmly we support the individuals affected.
In Afghanistan—such a challenging country—we are concerned about the increasing restrictions on freedom of expression. Censorship and self-censorship have worsened. There have been detentions and threats against journalists, human rights defenders and civil society activists. We are working with international partners to hold those responsible to account, including, in March, through the renewal of the mandate for the UN mission in Afghanistan to strengthen human rights monitoring and reporting functions. Afghanistan’s membership of the Media Freedom Coalition is also under consideration.
Back in 2019, we co-founded the Media Freedom Coalition with Canada to speak out against attacks and to hold to account those who harm journalists. The coalition has highlighted problems in so many countries, from Myanmar to Belarus. Alongside UNESCO, it set up the global media defence fund, to which the UK has contributed £3 million over the past three years. During that time the fund has supported more than 3,000 journalists, 490 lawyers and over 120 civil society organisations.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe clearly pointed out, today’s media face other threats that we must urgently address. Global newspaper advertising revenue has fallen by half in the last five years, and many outlets are closing, leaving news deserts, where there are no local sources of trustworthy news. Through our support to the BBC World Service and others, the UK has given more than £500 million in the past five years to support independent journalism and the free flow of information across the world. We will be supporting the BBC World Service with more than £90 million per year over the next three years so that it can continue that work. During our presidency of the G7 we secured strong commitments to improve the assistance G7 members give to independent media globally.
To have any influence abroad, we also need to set an example at home. We have made good progress in our national action plan for the safety of journalists since it was launched over a year ago. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) mentioned, the UK has risen nine places in the global press freedom index since last year, to number 24 out of the 180 countries in the 2022 index. The index is a valuable tool for evaluating media freedom around the world, and tackling the threats faced by journalists.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, and others, mentioned the new Online Safety Bill. It will create new protections for news publishers and journalistic content when shared online on other platforms. That is important, so I thank Members for mentioning the Bill. Many Members also voiced their concerns about SLAPPs. Recent events have accelerated the need for action to ensure oligarchs and anyone who wishes to silence free speech cannot abuse the rule of law. The Government are absolutely determined to move quickly on that issue. We have already consulted on reforms that are designed to tackle the challenges SLAPPs pose to free speech and to our legal system. We are considering the most appropriate reforms to pursue as a matter of urgency.
I conclude by quoting the great American journalist Walter Cronkite, who once said:
“Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.”
Recent events in countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, Myanmar and others mentioned today reaffirm the vital role that independent journalism plays and the real threats reporters face every day. I think I can speak for all Members here today and across the House of Commons when I thank all the courageous journalists working so hard to bring the truth to light. The Government will continue to support them and stand up for them and their colleagues around the world.
I thank the Minister and all right hon. and hon. Members for their participation in this excellent debate. A number of cases have been raised relating to media freedom and the suppression of journalism around the world, and it is right that those cases have been heard in the debate today.
I do not wish to repeat what Members have already said, but in closing I note that since the debate we had last year and today’s debate, the Nobel Committee awarded its annual peace prize to two journalists: Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa. It was reported this morning that Mr Muratov has sold his Nobel peace prize medal for £80 million and will donate that money to charities supporting the victims of the war in Ukraine.
Maria Ressa, whom it has been my pleasure to meet on several occasions, gave evidence to the Joint Committee on the Online Safety Bill last year and I close with the remarks she made in her Nobel lecture last year, when she collected her peace prize. She summed up the essence of what we have been discussing when she said:
“Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy”.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered World Press Freedom Day 2022.
SEND: Carshalton and Wallington
I beg to move,
That this House has considered SEND services in Carshalton and Wallington.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. In addition, I will speak about the special educational needs provision at the London Borough of Sutton and its arm’s length company Cognus.
Every child deserves access to good education and the support that they are entitled to, for the best start in life. But for too many children and their families in Carshalton and Wallington, getting that access is a daily fight because of a Lib Dem-run council that does not seem to care about the most vulnerable children in our borough. Every single week at my surgery, a parent, carer or family member raises complaints about getting their child access to the support that they are entitled to when fighting for an education. They have shown me the countless emails, meetings, phone calls back and forth with Cognus and even with councillors responsible for running the service, but I hear the same story week on week. Messages are going ignored, support gets refused and parents are having to escalate cases up to the tribunal and/or the ombudsman in order to get support.
The problems with SEN provision in Sutton have been well documented. In 2018, concerns were raised by the Care Quality Commission about Sutton’s SEND department, and by Ofsted, which delivered a damning inspection report. The report found that there had been insufficient progress made on implementing the 2014 reforms, poor communication and over-optimistic self-evaluation, among other issues. It was estimated that approximately 700 children had been unlawfully rejected for education, health and care plan—EHCP—assessments since 2015. In any other council, at the very least, the lead member would have resigned, but all have remained in post and the same councillor remains in charge of the service today. What was the Lib Dems’ response to the Ofsted report? No humility, no shame and no remorse for the pain that they had caused children and their families. Instead, they called for Ofsted to be abolished.
Since 2018, the council has claimed that it has improved its service, that Cognus is working well and that it has the backing of the majority of parents in the borough, but that is not reflected in reality for parents in Carshalton and Wallington. It was around that time that a local mum Hayley Harding set up the Sutton EHCP Crisis group. She has amassed the backing of hundreds of local parents and families who have been through similar situations as she has. I pay tribute to Hayley—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who is Hayley’s MP, does too—and to the hundreds of campaigners who have been battling for their children to receive access to the support to which they are entitled.
The struggle to get EHCPs has continued for many parents since 2018, despite what the council might claim. Sutton Council and Cognus have been the subject of many local and national media scandals since 2018, most notably when Sutton shamefully appeared on a BBC “Panorama” exposé in 2020. Did that spark a change in attitudes at the council and Cognus? I am afraid it did not, and the parents’ fight has continued.
Last year, a shocking set of Cognus board minutes were leaked. The unredacted copies reveal a shocking truth. Not only was Cognus in a dire financial situation, with a loss of £717,000 a year, despite Sutton consistently appearing as one of—if not the—highest-funded boroughs for SEND, the council is aiming to save money by cancelling around 200 children’s EHCPs by the end of the year. Did that revelation start the winds of change for parents? No. The unredacted minutes were there for the world to see, yet the council and Cognus denied their contents. Let me just emphasise this point: printed official minutes were obtained, and the response from the council and Cognus was to deny that what was printed in them was true. That is absolutely shocking.
In 2022, four years on from the Ofsted report, it appears that no lessons have been learned. Just a few months ago, the Department for Education’s own figures showed that Sutton, once again, was found to be the highest rejector of families applying for EHCP assessments in the country. Almost half of all children were rejected. To put that into perspective, the national average is 23%. That comes back to what the 2018 Ofsted report initially found, when it took particular aim at the leadership of the service—in other words, the Lib Dem councillors in charge of running it.
Since 2018, I have seen countless examples of the council setting itself against parents and families of children with special educational needs and disabilities. Not only do parents struggle to get an EHCP in the first place, but the plans that are issued are often completely inadequate. For example, parents have shown me obviously copied and pasted EHCP plans. Many of them had not even bothered to change the child’s name from the plan it was copied from, meaning not only is the wrong child named on the plan, but it has the wrong support in it.
That leaves parents and families spending months, even years, fighting with the council and Cognus all the way to a tribunal and/or the ombudsman to get what they deserve. This is not a group of parents deliberately trying to make trouble for the council. The figures show that around 90% of cases are found in the parents’ favour. While the council is wasting taxpayers’ money, taking families through expensive proceedings such as this, rather than providing the support they are entitled to, the children are left in the middle, not getting access to the support that they need. This is a real mark of shame on Sutton and cannot be allowed to continue. If councils such as Sutton’s continue to turn against families of children with special educational needs and disability, the frameworks must be in place to support the families.
I know the Government recognise that, which is why they conducted a review into SEND. I have a few questions for the Minister about how the SEND review will support families of children with SEND in places such as Carshalton and Wallington. I want to know how the SEND review will make it easier for families to raise disputes and have them resolved more quickly; what mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that councils comply with their statutory obligations; and how, overall, the SEND review aims to change the negative experience that many families have of fighting for their children’s education. Children deserve the best possible start in life. I look forward to hearing how the Government can help achieve that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing this important debate on special educational needs in his constituency of Carshalton and Wallington, and the London Borough of Sutton more generally.
I will start by saying that I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend when he says that every child deserves access to a good education—in fact, I would go further and say a world-class education. It concerns me greatly to hear how many parents in his constituency are having to fight the system just to get their child or young person the support they deserve. That is not right, and I will say more about how we plan to change the system, in particular the adversarial nature of it, which he pointed out.
My hon. Friend raised the poor implementation of the 2014 reforms in Sutton. He is right to do so, though it is sadly not an issue that is exclusive to Sutton. I will come on to that in a moment. He also referred to the work of local mum Hayley Harding, who is inspirational. I have had the pleasure of meeting her, and join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to her for the important work she does in supporting other parents and campaigning for change in this area. I can assure my hon. Friend that I have listened. I hope that the SEND Green Paper, which I will come to in a few moments, reflects that listening exercise.
My hon. Friend talked of the struggle to get education, health and care plans. He is right to raise that point, and I will say more in a moment about our proposed changes as part of the review. He concluded with a number of important questions about the SEND review and the Green Paper, which I will now address. Before I do that, though not wanting to embarrass my hon. Friend, I will say this. It is important that his constituents know how hard, and how passionately, he has campaigned on this issue. To be frank, I cannot walk down a corridor in Westminster and pass my hon. Friend without him raising either a local SEND case or this issue more generally. I appreciate that I am biased on the issue, but in my view a council’s greatest responsibility is to its children, particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, which is why his testimony about Sutton depresses me greatly. We need to change the system.
I know how hard my hon. Friend works to ensure that every child in his constituency—as well as children across Sutton more generally, when he works with other MPs—has access to the world-class education they deserve. I commit myself to continuing to work with him to hold Sutton Council to account and to ensure that it treats the education of vulnerable and disadvantaged children as seriously as he does, and indeed I do.
Let me turn to the specific points and questions that my hon. Friend raised. First, I will cover funding. Although my hon. Friend, and indeed parents, will want to hear more about our ambitious plans for reform of SEND and alternative provision more generally in the Green Paper, I am conscious of the fact that they will also be concerned about the here and now, especially if they have children with SEND who are in the education system. Importantly, we are increasing the high-needs budget for children and young people with the most complex needs by £1 billion this year, 2022-23. That brings it to a total investment of £9.1 billion. That unprecedented increase comes on top of a £1.5 billion increase over the past two years.
Let me turn specifically to the London Borough of Sutton, which will attract an increase of 12.5% per head of its two-to-18 population this year, compared with the previous financial year’s allocation. That brings its total high-needs funding allocation for 2022-23 to £52.6 million. Alongside that is our capital investment programme. We very much recognise the need for more special school places, so we have secured £2.6 billion to build or create around 33,000 additional SEND places. We are pump-priming that by investing early, so £1.4 billion of that allocation will be spent this year. Although we do not have exact figures for Sutton, I am conscious of the fact that there is a need for special places across London. I will be able to update my hon. Friend at a later date as to those plans.
Let me turn to the SEND review and the Green Paper. I will briefly touch on why those reforms are so desperately needed. My hon. Friend has set out many of the reasons for them, but they are first about outcomes, which are just not acceptable at present. It is not acceptable that we have so many children and young people with SEND who are falling behind their peers.
When I meet with parents and carers, and with children and young people with SEND, they tell me that, too often, they feel unsupported by the system, locally and nationally and, as my hon. Friend mentioned, too many parents feel that they have to fight, fight and fight just to get their child or children the education and support they deserve. They tell me that the system is too adversarial, and that that is not helped by the culture in local authorities, which my hon. Friend mentioned in relation to Sutton, especially when it comes to tribunals, as he pointed out.
I am told of a lack of SEND support in mainstream settings, of needs not being identified and met early enough, of a postcode lottery and, as we know, of significant local authority deficits. There is a lack of join-up between local health systems and the education system, as well as insufficient clarity about what parents and children should be entitled to. As my hon. Friend pointed out, there are poor accountability and redress mechanisms in the system, which means that parents feel powerless.
All the above and more are why the Government committed themselves to the SEND review in September 2019. Despite a delay largely caused by the pandemic, the Green Paper was published in the first quarter of this year. The consultation is now live, and we have extended the deadline for submissions to 22 July. I would encourage everyone to take part. Although we have set out a clear plan, and aspiration and ambition, we need those with lived experience and experience of SEND up and down our country to take part and ensure that we get it right.
Given the negative experiences of his constituents and the issues that he, and indeed I, set out, my hon. Friend rightly asked how the Green Paper and the review will bring about the change we all desperately want to see. My aim is to create a more inclusive education system, with excellent local mainstream provision, that will improve the experience and outcome for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities and, importantly, those who need alternative provision.
How do we intend to achieve this? At its heart, it is about ensuring every child gets the right support, in the right place, at the right time, tailored to their individual needs. We will establish a single national SEND and alternative provision system, setting out clear standards that will be underpinned by the introduction of a national framework. We will provide targeted support for children and young people, where required. Using that £2.6 billion, we will make available excellent specialist provision and alternative provision support for those children who have more complex needs.
We will set out clear roles, responsibilities and accountability measures. We will standardise and digitise EHCPs, making them more accessible to parents and those who advocate for and support them. We will strengthen mediation arrangements so that individuals can work through disagreements with their local authorities at an earlier stage, trying to take the adversarial nature out of the system.
We will establish new SEND partnerships at a local level that will require local areas to co-produce an inclusion plan with parents locally. We will introduce new local and national inclusion dashboards that will strengthen accountability and transparency.
Importantly, we will improve initial teacher training, as every teacher teaches children or young people with SEND, but many tell me that they do not feel confident in that role. If we are to identify early and get children and young people the support they need as early as possible, that starts with highly skilled teachers who have the confidence to teach those with SEND. To help us with that, we will introduce a new SEND national professional qualification.
As I mentioned, these plans are backed up by our £2.6 billion capital investment programme and by learning from the lessons of the 2014 reforms. The ambition and aspiration of the 2014 reforms were right, but sadly the implementation was poor, as evidenced by my hon. Friend. We know that the implementation in Sutton was nowhere near as good as it should have been. Sadly, we see that replicated in other local authorities up and down the country. That is why we are determined to get implementation right as part of these reforms, and we are investing an additional £70 million specifically for implementation. It is important to repeat that the consultation is now open and live until 22 July. I encourage as many people as possible to take part, and it is available on gov.uk.
Finally, my hon. Friend rightly focused on accountability, especially by local authorities. With the support of the Department of Health and Social Care, we have commissioned the Care Quality Commission and Ofsted to develop a new area SEND inspection framework, which will be launched in early 2023. Its overarching aim is to give a greater role to the views and experiences of children and young people with SEND, their parents and carers. The public consultation for that is also currently live and can be found online or through Ofsted.
In closing, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington for his support for this incredibly important agenda. He has raised important concerns, and I hope he knows that I and the Government are not just dedicated but determined to continue to listen to children and young people with SEND, their parents, their carers and all those who advocate for them in the system. I hope my hon. Friend feels assured that the work is under way and that he feels confident that we are committed to delivering changes within the SEND system, both locally and nationally, so that every child and young person across our country, regardless of the challenges they face, is able to achieve their full potential.
Question put and agreed to.
Sentencing: Repeat Offenders
[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the sentencing of repeat offenders.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. Attendance at today’s debate is affected by the debate in the main Chamber on access to GP services and NHS dentistry, but there is plenty to get our teeth into with the issues that we will be discussing over the next 90 minutes or so.
My initial point is that the Government are failing to deliver an efficient and effective criminal justice system. Instead of defending the indefensible and playing down law-breaking in Downing Street, the Justice Secretary should tackle the crime wave caused by repeat offenders, who are menacing our communities. The criminal justice system is failing communities at every level, and the Government are also failing our police, Crown Prosecution Service, Prison Service and probation service, thereby compromising public safety.
I must declare my interest: I was honoured to be invited to, and to speak at, the Prison Officers Association annual conference in Eastbourne last month, where I heard from numerous prison officers about ever worsening conditions in our jails. I am also a member of the justice unions parliamentary group, which is a coalition of the Prison Officers Association and its sister unions, including Napo, which is the probation officers union; the Public and Commercial Services Union; the University and College Union, which represents prison educators; and the Police Federation of England and Wales.
Before I continue, it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to thank the exceptionally hard-working neighbourhood police teams who serve my constituency of Easington in County Durham. From the many conversations we have had, I know that they are frustrated, and I share their frustrations. Recruits join the police service to serve their community, to be on the streets and to protect the public. They do not expect to spend hours on the telephone effectively handcuffed to the desk, waiting for the overworked and understaffed Crown Prosecution Service to return charging decisions. While police officers are tied up with administrative tasks, the community clearly loses out, because the officers are not available to tackle the issues on the streets. Added to the mix is the loss of 20,000 police officers since 2010, which—make no mistake—was a political choice by the Conservative Government. I welcome moves to restore police numbers, but it will take many years, if not generations, to recover the years of lost experience.
Police officers work under challenging circumstances on the frontline, and they pick up the pieces when repeat offenders are released back into the community. In a letter to the Minister dated 9 June, I outlined the case of a prolific offender who has been charged more than 100 times with various offences. When he recently went to court, he was handed a community sentence—a non-custodial sentence—and a £10 compensation order, which is being paid at 25p a week. The victim is understandably disgusted and said he lacks confidence and faith in the criminal justice system.
I completely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says on the facts that I have heard about this matter. He can accuse the Government of many things, but the sentencing function is for the independent judiciary or magistracy; it is not the responsibility of the Minister. There is much to be discussed on a political level, but certainly not sentencing policy and what sentences are imposed in such circumstances.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and what he says is reasonable. I have just been reading a book about the former Director of Public Prosecutions and his early career; he is now the leader of the Labour party, I believe. [Laughter.] He was at pains to provide sentencing guidelines in discussions with Ministers—Conservative Ministers, I might add—to try to address some of these issues. I do not think that Ministers can completely wipe their hands of responsibility.
I will elaborate some of the related issues and explain why prison is not as effective as it might be, although it is an important alternative, particularly for serial offenders. As I said, the victim of the particular crime that I referred to has completely lost confidence in the system and has said that he would not give evidence in future, because he thought that the sentence that was given was inappropriate—in fact he said that it was laughable.
When a case goes to court and the outcome is an affront to justice, it is the police who experience the fall-off in public confidence. Members might be aware that YouGov regularly conducts a survey in which it asks the public whether they have confidence in the police’s ability to deal with crime in their area. The trends are very worrying; 47% of the public lack confidence in the ability of the police to tackle crime, compared with only 43% who are confident in the police. Overall, the number of people who believe the police are doing a good job—nationally, and not in County Durham; I think we have an outstanding police force—has fallen from 75% to 53% in the last two years. I hope that sets alarm bells ringing for Ministers.
The failure is systematic. When I presented my Prisons (Violence) Bill in the previous Session of Parliament, I warned that offenders often left prison more damaged and more dangerous than when they arrived. The out-of-control levels of prison violence make rehabilitation in the current circumstances practically impossible. That leads to more reoffending, at a cost of tens of billions of pounds a year to the criminal justice system, as well as causing misery for millions of victims and their loved ones, who have to live with the consequences of even more crime.
That situation is more than an appalling waste of both public money and people’s lives; it is nothing less than a crime against our communities, and I must say that the Government are complicit in it. The Conservative Government and all Ministers are responsible, first, for the devastating cuts to the budgets of the Prison Service during the coalition years of austerity. It was those cuts that triggered the escalating level of violence in prisons. For example, the number of prison officers was cut by a quarter. That meant that a massive amount of experience, held by experienced prison officers, and of that most precious resource, which prison officers refer to as jailcraft, was taken out of the system at a stroke. The vacuum that was created was quickly filled by prisoners who had become more experienced than many officers on the landings of our prisons. The vacuum has also been filled by violence.
Despite recent recruitment drives, the Prison Service has lost almost 90,000 years—I repeat, almost 90,000 years—of prison officer experience since 2010. That is a shameful statistic, but it just gets worse every year. As the experience of the prison officers who are in charge of our prisons goes down, violence goes up; there is a direct correlation. In turn, that leads to even more officers leaving the service. Not surprisingly, the retention rate for prison staff is at a record low, as of course is their morale.
It has not helped that this Government have raised the retirement age for prison officers to 68. Frankly, for prison officers—both men and women—who are grappling with young and fit criminals, 68 is far too old. It is a cruel policy, which we have discussed on many occasions in this place.
The Government consistently ignore the advice of their own experts. The Prison Service Pay Review Body has proffered advice that prison officers should be given a proper pay rise. Ministers have ignored experts for three years running, and we are currently waiting for them to respond to this year’s pay review body recommendations.
The Government broke our Prison Service when they robbed it of resource, in the name of austerity, and now they need to fix it if they want to have any chance of reducing reoffending. The Government have also broken our probation service with a failed privatisation experiment. They took an award-winning service, envied and held up as a model and example around the world, and smashed it—fragmented it into little pieces, each to be run for private profit.
I had the opportunity to visit Thorn Cross prison on Friday and meet the excellent governor, Richard Suttle, who showed me around the site. I was struck by the number of employers now based in the prison, helping young people who are about to leave to find work. The hon. Gentleman talked of reoffending. The Government have taken significant steps to ensure that, when young people in particular leave prison, there is a work-based route for them. Does he acknowledge that that makes a significant difference to the number of people returning to prison?
That is a good and sensible point, but I draw the hon. Member’s attention to the report of the Select Committee on Education, chaired by the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). That is quite scathing about the opportunities provided by the education service in prison.
The Committee visited the same prison I did, and highlighted the outstanding work at Thorn Cross. Businesses such as Timpson ensure that, when people leave prison, they have a solid job to go to. That work starts inside the prison. I acknowledge many of the comments in that report, but Thorn Cross was highlighted as one prison with an outstanding performance of reducing reoffending.
That must be one of the prisons on my list to visit, though I hope not as an inmate. I received numerous invitations from prison officers when I was in Eastbourne. I held a surgery for prison officers to raise concerns, anonymously if they wished, and there is a catalogue of issues to be addressed. Prison education is certainly one of those, but that is normally delivered by members of the UCU, the prison educators, who have an unenviable task, which I will come to in a moment.
I want to continue my point about the role of probation. In the complex jigsaw of the criminal justice system, there are vital elements: the police; magistrates; the Crown Prosecution Service; prison officers; the prisons themselves, which should be properly staffed and resourced; probation and prison educators. Those are all important elements of that mosaic. Probation officers play a vital role that is largely unrecognised in reducing reoffending. That is what their jobs are all about and how we gauge their success. They perform a vital public service, protecting our communities from crime, while helping ex-offenders to develop the skills they need to turn their lives around.
By introducing a profit motive into probation—a mistake since acknowledged—the previous Government betrayed the highly skilled and priceless work done by probation officers with many years of experience, leaving their pay, terms and conditions at the mercy of private firms, which tried to reduce their role to little more than a tick-box exercise. That led to a flood of resignations, with people leaving the system, and all the problems we saw as a result.
Even now, two years after the Government admitted defeat and announced a full reintegration and renationalisation of probation, the service is still in the midst of a recruitment and retention crisis, very similar to the one in prisons. Napo has told me about the workload crisis facing its members. Many probation officers are working over their recommended offender management levels—the number of cases they have to look after—by between 20% and 50%, and in one case, by over 90%. The staffing and workload crises in probation have had terrible and tragic consequences in the past. It is no wonder that the mental health of many probation officers is at breaking point.
The Government have put the public at serious risk from reoffending by trying to run prisons and probation on the cheap, and undermining the pay and terms and conditions of those critically important workers in the process.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. I have the greatest of respect for him, but I am failing to follow what he is trying to say. I assume that on behalf of his constituents he is saying that we need to impose more custodial sentences on repeat offenders. If that is the case, he is arguing that we should send more repeat offenders into a custodial environment. He is then arguing that we need to do something different in the custodial environment. Rather than using generic figures, will he tell us precisely what he disagrees with in terms of Government policy being implemented in prisons to aid the rehabilitation that we all seek?
The hon. Gentleman has got the thread of my argument precisely. I am not arguing in a contrary fashion, because I believe that repeat offenders—people involved in serial offending—need to be incarcerated for the protection of the communities and themselves. However, I do feel that in prisons, over a number of years now, the resources have not been made available to effectively prevent reoffending by offering alternatives and rehabilitation to those people who are incarcerated. I hope I can go on to develop that argument, but it was a good point, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
The greatest tool to tackle record rates of reoffending must be effective rehabilitation. At the heart of rehabilitation is education, which is desperately needed by so many prisoners. Prison education is a complete mess; that has been confirmed by independent inspectors, by the Education Committee, which is highly respected, and by Ofsted. The Government have announced plans for yet another shake-up, promising a new prison education service—I hope the Minister will say something about that. Unfortunately, details are still very thin on the ground. Ministers have had little to say about teachers, who, it might be thought, would be central to any new strategy to turn around the current, failing system. The Education Committee’s report said:
“Poor pay, lack of career development, unsafe working environments and no time or respect to do a quality job has left the recruitment and retention of qualified and experienced prison educators at crisis point.”
I hope that the Minister will listen, if not to me, then to the Education Committee, which is chaired by a Conservative, the right hon. Member for Harlow.
The problem is the Government’s ideological obsession with running key services, including the criminal justice system, for profit. Four giant prison education providers compete for business while cutting all sorts of corners to maximise profits. According to the union sources I have spoken to, pay and terms and conditions can vary widely. Any serious plan for fixing our broken prison education system should start with standard contracts across the whole sector, plus a pay rise to bring wages up to comparable roles outside. I do not want to go into the details of the issues that have been highlighted to me, but there are things that I hope will be included in the new prison education strategy, which the Minister might refer to when he responds.
Prisons are simply not fit for purpose. In the main, that is as a result of this Government’s savage cuts and poor treatment of the workforce—and all of us are paying the price. However, I believe that prison can and must work. A custodial sentence for a repeat offender provides the community with respite from their offending. In the communities that I represent, which in the main are fairly poor, a relatively small number of prolific offenders cause havoc and cause the majority of crime and antisocial behaviour.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate today. He rightly talks about being tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime, which is a Blairite mantra; I am sure that we are all Blairites in that respect today. Does he agree with me that in respect of stopping reoffending, there is a particular challenge with the number of people in prisons who are dependent on opioids and other drugs, and that it is important that we get the right planning in place for those people when they are released from prison to make sure that issue is tackled, because it is a root cause of reoffending?
A whole section of my speech was on the need to reform drugs policy. Quite frankly, many of the most prolific offenders are linked to organised crime gangs and their links with the illicit drugs trade. I have done quite a bit of work as vice chair of the drugs, alcohol and justice all-party parliamentary group and I was heartened by the report published by Dame Carol Black in her review of drugs policy. She highlighted the need to divert resources into that area and quoted some quite interesting figures, showing that
“a cohort of around 300,000 heroin and crack users drive nearly half of all acquisitive crime and homicides. Spending an average of £40 to £50 per day on drugs, these users cycle in and out of prison”
in a kind of revolving door. The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) is right; that is a huge issue that we, and the Government in particular, need to address.
It is important that we address rehabilitation and proper prison education. There are some good models where they work very well. When the criminal justice system fails, it fails communities such as mine, which suffer from crime, antisocial behaviour and all the things that go with that. The Conservatives have portrayed themselves as the party of law and order and they like to claim that tag. However, the reality is that if we look at the prison system and the amount of reoffending, the Conservatives are the party of crime and chaos.
Cutting police funding by £1.6 billion since 2010 means it is not surprising that the number of people saying they have never seen a police officer on foot patrol has doubled in that time. I look forward to making the case and standing on a manifesto at the next election setting out Labour’s commitment to community policing. Multi-agency neighbourhood police hubs will deliver not only responsive policing but, more importantly, preventive policing. Highly visible policing may have an up-front cost and seem expensive, but effective policing can deliver significant savings further down the line in the criminal justice system. More importantly, effective and preventive policing creates happier, healthier and safer communities, reducing the number of crime victims.
In conclusion, I have some questions to put to the Minister. Twelve years after taking office, when will we have more police officers, police staff and community support officers than in 2010? The 20,000 promised at the last election was, in my opinion, an admission of failure—that the cuts had gone too deep. For our prisoner officers, my ask is this: what action is the Minister taking to tackle prison violence and allow prisons to reform, rehabilitate and educate offenders? Why are the Government refusing to measure the level of violence against prisoners and staff as part of their new key performance indicators, as I called for in my private Member’s Bill in the last Session? We want prisons to reduce reoffending and not hold offenders only for a defined period.
On the causes of crime, can the Minister deliver a practical and sensible solution to disrupt organised crime gangs and break the cycle of offending and reoffending with a reform of drugs policy? We need to overcome misinformation and political dogma to focus solely on cutting crime and the causes of crime.
You will wish you had not said that, Sir Gary, but thank you for chairing this debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
It is welcome that the Government have committed to 20,000 new police officers and that we are on target to meet that number. It is interesting that in areas like ours, Sir Gary, such as the South Hams, we have 170 new officers and are due 217 more by the end of 2024, which we are also on target to meet. We have local initiatives such as the councillor advocates scheme, set up by our police and crime commissioner, Alison Hernandez, that help local parishes engage with the police to ensure better representation and visibility and a better ability to disrupt crime networks. Such structures will make a difference and, hopefully, alleviate the problems of crime in rural areas.
We have similar experiences in Cheshire. The police and crime commissioner, John Dwyer, reported just this week that Cheshire is in line to have more officers than ever before in the history of the force by the end of March—a commitment that the Government made and are delivering on. Does my hon. Friend accept that although we often hear about having more police on the beat, many crimes are committed online and behind closed doors? The real value of having forensic investigators working behind the scenes is paying off with higher arrest rates, particularly in areas such as child exploitation.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The nature of policing has changed and we have to be clear about how we tackle crime. I do not expect to see as many officers on foot patrol, but I expect to see more of them driving about. Sir Gary, you did say that this debate is about sentencing, so I will get back to that topic. First, it is about crime prevention, and secondly—the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) touched on this—it is about people who repeatedly commit crimes and find themselves with unduly lenient sentences, such as his constituent.
It is not for Members of Parliament to stand in this place and decide what a sentence should be, but perhaps the Minister will clarify what the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act will do to enhance sentencing, because our understanding was that we would have the opportunity to be more stringent when it comes to those who repeatedly commit crimes. I do not want to take up a significant amount of time, but I do want to talk about one way in which we can deal with repeat offenders, which is rehabilitation.
There are three programmes that are relevant to where we are from, Sir Gary. The first is LandWorks, a local organisation in south Devon that works with those who are at risk of going to prison or are coming out of prison and likely to reoffend. It does it in three ways: engagement through a market garden, through pottery and through woodwork. It is a hand-holding exercise for those leaving prison to ensure that, from leaving prison to re-entering society, there is an opportunity to help them to re-enter and ensure that recidivism is not just something that we presume will happen.
I have visited LandWorks and I have asked the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), to visit. The Minister answering the debate today is of course welcome anytime in south Devon—it is amazing how many Ministers want to come down over the summer, so he could take a quick holiday and a jaunt to that extraordinary organisation that works to reduce reoffending. It helps the police and the Prison Service, who feel helpless, by ensuring that we do not have more and more prisoners going back in. As a Conservative, I believe passionately that we should have a tough stance on crime but I also believe that the purpose of prisons is rehabilitation and that people deserve a second chance, so we have to find a balance between those two positions.
The second group I will reference is Pathfinder, which has been launched with the police. It is an evidence-based intervention that reduces harm and reoffending and can hold offenders to account for their actions. The scheme integrates offenders and the police, so that they can work together to ensure that offenders do not go down the predicted path of reoffending and are held to account through targets and checklists that they must fulfil. Strict adherence to the programme is already showing some successes.
The third initiative is NHS Reconnect. I recently met someone who was working intimately with the NHS Reconnect service who made the point that after they had left prison they never thought they would be able to get a job in something as big and as brilliant as the NHS. NHS Reconnect is the perfect example to show, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) said, how businesses and public organisations and institutions can play a role. If we can help offenders to find a way into those schemes and structures, we can divert them from the predicted course, and that is where we have to focus.
Using those three initiatives—Landworks, Pathfinder and NHS Reconnect—we have the opportunity to disrupt the chain, the concept and the belief that reoffending is the natural course after leaving the prison system. The statistics accurately prove that crime in our part of the country is going down; I am sorry to keep referring to south Devon but, anecdotally, I am sure there are similar examples across the country, and in fact the statistics prove that. With the police and others coming up with innovative schemes, such as the councillor advocate scheme, we have a way to disrupt.
I am a great believer in statistics and often quote them, but my constituent told me that he, and others in the same boat, would not report crime in the future because of his terrible experience in the criminal justice system and because he is dissatisfied with the outcome.
I absolutely accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. I am not for a second saying that everything is rosy, but when we look at the crime statistics there are some positives to be taken away. That is not to say that there is not more work to be done; complacency can never have any foothold in our legal or police systems, or in the system of support against reoffending.
I have taken up more time than I expected, but I finish by asking the Minister, can the 2022 Act be improved in relation to the points raised? Will he also speak about the prison strategy White Paper that is coming forward? My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who is no longer in his place, mentioned the drugs strategy. As I understand it, the drugs strategy was launched in 2021 and we have made £780 million available for it, of which £120 million will be made available to prisoners. Is there any interest in expanding that? Will the Minister report back on how that scheme is working and operating, and whether it has an impact on reducing reoffending?
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Sir Gary, and to follow the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall). Either he follows me or I follow him, and I am happy to be following in his footsteps on this occasion in making my contribution, which will back up what he said.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on introducing the debate in such a knowledgeable, factual and detailed way. I am here simply because the subject of the debate interests me and my constituents. To be fair, things are slightly different in Northern Ireland, where some of the people who walk the streets in Northern Ireland after having offended happen to be in positions of Government. It distresses us greatly that those people did not get their just deserts and do due time in prison for their crimes, but I digress. I understand that those issues are not the purpose of today’s debate.
Many constituents come to me and express concern about someone who is a repeat offender and, unfortunately, continues to repeat offend. Some of the cases that we have seen are particularly harrowing. There are different levels of crime, and I understand that there are different levels of punishment as well. That is reflected when the courts—
The hon. Gentleman is clearly going to develop his points in respect of this issue, but the title of the debate is somewhat troubling, in that repeat offenders receive two types of sentence. One is a custodial sentence, and the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) has spoken about the rehabilitative measures that are required within the custodial environment but not touched on licence conditions. Secondly, the vast majority of reoffenders are sentenced to non-custodial disposals, so their contact with the prison system is less important than what is happening in the community. I would be very interested to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on those two separate strands of sentencing.
I will try to develop my points and, I hope, answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. I look forward in particular to his contribution to the debate.
With regard to my party colleagues, I am ever mindful that this is a devolved matter and therefore what we do in Northern Ireland is not the responsibility of the Minister here, but this Minister, when he replies to our contributions, always does so with knowledge and also with help to try to develop the requests that we put in for his attention.
It is no secret that I am a firm believer in strict, fair prison sentences. The sentence should fit the crime: that is where I am coming from. I fail to understand and see the reasoning behind overly lenient prison sentences for repeat offenders, which appear only to normalise the concept of repeat criminality. The issue here lies with the word “repeat”. As legislators in this House and, indeed, for the Assembly back home and for the other devolved Administrations, we must do all we can to ensure that there is no repeat offending. That is ultimately the goal that we are all trying to achieve, and that may be done, as the hon. Member for Totnes described, with the schemes that those coming out of prison can get involved in to take them away from a past that we hope they will not return to.
Lady Chief Justice Dame Siobhan Keegan, from back home in Northern Ireland, recently revealed that from March 2022 there would be harsher sentences for those repeat offenders guilty of abhorrent domestic abuse crimes. That is one of the types of crime that I am thinking of when I say, in relation to repeat offending, that the punishment should fit the crime. I fully support the Lady Chief Justice’s statement. There is no doubt that that is a step forward. But there should be no allowance for repeat offending in the first place. The Department of Justice revealed that adults released from prison had a proven reoffending rate of 38.6%, which is a huge amount of criminal reoffending. In addition, a large number of criminals getting off charges with no lessons learned and a mere smack on the wrist is not acceptable. The general public deserve protection and they want to see justice.
There is also the very strong argument from the side of the victim of crime—I will often speak up for the victim of crime—in relation to harsher sentencing. Whether we are talking about a burglary, assault or something considerably more serious, there is a victim who must be protected and assured of a fair, decent sentence. Repeat victimisation has become a major issue as a result of repeat offending. Sexual assault and robbery were among the crimes with the highest percentage of repeat offending—often against the same victims. Those figures alone emphasise the real need for harsher sentencing at the beginning to ensure the protection and safety of victims.
There will not be many of us who do not know or cannot give an example of a case from our own constituency in which the person who carried out the crime gets out of jail—I am thinking particularly of cases of sexual assault—and suddenly is walking around the neighbourhood where it took place. I tell you what, Sir Gary: if I were a victim, I would feel pretty disturbed, angry, annoyed and concerned that the person was able to walk round the countryside, the town, the lanes and the villages where the crimes took place. I want to see protection for the victims.
I will ask the Minister this question—if, of course, it is within the remit of this debate, Sir Gary—because I am very keen to find out what the intention is. When it comes to offenders getting out after carrying out crimes, there should be an onus on us to notify the victims that they are returning. Indeed, it would be better if a person did not return to the village where they carried out a despicable crime, but we must make sure that protection is there. We have often heard about assailants getting out and being able to wander close to the family home of the person they assaulted.
There is a debate to be had about how we treat petty crimes, such as public drunkenness, using a mobile phone while driving, or underage drinking or smoking. The hon. Member for Easington has raised before the call for community service and electronic tagging for petty crimes, and I support that. For petty crimes, the right thing to do is not to be harsh when trying to pull people away from a life of crime and point them in the right direction. Although I agree that the statistics on reoffending must be looked at to see if that is a beneficial form of punishment, we must consider stronger prison sentences if there is reoffending for petty crimes. As has been stated, lessons must be learned, as there is always the potential to be a victim.
The Northern Ireland Audit Office has undertaken work to develop a strategy to stop adult reoffending—the Minister, having looked into all these issues thoroughly, will be aware of it. This will ultimately rehabilitate offenders so that they do not reoffend after completing their sentence. It has shown considerable success.
Difficulties at home, financial issues, deprivation, or problems with alcohol, drugs or mental health can result in a continuous negative pattern of behaviour, which repeatedly brings people back into the system. People with mental health issues need to be rehabilitated and helped beyond prison. Repeat offenders are responsible for 75% of all offences recorded per year—a truly astonishing figure.
Although justice is a devolved matter, there must be more collaboration between the Departments to tackle repeat offending. I ask the Minister, has there been any contact with the devolved Administrations, in particular the Northern Ireland Assembly, to exchange ideas? I am a great believer in the idea that we can all learn from each other—I will do that to the day I die. We can do things better when we talk to those who have a system that works.
To conclude, there are ways to tackle repeat offending that reflect the callousness and intensity of the crime. For example, I believe that sexual assault cases should be harshly sentenced to start with, as community service does not reprimand the evil of assault. However, for petty crimes there are other ways to teach people the difference between right and wrong and keep them on the straight and narrow—to use a biblical term—and to ensure that they stay away from the wrong path. The issue remains what steps we should take when lessons are not learned from a certain kind of punishment. I always try to make a contribution from a Northern Ireland perspective, but I would also echo the comments of other hon. Members and I look forward to their comments.
I congratulate my friend the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on bringing forward this important debate, which, as I said to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), can be viewed from a number of different viewpoints.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and declare an interest as a practising solicitor. I was a criminal defence solicitor for 16 years. During the halcyon days of the Labour Government under Tony Blair, I was in court every day and in police stations every evening, representing the reoffenders we have been talking about. I am sure the hon. Member for Easington has not come here just to engage in political point scoring, and he will not want us to get into a debate about this, but I could go through a whole raft of statistics from when I was practising before the courts under the Labour Government. Reoffending was rampant.
This will be my last point, because I do not want to get into this, but I do not know how Labour or any Labour politician can actually challenge a Government Minister when their leader has such an appalling record as Director of Public Prosecutions. There was a fall in conviction rates for serious sexual offending and other sexual offending. We should come to these issues without the political preening and look at what we can do to make things better.
I can tell the Members present that we could have been having this conversation back in 2001, when I first stood up in the magistrates court. The first mitigation I did was completely by luck—I was making it up as I went along. I got there at 9 o’clock in the morning and my new employer said, “Court starts in 45 minutes—off you go.” The first person I represented was a shoplifter. I did not know what to say, having had no experience of these things. It occurred to me that it would be a novel idea if the court was able to impose a sentence of a job and a home. I had no background training whatsoever, having done no criminal law during my training contract. I just had a feeling, at some point, that I would go into criminal law. I thought it sounded interesting. The feeling I had during that first mitigation has never left me: the way to tackle offending, certainly with repeat offenders, is by the state bringing as much stability to their lives as possible. That is an incredibly difficult action for the state.
Sentencing is a bespoke exercise. The idea that the Government impose sentences that are routinely put and that everybody—whether they are in Totnes, Easington or Bury—gets the same sentence in the same circumstances is utterly ridiculous.
My hon. Friend knows that I sit as a magistrate. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) said that Members of this House do not necessarily sentence, but I actually do sentence. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) is absolutely right. One of the greatest debates that benches of magistrates have is on the appropriate sentencing for the offender they see in front of them. Rehabilitation activity requirements and courses to help people understand the issues they face—on drugs, alcohol and dealing with conflict—are incredibly valuable and can form part of a sentencing package. As my hon. Friend says, it is right that magistrates have a full range of sentences available to them to ensure that the punishment fits the crime that an offender has been convicted of.
Thank you, Sir Gary. I agree with everything that my hon. Friend said. When we look at reoffending rates, we must look at what we are talking about, because we cannot talk in the generality. When I first appeared before the courts, I was representing up to 10 shoplifters a day. My hon. Friend has been on the bench for a long time, so he will know that that was the nature of repeat offending—drug-related acquisitive offending at a relatively low level.
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman saying that he represented 10 shoplifters a day. When I visit shops nowadays, they tell me they are deeply frustrated that shoplifters are allowed simply to walk out of the store because nobody is interested in ensuring that they are caught and taken through the court system. Does he share that lament?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I am sure the Minister will confirm that I have that conversation with him on a regular basis. It is an important issue. The level of offending that I saw when I initially practised has vanished from the courts. I do not know where it has gone; I do not think it has disappeared into the ether. All constituency MPs know that shoplifting is still a prolific issue, but it is not appearing before the courts.
When we get down to the issue of repeat offending, perhaps the nature of the offending that appears in a sentencing exercise has changed. Where do we look for that offending? What specifically categorises it? I have to say that I do not agree with what the hon. Member for Easington says, although I understand why he said it in terms of categorising the offending as organised crime. That is a very general description of what we are talking about. Organised crime tends to be very high-level offending. When I look at reoffending rates, I look at the offences where it is a prolific problem, such as domestic violence and serious sexual offending; all of those offences, which have very specific different motivations and reasons why they are committed, are the ones that I look at. I only make the point that we cannot debate this issue in the generality. We cannot say that one sentencing option or one rehabilitative model is going to suit every single option.
We then get to the question—I raised this with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—of how to deal with repeat offenders: with a non-custodial sentence or a custodial one? I think every hon. Member would agree with the hon. Member for Easington that, in the circumstances he spoke about, the gentleman should be sent to prison. I represented people who had committed 400 offences. What do we do with them after 400 offences? Everything has been tried. Every sentence that had ever been invented had been tried by many of my clients, and had failed spectacularly. What do you do with them? They have to be sent to prison, because if it is highly unlikely for a sentence to be carried out or for an offender to take part in the requirements, that sentence cannot be imposed.
The drug rehabilitation part of non-custodial sentences is not as straightforward as people suggest. All the offenders I have represented, save those who had serious mental health issues, have understood that they should not be doing what they were doing. They know the difference between right and wrong—it is not a moral question. In many circumstances, it is a question of addressing their substance problem or opioid problem. When courts impose drug rehabilitation orders, we cannot simply take a wand out and hit somebody over the head and suddenly everything is okay. For the orders to be successful, there has to be planning, work and stability in their lives. For an offender who is living on the street, with very little money, a drug rehabilitation order may seem a sensible sentence because that is what the problem is, and that is why the offence has been committed, but we should not impose a sentence if we know it is going to fail, even if it addresses the root cause of the problem.
On non-custodial sentences, I agree with the points that were made about the probation service—I think we have got back to a better place, but we cannot simply talk about terms and conditions and how extremely important they are, and all the other things that the hon. Member for Easington referred to. This is about the interaction of the individuals, in the circumstances that they face on bail. It is those that are going to decide whether a sentence is successful or not.
In the custodial environment, there is a real debate about what we view as success in what people are offered, and that is not just about violence. Most of the reoffenders I represented were not violent individuals—they were not going into prison and that was sending them on to a different scale. It was about how the fundamental stability issues were addressed, particularly employment. I hope the Minister will comment on this point, because the Government are doing some really good work in looking at the root causes of offending. They are putting a lot of money into job creation and education, which we should not just brush aside. Some really positive steps are being taken.
Some other measures are really showing the Government’s innovative approach to sentencing policy. They were not around when I was practising. Alcohol abstinence tags have a phenomenally high rate of success. Many domestic violence offences are committed by people who are drunk or who have serious alcohol problems. Alcohol abstinence tags, whether part of the sentence or the licence conditions afterwards, are showing real success and we should—“celebrate” seems the wrong word for a sentencing exercise—at least acknowledge that good policies are being put in place.
There is also GPS tagging, which is about making sure that the justice system knows where a person is after they are released. If a burglar is coming to the end of their sentence and there is a concern about what they might do next, if they are GPs-tagged and silly enough to commit an offence, they will be arrested and put back into the court system as soon as possible. There is some really good work in this area. There is integrated offender management, which brings all the services together to produce a bespoke package to help offenders who are struggling with their lives.
The picture is complex. This problem has been around for a long time. Over many years, including under the Labour party, community rehabilitation orders have sadly been spectacularly unsuccessful, but that is not a reason for us not to keep on trying to use modern technology to learn from some of the things that have happened in the past and to have a real debate about how we can affect individual lives. Not everyone is the same. Each person we rehabilitate and bring back into a life where they are not committing offences is a success. That should not be viewed in the thousands, but in each individual success. We are all committed to doing that, while also, getting back to the original point, sending people to prison for sentences that are lengthy enough to deter reoffending behaviour.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for a second time, Sir Gary, despite the 10 years you tell me you have been in the role. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris)—a fellow north-east England MP—on securing the debate. I believe he captured powerfully the frustrations that victims have with a criminal justice system that is crumbling on the Government’s watch. Before I go on, I want to pay tribute to the police, prison officers, probation officers and all the others who work so hard under very difficult circumstances.
My hon. Friend the Member for Easington recognises that the Government are soft on crime and, as he reports from his constituency, are letting criminals off and victims down. He mentioned the ludicrously small fines that offenders are receiving in his constituency and how one offender with a hundred offences ended up with a community service order. I am sure the Minister will want to comment on whether that is appropriate.
The hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) mentioned that many people receive sentences that simply do not work, and that many simply ignore the courts and get away with it. According to Labour’s research, the number of uncollected court fines has now reached £1.2 billion in the last five years, and that includes more than £50 million of unpaid compensation due to victims directly. Can the Minister tell us what he is doing to collect some of that money? A billion pounds would be enough to pay the salaries of more than 19,000 additional police officers—not far shy of the number of officers that the Government have cut. I know that the Government plan to replace them and that some progress is being made. I welcome that, but we are in a situation where we are replacing experienced officers with inexperienced officers. Nevertheless, the Minister will be pleased to know that my nephew, Lewis Cunningham, is going to be one of those new police officers when he starts working for the Yorkshire force in the autumn.
The public rightly feel that the police are no longer visible on their streets. That is why we would try to put this right with our community police hubs. Some of those officers would also play a crucial role in our new neighbourhood prevention teams, bringing together community support officers, youth workers and council staff to tackle the causes of repeat antisocial behaviour currently blighting our communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington is right that being tough on crime and on the causes of crime is as valid now as it was during the days of the last Labour Government. It was nice to hear the hon. Member for Bury North celebrate his full employment under the last Labour Government, when we had a fully resourced and proper justice system. The policies we have announced in this Parliament show that our party is still committed to those guiding principles.
However, it is not just in the detection of repeat crime that the Government are letting victims and communities down; it is also in effective sentencing that properly acts as a deterrent, a prison system that properly rehabilitates defenders and a probation system that properly protects the public by reducing reoffending in communities themselves.
We have heard some positive things about prisons. The hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) mentioned the importance of education in the prison system and where it can work well. My own home prison in Stockton, Holme House Prison, does it best and has some fantastic facilities, yet even there prisoners are still spending far too long in their cells and are not really making full use of the facilities available to them.
What do we have? Under this Government, our prisons have become colleges of criminality. Repeat offenders, many of them on short sentences, leave prisons more addicted to drugs than they were when they entered, because prison drug abuse is up an astonishing 500% since 2010. Despite that, there has been only a fractional increase in the number of mandatory drug tests, so addiction grows. Drugs are rife in prison because the detection of contraband is so poor.
The Ministry of Justice is especially wasteful at times; it has thrown £140 million of taxpayers’ money down the drain in the past year. That includes £6 million on prison drug scanners that are picking up on average only 12 items of contraband each month because they are used so sparingly. They are not really a waste of money; if they were being used effectively and on a daily basis, we would be in a stronger position. It is no surprise that addiction causes problems in communities after prisoners are released if they are not accessing the types of rehabilitative programmes that they need while in custody. The number of NHS alcohol and drug treatment programmes started by inmates fell dramatically between 2015 and 2020, with 7,000 fewer places taken up.
The hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) talked about rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is the answer, but it needs to be properly resourced. Reoffending in our communities can only be stopped by making prisons work. A Labour Government would do that by putting a greater focus on rehabilitation and ending the explosion in drug use, which fuels further crime when inmates re-enter society.
Going back to the point about the resources put into rehabilitation, the hon. Gentleman is right up to a point, but the private sector also plays a significant role in preventing reoffending. Does the hon. Gentleman see that there has to be a bit of quid pro quo from both the private and public sectors on this issue?
I agree. I think employers should play a greater role in prisons and we should encourage more of them in. However, we need to provide the right environment for employers. Many years ago I was employed by National Grid, which had a scheme working in partnership with prisons—I think forklift truck drivers were the main output from one prison in the south. Those people did not reoffend—or very few of them did—because they worked with the employer while they were still in prison, they had day release into the workplace and then they got a job afterwards. That is the real answer: education followed by a job.
We know that community service sentences have enormous potential for reducing reoffending as an alternative to short prison sentences, which, under this Government, only entrench offending behaviours. A large body of evidence suggests that community orders are more effective in reducing reoffending than short sentences. Under this Government, community sentences are being set up to fail because the Government do not seem to care about stopping repeat offending at source.
The number of hours of community service was falling significantly even before the pandemic, but has now fallen to less than 1.5 million, from over 5 million five years ago. Public trust in community sentences is flagging because those schemes have stopped being seen to be viable. The number of offenders completing a community sentence has fallen by a quarter in the past five years because offenders are breaching the terms of their sentences, often by not turning up.
Labour has proposed a better way forward. The public need to see that justice is being done in their communities. That is precisely what Labour’s community and victim payback boards would do, by providing publicly available data on the work that offenders are doing, determined by the communities and victims affected. We have put the victims of crime and the communities blighted by it at the centre of unpaid work schemes through existing safer neighbourhood boards. Another reason for the failure of community sentences, particularly where repeat offenders are concerned, is down to the fact that judges no longer trust that they will be delivered. The fault with that lies in the problems experienced by the probation service, which this Government have created with the service’s disastrous privatisation in 2014.
I would be astounded if the hon. Gentleman had any evidence to back up the claim that judges do not trust community sentences. I do not know whether he has seen the Government’s work on community payback, which is extremely visible and effective. It is essentially already doing what he has just said.
I accept that some progress has been made in this area, but we have a long way to go if we are to make it effective for many more people in the system. That is an illustration that the Government have belatedly realised their error and are starting to put things right. There are still worrying hangovers, such as recruitment and retention, from the previous system of community rehabilitation companies.
The rate at which probation officers are leaving the service has increased by a quarter since 2015. Resignations have consistently outstripped retirement and other reasons for leaving the service over the past five years: 60% of all leavers are choosing to walk away. The causes cited by some include high workloads, stress and poor pay, given the nature of the work and the rising cost of living. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington talked of some of those issues.
The workloads of existing staff have now reached unsafe levels. That is reflected in the alarming growth in certain serious further offences in recent years; that is, offences committed by repeat offenders who are the subject of probation supervision. I am sure the Minister will tell us how we are going to reconfigure the probation service, to ensure that we can put that right. SFOs for murder were higher in the three years to 2020 than they ever have been—surely, the most severe form of repeat offending that there is.
The public have a right to be concerned about these serious violent crimes in their communities, because this Tory Government have shown time and again they are not capable of dealing with the issue. There is no better example than repeat knife crime. The Government promised in 2015 to lock up repeat knife offenders, but almost half of repeat offenders avoided jail in 2021, and knife possession offences across England and Wales have increased by a fifth since the Conservatives came to power. The Minister and I spent a considerable length of time in Committee for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill Act 2022. I hope the measures it introduced will have the effect that the Government hope. Of course, many of the provisions have yet to be enacted.
The root of the problem with repeat offending is the neglect of youth services and youth offending teams, which could be preventing offending by engaging young people, instead of leaving them to their own devices and the influence of others who drag them into crime. That neglect has resulted in enormous rises in the scale and cost of violent youth crime, which now stands at more than £11 billion under this Government. Being soft on repeat offending and soft on its causes blights communities and costs taxpayers. Labour has shown it will tackle reoffending and repeat offending head on, and bring security to our communities. That is what my hon. Friend the Member for Easington wants.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir Gary. I note your background as a solicitor, albeit not a criminal one, and that you served as a Minister under our Department’s predecessor in the Lord Chancellor’s office.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) and congratulate him on bringing forward this important debate on a topic that, despite the turnout, creates great interest on all sides. I think there is a lot of consensus on the key points. I am aware of his letter and was waiting for the debate to respond. If I do not cover any points today, I can return to them in writing. He knows, as has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly), that when it comes to specific cases, it is a constitutional fact and convention that we have an independent judiciary, and Ministers do not comment on individual sentencing decisions. That is an incredibly important point.
The hon. Member for Easington finished his speech with a few specific questions. I will start by answering those before going into the body of the speech on reoffending. He asked about prison officer and police officer numbers. Between October 2016 and December 2021, the number of prison officers rose from 17,955 to 22,156—an extra 4,201 full-time officers. That in itself is a way of improving their safety. There are also specific measures, such as rolling out pepper spray in the adult male estate, which we will be doing to protect officers, and the introduction of 6,000 body cameras across the estate.
On police officers, in response to the hon. Gentleman’s question I am pleased to confirm that we are at 13,500. I was pleased to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) about the number of extra officers in Cheshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) mentioned the number in South Hams. Perhaps most importantly, we heard from the Labour Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), that Lewis Cunningham has joined that number and will be serving on the frontline. We all pay tribute to him and are grateful to all those officers. I join the hon. Member for Easington in paying tribute to those who serve in our communities to bring law and order to our streets.
I want to comment on what my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North said It probably will not be known to most hon. Members that he was my Parliamentary Private Secretary until a few days ago. The baton has now passed to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), and that brings the great advantage that he is now able to speak on Ministry of Justice matters. He has great experience as a criminal solicitor, as we have heard.
The hon. Member for Easington spoke with great passion, particularly on the case that has blighted his constituency. But a fundamental fact is that the proportion of offenders released from custody who reoffended within 12 months fell significantly from 51.5% in 2010-11 to 42.2% between April 2019 and March 2020. That significant fall was seen in both adults and juveniles.
We have a strong record in tackling reoffending, but we recognise that reoffending rates are still too high across England and Wales. In 2020, 80% of offenders cautioned or convicted had at least one previous caution or conviction. That is far too high. In many cases, repeat or prolific offenders commit low-level crime, continuously revolving in and out of the criminal justice system. We also know that they often have high levels of complex and interweaving needs that drive their offending: roughly 61% of prolific offenders have coexisting needs of accommodation, employment and substance misuse. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North saw that on his very first day as a criminal solicitor, and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South will have seen it many times in front of him on the bench.
This Government understand the concern and harm caused by repeat offending, as described by the hon. Member for Easington. As I am sure Members will appreciate, this is a complex issue. There is no easy answer. There is certainly no magic wand, as my hon. Friend for Bury North said. We are committed to action and I can reassure the House that we are pursuing an extensive package of measures to tackle it, which I will set out.
Turning first to the sentencing framework, sentencing in individual cases is wholly a matter for the independent judiciary. However, it is the responsibility of Parliament to ensure that the courts have the sentencing framework they need to sentence offenders appropriately.
Turning to the PCSC Act, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked how it would affect the subject of the debate. Under the Act we made several changes to legislation to deliver our manifesto commitments and ensure that the worst offenders spend longer in custody. The Act also introduces specific measures designed to tackle repeat offending. For example, the law provides for minimum sentences for certain offences known to have a large community impact, including threat with or repeat possession of a knife, a third conviction of domestic burglary and certain class A drug trafficking offences.
We heard the concern that too many offenders were receiving sentences below the minimum term. Indeed, in 2020, at least 50% of adults convicted of a third domestic burglary received a sentence below the minimum prescribed by Parliament. I can confirm that the PCSC Act, which just received Royal Assent, changes the law to ensure that courts may depart from the minimum sentence only in exceptional circumstances. I believe the word imputed is “particular” circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South, who sits as a magistrate, knows that that sort of wording is very important and we feel it will have an impact.
We are clear that delivering public protection is not just about better use of custody. Evidently, not all offences warrant a custodial sentence. Lower-level offending is often better handled via a non-custodial sentence. To that end, our sentencing White Paper set out our plans for tougher, better monitored and more effective community sentencing options that can tackle prolific offending by providing appropriate punishment, while also addressing the underlying drivers of offending and offering support for those who want to turn their lives around.
Going further, the PCSC Act enables closer supervision of certain offenders and introduces the option for tougher and more flexible use of electronically monitored curfews to better reflect the punishment intended, better support rehabilitation and better protect victims. It also reforms criminal records disclosure to increase the number of ex-offenders able to find work, which we know plays a crucial role in reducing reoffending.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North referred to the extremely positive data that we have seen on increasing the rate of employment among those leaving prison. I think that a two-thirds increase in the number of people who left prison between April 2021 and March 2022 who were still in employment six months after release is a very positive development indeed.
The PCSC Act also introduced powers to pilot problem-solving courts, which will combine supervision and multi-agency interventions with regular court-based reviews of progress overseen by a single judge or dedicated magistrates, with clear, consistent and graduated consequences for non-compliance.
However, this process is not just about sentencing options. The PCSC Act also reforms adult out-of-court disposals, to allow the police to deal swiftly, proportionately and appropriately with low-level offending and to reduce the burden on courts. Under our new framework, cautions must have conditions attached, to enable the police to target the cause of the offending behaviour and to refer people into appropriate support services. Basically, to date there have been quite a number of out-of-court disposal options, including those that are effectively a warning. What we are moving to with the PCSC Act is two sets of out-of-court disposals, which is a much simpler system that is more unified across the jurisdiction, and—importantly—there will always have to be an action associated with a particular disposal.
I turn to our sentencing framework. This is an essential element of tackling repeat offending, but we are clear that criminal justice agencies must also be armed with the tools they need to manage challenging offenders effectively.
The hon. Member for Stockton North asked about probation. As he is aware, in June 2021 we launched a new unified probation service across England and Wales. Unification of the probation service, underpinned by increased funding of £155 million per annum to recruit additional staff, will help to reduce overall case loads, enable robust management of offenders in the community and support better public protection. That means that we can supervise offenders with rigour and discipline, as well as enforcing the consequences of non-compliance.
Our “Beating crime plan”, launched in July 2021, announced our refreshed integrated offender management scheme, which is another crucial element in our efforts to tackle repeat offending. Under the scheme, over 9,000 persistent and problematic neighbourhood crime offenders across England and Wales are subject to intensive supervision by the probation service and the police, who work together with partner agencies to keep those offenders accountable and support them to reform.
|Another form of community order that we have heard about is unpaid work. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North spoke about this activity, which we call community payback, and the hon. Member for Stockton North, who speaks for the Opposition, spoke about his party’s plans in this regard. Just to be clear, we are investing an additional £93 million over the next three years to allow us to increase community payback delivery, up to 8 million hours a year—I repeat, up to 8 million hours—with a particular focus on delivering more outdoor projects that improve public spaces and, crucially, allow the public to see justice being done. Seeing justice done is a core, common-law principle that underpins our system, which is why the visibility of offenders who are out there clearing a canal or scrubbing graffiti off a wall is so important, and I hope that I have set out how we intend to go much further.
The hon. Member for Easington made a very good point when he cited a particular statistic. Heroin and crack cocaine addiction is linked to almost half of all acquisitive crime—he used that exact figure—including burglary, robbery and theft, and drugs are associated with almost half of all homicides. As set out in our 10-year drugs strategy, which was published in December 2021, this Government will invest £780 million over the next three years in drug treatment services, including £120 million to support offenders to engage with treatment. We are very much looking at the big picture when it comes to drugs.
Of course, we also know that alcohol is another key driver of offending. To that end, last year we introduced another innovative use of electronic monitoring, which is using alcohol tags to monitor offender compliance with alcohol bans in community sentences. In the first year of their use, we have seen over 3,500 alcohol banning orders being imposed, with over 97% of days monitored being alcohol-free. I repeat: 97%.
Building on that success, last week we completed our roll-out of alcohol monitoring on licence across England and Wales, allowing us to deploy this intervention across the criminal justice system. Over the next three years, around 12,000 offenders will wear an alcohol tag.
Will the Minister talk about the changes to Friday release that have been announced? Having visited several prisons, it has always struck me that there are virtually no support services for prisoners when they are released into the community on Fridays. What was the thinking behind the changes?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and he is absolutely right about the impact of the changes. He will be aware that our hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mark Jenkinson) will introduce a private Member’s Bill to tackle this very issue. As we bring that Bill forward—hopefully with support from all parties—it will address my hon. Friend’s point.
On the matter of release, the hon. Member for Strangford asked a specific question: how do we notify the victim when the perpetrator is being released? I cannot comment on the arrangements in Northern Ireland, but we have a victim contact scheme in our jurisdiction. Where an offender receives one year or more in custody, bereaved close relatives and victims of serious sexual and violent offences are automatically referred to the scheme, so that they can choose to receive information on the following: first, when the offender is released or considered for release or conditional discharge; secondly, if the prisoner moves to open conditions; and thirdly, what the court sentence means for the offender’s detention in prison or hospital. We recognise that the point of release is a key moment to help offenders turn their lives around, which is why the issue of Friday release is important. As such, our prison strategy White Paper outlined our ambitious plans to ensure that prison leavers have the accommodation and employment support they need on release to help them to stay away from drugs and crime.
The hon. Member for Easington asked about prison education, and I can confirm that we set out our plans in the prison strategy White Paper to deliver a prison education service within this Parliament and to raise numeracy, literacy and skills in order to secure jobs on release. I have already highlighted the real progress that we are making in securing employment for prisoners, and we will change the law to enable them to undertake apprenticeships for the first time. In combination with our commitment to support prisoners to engage with community treatment ahead of release, we are confident that the measures will help reduce reoffending.
Specifically in relation to female offenders, who are more likely to commit low-level offences, we are delivering on our commitment to pilot a residential women’s centre. This will offer an intensive residential support package in the community for women at risk of receiving short custodial sentences, supporting them to address the underlying causes of their offending behaviour, including drug, alcohol and mental health needs, and to move on to settled accommodation. Last month, we announced that the first residential women’s centre will be in Swansea. The centre will now be subject to planning permission, but it will run as a pilot for five years and has received £10.6 million of spending review funding.
Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Easington for securing the debate. As I said, this is a matter that greatly concerns all our constituents. There is a lot of consensus about the measures that need to be taken, and I assure him that the Government understand the issue and are committed to tackling the harm caused by repeat offending.
I thank the Minister not only for what he has said, but for his tone and for being so constructive in responding to the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), my good friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the hon. Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), for Warrington South (Andy Carter) and for Bury North (James Daly), and the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who is not in his place. We have had some excellent and constructive speeches and interventions, and I am pleased that the Minister has taken them on board. I have learned a new word: recidivism. I cannot say it, but I know what it means.
The Minister is absolutely right to suggest that there is no single medicine or antidote to the problems that we are facing. We need a combined approach—a broad-spectrum antibiotic—to deal with the multifaceted issues that we face in tackling reoffending. I was heartened by what he said in relation to the additional moneys that are being channelled through the Prison Service to tackle the issue of drugs and alcohol.
I would also like to highlight that, apart from in Durham—we all know it is the centre of the universe for initiatives and policing schemes—there are some excellent police-led, out-of-court disposal and drug diversion schemes. There is Checkpoint in my area, Turning Point in the west midlands, and the drug education programme in Avon and Somerset. They have all delivered early interventions that have diverted individuals away from the criminal justice system and reoffending, and into drug education, support and treatment. I make a plea to the Minister that these schemes should be expanded.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the sentencing of repeat offenders.
Equality of Opportunity: South-East Wakefield
I beg to move,
That this House has considered increasing equality of economic opportunities in south east Wakefield.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I thank the House authorities for allowing me to raise a very important matter that relates to my constituency. I am aware of a certain event in another part of Wakefield on Thursday. Members will no doubt be listening carefully to ensure I avoid mentioning such matters, and I undertake to do so. I am most concerned to raise issues affecting the part of my constituency that I have described as south-east Wakefield. It is more or less, but not entirely, coterminous with the constituency of Hemsworth, which I have represented for over 26 years now.
Prompted in part by Government rhetoric about levelling up, I want to show how areas such as the one I represent are desperately in need of a new deal. Let me first tell Members about a conversation I had the other day with a young man named Zac Gaskell, 12 years old. He came along to see me with his dad Lee. Zac is an elected member of the Youth Parliament for our area. It was a great privilege to meet him. I asked him how he had come to be elected and what was in his manifesto. He said, “Well, the most important thing is that people in power need to listen to the voices of young people. After all, we—young people—are the future.” I agree with him; I am sure we all do.
The truth is that opportunities for young people in south-east Wakefield are severely limited. The situation is becoming dire. Having carefully read much of the Government’s information about levelling up, I have come to the conclusion that there is something missing. If we are going to talk about levelling up, what the country needs is some kind of analytical tool to guide us and by which we can measure the success or failure of the Government in achieving greater equality of economic opportunity for areas such as south-east Wakefield.
I believe there is such an analytical tool, lying easily to hand, that the country should use. These days, we call it social mobility. It used to be assumed that the next generation—the Zacs of this world—would get a better life than our generation. I think that is probably what brought most of us into politics: the idea that we could improve the way the country and the world operate. Some people call it the British promise, and we often now call it social mobility. With an increasingly centralised Government focused around Whitehall and the Cities of Westminster and London, it is no longer the case that this British promise of a better life will be delivered for areas such as south-east Wakefield.
Areas like mine are being held back. I want to show why, and speak about how and what we might do to think about changing the life chances of people I represent. My constituency is among the least socially mobile in the whole of England. There are 533 constituencies in England and mine is the fourth worst for social mobility; we are the 529th out of 533 seats. The Government have acknowledged the wider problem. I think that is why the idea of levelling up has been developed, and why the Government have appointed a Social Mobility Commission and now a social mobility tsar.
If the Government cannot offer assistance to a constituency like mine, we know that the model they are using does not work. What is curious about the commission is that the whole lot of them resigned back in 2020, as Members may remember. The commission said that inequality in Britain is
“now entrenched from birth to work.”
Certainly, that is a description of the area I represent. The new social mobility tsar, Katharine Birbalsingh, has said that working-class kids should maybe not aim so high. Indeed, last week she said that we should stop fixating on getting poor children to university—an extraordinary thing to say—and encourage them instead to celebrate “smaller steps” up the ladder. That is just not good enough. Is that the best that the Government’s appointee can say to Zac and his friends? “Don’t aim high, Zac. Take a few small steps. That is maybe all you can expect.”
What does such advice mean in practice? It means that a child born into a certain group in my constituency or elsewhere will likely die in the same social group that they, their parents and grandparents were part of. The ability to move up the ladder is negligible in an area like mine, and the situation is getting worse. Social mobility and deprivation levels are interconnected. My area is becoming more deprived as this Tory Government have gone on, not less. For example, we are now the 111th most deprived of the English constituencies. In 2015, we were the 130th, so we have declined by 19 positions. That is probably not surprising given that deprivation is growing, and it relates to the lack of social mobility in our area.
I pay tribute to the people in my area. They work hard; they were the miners who powered and lit our country, and did all the things necessary in the worst conditions imaginable at work. They are wonderful people. I guess we all think that about our own constituents, but in my case it is the truth. There are many companies in my area, some led by ex-miners, that want to help. They are exemplary, and rooted in the local community. Many leaders of those companies have a social conscience and want to bring social mobility back to life, give local people more opportunities and reverse the trends in deprivation, but they desperately need help and support.
I hope the council will put in bids for levelling-up funds that could help locally. If we are successful, it is to be welcomed, but if we are going to give the kids in Wakefield a chance, we need the Government to address the issues that are interconnected with deprivation and a lack of social mobility. I want briefly to touch on four or five of those issues. The first is productivity. These day, we measure productivity per head by something called GVA—gross value added. In Yorkshire and the Humber, gross value added per worker is just over £21,000, whereas in London it is £48,000, so the productivity per head in Yorkshire as a whole—it is slightly worse in my constituency—is £27,000 a year less than for workers in London, and that is because of lack of investment. Without investment, work will be less productive, and if the productivity of each worker is lower, we can therefore expect wages to be lower.
Average pay in Hemsworth is £495 a week. In the Prime Minister’s constituency, it is £728 a week. On average, the workers in Hemsworth in my constituency are paid £12,000 a year less than those in the Prime Minister’s constituency. What is worse is that earnings in Hemsworth have grown by 6% since 2010. In the UK, that growth in wages was 22%—almost four times more. I relate that back to the lack of investment in productivity. We are falling further behind. We can see the problems in our area, both chronic and acute, and we desperately need investment.
That brings me to my third point: the need to be mobile in an area where the place of work is no longer the local village. I represent 23 former colliery villages, and the work used to be located in each village. Now that work has gone, people have to travel some distance to get to decent employment, but the problem is that a quarter of people in my constituency do not have access to a car, and public transport—including rail and bus routes—is being cut back. I deliberately placed my office in a station, so people who do not have a car can get there, but the train service is being cut to that very station. From May this year, Northern Rail has cut services, including the links to Sheffield and Leeds, where there are jobs.
The same has happened with buses. I guess all of us who represent rural areas know that the bus services are in decline—in my area, severe decline. Seven routes with weekend timetables have been cut and 29 routes with weekday timetables have been affected. On top of that—perhaps because of it—transport spending in Yorkshire is a third of that spent per head in London. If we compare the £906 per head spent in London to the £300-odd in Yorkshire, that means we need £86 billion overall to be on par with London. How will we get geographic mobility, and the connected social mobility, if so many people do not have cars and public transport is reduced as I have described?
The Minister may have something about High Speed 2 in her briefing notes, but the eastern leg—through Yorkshire, up to Leeds—has been cut, although I think £100 million has been left to see whether we can build an inter-urban link between Sheffield and Leeds. The fact is that HS2 would drive a corridor as wide as two motorways through my constituency, but provide no stations or halts there. We would have all the pain, but none of the gain. HS2 is not a solution. We need proper interconnectivity, and I am sure many other Members would say the same about their constituencies. In areas with declining social mobility and increasing deprivation, public transport is imperative.
That brings me to a further point about the cuts as a result of austerity. Since 2015, Wakefield Council has suffered cuts of £57 million in real terms. The Minister may say, “Well, there is £20 million in levelling-up funds,” but that £20 million, which would be welcome, is being funded by the very cuts suffered by the public services in our area. It is not as though this is new money; it is money that has been recycled from cuts.
The cuts to school funding in our area are particularly painful. My constituency has lost almost £400 per pupil. When the social mobility tsar says to kids in my area, “Just take a few steps, but don’t dream of going to university,” the truth is that only small steps are possible because of cuts to schools. I take exception and offence to the advice given to people like Zac.
My final point is about digital exclusion. We all know that the economy is changing before our eyes and a new industrial revolution is well on its way, with more to come with artificial intelligence and all the other prospects available to us, but connectivity to the internet, which is so important to building a lively cultural and economic life in a constituency, is restricted in the south-east of Wakefield. The broadband speeds are among the worst in the whole country. Three quarters of communities in my area are in the worst 30% of areas for broadband connectivity.
The average download speed in Hemsworth is 52 Mbps, but in the Prime Minister’s constituency it is twice as high at 107 Mbps. It is not acceptable that communities should be left behind in this way by public transport, cuts and the other things I have described. Wherever we look, we are being held back. We need an active Government who will: secure investment; increase productivity; address the problems of geographic mobility as a result of the cuts to public transport; restore the service cuts, particularly in schools, which I feel passionate about; and invest in broadband. We need a Government who will offer real opportunities to local business leaders who want to root themselves back in the community, who recognise the value of a loyal and hard-working workforce, and who want to give people a chance to restore the kind of life they had before the mines were closed all those years ago. All those steps could and would improve opportunity in our area. I just hope the Government are listening, although sometimes I doubt they are.
Let me finish on a bigger question. South-east Wakefield has issues that require active government, not the small government that the Chancellor is always rabbiting on about. That is also the case in many other communities across the country, especially in the wake of the covid pandemic, but the issues I have described show how chronic and acute the problems are in south-east Wakefield. That ought to lead us to pose a bigger question: can the current neoliberal economic model and the ossified, over-centralised state frameworks really deliver social justice? I do not believe they can.
Levels of inequality are now verging on the obscene in parts of our country. The richest people in society have increased their wealth by £700 billion since the crash, yet for people in my constituency, wages and salaries are declining or stagnating. The cost of living is skyrocketing and public services are becoming overstretched. Within this national context, it is perhaps unsurprising that areas like mine have been held back for so long. Although the idea of levelling-up money is to be welcomed—we will bid for it and I will engage with it—we need to recognise that nothing less than a full-scale economic system change and proper devolution of power will do, so that people who make decisions can understand their impact on local people. That does not happen now.
Long ago, I came to the conclusion that the economic, cultural, political and social distances between decision makers here in the capital and areas such as south-east Wakefield are so vast as to ensure that there will be no progress towards social justice in our area without radical change. That is because the decision makers are so remote from life as it is lived by the people I represent. I represent middle England, right in the middle of the country—people who work hard, play by the rules, pay their taxes, and yet are being left behind. I leave this final thought with the Minister: can she convincingly say to the young people of my area, like Zac, that the status quo, with all its structural problems, can really offer the change that south-east Wakefield requires? I do not believe so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) on securing this debate and thank him for raising this important subject. His passion for securing the best possible future for his constituency is shared by the Government. I was interested to hear what he had to say about his constituents Zac and Lee. In answer to the question that he just asked, I would say yes; not just the status quo, but our levelling-up agenda will deliver for his constituents and across the country. I will go on to explain that in a moment.
I want to address the hon. Gentleman’s point about the social mobility commissioner. I am going to hazard a guess that the hon. Member did not listen to her speech. I did, and I am afraid to say that his quotation was a misrepresentation of her remarks. I am not sure in which outlet he read it, but what she actually said was that we need to stop obsessing about getting people into Oxford and Cambridge; that there is a rags to riches version of social mobility that assumes people have to go right from the bottom straight to the top, like Dick Whittington, instead of taking steps up the ladder; and that that attitude denigrates lots of good jobs such as teaching and skilled professions. I think that is something that the hon. Gentleman would probably agree with. I am very supportive of the social mobility commissioner and I think he would find her speech interesting. She is a very clever woman, who understands social mobility more than most. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to read her state of the nation report when it is released—I think, by the end of this month.
To answer some of the points raised, it is best to go back to the beginning and why we are having these debates. Levelling up is at the heart of the Government’s agenda. We set out a clear commitment to unlock economic prosperity across all areas of the country, including Wakefield and Hemsworth. It is about providing momentum to address long-standing regional inequalities, which the hon. Gentleman clearly articulated, to enable people to pursue life chances that have previously been out of reach. To quote the White Paper, “Stay local, go far.” His point that work in previous times was in the village—so that people did not have to commute—and that that does not work for today’s society was well made. That is something we recognise. Those structural inequalities will not be addressed by simply spending more money. We need to do better.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned issues for rural constituencies. I represent a rural constituency, and I know that the Government have been funding a lot of schemes to provide mobility for those people who are cut off. I asked for information and was told that there is a fund that is devolved to the Mayor of West Yorkshire. She has £1.4 billion for transport improvements across West Yorkshire. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to speak to her to address some of these issues. As he said, not everything can be done in Whitehall, and I hope he can work with her.
Some £370 million has been provided to West Yorkshire Combined Authority for projects aimed at improving and investing in public and sustainable transport, and that covers Wakefield as well. I know that not all of Wakefield is in the hon. Gentleman’s patch, but that is something he should speak to the Mayor about. I do not know the specifics—I suspect these are in the city—but projects include cycle routes from Wakefield Kirkgate rail station and improved access to Wakefield bus station. As he said, where those buses come and go is not just about the stations, but the communities that they pass in between.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned local government funding cuts. As Minister for local government, that is something I hear from Opposition Members again and again, and I will repeat what I always say: nobody likes cuts, certainly not this Government. We had to make them because we were compelled to by the financial situation we found when we came into government, which was left by the previous Labour Government. We are fixing many of the problems, which we have not been able to fix for a very long time. I hope the hon. Gentleman will see that when I talk about the funding we are providing to his area.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned broadband, and I recognise some of the points he made. I want to let him and his constituents know that the Government have invested heavily over a number of years through the Building Digital UK programme and other funding streams. Some 99% of West Yorkshire will have access to superfast broadband by October of this year. The vast majority of the region, including Wakefield, already has access to superfast broadband, with speeds of at least 30 megabits per second. If he does not find that in Hemsworth, he should write to my colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, so that they can pick that up specifically. I do not know enough about that programme to provide more information, beyond what I have just said.
Levelling up is about enabling local places to determine and support their own economic priorities. It is not just about the Government handing out money and telling areas what to do. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there was a devolution deal with West Yorkshire, and I talked about the funding that has gone to the metro Mayor, Tracy Brabin, who was elected last year. But in addition to that investment fund, the devolution deal includes a range of powers and funding streams, which are now transferred to the mayoral combined authority, including for the adult education budget and transport, as well as responsibility for the police and crime commissioner. We are handing powers closer to the people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
Since Mayor Brabin’s election the Government have awarded £830 million of additional funding for sustainable transport schemes across West Yorkshire, demonstrating the difference that clear and visible leadership can make to local economies. Building on local priorities, we are also providing West Yorkshire with £217 million from the towns fund, £50 million of which is in Wakefield, and more than £72 million through the first round of the levelling-up fund, which I know the hon. Gentleman is aware of—he referred to the £20 million for Wakefield. The previous local growth funding, which amounts to £695 million for West Yorkshire, has also enabled the Wakefield South East Gateway, which will deliver 2,500 new homes on the City Fields development, as well as the completion of the Wakefield waterfront. I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees that this funding demonstrates the scale of the Government’s commitment to working with Mayors, local MPs and other local leaders to deliver for their cities, towns and villages. I encourage him to work with Tracy Brabin to ensure that this large investment programme really benefits all parts of Wakefield, including south-east Wakefield.
The hon. Gentleman said that his constituency would need £86 billion to level up to London, but it is not a fair comparison. He mentioned that his is a rural constituency. What we need to do is make sure that areas are able to develop as much as they should within the parameters around them. Not everywhere can have 8 million to 14 million people, tube networks and so on, and I do not think that his constituents would necessarily want that.
I mention the levelling-up fund specifically because I have been told that there has been additional funding from the getting building fund, which has supported two enterprise zones, at Langthwaite and South Kirkby business parks—both in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency —to stimulate business growth and create local employment opportunities. I am sure he welcomes the multimillion-pound cross-Government investment to expand the unique Production Park—the live events campus in his constituency —which is supporting local people into good-quality apprenticeships and jobs in this growing creative industry. On the same site sits the new Backstage Academy, which will provide the next generation of live industry and media professionals. It is delivering degree-level education to over 200 students, with an industry focus so that more than 90% of students have secured employment before they complete the course.
The £4.8 billion we are investing through the levelling-up fund is providing the tools for local areas across the country to invest in their infrastructure, improve everyday life by regenerating their town centres and high streets, and invest in cultural and heritage assets. As the hon. Gentleman said, Wakefield was successful in securing £20 million through the first round of the fund, to support the expansion of the Tileyard North development and to transform a derelict site with a new cultural offer celebrating Wakefield’s heritage. This will bolster Wakefield’s position as a growing hub for the creative industries and bring with it good-quality jobs.
In the levelling-up fund prospectus, we recognise the crucial role of MPs in championing the interests of their communities and understanding local priorities. That is why we expect bidding authorities to consult local MPs fully as part of their bid development, with MPs able to officially endorse in writing one priority bid for their local area. That ensures that MPs have a hugely positive role in shaping bids, perhaps helping to broker a local consensus on what their area really needs. I note the work the hon. Gentleman is undertaking with Wakefield Council in shaping a local bid for his constituency, to be submitted in July, and I wish him luck. I am sure that he and colleagues across the House will make the most of this opportunity to represent their constituencies.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the opportunities presented through the two town deals awarded to Wakefield, providing combined Government investment of over £50 million. I recognise that these are not directedly targeted on the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but the benefits will flow—they do not stop at local government boundaries or town boundaries. I hope that these investments, particularly in Wakefield’s urban centre, will lead to a stronger and more resilient local economy across the wider area.
Given that the hon. Member for Hemsworth and I are on different sides of the House, we will disagree on many things, but I want him to know that this is an agenda that we in the Government care very much about. We will reflect on the points he has raised and continue to pursue this agenda. We will engage with our West Yorkshire partners to inform our decision making, because we believe that all parts of the UK should have the means to shape their future positively.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of community pharmacies.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Sir Gary. As a member of the all-party parliamentary group on pharmacy, I am pleased to introduce the debate and glad to see so much support from Members who obviously, like me, recognise the huge value that our pharmacies bring to the NHS, patients and the public generally. I hope everyone here agrees that England’s 11,200 pharmacies play a crucial role in providing important healthcare, life-saving medicines and an increasingly wide range of clinical services to their local communities. Not only that, but as the most accessible providers of healthcare, pharmacies are key to reducing health inequalities: 89% of the population are less than a 20-minute walk from their nearest pharmacy, increasing to 99.8% in the most deprived areas, such as mine. It is fair to say that pharmacies understand their communities to a significant extent—sometimes more than the traditional health services—and as such are ideally placed to engage with the most marginalised and vulnerable groups in our communities.
The wider public appreciate the easy accessibility of pharmacies, which by their very nature are located at the heart of every community throughout the country. Throughout the pandemic, not only did community pharmacies remain open and continue to offer their full range of services, but they played a huge role in the vaccination programme, delivering an astonishing 24 million jabs. They also distributed some 27.6 million covid lateral flow tests and initiated a pandemic delivery service that ensured that 6 million vulnerable patients could access their medicine.
I think I am correct in saying that all Members present today would like to put on record their thanks and express their appreciation for all pharmacists, pharmacy dispensers, pharmacy technicians, medicines counter assistants, delivery drivers and administrative teams, who worked so hard during that difficult time to maintain the public’s access to the pharmaceutical services that they relied on. We, and the whole country, owe them a debt of gratitude. But we must also recognise that it is not just about thanking staff; it is also about recognising that the conditions they work in are crucial to the maintenance of a good service, whether a member of staff works in a larger or a smaller pharmacy provider.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. The point he is making appears to be twofold: first, as well as responding to need, pharmacies can have a role in preventive medicine; and secondly, we now need to shout louder about that. Pharmacies did a heroic job during the pandemic and they continue to do so, but I am not sure that everyone knows as much as he clearly does about what we can do with and at a community pharmacy, and this debate serves the purpose of telling them.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a really valid point, and I will talk about some of that later. We have to recognise that, despite pharmacists trying to help people, they sometimes got dreadful abuse. We have to help them and protect them from abuse. That is part of addressing their working conditions. Vacancies in the sector are not caused simply by a shortage of pharmacists. It is also about which part of the space pharmacists work in. In other words, if I were a pharmacist, I would ask, “Do I like the conditions, pay and terms of my work?” If the answer is no, people move on.
Pharmacies are not just a shop; they are a healthcare setting and should be treated as such. They are a crucial part of the NHS ecosystem. I suspect that that is why a pharmacist needs to be on site all the time—this is not just a shop operating within a transactional context. Aside from covid, pharmacies are doing an incredible amount of work for their local communities every single day. In the most recent flu season, in 2021, pharmacies mobilised to deliver the biggest flu vaccination campaign on record, administering 4.85 million doses—over 2 million doses more than in the previous flu season, representing a 75% year-on-year increase.
The recently commissioned NHS blood pressure check service has already meant that 100,000 people have had their blood pressure checked in a pharmacy. Anecdotally, pharmacy representatives say they are already hearing that these checks have picked up cases of extremely high blood pressure in patients, who have then been referred on for treatment. This is a very highly valued healthcare intervention, which will save the NHS money in the long run, because it is cheaper to prevent disease than it is to treat it. More than that, however, I am convinced that these interventions will save lives.
Those two services on their own demonstrate pharmacy at its best. PwC estimates that the sector contributes around £3 billion in net value to society as a whole, and it works every day to improve the health and wellbeing of our local communities and our constituents. That is surely why we have the NHS in the first place.
What is the current financial health of the sector? It is no exaggeration to say that the community pharmacy network is under huge strain and that pharmacy staff and businesses are coming under increasing and, indeed, unsustainable pressure. Pharmacy funding is currently flat, with the total available funding envelope fixed at £2.592 billion. In practice, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee reports that this means that real-terms funding is decreasing year on year, as inflationary pressures, rising business costs and increasing workload are not taken into account in that funding deal. Despite all that, many pharmacies have remained open, albeit under extremely difficult economic conditions.
However, the PSNC says that some businesses are reaching the limits of what is possible in terms of remaining viable, and that is already having an impact on patients. A recent survey on pharmacy pressures, conducted by the PSNC, found that 90% of pharmacy businesses are now unable to spend as much time with patients as they did before. Perhaps more worryingly, 92% of respondents said that patients were beginning to be negatively affected by the current pressures on their pharmacy. Despite pharmacies being a significant part of the NHS family—on average, at least 90% of their income comes from the NHS—pharmacy funding has not received the annual funding growth of 3.4% per annum that the rest of the NHS has been afforded.
Those in the sector feel that it is time to put things right. Indeed, the PSNC recently submitted a funding bid to the Department, making the case for extraordinary economic circumstances to be taken into account. When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope she will update Members on whether a funding increase will be granted to the sector.
The PSNC also estimates that the sector has had to make efficiency savings of between 37% and 50% in order to manage the funding squeeze and to keep providing the services it is contracted to deliver, but how much more pressure should we expect it to operate under? Do we want a bare-bones network that delivers only the very basics for patients, or do we want a vibrant, innovative sector that is constantly looking to the future to find new ways of working and providing a personalised and consistently high-quality service for patients, and that is fully integrated with other areas of healthcare and able to be consistently relied on in the future, as millions of people relied on it during the pandemic? Members can certainly guess what my preference is.
One thing is for certain: maintaining the status quo is not an option. So what does the future of community pharmacy look like? I would like to see pharmacies evolve into the go-to healthcare settings for help with minor ailments. There is no need for otherwise healthy patients with minor conditions to continue to see their GP. The truth is that they can get the same expert advice from their local pharmacist, who can exercise their clinical judgment and sometimes even prescribe medicines or offer an over-the-counter treatment at half the cost to the NHS. Indeed, the PSNC estimates that if this policy was rolled out nationwide, the NHS could save a staggering £640 million.
What is more, there would perhaps be no need for people to queue in a waiting room or to visit multiple locations. Pharmacies could be a single go-to place for diagnosing, advising on and supplying medicines for the treatment of minor ailments. As we all know from when we go abroad, that system works in Europe and much of the developed world, so why not here? It would be potentially game-changing for the future of pharmacy and more widely for primary care. I hope the Minister will comment on what plans, if any, the Government have to commission a service of that nature.
Aside from minor ailments, pharmacies are well placed to deliver much of the prevention agenda set out in the NHS long-term plan. They could and should be at the forefront of promoting and supporting self-care. Future services could include a national emergency contraception service, or even the treatment of minor injuries. Pharmacies could also offer help and support to manage long-term conditions. For instance, they could offer a whole host of valuable services for supporting patients with asthma, such as an inhaler technique service or annual asthma reviews. Community pharmacies could do even more than they already do to review patients’ medication and ensure that it is being taken appropriately. That is all extremely important, from a patient perspective.
For the population that is otherwise healthy, pharmacies could play an increased role in promoting health and wellbeing, and in preventing and reducing further healthcare demand in the first place. After all, healthy people do not often visit hospitals or GPs, but they probably pass by pharmacies on the high street regularly. I certainly do. Pharmacies could conduct NHS health checks with enhanced patient follow-up, and they could use personalised wellbeing plans to help people to make healthy lifestyle choices. Pharmacies could also replicate their success with the flu and covid vaccination programmes by expanding into the provision of others such as the shingles and pneumococcal vaccine and NHS travel vaccinations.
When it comes to what pharmacies can do to improve patient outcomes, the possibilities are endless. I know at first hand that, given the capacity and a good working environment, pharmacists and their teams are ready and willing to take on and promote all those new services, but that has to be put into the context of wider deliverability. Let me use one example. Amanda Pritchard, the NHS chief executive, recently announced funding for high street pharmacies to identify signs of early cancer, and for subsequent referrals and follow-up by clinical radiologists. That is a good initiative. Nonetheless, as Anne Brontë wrote,
“there is always a ‘but’ in this imperfect world”.
Workforce and equipment issues are obstacles to a successful roll-out, given that the radiology system is already under pressure. What about an audit and a replacement programme for our increasingly outdated and, in some cases, obsolete imaging equipment? There are no plans to tackle the annual 7% increase in complex imaging demand and no plan to meet the workforce demand, with a 30% shortfall in clinical consultant radiologists. That figure is going up, and there are backlog issues.
The only question is whether the Government will now enable the community pharmacy sector to fulfil its potential by supporting the range of possible services, and by providing it with appropriate support and funding. I sincerely hope that the answer will be yes.
I will be mercifully brief, given the overture you have just offered the whole gathering, Sir Gary.
I want to do three things. The first is to endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) about the significance of community pharmacies. As I said in my brief intervention, that was drawn into sharp focus during the covid pandemic, when people began to realise quite the extent to which pharmacies and pharmacists are among the unsung heroes of the NHS. They provide services that are both proactive, in preventive medicine, and also reactive. They are often the first port of call when people seek medical advice.
The second point I want to make is that we should be saying much more about pharmacies. Indeed, it is important that we do, so that people know they can access those services. The point about celebrating the role of community pharmacists is not just to congratulate them on all they do, although that is worthy in and of itself, but to spread the word and evangelise about what they do to people who are not taking advantage of those services. I think particularly of the preventive services that the hon. Gentleman highlighted, which deal with things such as diabetes and blood pressure. We must ensure that there is early detection and diagnosis of conditions, so that people can be referred to other elements of the NHS and dealt with promptly. These are all aspects of the role of pharmacies, which deserve to be better known for the good that they can do.
My third and final point is informed by my visit to Holbeach community pharmacy, where I met staff in anticipation of the consideration of these matters, which I know the House takes seriously. Last week, I also met a pharmacist to discuss what more can be done. As the Government’s long-term health plan says, NHS England and the Government need to work together to see how the advantages of community pharmacies can be cemented and expanded. In saying that, I offer a word of warning: we should not see pharmacies as an alternative to GP services. We are having a debate in the main Chamber—almost as we speak—on those pressures, and I do not think that any of us would want to say that pharmacies should replace GP services. There is an overlap, but they are distinct aspects of healthcare. I know the Minister will want to reflect on that, and perhaps she could comment on it today. That is my caveat, but it is none the less important that the Government and NHS England look at how the services provided by community pharmacies can be cemented and built on.
The secret of this debate, if I may put it that way, can be expressed in two words: “pharmacies” and “community”. These pharmacies must be sufficiently accessible and plentiful—particularly in areas such as the ones that you and I represent, Sir Gary—so that people can gain all the benefits I have described, as close to home as is reasonable. There has been a trend in public services during my lifetime, including my political lifetime, towards centralisation and obliging people to travel further for the things they need to service their wellbeing. It needs to be reversed by the Government, who need to think much harder and more clearly about this issue. We need public services to be accessible to those who need them. That is particularly salient for the most vulnerable of our constituents, who find travelling more challenging.
Let us have more community pharmacies, more distributed services and more cottage hospitals—more things happening within communities. Community is the second part of what the hon. Gentleman has drawn to our attention today. It is the lifeblood of a healthy society that services the wellbeing of all, thereby adding to the common good.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) for securing this important debate. He gave a detailed opening speech, so I will aim not to repeat the points that he has made.
I thank all pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and assistants for their hard work and dedication, and for their contribution to delivering first-class patient care in the community. As right hon. and hon. Members have said, community pharmacists are not just an integral part of our healthcare system; they are at the heart of our communities. After all, 1.6 million people visit around 11,400 pharmacies in England every day.
I would like to take the time to make two brief points on the future of community pharmacists. Before being elected as the Member of Parliament for Coventry North West, I worked in the NHS as a full-time cancer pharmacist, and I still regularly volunteer locally at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire as a pharmacist in cancer care. In my role, I have seen and experienced at first hand the vital role that pharmacists play in their communities.
Community pharmacists can dispense medication, deliver vaccinations, write prescriptions and consult on medication, to name just a few responsibilities. Above all, they are dependable and dedicated individuals who are excellent at providing medical knowledge and support for the communities that they work in. It is therefore deeply frustrating to hear about the steady erosion in the availability of community pharmacies.
Data from the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, which will be providing constituency-based information at a drop-in event in Parliament on Tuesday 5 July, paints a very grim picture. Since 2016, 639 pharmacies have closed across England, and nine of them were lost in my city of Coventry. All the while, communities have needed quick medical support more than ever. We have heard in today’s Opposition day debate, and time and again from our constituents, about the crippling difficulties facing GP services.
The Government claim that they are doing all they can about the rising crisis in accessing GP appointments. However, that cannot be the case, as they have been ignoring the roles that community pharmacists can play in combatting this escalating crisis. Those were evident throughout the covid-19 pandemic, when pharmacists played a substantial role in the vaccine roll-out and in providing advice and support to patients during the three lockdowns. The pharmacy sector boasts a highly trained and clinically skilled workforce, who, according to the PSNC, could free up up to 40 million GP appointments each year. The Government need to make full use of that potential. Ministers should take another look at the role that pharmacists can play in supporting our GP services, rather than simply allowing pharmacies across the country to close for good. Smarter thinking here has the potential to make a massive difference; it could help to reduce waiting times, clear backlogs in the NHS and improve the availability of GPs. It would certainly make a big difference in my constituency of Coventry North West.
My second point, which has been raised briefly, is that we must put in place stronger protections for pharmacists in the workplace. Community pharmacists have reported that they do not feel safe in their workplace because of increasing levels of violence and abuse. A survey conducted by the Pharmacists’ Defence Association demonstrated the scale of the problem, with only two in 10 pharmacists reporting that they feel safe all the time at work. A follow-up survey in April showed that 44% of responding pharmacists have experienced physical or violent abuse in the past month, and that 85% have experienced verbal or racial abuse in the past month. That is disgraceful. Nobody should face that level of abuse in their place of work. Pharmacists and pharmacy teams need to feel safe. The Government must do all they can to ensure that adequate risk assessments and preventative safety measures are put in place, as well as taking a zero-tolerance approach when incidents occur.
I hope that the Minister takes into consideration the points I have raised today. The maintenance of community pharmacies and the wellbeing of pharmacists and their staff must be top priorities for this Government. Pharmacists play a crucial role in keeping their communities healthy, and the Government must do everything they can to ensure that they are protected and supported. I therefore hope that the Minister will look at how to better utilise community pharmacists to address the wider problems facing the NHS, and take immediate steps to protect pharmacists who are facing unacceptable abuse in the workplace.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Gary. Community pharmacists have long been one of the unsung heroes of our NHS. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that they are a keystone species of the NHS, serving as a minor injuries unit and providing a vital prescribing service and essential healthcare out of hours for so many people around the country. They are also our most accessible form of healthcare. Their contribution throughout covid-19 was perhaps the best example of their heroic and accessible work. Community pharmacies were the first to step forward during our world-beating vaccine roll-out programme. Millions of people, just like me, had both their first and second jab from their local community pharmacy. Many of us regularly visit our pharmacies for covid tests, travel jabs, flu vaccines and a plethora of other essential healthcare services.
One of the less well known but most inspirational initiatives that community pharmacies have been involved in during the covid pandemic is their support for women experiencing domestic abuse. The Government-backed, pharmacy-led Ask for ANI scheme was a lifeline for many abused women. They could go into a pharmacy and ask for “ANI”, which was the codeword for getting a safe space to raise this important and personal issue.
It is their community nature that makes those pharmacies so valuable. Being on every high street, and having a smaller number of patients than a GP or medical centre, means they can be truly local and embedded in the area. In my constituency of Southend West, we have 18 brilliant pharmacies, each serving an average of 5,162 people. They thus serve a whopping 93,000 people a year. I am delighted that the Government have already recognised the important role that pharmacies play. Earlier this month, the NHS chief executive announced that community pharmacies will be funded to spot early signs of cancer and trained to refer people directly for scans and checks without seeing their GP. That is so welcome and important. Every Member of Parliament will be receiving a welter of emails complaining about access to GP appointments. The Valkyrie surgery, in my constituency, is clearly struggling to cope with the demand for appointments, and it is certainly not the only one struggling in Southend West.
Enabling people to access specialist services without going through a GP will massively ease pressure on GP services. It will also ease the pressure on our beleaguered accident and emergency services, which are crumbling under the pressure. Southend Hospital is safe for around 50 people going through A&E every day, but it is, on occasion, having to cope with 150 people. The obvious solution to those twin problems is to upskill our community pharmacies and ensure they have the funding and training they need to take the burden off our GPs, ambulances and hospitals.
Pharmacies already save 619,000 GP appointments every week; that is 32 million every year. The services they provide also save around 3.5 million people every year from visiting A&E and walk-in centres. We must go further to transform our pharmacies into an even more vital community resource. In Southend West we have the brilliant Belfairs pharmacy, run by an inspirational pharmacist called Mr Mohamed Fayyaz Haji—known locally as Fizz. Fizz provides a great range of services, including cholesterol and blood pressure checks, health advice and prescribing. He has recently acquired further premises so that he can expand into even greater levels of primary and community care, from ear syringing through to community phlebotomy, and to earlier diagnosis measures such as measuring prostate-specific antigen levels for prostate cancer, as well as electrocardiograms and ultrasound screening for sports injuries and pregnant women. That is exactly the sort of care that we want to be championing and supporting to ease the pressure on our other services. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister would like to join me in applauding Fizz’s efforts in Belfairs. That is a model for community pharmacy care around the country.
That sort of expansion is obviously not free. I applaud the fact that the Government are already investing in this area. I welcome the community pharmacy contractual framework, which will provide £2.5 billion annually. It is providing clarity and certainty about funding for the first time. I also welcome the new commitment for an additional £15.9 million to support the expansion of frontline pharmacy staff, providing people like Fizz with the training that they need to develop the skills of their staff for the benefit of everybody in the local community. I want to see this continue and for our pharmacies to be able to offer routine medical check-ups and routine injections and to be able to spot the early signs of serious illnesses and refer patients straight on to specialist departments in our local hospital.
In conclusion, pharmacies already provide a huge range of local services and they deserve greater recognition for the essential work that they do. The Government are already doing great work. I would like to see the Government go further with upskilling pharmacists, easing the pressure on our NHS and creating a healthier society all round. Pharmacies, especially in Southend West, are keen to be part of this mission and offer more to their local communities. I welcome every step to empower them to do just that.
Thank you, Sir Gary. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on setting the scene so very well. This subject is something that I am sold on. It is something that I fully endorse, as others have done. We all see the real benefits of it. I have a great interest in the topic. I believe that community pharmacies are an untapped resource that we need to unlock with clever funding and foresight. Over the years, I have worked closely with a number of pharmacies in my constituency of Strangford and have been impressed by the expertise and the potential that is ready to be unlocked.
Pharmacies were involved in covid-19 jabs. They do flu jabs, blood pressure tests and asthma checks, as the hon. Member for Bootle mentioned. Staff can look out for signs of illness and can, if necessary, refer people on—because they know the limitations of the service as well—and that is a good thing. I got the girl from the office to send through details of some of the things that they can do right there and then; people do not have to go to A&E to get these things done. Pharmacies can deal with athlete’s foot, diarrhoea, haemorrhoids, head lice, groin infections, threadworms, thrush, earwax, mouth ulcers, scabies and verrucas. Staff can deal with all those things, at the initial stage, in pharmacies. Although some of those things are probably fairly personal, pharmacies do have the ability to deal with them.
During my time in the Northern Ireland Assembly, I was a strong advocate for what was then called the minor ailment scheme. Although that may still be in operation to a small degree, the potential for more is at our fingertips. The enthusiasm and energy that local pharmacies have really excites me. I get extremely excited about the potential, about what could happen, when I speak to owners such as James McKay of McKay Pharmacy in Newtownards to hear of the schemes that he has ready to go—making space for community physio and nutritionist provision in tandem with the local GP surgery that has premises abutting the pharmacy. There is scope for a real community facility—with much more provision than perhaps pharmacies, with their space, can provide—and that needs to be progressed and replicated.
I was not surprised to read that, on average, pharmacies undertake more than 58 million informal consultations per year. I had to get malaria tablets for a trip to Nigeria just a few months ago. In the past that would have meant a trip to a Belfast private doctor to get a private script, at a large cost. But this was a matter of popping down to my local pharmacy, answering some questions and getting the malaria tablets. Last week, I had a bit of toothache. Again, I went down and spoke to the lady. She gave me the tablets; she gave me the gum rub, and there and then seemed to have solved the problem. Similarly, I believe that those informal consultations prevent an additional 70,000 people from needlessly attending A&E or an NHS walk-in centre every week. Yet community pharmacies receive no specific funding for holding such consultations. That needs to change. I look to the Minister, as I always do. She understands these issues extremely well and, more often than not, she has the answers to the questions we ask.
Delivering minor ailment care through community pharmacies rather than GPs could result in a 53% total cost reduction to the NHS. The cost of providing 40 million minor ailments GP appointments per year is £1.2 billion; it would cost just £560 million to transfer those appointments to pharmacies as a community pharmacy consultation service. Those significant savings cannot be ignored. In this day and age, when finances are important, it is important we look at these issues. It is not simple, straightforward maths and is more than just a number exercise.
We must understand that community pharmacies are ready and willing, and local GP practices are calling out for pressure on surgeries and treatment rooms to be relieved, as well as that on accident and emergency departments. This change makes sense. It has been shown to work in the past and will work again in the future. Let us make the most of the expertise we have and take the pressure off our GP practices where it is possible to do so. We need to get treatment and training in place and get the right people doing the right things.
The future of community pharmacies is intrinsically linked with that of the NHS. We need to work smart as well as expecting them to work hard, and get the minor ailments scheme in a funded and good position. This is a tremendous opportunity to do something good with our health service, in a way that we save money and also deliver better care across the whole community. Everyone of us here today is excited at the possibility of what could happen. I am sure when she responds the Minister will give us some encouragement. I know one thing: if this happens, we all gain.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I thank the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) for leading this debate, on a topic that is vitally important to every community across the four nations of the UK.
Local pharmacies are a lifeline for their communities and a vital part of our primary healthcare system. They are our most accessible point of contact with our NHS and are invaluable in keeping our constituents and our communities healthy and happy. In Scotland, community pharmacies are playing a commendable role in ensuring that millions of people can and do have their minor ailment needs addressed quickly without needing to go to their GP or a hospital.
The Scottish Government know that good quality healthcare is the cornerstone of a decent society and we will always strive to provide that for the people of Scotland. That is proven by the fact that every single prescription in Scotland is free, unlike here in England where charges apply. Currently, the charge is £9.35 per item—not per prescription, but per item. I know the Minister has said before that prescriptions are free to those who need them, but if she thinks people are not choosing how sick they can become, because of their finances, she is mistaken. The UK Government should follow the lead of the Scottish Government and abolish prescription charges in England. I will continue to ask for that for as long as I am here.
The cost of living crisis is hurting working families more and more each day, and it is only right that the first step to a future of fairer, more equitable healthcare practices in our pharmacies is for the UK Government to remove the charge that is associated with entering a pharmacy in the first place. The SNP appreciate the huge effort that the pharmacy profession has shown in response to the covid-19 pandemic and recognise that it further emphasised the role of all pharmacy team members as a key part of the health and social care workforce.
In July 2020, the Scottish Government introduced the NHS Pharmacy First service. I know the Minister is a massive fan. It is part of our NHS recovery plan to look to expand the range of common clinical conditions that can be treated by community pharmacists, avoiding unnecessary GP appointments and backlogs. That removes huge pressures from our GPs and our accident and emergency services and allows the public, from rural areas to inner cities, to access treatments more easily.
I am proud to note that across my constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill a number of pharmacies have gone over and above to enhance their practices and strengthen their clinical workforce to meet the demands of local people. Mackie’s pharmacy in Moodiesburn recently won the pharmacy of the year award for its dedication and revolutionary contributions to the technological advancement of pharmacy services throughout the covid-19 pandemic. Stepps Pharmacy has implemented a fantastic robot dispensing tool, making it more convenient for my constituents to obtain their prescriptions at any time of the day, to suit their busy schedules. Robertson’s Pharmacy in Coatbridge has been serving the community for generations. The North Road pharmacy in Bellshill has created
“vital relationships with local GP practices to reduce the pressures on the appointment system, and ensure that small ailments are seen to quickly and easily with a walk-in service. This includes late-night and weekend openings, ensuring local people are able to access services at their convenience.”
I place on the record my sincere thanks to all of them, and to every pharmacy across the constituency, for their ongoing work in our communities.
The development of pharmacists as independent prescribers, for example, demonstrates their evolving role and how they can be better utilised in the future. We heard from the hon. Members for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) and for Bootle (Peter Dowd) about the difficult circumstances, including violence, that pharmacy staff often face. That is an important point, and it is why I am so proud of the Scottish Government’s Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Act 2021. So far, this Government have resisted action in this area. I urge the Minister to think again about that, and to discuss it with the Justice team.
We also heard from the hon. Member for Southend West (Anna Firth) and the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), who outlined the array of services on offer from pharmacies, such as treatments for asthma, diabetes and allergies, assistance with medication, and medical advice on minor injuries. I thank all Members for their excellent contributions to this valuable debate.
Empowering pharmacists to utilise their clinical skills benefits both patients and the overall health service, and it must always be encouraged. Community pharmacists have the skills and the desire to play a much bigger role in primary care delivery, and they need the support to be able to do so. Eight years of real-terms decreases in funding, coupled with the increasing demands of the last few years, have meant that instead of taking on more clinical services to relieve pressure on GPs and accident and emergency departments, many pharmacies have had to limit or even reduce their offerings. In some cases, pharmacies are closing down.
To ensure that our community pharmacies have a bright future, I ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to take forward the recommendations of the all-party parliamentary pharmacy group, provide future-proofed funding against inflationary pressures and ensure that the level of support given to our pharmacies is always sustained. I also ask that the Pharmacy First approach is rolled out in England and Wales, and that the example of the Scottish Government in placing importance on primary care facilities is implemented here too.
Finally, to ensure the future of our community pharmaceutical practices, I ask that our healthcare professionals are given the pay increases that they deserve as recognition of their outstanding work during the pandemic and in the light of ever-increasing backlogs. The Scottish Government have been able to achieve much with less and less funding guaranteed through Barnett consequentials, so there is no excuse for the UK Government not to ensure the same for patients here in England. The future of our community pharmacies lies in the practices of responsible Governments. It is increasingly obvious that this UK Government need only look north to Scotland if they require inspiration.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on securing the debate, and I congratulate him and Members across the House on putting forward a compelling argument for supporting our community pharmacy sector and increasing its role in the provision of localised community healthcare.
We have heard from Members from across the House that community pharmacies are the cornerstone of our local areas. For many people, community pharmacists are the most accessible healthcare professionals in the NHS, and their work is invaluable. We have heard that more than 89% of the population is estimated to have access to a community pharmacy within a 20-minute walk, but, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, access is significantly higher, at 99%, in areas of the highest deprivation.
We have always known that community pharmacies are important, but it was felt acutely during the pandemic. Community pharmacies helped to administer 24 million covid vaccines and were at the forefront of our response to the virus. In 2020-21, they delivered more than 4 million flu vaccinations—an increase of 75% on the year before. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Southend West (Anna Firth) pointed, community pharmacies carried us through the pandemic and reacted with extraordinary speed to a virus that shut down the rest of the country. It is therefore essential that we not only protect this vital community resource but equip it for the future.
As has been noted throughout the debate, there are two broad areas of concern within the sector, and I would appreciate the Minister’s assessment of them. The first relates to resources. Despite the additional demand for services, there has been no increase in funding for the pharmacy network since 2014, and there have been cuts of around £200 million since 2016. The current framework, agreed in 2019, has not been adjusted, despite the covid-19 pandemic, and we have seen central Government’s failure to adapt. This has resulted in pharmacies being unable to meaningfully invest in staff and has been detrimental to infrastructure development as well as innovation.
What is perhaps most worrying, however, is that an EY study in 2020 found that 40% of the large pharmacy chains sampled were operating at a loss. That is not sustainable, and unless action is taken, we could see pharmacies shut and that vital point of access for people close. I think there is consensus across all parties, including from the Minister, that we want to avoid that, so I would be grateful if she could outline what steps the Government are taking to better support community pharmacies and what assessment her Department has made of the potential impact of fiscal pressures on the sector. Furthermore, has the Department of Health and Social Care made any assessment of the additional pressures that the pandemic has placed on pharmacies? Will that inform the next community pharmacy contractual framework?
The second issue I would like to focus on is strategy and workforce. That will not come as a surprise to the Minister, given the Opposition day debate in the main Chamber earlier. There has been a distinct lack of overarching Government strategy when it comes to workforce planning over the past decade, including in relation to community pharmacies. The community pharmacy model that the NHS needs has drastically changed, as have the needs of patients. As far as I am aware, there has not been any strategy outlining the Government’s ambitions for the sector. Instead, we have seen short-term thinking, a real-terms funding decline and radio silence on the future of this vital resource. That needs to change, and I impress on the Minister the urgency of working with her DHSC colleagues to develop a strategy for community pharmacies that is fit for the future. Crucially, it needs to address the workforce issues that have been reported by parts of the sector, particularly in rural areas, where the increase in patient demand is putting pharmacies under more pressure.
I understand that the Government will argue that extra resource is going into the NHS, but we must not get into the trap of taking community pharmacies for granted, and we need to build a resilient, innovative and adaptive service for the future. We must utilise community pharmacies to tackle the key issues of our time. For example, many pharmacies already offer a range of services geared towards tackling health inequalities, but the local commissioning structures mean that access is not equal throughout the country. There is a real opportunity for central Government to step in and to ensure that no matter where people live, they can access weight-management services, emergency contraception, smoking-cessation services and much more.
Community pharmacies are already embedded in communities. They are trusted by local people. We need, therefore, to ensure that the Government give full support to the sector. Every Member who has spoken would wholeheartedly support the Minister to make sure that happens.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) for securing this debate. He is pushing at an open door, as I am a huge supporter of community pharmacists.
The evangelising of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) is definitely working. Community pharmacies are front and centre of the changes we want when developing primary care. Of course, they are already a central part of the NHS, delivering vital primary care services at the heart of every community throughout the country and ensuring that patients have timely access to medicine. That is one of the lesser elements of the services we have talked about, but it is an important element that keeps patients well and out of hospital, enables them to get discharged safely and prevents readmission.
Community pharmacies are offering more services and they are accessible to all. They are key in providing self-care support, thereby allowing individuals to manage their own healthcare needs and, in turn, increasing capacity for the NHS overall. Community pharmacists are an easily accessible and trusted part of the NHS: a team of highly skilled, qualified, experienced healthcare professionals. There are more than 11,000 community pharmacies across England, 80% of which are around a 20-minute walk from most people’s homes. I am committed to making the best possible use of their resources and talent.
As many Members said, we saw the clear difference that community pharmacies made during the covid pandemic. They stepped up to implement a medicines delivery service for shielding and isolating patients. They implemented Pharmacy Collect, making lateral flow tests widely available to the public. At the height of the vaccination programme there were more than 1,500 community pharmacy-led covid vaccination centres. There is no doubt that they stepped up to the mark and showcased what they could offer.
We have a clear vision for community pharmacy. In 2019, we agreed the landmark five-year deal, the community pharmacy contractual framework, which commits to £2.592 billion of funding for the sector. It also sets out a joint vision for the Government, NHS England and the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee for how pharmacy services will support the delivery of the NHS long-term plan. We are in negotiations for year 4 of that deal, so I am limited in what I can say about the funding, but I can reassure Members that the PSNC is negotiating hard and we want to work with it to expand services. Obviously, it is keen for funding to be attached.
It is vital that, as the Minister described, the service is integrated. GPs must continue to offer out-of-hours services, weekend services and, most salient of all, face-to-face encounters with their patients. Services do a great job but that does not mean that GPs should not do all those things.
Absolutely—it is not an either/or situation. We have enough capacity and patients to expand community pharmacy services, but that does not mean that we do not also need to support GPs and other primary care providers.
I thank the team at the Department of Health and Social Care; often, their work is not recognised, but they are working hard to develop some of the services that we have talked about. The community pharmacy consultation service went live in November. Patients can dial 111 and be directed to a community pharmacist for help with minor ailments or medication. We have extended that to GP surgeries, so now a receptionist can make an appointment at the local pharmacist for minor illness consultations.
It has been estimated that 20 million appointments in general practice alone do not require a GP—that does not mean we do not need GPs—and pharmacists can look after those conditions. The introduction of the scheme has been slightly slower than we would have liked, so there is work being done to help to overcome some of the barriers to referrals, because once they see their community pharmacists, patients have a positive experience.
In addition, the discharge medicines service enables hospitals to refer discharge patients to community pharmacists for support with their medicine. The evaluation of this service indicates that for every 23 consultations, one readmission is prevented. Where patients are readmitted, their stays are reduced by six days on average, which I think we can all agree is of huge value. We also have the blood pressure check service, which enables people with high blood pressure to be managed by their local community pharmacist, offering blood pressure checks.
We also have the stop smoking service to enable patients who started their stop smoking journey in hospital to continue with a community pharmacist, and we are looking at developing the role of community pharmacy teams, because it is not just the pharmacist who has clinical knowledge and skills. We are working in a number of areas to upskill the whole community pharmacy team so that they can deliver more and use their skills in a better way.
As has been mentioned, we now have NHS Direct cancer referrals, which community pharmacists will be able to take. Just to reassure the hon. Member for Bootle, we have 160 community diagnostic centres, which will be increasing the capacity to do some of those diagnostic tests, and we have already had 1 million visits to those centres. We are not just expecting pharmacists to refer into existing services; we are expanding the routes for diagnosis as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth) beautifully told the story of Ask for ANI. It is so vital that a woman can go into a pharmacist, just say those few words and get help—they might not be able to go to a GP practice, because sometimes the help they are asking for might be more obvious.
We also have the minor ailments service, which is being rolled out throughout the country, so pharmacies are delivering more and more. The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) knows that I am a pharmacy first supporter. I hate to admit it, but Scotland has taken the lead in that, although we are not afraid to learn lessons if that means learning from what Scotland has done.
On the Fuller stocktake and the future of primary care, just to reassure colleagues, we are not just looking at how general practice looks in the future; community pharmacy will also play a key part in that model. With the integrated care system set to go live on 1 July, we are working with those who will be making commissioning decisions in local communities to set out how that future will look.
We are considering all options for community pharmacy and how we build on the progress we have already made. It is important to say that although we have made progress, there is a lot more that can be done. We are developing new standards for the initial education and training of pharmacists, which are set to be implemented shortly, so that from 2026 all newly qualified pharmacists will be able to be independent prescribers—an essential skill that will help to deliver and develop the service further. For those who are not currently prescribers but would like to be, Health Education England is supporting the existing pharmacy workforce to undertake the required training and upskilling, and £15.9 million of funding support has been made available.
We are also looking at the use of patient group directions, because pharmacists have specifically asked for that, so there are a number of measures in place. We are listening to the community pharmacy community, and where we can make changes quickly and easily, we will.
Just to touch on the issue of violence, I want to be really clear that there is zero tolerance for abuse and violence against community pharmacists—and, indeed, against all primary care staff, whether receptionists, GPs or community pharmacists themselves. I also want to put on the record our thanks to the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) for her work in the NHS as a pharmacist and the experience she has brought to this debate. I reassure hon. Members that we are on a clear journey and we will be supporting community pharmacy going forward.
I thank the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) and for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), and the hon. Members for Southend West (Anna Firth), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar).
I think we have reached a degree of consensus. I hope we can move forward with that consensus and that if we revisit this issue in six or 12 months, we will have made significant progress. I also thank the Minister for certain of the reassurances she gave. When we come back, let us review this and see how it is moving on, because that is our job, and I know that the Minister recognises that.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned with Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).