Wednesday 22 June 2022
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
Homes for Ukraine: Child Refugees
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Homes for Ukraine scheme and child refugees.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I want us to consider the merits of reforming the Homes for Ukraine scheme to provide better support to children fleeing the conflict in Ukraine. Many Members know that this issue is close to my heart. My mother came to the UK in the 1970s as a political asylum seeker. She came to this country because 19 members of her family had been killed in Bangladesh and it was too dangerous for her to go home. She did not want to leave her home, and every time I speak to her she talks about how she had no choice but to come to this country; the threat of violence meant that she could not stay in Bangladesh. I could not help but see the parallels when I heard the case raised by my inspirational constituent, Mark Falcon, about two sisters: 13-year-old Mariia and 18-year-old Nataliia, who fled their war-torn hometown in Ukraine with the hope of coming to the UK.
The UK has a long and proud history of providing safe refuge to children fleeing danger and conflict. Indeed, my mother was a similar age to Nataliia when the UK welcomed her to our shores. My mother settled in Kilburn, the area that I now represent in Westminster. My constituent, Mark, acting in the best traditions of our country—indeed, of our constituency—is representative of Hampstead and Kilburn because he offered to take Mariia and her sister Nataliia into his house through the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
Mariia’s and Nataliia’s parents had taken the brave decision to remain in Ukraine and serve their country in its struggle against Russia’s bloody and unjust invasion. One of the parents is in the military; the other is a doctor. The sisters applied for visas on the basis that my constituent, Mark, would be able to house them on arrival. The family’s hopes that both children would be able to safely enter the UK were brutally shattered when Nataliia was granted permission to travel, but Mariia, because she is under 18, was not. The Home Office told me that she could not come here without her parents, even though she had already left Ukraine and was travelling through Montenegro with her 18-year-old sister. So she was not allowed to come here because she did not have her parents with her, even though she had her 18-year-old sister accompanying her.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for making such an important speech on what is happening at the moment. My office is dealing with similar cases and there is very little we can say to sponsors who are desperate to bring people over. I am glad to see that the guidance on unaccompanied minors has been updated, but does my hon. Friend agree with me that it might have already left some young people at the mercy of people traffickers? We have had various other situations as well. If it had happened once or twice, we might have thought it was an error, but when a family attempts to bring their entire family and the Home Office leaves off the visa for the youngest person in the family, that obviously means that the family will not travel. I started to believe that there was something sinister at play here. Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation is absolutely disgraceful and the Home Office needs to take care when it issues visas for families? It needs something in place to attempt to find the many young people who might have already moved into Europe and might be at the mercy of people traffickers.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I have heard such stories many times from lots of my colleagues, so there is a fundamental flaw in the Home Office process. I have not seen the policy officially announced yet, although I might have missed it during my rather traumatic journey to Parliament today, but I am sure the Minister will update me. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to that topic later in my speech when I talk about one person in the family being left behind whereas the rest of the family can come, which is not acceptable.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Does she agree with me about the case of Alika Zubets, a four-year-old girl from Kharkiv who has been stuck in Poland with her grandmother? She has a sponsor, Dr Maggie Babb, in my constituency in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and extended family in Staffordshire, yet we have been waiting for the policy decision for weeks. I hope to hear something very shortly from the Minister. The little girl has to return to Kharkiv because her right to stay in Poland runs out on the 25th. Does the hon. Lady agree that such cases demonstrate the need for an urgent resolution of the issue?
This is not often said in this place, but I absolutely agree with my colleague from the other side of the House. I have a daughter who is not far off the age of the little girl the hon. Gentleman describes, so it is heartbreaking to think of her being separated from her family and not being given safe accommodation when something changing in the Home Office could rectify the problem. However, I know that the Minister cares and I hope to hear him announce the updated policy.
As many people will know, and before we hear the updated policy, the rules of the Homes for Ukraine scheme dictate that unaccompanied children are allowed to apply only if they are travelling with their parents or legal guardians to the UK. I understand that the Government have to take into account safeguarding risks such as people trafficking, and that the Government of Ukraine have stated a preference for keeping unaccompanied children in regions close to Ukraine, but this blanket, blunt policy and the failure to take a more sophisticated case-by-case approach has completely ignored situations such as Mariia’s.
The Home Office should be consulting the sector more and making the system work for such children. Excellent organisations such as the Refugee Council and the Children’s Society, to name just two, do this work day in, day out. They could help to come up with solutions that would provide children with necessary protections and safeguards. That is all we in the House want; we want to protect the children and make them safe; we do not want them to go through unnecessary trauma and be unable to come to our country. Perhaps then, Mariia—a 13-year-old girl—would not be forced to choose between returning to a war zone and staying alone, putting herself at risk in temporary hotel accommodation in Montenegro. That situation is especially ridiculous to me because she has a warm, safe home waiting for her in my constituency, but she cannot get here because of Government bureaucracy.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and commend her powerful speech. She is right to put safeguarding at the centre of all our policies in this area. Does she agree that the Home Office changing its policy in April was inexplicable, as is why it has been unable to come up with a robust framework to provide for the safeguarding of unaccompanied children? By not doing so, the Home Office has put those children at more risk.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and he is absolutely right. It is a pity that so many children have been affected by the inability to rectify the policy. We knew the war was coming. I know we had to develop the policy at short notice, but I wish the Home Office had taken the issue more seriously and come up with solutions, as my hon. Friend has described. I will speak more about that later in my speech.
The interventions from colleagues across the House have shown that Mariia’s story is not an isolated case. I have dealt with countless similar cases of unaccompanied children denied access to the homes for Ukraine scheme due to the rigid and bureaucratic approach of the Home Office. For example, David and his wife in my constituency sponsored sisters aged 20 and 13 to live with them in London, but because of the Government’s policy the sisters never made it to the UK. Diahann, also my constituent, sponsored two 17-year-olds, who ended up sleeping on a kitchen floor in a small flat in Poland rather than in Diahann’s home.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has resulted in more than 7 million refugees fleeing that country, but by 14 June, only 82,000 UK visas had been issued under Homes for Ukraine, and only about 50,000 of those people had arrived in the UK. That is less than two thirds of those who had been issued with a visa, but the Home Office has failed to explain why so many with visas have yet to arrive in the UK. That was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy).
The Refugee Council has warned that the gap between those figures might be explained in part by cases in which only some in a family unit have been issued with a visa. It is heartbreaking to think that all the older brothers and sisters have chosen to stay in Ukraine with their younger siblings rather than make the journey without them. That is not something that any of us would want for our family, and I hope everyone will agree that it is not something that people in Ukraine should have to suffer through.
May I take this opportunity to praise Lord Harrington for his engagement on this issue? There has clearly been, first, diplomatic wrangling with the Ukrainians and, secondly, policy decisions being made in both Whitehall and the devolved Administrations. I realise that the delay has been far too long, but may I take the opportunity to praise the Minister for Refugees for his engagement on the issue, because he has spoken to me personally about the case that I raised with the hon. Lady earlier?
Again, I find myself agreeing with the hon. Gentleman. The Minister for Refugees, to his credit, also met me about the case that I raised at Prime Minister’s questions and was fully briefed on the case, which impressed me, so I thank him. But again, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the delay was unacceptable, and I hope that it will very soon be rectified officially.
I am cautiously optimistic after hearing reports this week that the Home Office is considering changing the visa rules to allow unaccompanied Ukrainian children and teenagers to come to the UK. That would end an unjust policy that has seen siblings separated and children abandoned in the most dangerous of situations. I would like the Minister here today to confirm whether those reports are true and tell us officially if the policy has changed, and explain why it took so long, despite so much suffering, for the Government to acknowledge that it is unacceptable to bar unaccompanied children from refuge in our country.
The Times has reported that the Home Office estimates that at least 500 children have been stuck in limbo in Ukraine for two months or more because of the unaccompanied child policy. I hope that this Minister, who I know cares, will be able to tell us today how many children his Department estimates have been prevented from accessing the Homes for Ukraine scheme because of this particular policy, and how those children’s applications for asylum would be considered under any new rules that the Government are considering.
My hon. Friend is making a very important speech. Does she agree that if, as we hope, provisions are to be put in place to welcome unaccompanied children to this country, it would be useful to hear from the Minister what special support will be put in place for those incredibly traumatised children and the families acting as their hosts?
That is something that I will talk about. It is all very well to welcome people to this country, but we need to think about the lives that they go on to lead. I will refer to that shortly and I thank my hon. Friend for the intervention.
Putting aside for one moment the unaccompanied child policy, I think it is important also to highlight the broader failings in the Homes for Ukraine scheme for child refugees. I believe that, even under the existing rules on unaccompanied children, my constituent, Mark, and his wife should have been able to welcome Mariia into their home. After the Home Office had refused to approve her application, Mariia’s parents provided a notarised statement, in Ukrainian and English, giving their consent for Mariia’s 18-year-old sister, Nataliia, to act on behalf of her younger sibling, but that note was deemed insufficient by the Home Office. Mariia’s parents still did not give up, because they were so desperate to send their two daughters to safety in the UK. Eventually they were able to obtain from the local authority a legal guardianship document that confirmed that Nataliia could act as the legal guardian for Mariia, but that still did not bring Mariia to the UK. As a result, and despite repeated representations to the Home Office by my office and my caseworker, Julia, and my constituent, the two sisters were stuck in a dangerous temporary hostel in Montenegro for weeks.
Only after I raised this topic at Prime Minister’s questions a couple of weeks ago was the Home Office finally forced to review the case, but not every MP will be as lucky as me and get in at Prime Minister’s questions at a very timely moment to raise a case. That is something that the House needs to consider. I got a call from the Home Office and the Minister because I raised the case with the Prime Minister, but there are so many cases with Members across the House that need special attention. I am of course grateful to the Home Secretary for her assistance, but there are potentially more Mariias out there, trapped in war-torn Ukraine or countries where they have no family or network of support. I ask this Minister to look into that. I am concerned that even under the existing rules, these cases are not being dealt with properly or urgently, so I want reassurance from the Minister. What are the Government doing to take the necessary steps to address these failings in the refugee system generally?
Sadly, even now, Mariia has not been able to enter the UK, but I hope that that will not be the case for too much longer. It is important to recognise that when Mariia and other children like her do come to the UK, they will need more than just a safe home when they enter these shores. These children, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) mentioned, have experienced serious trauma. They require specialist support to ensure that they successfully integrate into their new community. People arriving under Homes for Ukraine receive a visa for three years, but currently the integration funding is available only for the first year. I hope that the Minister can confirm today whether further funding will be provided to local authorities so that they can support people for the full three years.
May I ask my hon. Friend to note the position of pregnant women and new mums and their babies, and the support for them, not just through local authorities but through the health service? Does she agree that that will need to be sustained, particularly for women who will be without a partner at that time, increasing their sense of isolation and trauma?
My hon. Friend is right to raise the plight of vulnerable women and children. The Refugee Council has warned of a growing number of people arriving under the Ukraine schemes ending up homeless, potentially including young children and pregnant women. Government data show that 480 Ukrainian families and 180 single adults have had to apply to a local authority for support with homelessness. I am particularly concerned that 145 placements under Homes for Ukraine have already ended in homelessness: 90 because the relationship broke down and 55 that never started, because the accommodation was deemed unsuitable before the refugees moved in.
I understand the Government have now established a mechanism through which those who have to leave a placement can be rematched with another Homes for Ukraine host. So far, that has proved unsuccessful: only 20 placements have been rematched. Will the Minister explain the steps his Department is taking to ensure that people arriving under the Ukraine Family scheme are able to access accommodation provided under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, should they find themselves homeless after arrival in the UK?
I will finish by saying that I am proud of my constituents. Hampstead and Kilburn is a constituency with a long history of welcoming people from all over the world, including migrants from Ireland and Jewish people fleeing Nazi Germany. The Government should work with my constituents, not against them, in their efforts to help child refugees from Ukraine. That is why I hope the Minister will give my constituent, Mark, and others like him across the UK the respect they deserve, by setting out how the Government will address the serious failings in the Homes for Ukraine scheme and wider child refugee system.
Just to let colleagues know, I want to get to the Front Benchers by 10.30 am at the latest. There seem to be five people catching my eye, so you can do your own mathematics. I remind colleagues not to eat into other people’s time. I call Crispin Blunt.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing the debate. Our caseworkers will be immensely grateful to her for bringing attention to the issue, because they have spent an enormous amount of time pursuing cases on our behalf.
Obviously, it is a huge pleasure to have the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) present to represent the Government. I am slightly confused, however, as to why it is not a Home Office Minister who will be responding to the debate. It does not send out the right message to have the Minister for rough sleeping addressing the issue of Ukrainian children coming to the United Kingdom. This is a policy issue and there should be a policy Minister here to make a statement about the change that the Government are making, which is hugely welcome.
I want to raise one of two cases that my staff have spent an inordinate amount of time addressing, to illustrate the issue that I suspect many colleagues will speak to. I will call this 15-year-old girl Oksana, because her identity needs a certain amount of protection. She is trying to get to the United Kingdom, accompanied by her grandparents and cousin, but she does not have permission to do so under the rules. She is sitting in Germany, about to be evicted from the property there.
The family have been trying to assemble the paperwork required by the Home Office to bring Oksana here. The problem is that her father is fighting for the Ukrainian armed forces and is engaged in combat, and her mother has found herself in Russian-occupied Ukraine, where it is extremely difficult to get to her. Even so, the family have managed to get notarised documents from the mother in Russian-occupied Ukraine in order to produce the documentation to say that her cousin could be her temporary legal guardian. The family have gone to the trouble of getting that documentation out of occupied Ukraine—and the Home Office has now had the data for a month—but they are still in housing in Germany and are about to be evicted.
This whole chain of events and all those requirements are simply unacceptable, not least when one considers that the whole Border Force system appears to be prioritising Ukrainian matters, which has had an enormous knock-on effect on all the other immigration cases with which teams are having to assist. Even people who have paid for premium-priced visas in order to come to the United Kingdom are not getting the attention that they have paid for at a substantial rate.
That is why I particularly regret that there is not a Home Office Minister here to respond to the debate—because, to be frank, most of these issues are not the responsibility of the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North, who has been put forward by the Government. I understand the pressures that result in the Government sometimes sending Ministers to respond to Westminster Hall debates on subjects for which they do not have particular policy responsibility. However, given that the Government appear to be about to make a policy statement on this issue, I really think that a Minister from the right Department should be responding to this debate.
In Oksana’s case, with her mother now in Russian-occupied Ukraine and her father fighting on the frontline with the Ukrainian armed forces, the requirements that the Government have insisted on to date are utterly extraordinary. If those requirements are about to be reviewed, I am glad. But it does not give one much confidence that, even when people have gone through the enormous steps of finding the means to satisfy the Government’s requirements, they have been left waiting for a month for the decision whether to allow them to come to the United Kingdom. That is not good enough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing this timely debate on this important issue.
None of us in this House could have failed to be horrified by the destruction caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The ruins in Mariupol and Kharkiv that we see on our television screens, on Twitter and on social media were not just buildings. They were schools, hospitals, supermarkets and churches, like the places we all visit and can still visit. They were homes that people grew up in. They were vibrant communities of friends and families.
We must treat those who have been forced out of their homes with the respect they deserve. That means making it as easy as possible for refugees to build a new community in this country, and giving people the long-term security and certainty they need to live comfortably. While it is right that we do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good when dealing with such a fast-paced crisis, the Government must and can do more to ensure that refugees get the support they deserve.
One of my constituents, who offered her three-bedroom home to two women from Ukraine, had to wait 12 weeks to be told this Monday that she did not meet the requirements to be a sponsor, despite my local council checking her property and my constituent having an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service check via her work in the NHS. It is unacceptable that hosts and refugees are having to wait 12 weeks for a decision.
This is not an isolated case in my inbox, and nor will it be an isolated case raised in the debate today or in debates in the main Chamber. Asylum decisions have halved in the past five years and the Passport Office is in disarray, so it is disappointing to have the Minister from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), here to respond, even though I have the utmost respect for him and know that he cares passionately about the issue. However, it is the Home Office that needs to get a grip on this issue.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn mentioned, more than 500 Ukrainian children are currently waiting to find out from the Home Office if they can travel safely to the UK. The charity Safe Passage has highlighted the case of a 17 year old girl, Valya, who has been helped by the hon. Lord Dubs. She has been travelling alone across different war zones for the past two months, unable to get to the UK and also unable to go back home, because her family are now in hiding, fearful for their lives. That should not be happening. The Minister needs to inform us today of what measures he is going to recommend to his colleagues in the Home Office to speed up the decision-making process for people who are so desperate for certainty.
The Homes for Ukraine scheme is not a permanent solution for refugees in this country. Ukrainian families need a home of their own, and we must plan for what happens following that six-month period. Those six months are going to come to a sharp end for many people, and I pay tribute to my constituents in Vauxhall and constituents right across the country who have opened up their homes and are ready and willing to help, but they have been failed.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that at least 17 unaccompanied children go missing in Europe every day, falling into the hands of victimisers who traffic them, exploit them—including sexual exploitation—and use those young children. That cannot continue to happen. We need the Government to step up and match the generosity of people across the UK who are willing to help. The Government need to sort out this mess and create a safe route for young children to come to this country.
As always, Mr Davies, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I apologise, but I have to leave early to chair another meeting; I have already spoken to the Minister, the shadow Minister—the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen)—and the sponsor of the debate, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq).
This is a very important debate on an issue that has proven to be very close to everyone’s heart. Those who have already spoken have expressed as much, and they have also spoken of their support for those from Ukraine who are in need. Those who will speak after me will reiterate that, too.
Russia’s attacks on Ukraine have been condemned by all of the free world, and by many who feel greatly anguished at the stories they witness—the destruction of property, the changing of lives, and the bestial and indiscriminate attacks carried out on families, including women and children. It is those people trying to flee who we wish to help. The Minister has a compassionate heart and he understands these issues. We spoke beforehand and I am sure that we will be encouraged by his response. Having also been in contact with him previously, I am pleased by what I have heard, including on what will happen afterwards.
I commend the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn on securing this debate. She has a really big heart—she might be small in stature, but she is big in heart—and she brings forward things that we all support. I commend her on her stance and for giving us all the opportunity to participate in this debate, and wish her well in all she does. I was very disheartened to hear of her constituent, Mark Falcon, who, for the reasons she has outlined, has been denied the opportunity to take in two Ukrainian refugees through the Homes for Ukraine scheme. We must do more to ensure that protections are in place for child refugees; they should simply not be turned away. There was some good news in the papers this morning, which I read before I came to the Chamber: a 17-year-old has been able to get her access and come across, even though she has waited for some time in limbo—in that grey area—for that to happen.
My constituency of Strangford has taken in a number of Ukrainian refugees, and I thank Donald and Jacqueline Fleming from the Faith in Action group, who have enabled other refugees, including young people, to find homes in Northern Ireland. Five or six weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to Poland, along with other MPs, to see that country’s contribution to the refugee crisis. It was a very poignant moment, because I had the opportunity to see, at the coalface, the refugees coming through to Poland. At one of the centres we visited, there were 2,800 refugees, including lots of young families. The desperation—the look on their faces—told us that these were groups of people under great pressure.
I put on record that our Government have helped. There has been a bit of a hold-up in the process and some things to address, but I am encouraged by the news this morning regarding 1,000 unaccompanied minors who had previously been left in limbo because the Homes for Ukraine scheme required young people to travel. I understand that the Government are changing that. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that; I think that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn herself referred to it earlier. If that change is coming, which I think it is, then this debate has enabled it to happen and again we thank the hon. Lady for that.
My team and I spent months advocating on behalf of a 15-year-old girl who was travelling with her aunt before I managed to get the Minister for Refugees to make an intervention to grant her a visa by exception. I will welcome whatever announcement comes from the Government today, but does the hon. Member agree that it could have been made a bit earlier, to reduce the distress for other children who are stuck in Ukraine and other countries and are trying to get to safety here?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She is absolutely right and confirms the very issue that we are discussing. There has been much distress for those families who are in the pipeline of coming through, and the quicker the announcement is made and the quicker the legislative change comes, the quicker that we can do away with all those issues.
I am a strong advocate for offering support—both financial and humanitarian—in times of need. It is one of my jobs here and it is also one of my portfolios. I take sincere pride in my constituency of Strangford. We have a history of taking in those who need refuge. Ballyrolly House on the Woburn Road in Millisle in Strangford operated as a refugee resettlement farm from 1938 to 1948 for the Kindertransport children. Lord Dubs has already been referred to. We have a really physical part of history in that house, and some of those people who came from 1938 to 1948 stayed there. Indeed, some of their descendants still live locally.
The story of the farm in Millisle remains a little-known tale outside of its locality. In the 1930s, Jewish children escaping persecution in Europe came to live on the remote farm in the Ards peninsula. Children on the farm would play football with the locals or go swimming at Millisle beach. Occasionally, they would even hire a rowing boat and spend the evenings fishing for herrings, which were in plentiful supply along the edge of the Irish sea and in Strangford lough as well.
Those are some of the things that my ancestors and others did to help the Kindertransport children, to help the Jewish children, back in the period from 1938 to 1948. Today, our country—the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—is doing its best to do the same thing again for other children.
I believe that we all have a responsibility to ensure that all refugees are protected. There must be more of an onus on us to help children, as they are much more vulnerable than adults. Again, our hearts go out to the small children. Whatever the reason—perhaps it is because we are adults or because we have a compassionate nature and a big heart—we do reach out to the children. Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom have given refuge before in times of need.
It is disheartening to see young children being sent back to Ukraine for reasons that should have been checked by the Home Office prior to their arrival. If we are correcting that issue, it is good news, but it does not do away with the distress that the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) referred to. That distress is still very real, but let us lessen it.
We must ensure that there is due diligence in searching and assessing the homes used in the Homes for Ukraine scheme, so that people are guaranteed a safe environment for the six months that they are there. I know the reasons why the safety checks are done. We all agree on that, because it is the right thing to do.
We also must ensure that those who have applied to take in refugees are vetted and undergo police checks so as to ensure refugee safety. If homes are assessed and people vetted, I see no reason why Mark Falcon, who was referred to earlier, could not have taken in the two refugees, despite one being under 18. I understand that there may have been concerns in regard to her age, but she was with her elder sister, which should probably have given a wee bit more protection. Perhaps the Home Office should have seen that right away. I for one agree that, without a doubt, she would have been better off here, despite those concerns.
We must treat those in war in the same way as we would expect to be treated back. I am a great believer, as is everyone in this House, in treating others as we would wish them to treat us. That is not a bad way of looking on life and doing things in the right way.
To conclude, the Homes for Ukraine scheme is a fantastic way to provide solace and refuge, of which 28,000 people have already availed. The work to provide safe environments must be done before refugees arrive. It is simply not fair to provide hope but to then send children away due to their age. Let us give them the protection they need, and let us make sure that the changes that have been mooted today come about. As long as we have followed the regulations and safety checks to as high a standard as possible, we should—indeed, we must—rethink the process that is preventing the most vulnerable children from receiving the protection they need in this country. We welcome them here, and we look forward to them being here and to giving them the hope for the future that they very much need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing the debate.
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a coffee morning for Ukrainian refugees at St Mary’s church in Chesham. The coffee mornings are held weekly and are organised by local volunteers who have dedicated their time to helping new arrivals settle in. Watching the Ukrainian children play with local children and hearing how they felt about starting school here in the UK was particularly moving. For many of them, getting here was not straightforward, and many more like them are stuck in Ukraine or neighbouring countries, with or without their parents, unable to make it to the homes waiting for them here due to overcomplicated and unnecessary bureaucracy.
To add to some of the examples, two siblings—a 22-year-old woman and her 17-year-old brother—were stuck in Warsaw for over seven weeks waiting for their visa applications to be approved. The 17-year-old boy’s application was put on hold as he was marked as being an unaccompanied minor. We were instructed to obtain an official parental letter of consent and passport scans. We were told the case was being escalated, and it seemed like progress was being made. Yet after weeks of back and forth with Home Office staff and multiple visits to the Portcullis House hub, we were told the documents were not legally binding and that the case should not be progressed any further until the policy decision was made by the Home Secretary. That was on 13 May. It has been reported that a policy decision has now been taken on unaccompanied minors, and I am sure that I am not the only Member keen to hear the detail of that decision, hopefully, today.
For the officials and Ministers responsible for the scheme, it must feel like driving at full speed while still trying to build the car, and I am sure that I am not the only person grateful for the many hours being put into trying to make the scheme work as best as possible. If I may give one additional piece of feedback, the problems are not just with unaccompanied minors. In the cases my team and I have been dealing with, there is a real pattern of errors and delays whenever children are involved. Where children have applied with their parents, there are often issues with linking the applications, and that is what I want to highlight this morning. In one case, the Home Office failed to link a mother’s application with that of her two children for six weeks. While her application progressed, theirs were halted and marked as unaccompanied minors. When they were finally linked, additional sponsor checks had to be done given that the sponsors were now hosting two children, rather than a single adult female as they had thought. It took eight weeks for the family to arrive in the UK.
In another case, a mother travelled from Lviv to Warsaw with her two young children to collect their visas only to be told the children’s visas were not yet ready. The failure to link families’ cases is causing additional and unnecessary stress for people who are already terrified, traumatised and exhausted. There must be a better way of ensuring children are dealt with alongside their parents, so that they are not incorrectly marked as unaccompanied minors and unfairly delayed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing this important debate. It has been amazingly heartening to see so many people, including many of my constituents, open their hearts and homes to those fleeing this war. It has been equally amazing to see the passion of Members of Parliament, such as my hon. Friend, in fighting to get families reunited and brought here through the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
Like my hon. Friend, I am concerned about what the future will hold for Ukrainian refugees, especially children, who have come here through the Homes for Ukraine scheme. We rightly celebrate kinship care for our own children, so it feels incredibly wrong that this is being denied to children whose parents have no choice but to leave them with other family members to come to the UK. Ministers must take responsibility for the limitations of the scheme.
The issues I want to raise relate mainly to our duty of care for refugees once they arrive. First, some will be unable to complete their six-month placement with their host. In fact, reports suggest that as many as 660 Ukrainian households have had to declare themselves homeless to their council because of breakdowns in relationships with hosts. Some have been asked to leave with just a day’s notice, making it incredibly difficult for them to seek alternative arrangements. For child refugees, it goes without saying that that is hugely destabilising. They are more vulnerable and they are being turned out of homes: 480 households with dependent children had no choice but to seek help because they had discovered the accommodation that they were supposed to be living in was not fit for purpose or meeting their needs. I have also been made aware of situations where the host’s Disclosure and Barring Service check came back with concerns—and this was after children had been placed with them—meaning that families could no longer stay and their place of sanctuary suddenly became a place of fear.
Secondly, I have been wondering why the checks and balances and, importantly, the support offered to hosts are not the same as those for foster carers, especially therapeutic interventions. They should also be provided to the host family. Local authorities need the resources to adequately prioritise and ensure safeguarding and welfare. Access to education probably deserves a debate in its own right, as it is a huge issue for children. A catch-up for schools in the summer is a great idea that has been raised with me by the Ukrainian society in Sheffield.
The warmth and generosity from members of the public has been inspiring, but things can go wrong. Ministers cannot and should not forget refugees once they have entered the country. That leads me to the third problem: what will happen to people once their six-month placement is over? At the moment, Ukrainians are facing a cliff edge. Some organisations have highlighted that they might struggle to access housing. We know that some landlords will not accept those who receive benefits, until the law hopefully changes. Others will struggle to provide the years of financial evidence required for renting. Deposits and up-front rent will also be a challenge. The availability of social housing has clearly been a challenge for many years. In Sheffield, over 20,000 people are already on waiting lists.
For those people who have lost everything in war, housing will be critical when the six-month cut-out comes. Since people have already been here for up to three or four months, it is becoming critical. They have no one to act as guarantors, which is another issue for private renting. The Government must face up to the reality and urgently investigate how those who came here under the Homes for Ukraine scheme can be housed securely. They must put in place a plan for what happens after the initial housing period comes to an end.
If we do not get this right, Ministers will be stripping vulnerable people of the hope that they had been given for a better future in the UK by the Homes for Ukraine scheme. I ask them to urgently consider what resettlement options will be available to people at the end of the six months.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing and leading the debate, and all Members for their valuable and heartfelt contributions.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, more than 5 million people have fled the horrors of war, with a further 8 million internally displaced in their homeland. The majority of those seeking refuge are women and children. So far, the UK Government’s response has fallen short of what is required. By the end of May, the UK had taken in 65,700 refugees from Ukraine. Germany, by contrast, had taken in 780,000 Ukrainians.
Across Europe, our neighbours have stepped up to meet the challenge, waiving requirements and placing refuge and sanctuary first and bureaucracy second. Our friends and closest neighbours in Ireland waived all those requirements immediately when it became clear that a humanitarian crisis was unfolding. Here, the Government kicked their heels. Shortly after the crisis began, the First Minister of Scotland called on the UK Government to match the approach of the Irish Government, saying:
“Let people in and do the paperwork afterwards,”
and that “common humanity demands it”. She was right then and she is right now.
The UK Government should long have followed the EU’s example by waiving visa requirements for any Ukrainian national seeking refuge in the United Kingdom, as well as mirroring the European Union’s temporary protection directive. While we in the SNP fully appreciate the need to remain vigilant to all security threats, that should not prevent the Government from putting in place measures that balance those concerns with the desperate needs of the people of Ukraine, as our friends in Ireland and across the EU have done.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those across my constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill for their heroic efforts in supporting families who have come to Scotland in the manner that they have—those who have opened their homes and hearts to the lovely kids and families through the Homes for Ukraine scheme—but the incredible response across Scotland and the rest of the UK must never be seen by the Government as a means of outsourcing the response and the responsibility. Ministers must engage with local authorities across the UK to ensure that full and sustained support, and funding, is made available.
I am sure everyone in the room is deeply troubled by reports that children are being forced to return to Ukraine after the Home Office refused to accept family members as their legal guardians. Whatever the issues with red tape and self-made bureaucracy—that is what it is—the answer can never be to send children back to a warzone, but that is what has been happening.
A four-year-old girl was considered to be an unaccompanied minor under Home Office regulations as she was travelling with her grandmother rather than with her parents. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn spoke of Mariia, a 13-year-old girl who was forced to return to Ukraine after having her application refused, despite travelling with her 18-year-old sister. The Home Office is of course right to prioritise the safeguarding of children—nobody would disagree with that—but the answer must be to work with local authorities to find a solution that keeps people safe, rather than separating families and sending children back to Ukraine. Offering no alternative is placing children at greater risk across Europe, and many people may consider riskier alternatives to get themselves to safety.
Before mid-April, Home Office policy allowed unaccompanied children to apply for the Homes for Ukraine scheme, but that was changed without explanation, and the policy now excludes unaccompanied children. We are waiting on a policy update, but we have not seen any of the detail. With no provision for those who had already applied, the Home Office put applications on hold and left hundreds of children in limbo, as we have already heard. Many are stranded in extremely dangerous situations. More than 500 Ukrainian children are stuck waiting for a decision on their visas.
Since the policy change, a Government spokesman has said:
“Where we are made aware of an individual being provided with incorrect advice, we will of course take action.”
Up until now, no action has been taken by the Home Office. We look forward to hearing what the policy update will be.
Dan Paskins, director of UK impact at Save the Children, said:
“The government’s ‘one size fits all’ approach in these instances can put children at risk of taking dangerous routes to seek safety.”
I have to agree. He also called for more caseworkers
“on the ground, who have the skills, background and knowledge to be able to make a really informed and rapid assessment of each individual case – particularly for children coming to live with adults with whom they have a longstanding relationship.”
Again, I am sure we all agree. Overall, there needs to be a more flexible approach that takes into consideration the fact that parents will not always be able to leave the country with children, particularly with men aged 18 to 60 currently prevented from leaving Ukraine.
How we nurture these children when they arrive in our communities is just as important. Experiencing a humanitarian emergency can significantly impact the mental health, psychological wellbeing and development of a child. Children have been uprooted from their homes, separated from their caregivers and directly exposed to the violence and horrors of war. It is therefore incumbent on all of us to ensure that service providers can facilitate the integration of the needs of displaced children when they arrive here in the UK. That must include ensuring that mental health services are provided in a culturally sensitive manner, and in a language spoken by the children and their families, to foster trust in service providers. Will the Minister outline what steps are being taken to ensure that those services are in place, and to provide psychological first aid training and capacity building for those beyond the specialist mental health workforce who are in contact with children?
I was pleased to learn recently from my own 13-year-old daughter about her new schoolfriend, Maya from Dnipro, who has settled in very well to school life in the heart of my constituency. There are success stories; we all know of them, and we praise the Government for that work, but there are so many problems that still have to be addressed. I look forward to the Government outlining how they intend to do that.
Recent data shows that nearly 10,000 school places have been offered to Ukrainian children. However, it appears that a sizeable number of children have not yet applied or are yet to take up their place. What steps are being taken to encourage and support uptake of school places? That brings us back to funding. In Scotland, we are proud that all 32 of our local authorities participated in the Syrian resettlement programme, with over 3,000 refugees welcomed into our communities. All 32 local authorities in Scotland also committed to participate in the Afghanistan resettlement schemes.
Scotland stands ready to offer refuge and sanctuary to all those who may be displaced. The Scottish Government will work with the Home Office, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and other partners to provide people with the safety and security they need to rebuild their lives and hopefully one day return to their homeland. The Home Office must work with us—with local authorities and the devolved Administrations—rather than going over our heads, and it must provide full and sustained funding for integration programmes.
Ministers must engage with local authorities across the United Kingdom to ensure that full and sustained support and funding is made available for Ukrainian children, and for any other child refugee who comes to these shores in the future. As always, it is worth remembering that in Scotland refugees are welcome.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Unlike other Members, I welcome the Minister; it is his Department, DLUHC, that is responsible for Homes for Ukraine, and therefore responsible for its faults as well as its successes. Things have gone wrong, as they did in the heartbreaking case of Mariia and Nataliia, which was powerfully described by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). Like others, I thank her for securing this important debate.
We have heard from my hon. Friend and other Members about a case of utter mismanagement, with logic and compassion thrown out of the windows of Departments that are not working together. In the early stages of the war, we saw cases where people from the UK were desperately trying to get loved ones to safety, but UK embassies were shut—held up by senseless bureaucracy. We saw Ministers telling people fleeing Putin’s brutal invasion to apply for visas to pick fruit. It was far from co-ordinated; it was a shambles. I welcome the announcement yesterday of changes to the rules on letting unaccompanied Ukrainian children into the UK—those changes are needed—but we await further details.
What we saw at the beginning of the war sadly had all the hallmarks of the shambolic and chaotic Government response to the crisis in Afghanistan less than a year before the invasion of Ukraine, with MPs’ emails going unanswered, specific cases not being responded to, and vulnerable people—children—left to fend for themselves. Unless there is urgent action now, Homes for Ukraine risks being another empty slogan from this Government. Like last summer’s Operation Warm Welcome for Afghans, it has been left to run cold. There are still over 10,000 Afghan refugees, including children, left in hotels and B&Bs or, worse still, abandoned to the mercies of the Taliban in Afghanistan. I mention that because that the Government had the chance to learn from the mistakes of last summer’s refugee programme, but sadly, they did not.
The outpouring of support and good will from the British public for the Ukrainian and Afghan refugees was not matched by this Government. Children are still unable to get the visas they desperately need. We have heard about the situation with Mariia and Nataliia. The hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) spoke powerfully about Oksana and the bureaucracy that is holding up her safety. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) highlighted further the bureaucracy that is stopping people offering the safety of their homes to people in desperate need. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a typically heartfelt and moral case for why this is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) talked about trauma, and the importance of providing a place of sanctuary for children fleeing war.
The experience of war, fleeing the country that they knew as home, losing or leaving loved ones, and travelling to a foreign country would be traumatic enough for an adult; I cannot imagine what effect it would have on a child’s mental health. We know that the wait for child and adolescent mental health services for children born and raised in the UK is far too long, so it is important for extra, targeted support to be offered to traumatised child refugees. To that end, I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what steps are being taken to see that mental health service providers are offering support in culturally sensitive ways, and in a language spoken by these children and their families.
As we have heard, recent data shows that 9,900 school places have been offered to Ukrainian children. Schools and schoolchildren have opened their hearts to the refugees, and that is welcome, but that figure is out of 11,400 applications, leaving a sizable number of children who have not applied for or taken up their places in schools. What steps is the Minister’s Department taking to encourage and support uptake of school places?
Some 155,600 applications have been received under the Ukraine visa scheme and there have been more than 120,000 generous offers to home refugees, but there still appears to be no definitive data on the number who have been matched and successfully housed. The last we saw was around 33,000 placements in May, so I would be grateful for an update from the Minister. Exactly how many people have been successfully matched and housed under the Homes for Ukraine scheme? How many hosts have been given the support needed to home traumatised children?
When the Homes for Ukraine scheme was first rolled out, I and many others, in the hope of building a robust, safe scheme, asked constructively about the importance of vetting. I know that many councils have not yet received additional support to assess and run checks on those people who have generously offered their homes, to ensure that they can offer stable, safe and appropriate accommodation to home some of the most vulnerable people leaving Ukraine—women and children.
Misha Lagodinsky, who runs a matching scheme called UK Welcomes Ukraine, which has 100 Ukrainian and Russian-speaking volunteers connecting people, said:
“Some people are finding that they are homeless straight away because they have a visa granted and then their host fails DBS checks.”
Unfortunately, as we have heard, we have seen breakdowns occur even when successful, safe matches have been made, again rendering refugees homeless. We saw a horrific report about a Ukrainian refugee who was rehomed under a Government scheme but left homeless, along with her teenage son, after they were manipulated for money by their hosts. Having arrived in April, she was asked for money and told to leave after three weeks. That same month, the Local Government Association published a survey of local authorities across the country that reported 144 Ukrainian refugees as homeless following breakdowns with host accommodation.
The Department responsible—the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—now wants to bring back draconian laws from 1824 to again criminalise rough sleeping. We could well be in the ludicrous position of Ukrainians who have fled their war-torn country falling out with their hosts in this country and then being slapped with a criminal record by the same Department that was supposed to help them in the first place. Vulnerable refugees need to be protected from homelessness, not to flee a warzone only to be criminalised, through no fault of their own, by this Government. When will the Government release the latest figures on the number of Ukrainian refugees who have been made homeless?
If the Home Office gets its way, we will be in danger of seeing Ukrainian refugees on a flight to Rwanda for processing. “Processing” is such a horrible, cruel word when we are talking about victims of war, people trafficking, torture and famine. Where is the compassion? Will the Minister give a cast-iron guarantee that we will see no deportations of refugees who fall through the gaps of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, and that none will be forced on to a plane to Rwanda?
We have heard some genuinely harrowing and heartbreaking examples of people who have fallen through the safety net that the British public desperately want to provide for Ukrainian refugees. On occasions, that compassion and ambition has not been matched by the processes put in place by the Government. I know that no Member who has raised individual cases—especially my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn—will stop until their constituents get the help that they need, so my final question to the Minister is this: will the Government meet each Member who has raised a case to see what we all want, which is some peace for the people fleeing this dreadful war?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss these issues today, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing the debate—I think we are old friends, given our previous time together on the Women and Equalities Committee. I am a tremendous admirer of the work that she has done supporting her constituent Nazanin.
I thank other Members for their thoughtful contributions, although I am slightly confused by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), who has been a Member of the House for quite some time and who appears to have completely forgotten the protocol that says it is incredibly rude to contribute to a debate and then leave—not least without mentioning it to any of the other contributors or the Chair. Perhaps we will see him again some time. Who knows?
I believe the informed and impassioned contributions to the debate speak to the fact that we have not allowed there to be any creeping normalisation of the plight of the people of Ukraine. Let me put it on the record that the Government truly recognise and value the unanimity of voice with which we speak on the vast majority of issues around our collective support for Ukraine, although I fully accept that the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) has to take issue with just about everything the Government are doing.
This is one of the rare times in public life when Members from all shades of the political spectrum come together to stand shoulder to shoulder in our defence of the values that we share. From the moment the first tanks crossed the border into Ukraine, the stoicism, courage and determination shown by President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people has been a source of great inspiration to us all. Officials, charities, Ministers and our Prime Minister are working intensively with our allies and international partners to support our friends in Ukraine.
I will come to the focus of the debate, but I want to emphasise that we are proud of the support that the UK Government are providing to Ukrainian nationals and their families. Most of all, we are proud that the scheme is being powered by the enormous generosity of the British public. They have come forward in their thousands to open their hearts and their homes to people who have had their lives torn apart by a conflict they did not ask for. Since the scheme—the first of its kind in the UK—was launched on 18 March, we have welcomed 46,500 people into the UK, and I commend Home Office staff for the work that they have done.
As the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) said, the scheme is like trying to drive a car at speed and build it at the same time. Although I completely understand that it is not perfect and that there have been challenges, we have been acting at pace with incredible volumes. Combined with the Ukraine family scheme, we have now helped over 70,000 people to find a safe, secure home, with 150,000 visas issued so far. Some of those people are now living in the constituencies of Members who have contributed to the debate, including the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn. Hampstead has had 573 applications, with 537 visas granted, and 382 people have already arrived. The constituency of the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) is slightly further down the league table, Luton having had 72 applications and 32 people arrive, but there is still time to come.
I believe the figures are available online, but if they are not, I will make sure that we find out the answer to that question. My apologies for not knowing now.
As Members present are aware, in the early stages of the Homes for Ukraine scheme we had no plans to bring over unaccompanied minors who were not travelling with a parent or legal guardian or joining a parent or legal guardian when they got to the UK. Although unaccompanied minors were not eligible to join the scheme, we have had applications from many children looking for sanctuary in the UK. At the outset we vowed to keep the routes for Ukrainian refugees under constant review, and in the light of clear demand and the clear urgency of the situation, we have decided to extend the Homes for Ukraine scheme to allow children who are not travelling with a parent or legal guardian, or who are travelling to join a parent or legal guardian, to come to the UK.
As I mentioned, we already have a number of outstanding applications from children who applied but were not eligible under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Those applications have been on hold while the Government carefully worked through all the challenges that come with allowing children to travel without a parent.
I thank the Minister for all the new information. Is it official Government policy now that children who are under 18 can come over if they do not have their parents with them? Will they still need a guardian, or will they need a legal guardian note? That has been a source of problems in a lot of cases. Can the Minister give us more information about it? Can he clarify whether this is official Government policy? We hear about it through tweets and the radio, not from a Minister.
I can confirm that while we have been discussing these matters, a written ministerial statement has been laid, and Members will be able to access the details of it immediately. Further details of the scheme will be worked out in the coming days to ensure that everything is done correctly, but it will be based on a notarised note from the parent or guardian, and the child travelling to a known person. I am happy to discuss the details with the hon. Lady.
Further to that point, and on the point raised by the hon. Member for Luton North, Members do not need to have asked a question of the Prime Minister to get to discuss their case with Lord Harrington, although it was fortunate that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn had that opportunity. Lord Harrington organises a meeting every week—I understand the next one is tomorrow—and colleagues from across the House may dial in and pose their questions to him. We are encouraging the Labour Whips in particular to get their Members engaged and on that call. The opportunity is weekly, and we are determined to try to help each and every Member.
I welcome the Government’s announcement today, and I am glad that Nataliia, the 15-year-old girl being hosted by my constituent, is now in Hamilton in Scotland and settling into her new home. Can the Minister say how long it will take for final decisions on visas to be communicated to other unaccompanied minors, and will their cases be prioritised now?
I do not think it would be possible for me to set a timeframe, but I can say that we are going to contact the 1,000 people who have already applied, working through those as quickly as we can. The policy will initially apply to applications in the system that were put on hold, but they will, as the hon. Lady has suggested, be prioritised for processing through the expanded scheme once it opens in July, although we need to ensure that sponsorship arrangements are appropriate, which is complex, and that all safeguarding checks have taken place prior to travel. That might take a few weeks.
All that will be welcome news for many of the children and many of the potential sponsors who are well placed to offer a child safety, sanctuary and security in their home, but I want to be completely clear about the fact that it will be possible only in some carefully defined circumstances, including when children are travelling with or are joining an adult relative, or children travelling alone are travelling to stay with a known sponsor, such as a close family friend. The safety of the child must be paramount.
It is important that we take this opportunity to expand the scheme—
I am slightly concerned because trusted adults often can be perpetrators of abuse. I want to ensure that there will be continued monitoring of and checks on children who are placed with people outside their family, and that the correct safeguarding and infrastructure are around those children.
I completely accept and understand the point that the hon. Lady has made, and it is important that the parents determine who such a person should be. To that end, we would trust that the children were to be placed in a safe environment.
It is important to take this opportunity to expand the scheme. We are particularly grateful for the support of colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and for the support of other expert practitioners, including local authorities, in helping us to develop the expanded format and ensure that the scheme is focused on delivering what is in the best interests of any child. In line with our commitment, the expanded scheme will include an additional requirement for local authorities to assess the suitability of sponsorship arrangements and ensure that robust safeguarding processes are put in place.
There will also be clear requirements for parental consent to any sponsorship arrangement and an expectation that the sponsor should be someone who is personally known to the parents.
The Minister is being very generous in allowing us to intervene. I just want to clarify: if a child is coming over and the person who is housing the child is not related to their parents, can they still come over? The sponsor in my constituency is not related to the parents of the two girls who are coming over. He and his wife have opened up their home, but the girls’ parents do not know the sponsors personally. How could they? They are in Ukraine and the sponsors are in London. Would the girls still be allowed to come?
I am not sure I can answer that question now. The details will be worked out, but our strong preference is that they are personally known. The point about parents determining where they place their children might be a pivotal point to consider. As I say, Lord Harrington will be available tomorrow. I am sure the details have been worked out at pace while the car is being driven at speed.
. Can I interrupt the Minister and say to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, who has been in this House for a considerable amount of time—25 years, I think—that people who speak in debates are expected to stay for the entirety of the debate? They are not expected to walk out on a whim and wander back in at whim. I hope my hon. Friend, if he wants to speak in Westminster Hall debates, will remain for the entire debate, as every other Member who has spoken in the debate is expected to do, too.
The system in Westminster Hall is not the same as in the Chamber. People do not come back for the wind-ups or for the Minister’s response. People are expected to stay for the entire debate. Despite being here for 25 years, my hon. Friend might have learnt something today. I hope that he will not make that mistake again, and that that has been a useful lesson for everybody else who happens to be in the Chamber. Minister, I apologise for interrupting.
Mr Davies, I am grateful for that point. Had my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate been here, he might have heard the hon. Member for Luton North point out the fact that I am indeed the Minister with responsibility for the Homes for Ukraine scheme, so it is appropriate for me to answer the case, and it would be inappropriate for a Home Office Minister to take up individual cases during the debate.
Given that the scheme already extends leave to remain to three years, sponsors will be asked to commit to hosting the child for up to three years, or until they are 18. In the coming days we will be setting out the technical details necessary to accompany that kind of change. It almost goes without saying that unaccompanied minors are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. By expanding the visa route for that group, we will be supporting some of those vulnerable children to flee what must be a terrifying situation in their hometowns, cities or villages.
At every stage of the process we have developed our humanitarian schemes in close consultation with Ukrainian leaders and the diaspora community in the UK to make sure that what we offer responds directly to their needs and asks. I do not need to tell anyone in this debate that the war is a constantly evolving situation, but I should stress that that will always mean that our schemes will be kept under constant review, and we will always be willing to work with Ukrainian leaders to make changes whenever necessary.
I want to briefly touch on one or two comments that were made. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn asked why the process has taken so long. The process is complex, but first and foremost we are driven by two things: safeguarding and the safety of the children; and, equally important, we are led by how Ukrainian leaders themselves expect to see the scheme developed, so we have proceeded diligently. As I mentioned, that weekly call with Lord Harrington is incredibly important.
In response to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), on the presentation of some Ukrainians as homeless, as the Homelessness Minister I consider that a very sensitive issue. We are tracking it carefully and the most recent figures will be published imminently. We will work closely with councils to monitor and identify any further pressures they might be under. The Government have committed more than £300 million this year to support homelessness and rough sleeping, through the rough sleeping initiative and so on. We will keep a close eye on that to see how the pressures develop.
With regard to provisions for deposits for those whose sponsorship might have broken down, measures such as discretionary housing payments are available to councils. Ideally, we do not end up in that situation. I appreciate that the rematching service has so far helped a relatively small number of people, but it is still relatively new in development. We will work on that with councils, because ideally people will be rematched. I want to finish by thanking Members for their passion and commitment. I hope that today’s decision will be widely welcomed across the House.
I thank everyone for their contributions to a very good debate. I especially want to mention Lord Dubs, who was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). He helped me prepare for the debate and has tirelessly worked on this issue. He came to this country on the Kindertransport, and has never given up fighting for refugees and unaccompanied children.
Despite being told off, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) made a good point about a focus on families involved in the armed forces. A couple of people in the cases we have dealt with have parents in the armed forces fighting on the frontline. We should support them and bring them over. I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall, who powerfully described the delays in housing refugees, which I recognise. Deeming sponsors unsuitable without a proper reason means that children are abandoned as a result. I hope the Minister will look into that.
The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) highlighted the failure to link family cases. That causes unnecessary delays and is something that I have experienced time and time again. I know we are giving the Minister a lot to look into, but I hope he includes that. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) spoke about the duty of care that we have for children once they are in the UK. It is not just about bringing them over, but looking after them when they are here, because they are traumatised.
We should look at access to education; the catch-up school in summer is a good idea. I do not know whether the Minister will take up that idea but I hope, in general, that he takes on board everything he has heard today. I welcome the policy announced today, and would like to see the final details, to ensure that it works for everyone. I recognise that the Government must weigh up safeguarding and child protection risks in the design of any scheme, but the current system is simply not working. I hope the Minister recognises that. It is too bureaucratic, is rigid and has a cruel approach to child refugees, which is putting children’s safety and lives at risk.
I hope that the new policy works, and that the Minister will publish all the details. I also hope that he will look especially at the consideration that although families in Ukraine might not know their sponsors personally, the sponsors will still be providing safe homes for children in the UK, and local authorities can vouch for them. I thank everyone for putting aside political differences, and for ensuring that Mariia’s experience is not matched by that of other children across the UK, and that it never happens again.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Homes for Ukraine scheme and child refugees.
UK Defence Industry: Procurement
I beg to move,
That this House has considered procurement and the UK defence industry.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I should start by declaring an interest, in that my partner is a serving member of the armed forces and currently deployed overseas.
When the UK left the European Union at the beginning of 2020, the Conservative Government had the chance to deliver a stronger, better, independent Britain, built on the principles of sovereignty, security and prosperity. Two years later, the UK has time and again proven that it has done that, most recently through our instrumental support of Ukraine in Europe’s most significant war in recent memory. The importance of the UK armed forces has been highlighted in a way that cements their vitality and necessity and confirms that the UK can now retain its autonomy and sovereignty, further bettering our nation.
Away from the confinements of the European Union and the European procurement directive, we can commit to improving and harnessing the potential of UK defence. Procurement of defence weapons is critical to strong armed forces. Procurement of high-quality, trusted, organically sourced defence weapons is instrumental in world-class armed forces. Each year, the Ministry of Defence spends billions of pounds buying new equipment and supporting existing equipment for the armed forces. That is a substantial amount of money, but never before has ensuring that our defence capabilities are world class been more important. There are challenges to acquiring defence equipment: it is expensive, complex and subject to politics. However, locally sourced, organic procurement is a sure way of supporting the British armed forces, our local communities and our allies.
In the last two years, the Government have significantly altered their priorities, as attested to by the integrated review, the defence Command Paper and the defence and security industrial strategy. In accordance with the DSIS, the UK is adopting a new strategic framework for the MOD’s procurement and acquisitions programme. That will be a dramatic but necessary change. No longer will we follow the policy of competition by default. Instead, we will adopt a more flexible approach that assesses procurement on a case-by-case basis. By outlining our strategic imperatives, such as nuclear and offensive cyber, the Government recognise that there is a strength to retaining defence industries on UK shores. That not only aids us from a national security point of view, but allows businesses to direct their innovation to areas where the Government have demonstrated an interest.
In my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire, the armed forces are celebrated widely. In my constituency, I am proud to have Brecon barracks, the home of the Army in Wales, and to represent the strong military community that comes with it. In fact, I think I am one of the few Members of the House whose constituency has RAF, Navy and Army sites.
In addition to having the barracks, we are fortunate to be home to innovative defence procurement businesses. This week, I have had the pleasure of speaking to Compact Orbital Gears, based in Rhayader, and Charcroft Electronics, both of which work in the defence procurement industry. Each deals with different elements of the defence procurement supply chain, and produces and distributes to major companies in the UK and abroad. Charcroft Electronics is a distributor and manufacturer of electronic components and specialises in high reliability and harsh environments. It supports programmes such as Typhoon and the Brimstone missile system, which is being deployed in Ukraine. It is proud to be a 100% UK-based company, and it employs 76 people in Wales, plus a further four in England—they are not lucky enough to work in Wales. Charcroft Electronics and Compact Orbital Gears are excellent examples of British companies working to better British security by supplying to our defence industry. UK companies working for UK national security is a strength, the fact of which should not be minimised.
The invasion of Ukraine has laid bare the strength of our armed forces, and it is right that we are proud of that and continue to use our strength to remain a key voice in NATO and ensure the safety of our partner countries. Our seat in NATO and every other major organisation, such as the G7, the UN Security Council and the G20, proves our multilateral influence and should inspire the Government to further commit to British procurement for British security, to protect us and to continue our international influence. To do that, we must keep supporting the UK defence procurement industry. To do that, we must keep supporting the UK defence procurement industry. We will be supporting not only ourselves, but our allies and, critically, the communities that rely on that industry.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. We have seen a sea change in procurement, and the results are coming through on the ground. I have MIRA in my patch, which is involved in Spiral 3 and the development of unmanned ground vehicles. The benefit of the way the UK system works is that it allows new, small-scale entrants to build up and move into procurement, which they have not been able to do before. That is a step change, and we are leading the world in that sense. Does my hon. Friend believe the Government should do more to allow more entry from local businesses? Local supply networks, such as the one in Leicestershire, in which we all build together as a community, will give us agile procurement fit for the future.
I completely support my hon. Friend’s point, and I am delighted that Compact Orbital Gears in my constituency works closely with MIRA in his constituency. That is the type of arrangement that the Government should be facilitating, and I fully endorse his words.
I firmly believe that, as my hon. Friend pointed out, that if we support the UK’s small and medium-sized enterprises and harness our international influence, the UK has the potential to be the defence marketplace for our NATO partners. We have the intellectual prowess and manufacturing capability to become the hub for defence innovation globally. I understand from Charcroft Electronics that it has seen an increase in trade with our European partners due to its profile in UK markets, and it is looking to expand its production due to demand. To quote its director, orders from German and UK customers
“have gone through the roof”,
and it is at capacity until the end of next year.
Charcroft has demonstrated to me that there is a clear sense of security in a country knowing that its parts are not stored or being built abroad, and therefore potentially subject to disruptive geopolitical shocks. It is harnessing its influence at home and abroad to work closely with other UK defence businesses and those in our neighbouring countries. It is engaging in research and development for future defence programmes. Charcroft’s success is obvious and well deserved, and I am grateful to the Government for committing to supporting SMEs across the UK via the SME action plan, so that we can improve engagement and ensure that the whole defence supply chain is guaranteed the quality and service delivered by our UK businesses.
While I commend Charcroft, Compact Orbital Gears, and other businesses across Wales that are supplying the defence sector, there are limitations on procurement in UK defence. To continue the success and development of those businesses, we need to ensure that our skills-based economy is up to scratch, so that it matches our intellectual capacity. It is apparent that there are limitations on growth due to the difficulty in hiring highly skilled individuals in rural areas. I welcome the Government’s commitment to investing in our defence sector, and recognise their commitment to apprenticeships, which will combat skilled jobs shortages. I understand from ADS Group, a trade organisation for companies in the UK defence sector, that around 5,000 apprentices are employed in that sector. That is evidence of a budding workforce.
However, in constituencies such as mine, the picture is different. There are myriad reasons for that; in rural communities, problems include inaccessibility and a lack of connectivity. Charcroft told me that despite its best efforts,
“apprentices are hard to come by.”
We need to be committed to nurturing our home-grown talent, so that we can strengthen our defence industry, and so that businesses can expand and develop easily without that anxiety.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the new medium helicopter programme is a very good example of how we can support skills development, and the sustainment of those skills—particularly design skills—in the defence manufacturing sector? My college in Yeovil works closely with Leonardo to provide apprenticeships in exactly the sorts of areas that my hon. Friend is describing, and if the MOD becomes the reference customer, there is a massive opportunity for major export business to be done off the back of that in future. That would sustain jobs throughout Wales and the south-west, as well as the wider UK.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend; I saw that when I was part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme and went on a visit to, if not his constituency, somewhere very near it. A key part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda is their doing whatever they can to remove the barriers to recruiting and retaining talent in rural areas. I would really like that extended to the defence procurement sector. It is by investing in the next generation that we will harness our talent and ensure that the UK remains the epicentre of defence in Europe, a position that has been solidified in recent months.
Just outside my constituency, in Merthyr, the Ajax armoured vehicle programme is being developed. The site employs 600 people and is considered a key employer in the area. It employs highly skilled people, many of whom live in my constituency. I understand the difficult position the Government are in on the future of Ajax. It is extremely expensive, and continuing with a project that continually reveals design flaws is sub-optimal to say the least. I fully understand that the Government are in a difficult position, but we would all like an end to the uncertainty about the future of Ajax. There is a real opportunity for further investment in this skillset, so that we can overcome the issues that we have seen. Home-grown talent breeds better security. I understand that Ministers are looking closely at Ajax, but closing that program would have some negative consequences, as I know the Minister understands.
The prosperity review of 2018 suggested that prosperity should be taken into consideration when deciding on procurement contracts. As DSIS outlines, in order to ensure a prosperous, secure Britain, we should encourage the placing of contracts with UK suppliers, rather than buying from overseas suppliers. If we factor in the local prosperity arising from training, jobs, further opportunities for UK exports and increased industrial productivity, UK defence spending can be used to the greater benefit of the wider economy and the many local economies that have a part in the UK’s defence industry.
There are undeniable benefits from ensuring that procurement for the defence industry operates and develops within the UK. I would like the same logic to be extended to the operational ration packs that our military use on active duty. The Minister will remember those ration packs probably slightly too well. One of the reasons why I sought to secure this debate was that my kitchen is full of leftover ration packs from various exercises across Salisbury plain and the Brecon Beacons. Going through them one day, I noticed that the majority of the food we give our soldiers does not come from this country. I understand that we are dealing with a particular need; soldiers certainly do not have the time to eat a three-course meal, nor would they want to. We have to consider operational needs. We are looking to keep our military personnel fed, but it is important that they are well fed.
Anything we can do to use more of the high-quality, nutritious food that we produce in this country should be celebrated, and it would further extend the Government’s commitment to working with UK businesses. I understand that the country of origin of each ingredient in the ration packs is considered. So too is our national security, as it should be. It would be fantastic if the Government looked to extend their commitment on UK defence procurement to cover the food that we give our armed forces. I have previously drawn attention in this House to food security. I am delighted that the Government recognised the importance of domestic food production in the food strategy published last week. It is time we extended our self-sufficiency beyond defence equipment to the food we give our armed forces. I hope that the Minister will consider that issue in his response.
I am extremely proud of this Government’s record on British procurement in the defence sector; it is of vital importance to jobs and prosperity in my constituency. I leave the Minister with two clear points. First, in order to sustain the prosperity that the Government are determined to deliver, we should remove the barriers that companies working in the defence procurement space face in recruiting apprentices, and in recruiting from rural areas. Secondly, the Government should complement their commitment to food security by increasing the amount of food for our armed forces that is sourced in Britain, in order to ensure secure and prosperous armed forces.
I am pleased to respond to this important debate and very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) for securing it. This is Armed Forces Week, so I would like briefly to reflect on the important contributions of our military, especially the Welsh elements, in recent times.
Last summer, we saw the magnificent performance of the Royal Welsh in helping to evacuate refugees from Afghanistan during Operation Pitting, and during covid we saw the remarkable performance of the 160th (Welsh) Brigade, which came to the fore delivering personal protective equipment and driving ambulances. We also have the incredible RAF pilots at RAF Valley. The home of excellence in the British infantry is, of course, the school in Brecon, which I know very well, to my own discomfort. I am very pleased that in recent times we have been able to reaffirm our absolute commitment to Brecon barracks. Of course, we are grateful to my hon. Friend and note her energetic campaigning on behalf of Brecon barracks.
That decision, coupled with our plans for Future Soldier, with an upturn in the percentage of our forces based in Wales, and an announcement of contracts worth £695 million to support the Hawk T2 in RAF Valley, as well as the opening of the new Royal Navy Reserve base in Cardiff Bay, to the tune of £11 million, reaffirms our commitment to Wales in the context of UK defence.
However, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out in her eloquent remarks, that military presence delivers not just security, but local prosperity. In 2019-20, Ministry of Defence direct expenditure supported more than 5,000 Welsh jobs, and just last year we spent £866 million with local industry, which equates to £270 for every person in Wales. That just gives a sense of the scale of the level of investment in Wales.
Of course, defence is a UK endeavour; it is not just about Wales. So I should point out that in Scotland the equivalent expenditure was £1.99 billion, driving forward our remarkable Trident programme, which delivers our unique and magnificent deterrent capability. In Northern Ireland we delivered £64 million of expenditure. For the whole United Kingdom we delivered £20.5 billion just last year.
I should also declare my particular interest, because in my constituency we have the birthplace of British aviation as well as the home of the British Army, in the shape of Farnborough. The remarkable excellence of UK defence industries as a whole will be showcased magnificently during the Farnborough air show next month. I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members will be able to join me and others at the Farnborough air show to celebrate the remarkable standard of excellence and the economic contribution that the defence industry makes to the prosperity of our constituents.
Reflecting on the point that the Minister has just made, I wonder whether he would like to express his esteem for the 10,000 manufacturing jobs in Scotland that support defence operations in the United Kingdom as they take effect across the world and, in so doing, recognise that those jobs are not a benevolent charitable gesture; instead, they are a reflection of the skills and expertise that exist in education, manufacturing and engineering in Scotland, and they are an indispensable component of the procurement process. Will he also reflect on the fact that the UK manages very well on several platforms—whether Typhoon; its predecessor, Tornado; or its successor, Tempest—to work very well with other nations in defence procurement?
Yes, indeed. I join the hon. Gentleman in commending, and reaffirming our commitment to and admiration for, those 10,000 defence jobs. He rightly points out that they exist because of the standard of international excellence that those workers achieve, particularly as part of our deterrent. I hope that he will take a public opportunity—maybe not now, but perhaps in future—to put on the record his commitment to the deterrent. It may not be easy for him to do that, so I will move swiftly on.
Before the Minister moves swiftly on from the deterrent, I would like to take him back to aerospace. In the past he has been generous with his time and has met me to discuss the subject of the war widows, a subject that falls more within his own bailiwick. I have been trying to get a meeting with his colleague, the Minister for Defence Procurement, my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), so that a British-based aerospace firm can show him a presentation that greatly impressed me when I chaired the Defence Committee. I have no financial or commercial interest in the company concerned, but I am worried that independent, smaller companies get squeezed out by the big operators, and I would not ask for such a meeting if I did not think that company had something important to offer to defence.
I am happy to recommit our determination to ensure that SMEs are a part of our collective success. I am sure that the Minister for Defence Procurement will be delighted if I commit on his behalf to him meeting our right hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned Ajax. We entirely understand the concerns that she has expressed and we have made no secret of the fact that it is a troubled programme. Despite those troubles, we are proud to be in Merthyr Tydfil because of the excellence of the workforce. I can offer some reassurance, in the sense that the Secretary of State for Defence and the Minister for Defence Procurement continue to meet with our commercial partners, but the bottom line, very clearly, is that we will not accept a vehicle that is not fit for purpose. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement will keep colleagues updated as progress is made.
I agree entirely with the main thrust of the speech we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, which was about supporting SMEs as an integral part of our supply chain. They are indeed the lifeblood of the Welsh defence industry. She referred to the fact that there has been a growth in the proportion of supply they make up, which I am pleased about. We want to increase the proportion of defence expenditure that goes into SMEs to 25% by the end of this year.
That will not happen by accident. It is happening because we are fortunate to have many SMEs who are agile and producing products that we absolutely want. My hon. Friend mentioned Charcroft Electronics and Compact Orbital Gears in her constituency. They are two very good examples of first-rate SMEs. I should also mention Radnor Range Ltd at Presteigne, which provides range facilities for the testing and evaluation of weapons and is another good example of a first-class SME with which we partner.
My hon. Friend can rest assured that institutionally we will continue to support companies big and small, and we have strategies such as the defence equipment plan, and the defence and security industrial strategy, which colleagues will be familiar with, alongside subsector plans to provide industry with the transparency it craves in order that it can clearly understand what capabilities we need and then respond to that.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, we are also using the opportunity provided by our departure from the European Union to develop better defence and security procurement regulations, which will be tailored to better meet our own needs. That will lead to the Procurement Bill, which will replace the existing set of complex public procurement ordinances with a single uniform framework. It will be simpler to use for both the Ministry of Defence and suppliers and it will make the acquisition process much faster, helping to unleash the innovative potential of British businesses. That is a concrete and important legislative step forward, which I am sure colleagues will welcome.
Our Department is also doing all it can to encourage larger defence primes to invest in and develop SMEs. As my hon. Friend pointed out, our refreshed SME action plan, which we launched at the beginning of the year, will be pivotal to this work. We are doing that to help smaller companies maximise future business prospects, ensuring that we can maintain an agile supply chain, which will help us meet the evolving threats that we face. To help innovative companies succeed, we have ringfenced £6.6 billion for research and development spending. That money will help industry produce the kinds of game-changing capabilities that are necessary to keep us ahead of the curve of innovation.
My hon. Friend mentioned exports. I was pleased to hear about the company that has a full order book. We commend that, and we are trying to do everything we can to offer more export opportunities to a greater number of players. We have committed to developing a standardised commercial mechanism for Government-to-Government defence and security sales, which should make it much easier for customers and partners to do business with us.
My hon. Friend mentioned operational ration packs. I confirm that I do know them through a great deal of personal experience, and I am actually a big fan. When it comes to procurement, it is only right that we have a nuanced approach. For some generic procurement, we are bound to a degree by public procurement regulation, but British food, of course, needs no introduction and has the competitive advantage of being great value for money. That is borne in mind more broadly across defence for not just the operational ration packs, but our provisioning for the entire defence establishment. We are reviewing the way we feed our force, and access to fresh, local British produce will be a key component of that. I am grateful for her remarks on the matter.
On skills, I applaud the apprenticeship programme that my hon. Friend mentioned. I have similar programmes in my own constituency, and I am pleased to confirm that we are working with the Department for Education to develop STEM programmes in local schools and colleges. I hope hon. Members would agree that the RAF has been ahead of the game on that matter. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) mentioned the success of the commercial and institutional partnership that takes place at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton—between Leonardo, the Royal Air Force and local schools—to drive the collective success of the Fleet Air Arm and the Commando Helicopter Force at that critically important Royal Navy air station, which one of the busiest air bases in Europe. I am grateful for his comments.
I want to be clear that we are absolutely on the same lines. We are excited about the prospect of a greater number of SMEs being involved in the collective success of defence procurement. It is an exciting and innovative time for defence investment, driving forward the kind of operational output we need to fulfil our ambitious plans in the Future Soldier programme and the defence Command Paper. It is sensible to say that defence procurement not just in England but in Wales has a very bright future indeed.
Question put and agreed to.
NHS Dentistry in England
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
[Relevant document: e-petition 564154, Independent review of the NHS dental contract.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered NHS dentistry in England.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am delighted to bring this debate to Parliament and to combine it with a petition that has been signed by more than 10,000 members of the public. The petition calls for
“an independent review of the existing”
“contract and a radical rethink of the way in which dental services are delivered.”
We may not need an independent review to tell us that NHS dental services need a radical rethink; we all know that they do.
NHS dentistry is a huge concern for all Members here today, and the number of us present reflects what a huge concern it is for our constituents. I already had a good indication of how significant the lack of dentistry was across my constituency, but to grasp the detail and the scale of it, I posted a survey at the beginning of the year asking constituents about the problems they had faced in accessing NHS dentistry. Within a day, it had received more responses than any other survey I had run—more than surveys on bus services, post office closures, noise pollution, or whether the Cornish flag should appear on a Cornish numberplate.
The picture that came out of my survey was shocking. Nearly half of respondents had been waiting more than three years for an appointment. Tim has had temporary crowns awaiting replacement for eight years; the teeth underneath have rotted away. Robert’s solution was to wait until a tooth was
“beyond repair and intolerably painful before getting an appointment with the emergency dentist to have it extracted. Last time they removed three in one go.”
Other people tried DIY solutions. Looking up how to make temporary fillings on YouTube was commonplace. Mark pulled out his wisdom tooth himself.
Other constituents have given up completely. They do not show up on the waiting lists because they have given up on waiting. Lauren told me:
“I don’t use the right side of my mouth to chew as it’s sensitive and causes me pain but it is too difficult to get an appointment so I am having to live with it”.
Anna racked up three times her usual phone bill trying to get through to the appointments line before she gave up. One constituent comes from a family of seven, of whom only the youngest has ever seen a dentist, and only then because he went to hospital for urgent surgery; the oldest is 20. Patients who can afford to go private do so, but so do patients who cannot afford it. The fees for Anthony’s private dental care represent a tenth of his pension; that is not affordable. The fees that Megan paid to remedy just one of her abscesses equated to a month’s rent. She has just had a baby, and cannot afford to pay another two months’ rent for the other two abscesses.
The situation is particularly grave in Cornwall. Last week, NHS England and NHS Improvement presented a report to Cornwall Council showing that in 2020-21 only 24% of the dental activity commissioned in Cornwall was delivered. In 2021-22, it has increased, but only to 59%. By the end of this month, we should be returning to 100% of normal activity, but that is simply not happening in Cornwall. The total number of adults with access to an NHS dentist dropped from 188,000 in June of last year to 155,000 in December.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Things are clearly not as they should be in Cornwall, but in Lincolnshire they are even worse. Greater Lincolnshire has three of the four worst dental deserts in the United Kingdom, according to the Association of Dental Groups, with just 38 dentists per 100,000 people. Finding a dentist in Lincolnshire is like finding the holy grail. It is vital that we have more dentists, for the reasons my hon. Friend set out. People deserve better.
I completely agree. My right hon. Friend will know that in Cornwall we are very competitive; we always want to win, but I do not want to win this competition. This tragedy for both Cornish residents and his constituents highlights the fact that something needs to be done urgently. I thank him for his intervention.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again and allowing me to continue this tour of woe around the country. I can tell him that the situation is equally bad in Kent; it is almost impossible in Ashford to find an NHS dentist. My frustration and that of my constituents about this is compounded by the lack of response of the health service generally. The clinical commissioning group refers me to NHS England, and NHS England—the Minister may take note—just does not reply. I have before me an email I sent seven weeks ago regarding someone who could not find a dentist, but there has not even been a reply from NHS England. From top to bottom, this system needs complete reform.
I appreciate that intervention. In my case, NHS England, and commissioners for the south-west have been fairly good and engaged with the challenge. However, it is a tale of woe, as my right hon. Friend says. Perhaps we can all commit to coming back to this place in a year or two to commend the Minister and celebrate the fact we have a new contract that addresses exactly the challenges that we are all quite rightly highlighting today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He is right to highlight this national challenge. We have substantial challenges with access to NHS dentistry in Suffolk. Part of that, as our right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) said, relates to the quality of the commissioning and monitoring of contracts by the local commissioner. Will my hon. Friend join me in urging the Minister to put pressure on local commissioners to take this issue seriously? Also, does he agree that we need to ensure that dentists who are commissioned to perform NHS services do actually provide the services that they are commissioned to provide? Some of them are not doing so at the moment.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is right to say that there are commissioned units of dental activity that are not being delivered. There are all sorts of reasons for that, which I hope to cover in my speech. Ultimately, however, we need to look at the contract itself and consider whether it actually works for patients. The contract was introduced by the Labour party in 2006. We know that it does not work today and is in urgent need of reform, which I will come on to in my remarks.
I will make a little progress first and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
We have heard about other examples and concerns elsewhere, but in Cornwall we do not have the capacity to assess the patients in the backlog, let alone to treat them. This is not just about dental health. Dental examinations pick up the early warning signs of mouth cancer, or poor periodontal health associated with diabetes, for example. I should declare an interest, Mr Stringer, as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on diabetes. It is estimated that 60,000 people with type 2 diabetes had their diagnosis missed or delayed because of the cancellation of dental examinations.
I will now give way to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
I know that this debate is about NHS dentistry in England, but may I say—regionally—that the problems are just as real in Northern Ireland as they are anywhere else? My concern is that there is no access to NHS dentistry any more in Northern Ireland; either people pay for dentistry, for example through a subscription, or they do not get it.
Does the hon. Member agree that dental care should not be restricted to those who have the money to pay? The impact of this situation will clearly fall on those who see dentistry as being the bottom of the list when it comes to paying? People in the poverty trap who feel the pressures of rising prices will be even more detrimentally affected than ever. Does he feel that now is the time for Government all across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—although I appreciate that the Minister who is here today does not have responsibility for Northern Ireland—to do something specifically for people on the breadline?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
It is probably fair to say that although the responsibility lies with the Minister here today, it is not her responsibility, or even in her power, to ensure that every member of the British public can access NHS dentistry, simply because NHS England, or indeed any part of the NHS, does not commission enough dentistry to cover the whole population. Perhaps the Minister will clarify today the Government’s expectation regarding access to NHS dental care, and say whether there is a right for everybody, whoever they might be, to access that care. However, it is a very important point that has been raised. It surprises people that we do not commission enough dentistry to meet the needs of every one of our constituents.
It is not enough to blame the pandemic, although it has certainly not helped. I was raising the state of NHS dentistry in Cornwall before we had a single case of covid in this country. Over two years ago, I spoke about the difficulty of recruiting and retaining dental staff. At Prime Minister’s questions two years ago, I raised the shocking results of the lack of access to NHS dentistry for children in Cornwall. I also told hon. Members that these inequalities needed to be addressed quickly and creatively.
Outside this House, I have been working to improve access to dentistry in the constituency, most recently by getting the council to overturn a decision not to allow electrical works to proceed in St Ives that would have delayed the opening of a new dental surgery until the autumn. I have been meeting the regional health commissioners and Cornwall’s public health officers to discuss dentistry on a regular basis, and I cannot fault their speed and creativity. Their south-west dental reform programme has been working hard to improve access by helping to reopen a surgery in Hayle and in St Ives, piloting child-focused dental practices, and developing its own evidence-based workforce plan, but the Government must lead the way. Resolving these oral health inequalities is not just this Minister’s responsibility; it will require a cross-Government approach.
NHS England has launched a drive to recruit dental professionals to the south-west, but a key challenge in Cornwall, and maybe other parts of the country, is finding housing for those who want to take up a job in dentistry. I am working on that issue with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The national food strategy was a wasted opportunity. We could have extended the sugar tax, which has successfully incentivised the reformulation of sugary drinks. That would have helped oral health as much as health in general. I shall continue to argue for a national food strategy that is truly strategic, even if the Government have made a tactical withdrawal from tax rises to support public health.
The Minister has responsibility for the dental contract. In oral questions in January, she agreed that the contract was
“the nub of the problem”.—[Official Report, 18 January 2022; Vol. 707, c. 195.]
She said in February,
“there is no doubt that the UDA method of contract payments is a perverse disincentive for dentists. The more they do, the less they seem to be paid. I for one certainly do not underestimate the problems that that causes dentists, and I can see why many hand back their NHS contracts.”—[Official Report, 7 February 2022; Vol. 708, c. 780.]
I could not have put it better myself. I have asked dentists in my constituency if they would prefer to see increased budgets or reform of the UDA contract, and they asked for reform.
There are two main issues with the dental contract, both of which are not just obstacles to dental health but actively create problems for the future. First, the current system does not focus on prevention. When units of dental activity are the sole measure of contract performance, there is no incentive for preventative work; nor is there an incentive to make the best use of the whole dental team’s skills when the practice cannot make a claim for payment for a course of treatment purely because it was initiated by someone other than a dentist.
I made sure that the title of the debate referred to NHS dentistry not NHS dentists. We need to recognise the contribution of the whole team of dental professionals —dental nurses, hygienists, therapists and technicians—and use them. Again, this is about not just saving money, but using professionals in the best way we can. Yesterday I spoke to a dental nurse who works with people in care homes. If she wants a resident to switch to a high-fluoride toothpaste, she has to get a dentist to prescribe it. Our regional dental commissioning team has been running a pilot to take supervised toothbrushing conducted by dental nurses out to the community. Given that more five to nine-year-olds are admitted to hospital for tooth decay than for any other reason, this work should be at the heart of NHS dentistry, not something that is topped up by flexible commissioning.
Second, the UDA method does not properly reward dental practices for their work. A dental practice is faced, in effect, with a UDA cap for an entire course of treatment, which means when a patient has complex needs, the money involved does not even cover the overheads of the practice. The predictable result is that dental practices are moving away from NHS work. Around 3,000 dentists in England have stopped providing NHS services since the start of the pandemic. Every time a dentist leaves the NHS and is not replaced, approximately 2,000 people lose access to dental care. If you cannot do the arithmetic in your head, Mr Stringer, 3,000 times by 2,000 is 6 million, so 6 million patients have lost access to a dentist just over the course of the pandemic. For every dentist leaving the NHS, another 10 are reducing their NHS commitment by a quarter on average; that is another 500 patients losing access to an NHS dentist. According to the British Dental Association, 75% of dentists plan to reduce the amount of NHS work they do next year.
The fewer dental practices there are doing NHS work, the more pressure the remaining practices are under. A recent BDA members survey found that nine in 10 owners of dental practices committed to NHS work found recruitment difficult, with 29% of vacancies going unfilled for more than a year. That is nationwide, but one provider in Cornwall told me that their surgeries were unused 52% of the time due to shortages of dentists and nurses. The vast majority said that it was the UDA contract that was the biggest factor in their recruitment difficulties. The Minister said last week that the Government are serious about reforming the dental contract, but I want to press that point. It is not enough to be seriously planning a reform; we must be planning serious reform. Tweaks to the existing system are not enough when the contract is fundamentally flawed.
I have focused on the contract because we need the Minister to focus on the contract. Other Members will no doubt raise the issue of recognising overseas qualifications, passing the section 60 order that would give the General Dental Council discretion over qualifications, maintaining the mutual recognition of professional qualifications with Europe and extending that to the Commonwealth, and expediating the process for experienced candidates to register with the NHS. Dental care professionals need to be allowed to initiate treatments. The issue of funding will come up—for a catch-up programme of overseas registration exams in the short term, and university places in the long term—but it is striking how many of those proposals are cost neutral. We could even save money by catching mouth cancer in the early stages when it is more easily treated.
To quote the Minister, the contract is the nub of the problem. I urge her to commit to a firm date when we will see the end of units of dental activity, and a better contract focused on prevention and increasing access.
I have indications from six Members who wish to speak. I intend to call the Opposition spokesperson at 3.40 pm. You can do the arithmetic—it is fairly straightforward—I do not intend to impose a time limit unless Members indulge themselves.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for opening the debate and making many of the points that I intended to make. The simple fact is that we do not have time for further delay. We have four and half weeks left until the summer recess, and our constituents want answers. They want answers because they need to see a dentist but they are experiencing the deficit of NHS dentistry across the country. I would add to the list of areas mentioned that Yorkshire is also deeply affected, and my city, York, is struggling.
In 2009, Labour committed to reform the dental contract, realising that it was not going to deliver what it aspired to. The coalition Government followed in 2010 with a similar commitment, yet here we are in 2022 still making the same argument that we desperately need reform. As has already been said, this is not just something that has emerged through the pandemic; it is an issue that predates us. That is why it is essential that we have a pathway from today showing how we are going to move out of the crisis. Our constituents deserve to know what the Government’s agenda is.
Two years ago, NHS dentistry fell by 13%. Since covid-19 there has been a mass exodus in my city of York, but I realise that has also occurred across the country. Last April, NHS dentistry fell by a further 19%. It is believed that since the start of the pandemic, NHS commitments have fallen by 45%. Next year, 75% of dentists are planning to make changes and reduce their NHS commitments. Of those, some 45% say they will go fully private and 47% say they will change career or take early retirement, so if we wait another 12 months we will be in a deeper mess than we are now.
Since the start of the pandemic, we have lost 43 million dental appointments, 30 million of which were for children. In my constituency, 41% of children have not seen a dentist in the last year—they are the children who are now presenting in more acute services, requiring even more expensive interventions.
To put the situation in York into context, 9,695 UDAs were delivered in March 2021, at a time when 45% of UDAs needed to be delivered. A year later, in April 2022, 8,730 UDAs were delivered, fewer than the year before, and yet the requirement was for 95% of UDAs to be delivered. Instead of the number of my constituents accessing NHS dentistry going up when the number of UDAs that were expected to be delivered more than doubled, it has gone down. With 965 fewer UDAs, despite a doubling of the expectation, will the Minister explain how my constituents are meant to get access to services?
Fewer than half my constituents have seen a dentist in the last year. Of course, dentists have offered them private dental plans but my constituents simply cannot afford that, not least because of the cost of living crisis and the housing crisis in my city. Some travel long distances and others get nothing at all, and we know about other health inequalities that are similarly embedded.
It is the least well-off people who suffer most, as the hon. Lady rightly said. Working-class people cannot afford these expensive plans. Surely the answer is that we should train more of our own dentists and make it more attractive to work for the NHS, rather than go private. My own dentist is Turkish by origin. He is a fine NHS dentist, and I could not speak more highly of him, but we cannot simply import dentists; we need to train more.
The right hon. Member is absolutely right that we have to train more dentists. One reason for that is that it takes about 10 years for somebody to be fully professionally competent and able to provide the highest level of dentistry. We must not look just at what is happening now, but into the future too.
Before we get to that point, we have to look at retention and at bringing people back from private contracts and services into NHS contracts. With fewer dentists available, the toll and the mental stress felt by those who have stayed in the NHS and remained committed to it is building. Some 87% of dentists experience mental stress, and 86% have experienced abuse as a result of people being so frustrated by the time they reach the dentist’s door. The people working in dental reception areas are at the forefront of that, and I know of a practice in York that cannot recruit anyone to be on the front desk. We need significant changes to be brought forward, and that will require money and dedication.
It is not just about the contract; it is also about having a complete strategy around dentistry. I have never understood why oral health was taken outside the wider NHS, and I believe that the solution to the problems we face is to have a proper NHS dental strategy and to put the NHS dental service back into the heart of the NHS. However, while we are working on those issues, we have to look at the crisis before us.
In Parliament last week I mentioned a practice that has been fantastic at accommodating people with dental needs throughout the pandemic. I said that three dentists were leaving that practice; I was wrong—it is now four. That is the pace of people leaving the profession. We have heard about the wider consequences for oral health, and particularly oral cancers, for which a delayed diagnosis means the worst prognosis. Therefore, it is absolutely right that we see a move on this issue.
I want to raise a couple of issues about dentists waiting to come to the UK. We know that 700 dentists are waiting to sit exams. The Government have had a consultation, which has closed, and we are awaiting a response. I am sure everybody in the House would want to accelerate legislation on that, but we need to know the Government’s plan. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us about that today.
However, 700 dentists will not fill the gap. Just last week, I was speaking to Ukrainians who have come to the UK. They want to work, they want to put their skills into practice and they want to have fast-track English language training so that they are competent in terms of their language skills. They want to see their qualifications passported, so that they can get to work and practise their profession. They do not want to deskill or de-professionalise. They want to learn the clinical language that they will require, and therefore to shadow dentists getting ready for practice. However, I have not seen a strategy from the Government on how we will work with refugees who have those skills and can put them to work. Perhaps the Minister will share that in her closing remarks, because it seems such a waste of talent when many refugees absolutely want to address that local need but cannot do so.
I turn now to the future training of dentists—a point raised by the hon. Member for St Ives. I have had discussions with Hull York Medical School, which is a fabulous partnership between the two cities, and it would be prepared to help support a dental school. Of course, that would need investment, so we need proper investment for the future. To look at how that would work, I spoke to the commissioners, and there certainly is an appetite in our city to host such a school in the future. That would be helpful in bringing dentists onstream, but we also must recognise that students currently in training are struggling to get placements in the NHS. Of course, the more dentists who leave, the harder it will be to train the current cohort. Unless we see a quick increase in the number of NHS dentists, we will be in even more difficulty. That is why the urgency is there now. We must build back an NHS service for the future to ensure that we have those professionals in place.
Finally, we know that integrated care systems will be taking over the commissioning of dental services next year. My concern is that Government are waiting for that moment to act. We must see action now, because the integrated care systems will not be able to solve a problem that the national Government won’t.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and to follow the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). I am pleased to report that my own dentist is in the hon. Lady’s constituency, and I have had excellent service from them for the past 25 years.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing the debate. As we have heard, many Members across the House have had significant correspondence on this issue from constituents. Since the start of the year, I have been contacted by 26 constituents raising their difficulties in obtaining access to NHS dentistry. I therefore welcome the opportunity to discuss this important issue.
The problem of access to NHS dental services has sometimes been put down to a lack of adequate staff numbers. Across the Tees Valley CCG area over the last 11 years, the number of dentists carrying out NHS activity has remained static, at around 330. Moreover, issues with access to care have undoubtedly been compounded by the pandemic, with waiting times increasing significantly due to the infection control measures that were required to keep services going. However, those are not the main issues.
Instead, we must look at the shortcomings in the current system of dental contracts, which was introduced by Labour in 2006. Under that system, a dental provider agrees to provide a set number of units of dental activity from April until the following March, and the annual contract value is paid in 12 monthly instalments. Those units are not related to numbers of patients or the extent of the work that needs to be performed, and similar rates are paid for taking out one tooth or doing one filling and for doing extensive dental work.
Therefore, dental providers effectively end up being paid less money for more work, with it not being financially viable to provide NHS dental services. That results in providers not taking on NHS patients, or sometimes handing back NHS contracts and concentrating on private dental care. Furthermore, the nature of the employment of many associates—who are retained on a decreasing percentage share of the income they generate—further reduces the incentive for those coming up through the profession to remain doing NHS work. I understand from the Minister that the British Dental Association and NHS England are in discussions to reform the contract. I wish those negotiations well for the sake of all our constituents.
I would also like to focus on the fact that the main causes of tooth loss are decay and gum disease. Prevention is definitely better than cure. Improved dental hygiene gives a better chance of keeping teeth for life. I hope that any changes to the NHS contract include a shift to focus more on prevention and pre-emptive care in order to reduce demand for routine and urgent dental care.
I firmly believe we need a far greater focus on education in dental care. Early years foundation stage is a child’s first experience with oral health impacting on the rest of their life. Setting good dental hygiene standards and practices early on often leads to far less need for care in later life. Schools should do more to emphasise good dental health, and dentists should do more to educate parents on how they can set high standards for their children and on the vital role they play in normalising dental visits, putting their children at ease with the dentist, as a person they can trust.
I welcome the steps the Government have taken to try to deal with the backlog of NHS dental care, including the provision of £50 million to provide up to 350,000 additional dental appointments in England. It is welcome that that funding was targeted at those groups most in need of dental treatment, with children and people with learning disabilities, autism or severe mental health problems being prioritised. But I fear that that is not enough to ensure that everyone who needs to be seen can be.
This is a hugely important issue in Darlington, and one we cannot afford to get wrong. It is essential that those in the most need of care and those in the most deprived areas are prioritised. The current system is simply not working in that regard. I trust that the Minister has listened closely to the points I have raised, and recognises the importance of expediting the reform of NHS dentistry contracts and of focusing on preventive care, so that we can create a system that works for all.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for the way he introduced the debate and covered so much of the ground we need to pay attention to.
This is a funny old place. We wait for months to talk about dentistry, and now we have had two debates in two days. I spoke in yesterday’s debate and I do not want to repeat the points I made then, but I do want to develop some of them. We clearly face an extraordinary crisis in dentistry. It was fascinating to see all the Members intervening on the hon. Member for St Ives, telling their stories about constituents who had contacted them, unable to access NHS dentistry. We had that yesterday throughout the debate, with some horrific stories about the self-treatment that some people have been driven to carrying out with pliers. That emphasises the scale of the crisis across the country.
If we had all hung about after Prime Minister’s questions, and the Speaker had asked, “Has anybody here not had a constituent contact them about access to NHS dentistry?” no hands would have gone up. We all face this problem. I met our local dental committee last week. I said yesterday that, in response to that meeting, it commissioned a survey across the city, speaking to about half the practices. Only one could offer a waiting time shorter than a year. For 29%, it was up to two years; for 32% it was more than two years. The biggest number—35%— said, “At this moment, we simply can’t take anybody on to the waiting list.”
It is a shocking situation that we find ourselves in. I will not repeat everything I said yesterday, but I cited the example of a pregnant constituent who wrote to me. She said:
“I have a MATB1 form entitling me to free dental care whilst I’m pregnant and for a year after birth. Unfortunately, I can’t use this as I can’t find an NHS dentist”.
There is a reason why pregnant women are given access to free dentistry: they face particular problems with oral health during pregnancy, which will give rise to long-term problems unless they are addressed. We know, too, that unless people get the dental service they need when they need it, that creates all sorts of other long-term health problems that are not only hugely damaging to them individually, but ultimately costly to the NHS. Not getting the money in the right place at the right time just causes more problems for budgets further down the road.
The most shocking part—I am overusing that word, but perhaps it is appropriate—of the contributions we heard yesterday was about children. The No. 1 cause of child admissions to hospital is rotting teeth, which arise from the failure to get children dental treatment when they need it. The hon. Member for St Ives made a really good point about our lack of ambition, which is a point we can make about successive Governments. The fact is that we do not have the ambition for NHS dentistry to cover the entire population, in the way we would expect for all other aspects of health provision—even if we do not always get that provision right. We need to have a fundamental debate about dentistry.
There are two ways of addressing the problem, which Members have alluded to. One is the contract. Yes, the contract was introduced by a Labour Government in 2006—let’s be honest—and it became fairly clear fairly soon that it was not working. In 2008, the Health Committee described it as not fit for purpose. Alan Johnson, who was then Health Secretary, commissioned the Steele inquiry, which reported in 2009. In 2010, we committed to reform the contract, and the Conservative Government made the same commitment, so this issue is cross-party and involves successive Governments, and we need to sort it out.
When I was going through the problems in the contract yesterday, I was pleased that the Minister nodded at each point I made. I would be grateful if, in her summation today, she could give us an insight into the contract reform that the Government are looking at, because we do not simply want to see tinkering, a little bit of shifting here and there, or—as I said yesterday—tweaking at the edges. Since the Health Committee reported in 2008, the contract has needed fundamental reform. Yesterday, I said that it was wrong that the contract was based on units of dental activity using figures from the two years previous to 2006, which are now massively outdated, and the Minister nodded. I said that it contains huge discrepancies in remuneration rates between practices doing the same work, and she nodded. I said—this was particularly relevant during covid—that the contract provides penalties, through financial clawback, for underperformance and not achieving targets, even if the reasons for non-achievement are completely beyond the control of practitioners, such as an inability to fill a job or the infection protection measures that were put in place. However, there is no reward if a dental practice overperforms—if it sees more people or deals with more teeth. The Minister nodded at that one, too.
The contract limits how much NHS treatment a practice can provide because of the quotas and the way that providers are contractually obliged to spread their NHS work and not be responsive to demand as and when it arises—the Minister nodded at that point, too. I would be grateful if she confirmed in her summation that the Government intend to address all those points, and indeed others, in reforming the contract.
The second aspect is the lack of funding for dentistry, which has fallen further than in any other part of the NHS. We should all recognise that it is a Cinderella service in the NHS. According to the BDA, funding for NHS dentistry has fallen by 25% since 2010, which, as I say, is completely out of line with the rest of the NHS. Alongside reforming the contract—we do not simply want a sleight of hand in solving these issues—what do the Government intend to do on funding? We heard about the £50 million Government investment for emergency funding as a result of covid, but there were problems with that—I say that with respect to the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), who raised it in our debate yesterday. It was time-restricted funding for one quarter and was offered in a very short timeframe, which made it difficult to implement and involved work in addition to the contract. Practices were told that if they tried to help and then did not meet their standard contract target as a result, they would face financial penalties.
Unnecessary restrictions were imposed on the emergency funding by some commissioning teams—for example, in Sheffield, it had to be for out-of-hours access. The Minister is shaking her head. That might not have been what was required by the Government, but it was required by many commissioning teams. The net result was that lots of that money was not drawn down. I asked the Secretary of State yesterday to indicate how successful the initiative had been by telling us how much money had been drawn down, and he was not able to. I hope that officials have been able to provide the Minister with that number today, so that she can give us an indication of the success of that initiative.
I will say no more now because I am conscious that other Members want to speak, and we should all share our experiences from across the country, but I hope that we will not kick the issue down the road again and that the Minister, in her winding-up remarks, will commit to a comprehensive statement on where the Government intend to move on contract reform and funding to solve the crisis. If they do not make a statement before the summer and if we do not take action urgently, we will really be seeing the potential death of NHS dentistry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I will be very brief because many points have already been made, but I want to try and give a further south-west example of the problems that we face, particularly in rural and coastal communities. The problem is sizeable and the requirement to respond to it is urgent. As has been said by so many colleagues from across the House, we must grip the issue now. If we let it slide, it will get worse and worse, and the backlog will get bigger and bigger.
The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) was right to say that, like buses, it is good to have two debates on this. I was sorry not to be able to make my comments known yesterday. I was particularly struck by some of the positive developments that have come out of the Department, most notably that urgent care is back to pre-pandemic levels. There are also 700 centres for urgent care, £50 million has been made available to encourage 350,000 extra appointments, and there is an urge and a push to upskill dental nurses, assistants and technicians. Those are all very welcome steps.
I do not mean to be critical of the Government, because the Minister, who has responded to my letters, has spoken to me at length on the issues that we face in south Devon. There are a few outstanding issues that I hope she might be able to take on board. I hope she might also be willing to listen to some of the suggestions that colleagues and I are making.
One the five areas where I see a significant problem, which has already been raised, is children not getting access to dentists. On pensioners, countless constituents have contacted me who cannot get access to the very necessary dentistry services that they require. We must find a way to address that, for children and pensioners alike. We can find a way through this. The problem in my patch is that dentists are not taking on new patients. In fact, to give a concentrated example, there is one practice within 15 miles of Totnes that is accepting patients, and in that instance it is only children. I understand that the practice is already oversubscribed and therefore unable to see people in a reasonable timeframe. This is a real problem that, as others have said, is becoming exacerbated as time goes by.
My next point is about urgent dental care centres. I have heard about 700 of them being set up across the country, but I am not aware of one that is dealing with my constituents. In fact, when people use the hotline to even contact the NHS to discuss it, they cannot get through. I have constituents in considerable pain contacting the helpline and not being able to even get through to convey their point. That needs to be addressed. It is bad enough not being able to see a dentist; it is perhaps even worse not being able to talk to someone about the help one needs. It is also reflected in why we see so many people ending up in A&E with problems with their teeth. Addressing this issue would help the A&E numbers.
The Minister, as ever, is assiduous in responding to our correspondence. I hope she will not take this the wrong way, but she responded to one of my letters that it may be helpful to know that patients are registered with a dental practice only for the course of their treatment, meaning there are no geographical restrictions on which practice a patient may attend. She has been to south Devon, I am sure. If she has not, she is very welcome—it could not be a better time to visit over the summer. Our geography is very difficult at the best of times. We do not have rail lines—they were all ripped up in the 1950s. Our bus services have been cut back. There are no major routes even between the major towns in my constituency and the hospitals—I think of Dartmouth and Kingsbridge.
If we do not have the transport system to help people to get to those practices, the geography matters a great deal. We need to focus on a response for the rural and coastal communities, because they are at a significant disadvantage, as my right hon. Friends the Members for Ashford (Damian Green) and for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) said.
The £50 million made available is welcome, but the percentage awarded to the south-west is 9%, which, if my maths is good enough—probably not as good as my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas)—is £4,762,000. That will not be enough to deal with the sizeable issues in what is classed as the south-west, which is Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall.
I said I would not speak for long, but I have a few points that I hope the Minister will take on board. I hope we can find a solution on the basis of cross-party consensus and co-operation and of the urgent need to address this issue. Evidently, we need more dentists. There is no doubt about that. Training takes time. It is great that we are looking at how to retrain people, but what steps are we taking to encourage the creation and set-up of dentist schools across the country?
People want to train and work in this country. The NHS is a draw to medical students around the world. We should be able to train them here and encourage them to work in our system, at least for a certain amount of time. What steps are being taken to recognise the equivalent level of qualification that might be found in other countries to encourage them to come to this country?
I have mentioned it three times, but for added effect I will make the point again: we need a robust response for rural and coastal areas. Is the Minister willing to meet all coastal and rural MPs, on a cross-party basis, who have an issue with dentistry to discuss this issue? It is significant that, from Cornwall to elsewhere in the country, we all make similar points about how we are disadvantaged. That is no disrespect to the hon. Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Sheffield Central, but I hope the Minister will take that on board, because it is becoming more urgent.
Contract renegotiation has already been mentioned. We need more details on that, and it has to be sped up. Nobody wants us to sit here pointing the finger—I accept that Labour brought in this terrible decision in 2006; there we are, I have pointed it—but what we want is a solution. We can find a solution. If yesterday’s debate and this debate are anything to go by, there are sensible options being put forward. The time to act is now. Too many people have been in significant pain for too long.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. In the last few months, I have received dozens of letters and emails from constituents about their difficulties in securing NHS dentistry, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing this important debate.
A key part of levelling up is ensuring that health inequalities are addressed and that people’s access to vital dental treatment is not based on a postcode lottery. Only yesterday, I received an email from a constituent, Kayleigh. She was told by her dentist that she and her family would no longer be able to access routine NHS appointments. Kayleigh did exactly the right thing and called up other dentists in Blackpool and all along the Fylde coast, but time after time, the response she received was the same: “We are not taking on NHS patients, there is no waiting list, and there is no intention whatsoever to change that in the near future.”
Kayleigh works part time to help to support her young family, but private dental appointments are completely unaffordable and totally out of the question. She is one of thousands of my constituents in Blackpool who do not or cannot access NHS dentistry. It is difficult to establish a figure for how many of my constituents do not have an NHS dentist, but it is likely to be in excess of 10,000, or at least one in five adults.
The problems that our constituents are reporting to us are not being caused just by a lack of trained dentists. The number of dentists registered to provide care with the General Dental Council is actually at a record high, having increased by 2,000 since the start of the pandemic. The problems are being caused by two main issues, the first of which is the massive impact of the pandemic on dentistry.
The BDA estimates that more than 43 million dental appointments—more than a year’s-worth of dentistry in pre-covid times—has been lost due to the pandemic. There are of course steps that the Government could take to relieve that backlog, such as training more dentists or making it easier to bring in accredited foreign dentists to work in this country. I know that the Government are investigating these possible solutions, and the Minister has stated that legislation may be brought forward at the end of this year to address those points.
The second major issue is dentists opting to carry out more private dental work than NHS care. Nine out of 10 dental practices with significant NHS commitments report problems recruiting staff. When I was on a recent visit to a dental practice in Blackpool, the owners stressed the difficulty they have in recruiting and retaining trained dentists. This is a particularly acute problem for many coastal communities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) just mentioned, and exacerbates the challenges we have in providing NHS appointments in particularly deprived coastal communities.
The number of registered dentists is increasing, but many are now taking on a higher proportion of work in the private sector, and around 3,000 dentists in England have stopped providing NHS treatment altogether. There is not a shortage of dentists, rather a shortage of dentists motivated to take on NHS work. One example is Ivory Dental Care in my constituency, which recently wrote to patients informing them that from July it will no longer be offering NHS dentistry. That will result in an additional 2,000 Blackpool residents no longer being registered with an NHS dentist.
I am pleased that the Minister recently stated that an announcement on reforming the NHS dental contractual framework will be made soon, with the aim of paying dentists more fairly for their work. This is a vital step to stop a steady stream of NHS dentists leaving for more profitable, private work. It should also address the issues with low morale among dentists and turn the tide, so that the NHS is a more attractive place for them to work.
I know that this Government are serious about tackling health inequalities. It is appalling that children from the most deprived areas are already three times more likely to have hospital extractions, and oral cancers are obviously less likely to be spotted among those who have fewer routine dental appointments. We simply cannot allow such health inequalities in dental care to persist. One of the reasons I was elected to this House was because of the Government’s pledge to increase spending on our NHS, with the help of the budget rising from £133 billion at the start of this Parliament to £177 billion by the end of it. To that end, I welcome the additional £50 million that the Government made available for providing dental services earlier this year, but the reality is that this is actually falling in comparison with the overall health budget. We cannot put at risk the Government’s plans to level up the nation’s health by letting this continue. Dental health should be considered on an equal footing to the rest of our healthcare, so that we can further improve on the solid progress being made in towns such as Blackpool to reduce health inequalities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing the debate. Access to NHS dentistry remains an enormous problem right across England, from his constituency, which is the most westerly, to the Waveney constituency that I represent, which is the most easterly. There is not only a so-called perfect storm, but also a perfect symmetry, which hits the most vulnerable hardest.
The Government have brought in measures to address this crisis, which have had some partial success; but what is needed is a long-term strategic plan for NHS dentistry, which I would suggest should meet the following criteria. First, a secure long-term funding stream. Secondly, a strategic approach to recruitment and retention. Thirdly, replacement of the dysfunctional NHS dental contract. Fourthly, a prevention policy, promoting personal oral healthcare. And fifthly and finally, transparency and full accountability, through the new emerging integrated care systems.
The issue on which I wish to focus falls in the last of those categories. It is the procurement of NHS dentistry, which at present is opaque and has, over a long period, led to some outcomes that are not in the best interests of local residents and do not meet the standards of probity that one is entitled to expect in the award of public contracts.
In 2009, the late Dr David Johnson, a much-loved local dentist with a thriving practice in the high street of Lowestoft, was refused a contract to continue to offer a service that he had provided to the local community for many years. That happened in highly unsatisfactory circumstances, which caused much personal upset and ultimately led to units of dental activity being taken away from Lowestoft, where they were much needed, and reallocated elsewhere.
More recently, approximately two years ago, a contract was awarded for the out-of-hours service in Norfolk. The company that won the contract still does not have either regular dentists or premises, and does not work anywhere near the hours stipulated in the contract.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right when he speaks of the challenges that patients face throughout Suffolk in accessing NHS dentistry. Does he agree that there is availability of emergency out-of-hours dentistry, but that some companies are not taking the correct steps to provide it—and that some dentists are not opening up the number of slots that they are contractually obliged to, to provide it?
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for that intervention. He is correct, and the example I have just provided illustrates that point.
On the issues with the probity of procurement arrangements, I will move forward to the present. It is welcome that a new, long-term NHS dentistry contract has been awarded for the Lowestoft area, and the locally based Dental Design Studio will deliver the contract to a high standard for the benefit of local people. However, before DDS was awarded the contract, it was initially won by a limited company with no local presence, no dentists and no premises. That company then offered the contract to local practices, seeking bids, initially of £400,000, which it then reduced to £250,000. When it was unable to sell on the contract, it withdrew from the process.
Procurement arrangements that allow such blatant profiteering are quite clearly not fit for purpose. There is also a worry that the process is skewed against partnerships, which have been the traditional means of providing primary healthcare in local communities. Only single legal entities and limited companies are able to tender for NHS dental contracts, with partnerships excluded from doing so. The feedback that I am receiving is that the tender documents are far from straightforward and discourage some local NHS dentists who remain in practice from bidding for contracts.
The transfer of responsibility from NHS England to the new integrated care systems, which will start operating in just over a week’s time, provides an opportunity to carry out root-and-branch reform of the procurement and oversight arrangements for NHS dentistry. We need to ensure that they are fair, transparent and in the best interests of local people. It is vital that we seize this opportunity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing this important debate and praise hon. Members for their powerful contributions, which contained a lot of personal experiences setting out just how dire the situation is across the country.
Here we are again. The problem with NHS dentistry has come up time and again over recent months. No matter how much the Minister wants to bury her head in the sand, issues with access to NHS dentistry are just not going away. The situation is a national scandal, as recognised by Members from across the House, by the sector and by our constituents, whose heartbreaking cases continue to fill our postbags. One cannot help but feel emotional at the immense pain people are having to live with.
Shamefully, we know that children are particularly badly affected. Half of all children in England have no access to an NHS dentist, with 78 children under 11 going to A&E every single day for a tooth extraction. The hon. Member for St Ives described a family with three children, none of whom had ever seen a dentist, with one child only seen because they had to go to A&E. In Wakefield, a fifth of children suffer from tooth decay before the age of three. This is not just unacceptable; it is a downright disgrace.
In yesterday’s debate, the Minister held her hands up and recognised the problem in primary care. Frankly, I was delighted to finally hear something akin to humility from the Minister on access to NHS dentistry. However, just as it seemed we would make some meaningful progress, the same old script was rolled out and the blame was laid at the door of the Labour party. I put it to the Minister yesterday, and do so again today, that her party has been in government for 12 years. When Labour was in government and saw that the contract was not working, we committed to reforming it, as set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), and put that in our 2010 manifesto, just as this Government did in theirs.
I will make progress because I have a lot to say in only five minutes.
Here we are again. After more than a decade in power, the Conservative party has absolutely nothing to show for it, other than a record of complete and utter failure. The Tory Government made a commitment to reforming the contracts in their 2010 and 2017 manifestos, so I would be fascinated—as, I am sure, would other hon. Members—to hear from the Minister what on earth has been happening for the past 12 years. If she is happy to associate herself with that record, that is her decision, but I would be embarrassed and ashamed, to be frank.
The Minister is presiding over a national scandal. It is simply not good enough to keep shirking responsibility. Whenever the Government have had something that looks like a plan, it has been woefully inadequate. I am sure that the Minister will—as other Members have—tell us about the £50 million of extra funding that we have heard so much about, but if she thinks that it has made a blind bit of difference, she is very much mistaken. I have been made aware that Yorkshire and the Humber, for which £8.3 million was allocated, drew down just £2.3 million. Barely any of that money was used by general dentists; it was used predominantly by hospitals.
I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm or deny whether yesterday, after being asked about this matter by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central, her answer was simply that we should wait for the data. At best, we have had a mixed response on when we will receive the full breakdown of how much of that £50 million was taken up. Can she confirm whether we will receive that data before the summer recess?
If that funding was designed to regain the confidence of dentists and encourage them to increase their NHS activity, it has completely and utterly failed. Across England, the number of patients being seen by an NHS dentist actually dropped by 22% overall between March and April. As the Minister will be aware—I mentioned this yesterday—there was a 34% drop in her own constituency. I ask her again: how can she expect dentists across England to have confidence in her when it is clear that she does not even have the confidence of dentists in her own patch?
One way of building trust would be to communicate with the profession. Yet just eight days before the start of the next quarter, dentists have no idea of the targets that they will be working to. Can the Minister confirm whether that announcement will be left until the eleventh hour once again? Furthermore, can she confirm that, as the Secretary of State said yesterday, the target will be 100% of pre-pandemic activity?
Let me remind colleagues of a story that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) told in yesterday’s debate. A constituent of hers came to her surgery and placed on her desk the teeth that he had pulled out of his own mouth with pliers. Does the Minister think that such stories, which are now disturbingly common, are acceptable in 21st century Britain?
I am sure that the Minister will say once again that the Labour party is just shouting from the sidelines and does not have any plans, but when it comes to NHS dentistry, her Government have nothing to show for their 12 years of shouting from the centre circle. “Shouting” is a generous description, in the light of the Minister’s refusal even to speak to dentists at the Association of Dental Groups conference just a few weeks ago.
This Government might have a track record of failure, but it does not need to be that way. It is time for meaningful action that will make a difference to patients. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s answers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing this important debate—even if it is two days in a row that we have highlighted some of these issues. I thank hon. Members on both sides for speaking on the matter.
I am slightly disappointed in the response of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark). In yesterday’s debate, it was acknowledged that in all four nations, no matter who is in charge—whether it is the Labour Government in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, or in Northern Ireland, where the Assembly is still being formed after the election—there are exactly the same problems. In my speech yesterday I made reference to the fact that in Labour-run Wales there has been a 71% reduction in dental activity in the last year. The shadow Minister spectacularly failed to answer the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on that very point.
It is important to recognise that, yes, there have been problems since before covid, but covid has dramatically impacted—
The hon. Lady says, “Here we go,” but it is important to recognise that for two years there were no routine appointments available due to infection control measures. We are now back up to 95% of activity, but the backlog that existed before is significantly larger than it was.
It is also important to recognise that the nub of the problem around covid has been the dental contract. The shadow Minister may not have heard what I said yesterday, but we have been negotiating a new contract with the BDA; we started those negotiations on 24 March, a final offer went to the BDA on 20 May, and we are awaiting its response. We have been in negotiations; we have not just been waiting for the work to be done. We expect to make an announcement before the summer recess—I said that both at oral questions last week and in the debate yesterday. We will be making an announcement in the coming weeks on those contract reforms.
It is helpful that the Minister has given us that information about the offer made to the BDA. Can she confirm that the offer addresses the four points I asked her about on flaws in the contract? I raised those points in the debate yesterday, and they reflect concerns across the House. Is it the sort of fundamental reform of the contract that will stop dentists being driven out of the NHS and into private practice?
I obviously cannot comment while there are live negotiations ongoing, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, but the offer will drive some reforms in respect of the issues raised by a number of colleagues around fair payment for dentists’ level of activity. It will also look at the whole dental team and not just dentists. We have looked into whether we need legislation to be able to upskill dental technicians and dental nurses, for example, and we do not, so we are able to make progress on some of those areas, reward them for the work that they are doing and enable them to take on more work. A number of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised will be covered by that.
The hon. Member for Enfield North may not know this, but before the latest round of negotiations, there had been a number of pilot studies over the last few years looking at completely reforming the UDA model and moving to a capitation model. Those pilot studies unfortunately did not produce the results we were hoping for. They did not increase access for patients, they did not reduce inequalities and they did not point to a sustainable model, so we did not go forward with that model. That is why we started new negotiations earlier this year on reform.
It is wrong of the shadow Minister to say that nothing has been done over the last 12 years. We had two years of covid where there was no routine dental activity; only urgent appointments were undertaken. Before that, there were three years of pilot studies on the capitation model; those were not successful, which is why we have not driven forward those changes. It is important that when we introduce changes, they address the fundamental issues that have been raised in this afternoon’s debate.
Could I press the Minister in particular on the point that I made on financial clawback? It has been made clear to many of us who have talked to dentists that one of the most demotivating factors in the current contract is that while they are not rewarded for additional performance with NHS patients, they face clawback if they underperform, including for reasons that are completely beyond their control. I understand that for the last quarter that is currently being considered, 57% of dentists are going to face financial penalties. Those are the sorts of issues that are tipping them out of NHS dentistry. Will that issue be addressed?
We are looking at the issue of clawback. Obviously we are in negotiations, so I cannot say what the final outcome will be. However, on the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about clawback during the last quarter, when the omicron variant was a particularly significant factor, we made clear to commissioners and dentists that if there were issues arising from omicron—patients who could not attend their appointments, or dental teams that were unable to be at work—they would not be subject to clawback. I would be disappointed if dentists who could not undertake their units of dental activity for covid-related reasons were penalised with clawback for that, because we made it very clear that there needed to be a flexible mechanism to mitigate some of those issues. If the hon. Gentleman has examples of that, I would be happy to take them away and ask officials to look into them.
The negotiations started back in March and there have been a number of meetings with the BDA. The BDA has been sent final recommendations, but we have not yet heard back, so I encourage the BDA to respond.
I will touch on a number of other issues that have been raised, the first of which is overseas dentists. For obvious reasons, no overseas registration examinations took place during the pandemic, creating a backlog of over 800 overseas dentists waiting to take their exams. Exams restarted earlier this year, and extra sessions are being held to get through that backlog of dentists so that we can get them into the system and working as dentists as quickly as possible.
We have also been working with the General Dental Council, which is the regulator, on recognition of overseas qualifications. The GDC did a consultation on regulation and recognition of overseas dentists, which I think closed on 5 or 6 May. We are waiting to hear the feedback from that consultation, but we are happy to lay regulations in this place—if necessary, we can do so by the end of the year—to give the GDC the power to mutually recognise overseas dentists according to its judgment. It is not for the Government to mutually recognise qualifications; it is for the regulator. However, we are happy to give the GDC the power to do so, and we look forward to its feedback on the consultation it undertook, because our overseas dentists are a rich source of the talent and skill that we need.
When it comes to getting more dentists into certain parts of the country—obviously, one of those areas is the south-west, whether that is Cornwall, Devon or Plymouth —significant work is going on. I met with Health Education England this morning to look at how we can set up centres for dental development. Those centres are different from dental schools, which are often very expensive and take a long time to set up, and, as was said during the debate, there are not always dentists available locally to supervise the training. Centres for dental development can be much more flexible and meet existing local needs while also looking at what needs could develop.
As such, we will be working up a programme, looking at what we can do in those specific parts of the country with the greatest need. In Norfolk, I recently met a group of local MPs and representatives from the local university and the local enterprise partnerships, all of whom are willing to work together to make that happen. I am going to Portsmouth on Monday, to Gosport, to see exactly the same thing—dentists coming together to come up with local solutions that will make a difference.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I thank her for those words. Far from burying her head in the sand, she is putting her head above the parapet. That is most welcome. As mentioned by my right hon. Friends the Members for Ashford (Damian Green) and for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), there is clearly significant data that highlights the worst affected areas. Given that the data is there, could we expedite that roundtable meeting as quickly as possible?
I am very happy to meet MPs. Once we get through the contract announcements before the end of recess, it has to be a priority to look at how we increase the number of dentists in specific parts of the country, whether in York or in coastal or rural areas. I am very willing to do that. Many parts of the country do have enough dentists, but they do not want to take on NHS work, so we are also going to look at the procurement and commissioning of services. That is where the ICSs will come into their own. At last, local commissioners will be accountable for commissioning dental work. There is no ring-fenced budget for dentistry. We spend about £3 billion a year and the work can be commissioned at a local level. The problem up until now is that no one has taken responsibility for that, so the ICSs will be a key change to make that happen.
I want to clarify one point. Does my hon. Friend anticipate the new dental contract being a sticking plaster, or does she think that it is here to stay that it will put right these challenges?
There is a real problem with the commissioning of dental services. I am afraid that I do not have faith that ICSs will be a panacea to sort things out, because local CCGs, some of which were not good commissioners of a number of services, have simply been cut and pasted into the same posts on the ICSs. Will my hon. Friend reassure me that she will personally look at the commissioning process and hold those commissioners to account, to ensure that they deliver proper dental services?
Absolutely. The whole point of the ICSs is that the commissioning service has not worked up until now. Some commissioners are very good at commissioning dental services, while others do not have anyone with dental experience on their boards and are not so good. ICSs will be accountable, which is the difference from what we have now. I will meet ICSs to ensure that they understand the responsibilities.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. When I wrote to her, she kindly replied and said that York could well be one of the areas for a centre of dental development. I would like to know the timescale for such considerations, and what progress has been made since our correspondence.
I met Health Education England this morning and we are working through that system. I will be able to update the hon. Lady shortly, because I am keen that we make progress.
A number of Members mentioned prevention. The Health and Care Act 2022 includes provisions relating to fluoridation as standard, and we are working to make progress since it became law recently. We are also working with education colleagues on supervised toothbrushing. As we speak, some of the 75 family hubs that are being set up in the most deprived parts of the country as part of the Start4Life programme are looking at initiatives such as supervised toothbrushing. Where it is not happening at home or where parents need more support, we are ensuring that children are getting that toothbrushing experience.
On the subject of upskilling dental teams, this is about more than just dentists. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) made the key point that it is about the whole team. At the moment, part of the contract means that only dentists can do certain work. We need to change that. Centres for dental development will be about not just training dentists but upskilling whole teams.
I hope that I have reassured Members from across the House that we are taking this issue extremely seriously. To answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, the contract changes that we are going to announce will not be the end of it, because there is more reform that we need to do. The Secretary of State is looking at a wider piece of work to provide a long-term, sustainable solution. We are happy to work with the other three nations if they have suggestions and solutions. We are not precious about sharing best practice.
I say to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Enfield North, that it would be good if she could come to a dental debate with some suggestions and solutions, rather than constantly criticising. We are determined to solve this issue and I appreciate the urgency that every single one of my colleagues has expressed today.
The response is that every overseas dentist, apart from those in the European economic area, currently has to take the overseas registration exam, and that is without exception. That is the work that we are trying to do with the General Dental Council. We are enabling those from Ukraine or Afghanistan, or any refugee from any country, to take part in that process. I am very keen to see mutual recognition with some countries. We are working on that and will enable the legislation to make it happen, but it will be for the regulator to decide; it is not a Government decision.
I hope that I have reassured colleagues that we are on this and appreciate the urgency. I have no doubt that we will return to this Chamber to debate this matter further in the coming weeks and months.
First, I thank and commend the Minister for her response and for the way in which she has engaged with this subject since taking up her role. I have found her determination to get this matter right really refreshing, because this has been a long battle.
I thank all colleagues, from all parties, for their contributions and for going into things—not just the problem but the solution—in great detail. I will leave the shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), out of that assessment, because I do not think that that came across from her at all.
I wish the Minister all success with trying to get a new NHS dental contract. We know that getting new contracts can be very tricky and fraught with problems, so I wish her the very best, on behalf of all of our constituents, who urgently need good dental care.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered NHS dentistry in England.
Building Safety Remediation: Leaseholders
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the financial effects of building safety remediation on leaseholders.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am grateful to have the opportunity to directly address the Minister on some of the ongoing financial impacts of building safety remediation—what has come to be known as the cladding scandal—on behalf of leaseholders in Birmingham, Ladywood, and all over the country.
Last week, we saw the five-year anniversary of the Grenfell disaster. It was a truly horrific tragedy that claimed the lives of 72 people. No one who saw that building aflame or the images on the news will ever forget them. It has left a mark on not just those affected but the whole country. The inquiry into that disaster is ongoing. I have a real concern that it may prove to be one of those cases, which we have seen too many of in this country, of justice delayed being justice denied, and that, while the inquiry may result in new procedures, those responsible for the events that led to that disaster may not be held directly to account. We live in hope and I send my solidarity—I am sure everyone present will agree—to the loved ones of those who perished at Grenfell.
The impact of Grenfell has extended much further than most of us could have imagined. That tragedy has exposed a shocking litany of regulatory failures and, in my view, outright negligence, which has led, as I say, to what we now call the cladding scandal. We have gotten a little too used to calling it a scandal when we consider the huge impact it has had on my constituents and people all over our country. It has exposed huge issues in building safety. My experience has been that just as I get my head around one part of the problem, many more present themselves—I am sure that that has been the experience of the Minister and his predecessors.
The cladding scandal has cost many of my constituents their peace of mind. It has cost them financially and wiped out life savings. It has left people languishing in the stress of knowing that the building where they live, raise their family and go to sleep every night is unsafe and poses a real fire risk. It has brought many to the brink of a complete mental and physical breakdown. I have sought to support my constituents and have dealt with many of the issues they have raised with me over the many years since this scandal was revealed. We have been campaigning together ever since, along with other leaseholder action groups that have sprung up all over the country. I am particularly grateful to the UK Cladding Action Group and the Birmingham Leaseholder Action Group, as well as other groups across the country, which have relentlessly supported leaseholders. Of course, many of them are leaseholders themselves trying to press the Government to act.
The Government have passed new legislation, and I state at the outset that I recognise how much the Government have moved from their original position, and I welcome many of the changes. However, and it will not surprise the Minister to hear me say this, I do not consider the new cap, which means that some leaseholders will pay some money towards the cost of remediation, to be fair, because they have done nothing wrong. This is not, and should not be, on them—not any part of it, not even at a capped amount. They should be spared any financial contribution. I regret that there is no direct assistance in the Building Safety Act 2022 for leaseholders who have already paid towards remediation work. There is the possibility of redress through civil action but the Act does not offer any direct assistance.
Nevertheless, the main provisions of the Building Safety Act, which received Royal Assent on 28 April, come into effect next week and the landscape in respect of leaseholders will change. However, as the Minister has already heard from me and other hon. Members, getting to this point has taken far too long. The Government have resisted acting in respect of many of the issues that MPs have been raising from the outset, only to concede that space some years later.
I remember my first pieces of casework relating to the cladding scandal, when Government Ministers and officials were still distinguishing between aluminium composite material cladding and non-ACM cladding. All of us involved in trying to seek redress, including Members of Parliament from across the House and leaseholders all over the country, pointed out the unavoidable truth that non-ACM cladding was just as dangerous as ACM cladding and would have to be removed from all the buildings where it was present. Originally, the Government held their ground and maintained the distinction, but then gave ground and bowed to the inevitable acceptance that non-ACM cladding would have to be removed.
In fact, most of the topics on which the Government have had to give ground represent issues that have been campaigned on from the start by all the groups I have mentioned, and by the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee as well. We have come a long way, but these five years have taken a very heavy toll.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I speak on behalf of many of my constituents in Woking, Surrey. As well as the direct costs of remediation, many leaseholders have difficulties getting insurance or face huge premiums of three, four or five times more than they would have been historically. That also brings the possibility that people cannot sell their flat if they wish to move. Is the hon. Lady looking to the Minister and to the Government for further reassurances on those financial impacts as well?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I will be coming on to the issues in relation to insurance later in my remarks. May I take this opportunity to say how refreshing and positive it has been to be able to work with Members from across the House? That has been the House at its best and I am sure that is the reason why we have been able to make so much progress in the Building Safety Act. I hope we will continue to work together on the ongoing financial impacts, and I hope to persuade the Minister to give further necessary ground. I will come to the matters of insurance very shortly.
Many hundreds of people in my constituency have been affected and have been living with the consequences of the cladding scandal for five long years. With work having started on some of these buildings, if people are very lucky they may finally be able to live in safe buildings in about five years’ time. At best, we are looking at an entire decade of normal life being wiped out for people caught up in this scandal. Even that timescale, with people losing a decade of their life, will be out of reach for many thousands of people in our country.
I want to bring some of the ongoing issues to life for Members and the Minister by using an example in my constituency: the development at Islington Gates. There are 141 flats in the development, which is now described as an orphan block. The original developer, Midlands and City Developments, went into liquidation in 2007, and Miller Construction, which built the block, was bought out by Galliford Try in 2014. The remediation works at Islington Gates come in at a total of £9 million. Some 80% of that—£7.2 million—relates to the removal of the non-ACM cladding that covers the building. The remaining 20%—£1.8 million—relates to additional defects that were discovered and revealed as a result of the scandal, including deficiencies in fire compartmentation and other measures. As per the new rules in the Building Safety Act, the £1.8 million will need to come from the developer and, through the cascade effect that the legislation envisages, could be passed on to the owner and potentially to leaseholders, up to the value of the new cap.
Let us consider the issues relating to the ongoing work for cladding remediation. The bid that Islington Gates submitted to the building safety fund for cover was accepted, but the payments came in later than anticipated, creating huge cash-flow problems that have further exacerbated the crisis for many of my constituents.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Many developers set up ground rent payment arrangements that will be very profitable in the long term, in view of the escalation of ground rent, and they set up service companies that sit underneath the main development company. Given the huge profits that developers make from those arrangements, does she agree that we need to do more to hold the developers to account, and that although the lifting of the current cap was welcomed, it should be lifted further?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I see no reason to maintain a cap. If we have conceded the principle that leaseholders are not to blame, that developers have made a lot of money out of these developments and that there is money available for the Government to go after on behalf of taxpayers all over the country, they should do so, and they should protect leaseholders from any additional costs.
I am concerned that the building safety fund still adopts a “computer says no” approach in cases such as those of Islington Gates, where eligibility for the fund has been accepted, the works are under way and the initial payment has been made. Administrative errors can lead to delays in further payments for the works, and that causes a huge amount of unnecessary stress. People are putting up with living in buildings that are completely covered and have no natural light. They are putting up with living inside a building site, so they have all the noise and dust of that, and the general loss of normal life and the amenities that we all have a right to expect. This work is unavoidable and necessary, but it is in everybody’s interest that it takes place as quickly as possible, so leaseholders have a chance of living a normal life soon.
Every time the BSF causes an additional delay—that is completely unacceptable— if it has accepted eligibility, works are under way and the initial payment has been made, there should be an expectation that money will be got out the door as quickly as possible for all additional payments. If administrative issues need resolution, they can be dealt with after the cheque has been paid. We have already established eligibility, and it is not as though my leaseholders are going to run off with that money. There is no risk to the taxpayer. Will the Minister say something about the BSF’s approach, and will he make sure it does not add to the stresses and strains that my constituents face?
In respect of non-cladding defects—£1.8 million is required to make Islington Gates safe—the Government have made it clear in statements about the legislation and in press releases on their website that they expect developers to take responsibility for any building developed by any company within their corporate group, including cases where they acquire the original developer of the building. That would mean that the £1.8 million liability for Islington Gates falls on Galliford Try, which bought Miller Construction, the original builders.
Unfortunately, Galliford Try insists that it has no obligation to pay, and none of us has been able to do anything to persuade it otherwise. My constituents have been campaigning, and I have written to Galliford Try. We have done everything that we can think of to try to persuade it that it must meet its liabilities, do the right thing and put up the money to remediate the non-cladding defects revealed at Islington Gates. I understand that in a meeting with some of my constituents, civil servants from the Minister’s Department confirmed that Galliford Try is the correct entity to pursue for the cost of those remediation works.
I want to press the Minister on just what we are supposed to do now that Galliford Try refuses to pay. It denies any and all liability for the £1.8 million. Will the Minister explain the role he envisages for the Department’s recovery unit, and whether the Department would front up that money and then go after Galliford Try itself? How does he see the new legislative landscape for remediation contribution orders working in respect of leaseholders such as those at Islington Gates? My view—I think it is shared by many Members across the House—is that innocent leaseholders should not have to stump up any more money and then wait for redress at some unknown point in the future. That money should be made available now from the correct company, which should hold the liability to begin with.
I turn to insurance costs, which the hon. Member for Woking (Mr Lord) mentioned. Much attention has been paid to the cost of remediation, waking watches, alarm systems, sprinklers and other measures, but it was clear to me from the start from my constituency casework that the cost of insurance was a major problem. In my constituency, premiums jumped in buildings affected by the cladding scandal. At the Jupiter 1 development, residents saw a 1025% increase in their insurance premium, from £40,000 to £450,000. King Edwards Wharf saw their premium jump from £50,000 to £450,000. Islington Gates used to pay £36,000 and saw that jump to £320,000.
Brindley House was in the terrible position of being the first building in the whole country without insurance when it was impossible to get cover for it for a period of time. The Minister will know that placed all leaseholders, and everybody else who was connected to the building, in default of their mortgage or rental agreements. That was a terrible stress. When insurance cover was eventually obtained, it jumped from £46,000 to £322,000.
Those are shocking increases in insurance premiums. It is clear to me that the calculation of the premiums did not take into account the risk in those buildings and, in particular, the measures that leaseholders have taken to reduce risk in their buildings. In each building, hundreds of thousands of pounds has been spent on state-of-the-art alarm systems and other measures, such as waking watches, to bring down the risk of a catastrophic fire. None of that was reflected in the insurance premium. The more residents have paid for risk mitigation, the more their insurance premium has gone up. It would have made no difference whether they had done those works or not. I think that that is a total con.
I first wrote to the Financial Conduct Authority and the Government at the beginning of 2020, and it has taken two years for a little bit of investigation to be done. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State wrote to the FCA to ask it to look into the matter, but if that had been done in 2020, we would be much further into the investigation into the behaviour of the insurance sector. I dare say that if the insurance sector had known that there would be Government-level scrutiny of the premiums, two years-worth of unjustifiable insurance hikes might not have been visited upon my constituents and people all over the country.
This problem requires much more than a slow-paced inquiry. I would like the Government to take much stronger action much more quickly so that we are not still talking about the cost of insurance premiums some years hence. The reality is that insurance companies have made money twice over out of the cladding scandal, first from the policies they used to indemnify the so-called professionals and the building industry as a whole—let us be honest, they will not be called to pay out on those policies; nobody envisages that insurers will pick up at the tab for this scandal—and, secondly, because they have gone on to charge thousands of people eye-watering sums to insure those buildings. They have given people no credit for the money they have spent making their buildings safer to live in while they wait for the final works to be completed. It is unconscionable. The Government should intervene to seek financial redress for affected constituents. If the additional cost of insurance were included in the cap brought in by the Building Safety Act 2022, many people would be much closer to that £10,000 anyway, and they would be protected from additional costs. I wonder whether the Minister might address that point and see if there is any possibility of including insurance payments within that £10,000.
The Secretary of State’s letter to the Financial Conduct Authority asked for suggestions to achieve widely available and affordable cover for leaseholders. That letter should have included some additional asks, one being that the FCA should consider redress for the insurance hikes that are taking place. It is clear to anybody from the outside who is paying attention to the effect of the cladding scandal, and making a fair assessment about its financial impact, that the insurance companies have gained excessive profits from the building safety crisis. They should be required to contribute to the remediation costs, on the basis that they covered the actions of the developers that failed to comply with building safety and have since received increased premiums as a result thereof. Nothing less will do.
We should look to the insurance companies for further assistance in covering the overall costs of remediation, which will, in the end, fall on the taxpayer in some way, shape or form, especially if more and more developers do not live up to their responsibilities. It is high time the Government added insurance companies to the list of people that they need to go after in order to recover some of the costs of this scandal. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) for organising this important debate and for noting the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell disaster.
The hon. Lady has been a powerful and effective advocate for leaseholders in her constituency who, like those all over the country, have been caught up in a mess not of their making, and one that they should not be held responsible for. She is right to highlight the very human cost that people have suffered from fear of the places they live in and call home, and from worrying about whether they are safe. I thank her for continuing to hold the Government to account for our role, particularly given that we promised to strengthen our support for leaseholders and restore confidence and proportionality to the market.
I will come on to the case she raised in a moment, but I first want to emphasise that the Government are on the side of leaseholders. We are making good on that sentiment with our sweeping set of reforms to building safety, the mortgage and lending market, and building insurance—reforms that will help to put things right, with far-reaching legal and financial protections for leaseholders who have been affected by this crisis. At the same time, we are forcing building owners to step up and fix the cladding issues that, in many cases, they helped to create.
I would like to say a bit more about each of those reforms and how we are addressing the issues that the hon. Lady has raised. I thank her for writing to the Secretary of State about the issues at Islington Gates. First, I recognise—we as a Government recognise—that the situation is unjust and unfair for leaseholders living in Islington Gates.
I want to be crystal clear on where the Government stand on this kind of situation. We expect—no ifs, no buts—developers to do the right thing and take responsibility for the buildings that they have developed. Most of the industry recognises this expectation and, equally, recognises the need to do the right thing by leaseholders. That is why more than 45 developers have signed a pledge to do exactly that. As I speak today, we are turning those pledges into legally binding contracts. We would expect such contracts to cover any building developed by any company within their corporate group, including complex cases where they acquired the original developer of the building.
As hon. Members would expect, my Department will work closely with pledge signatories to agree the list of buildings covered by their pledge, and we have pushed developers in the sector to take ownership of remediation work. We have always recognised that there will be complex situations, as is the case with Islington Gates, where the water has been muddied by acquisitions, corporate restructures and other changes. I commit to the hon. Lady that we will follow up at the earliest opportunity to see whether the development of the building can be attributed to one of the pledged signatories. I assure her that I will take a very personal interest in helping her with this case.
If it cannot be attributed to one of those companies, this case will inform our thinking on which further companies should be asked to sign this pledge. I assure her that even if the developer of Islington Gates is not in the initial scope, the remediation of the unsafe cladding will be fully grant-funded. The remediation of unsafe cladding on this building is being funded through the building safety fund—£6.8 million has been allocated for this work so that leaseholders are not paying for the works to the cladding. However, I take on board the point she has raised in this debate. We must listen to and learn from the experiences that she has highlighted. I want to ensure that we understand more about the issues that have been discovered here, and ensure that the building safety fund is run efficiently. I will raise those points with my noble Friend Lord Greenhalgh.
I welcome the Minister’s commitment, and I do appreciate it. I look forward to speaking to him in detail about the particular circumstances at Islington Gates. I am sure that my constituents will have heard and appreciated his recognition of the situation as unfair and unjust. Could I press him on how he sees the recovery unit working, in terms of the carrot-and-stick approaches that we might take with developers that still fail to live up to their responsibilities?
The hon. Lady is right; this will probably be one of those early cases within the Act where we need to test this. That is why I am keen to work with her, so that we can ensure that officials in the Department fully understand the specific issues relating to the case, as it may well also apply to other cases, and we can roll that out further.
The hon. Lady will know that we have introduced many protections relating to non-cladding defects under the leaseholder protections within the Act. I assure her and residents of Islington Gates that no qualifying leaseholder in a building taller than 11 meters or five stories will face bills to remediate dangerous cladding, and that the bills for non-cladding remediation will, as she said, be capped at a maximum of £10,000. Those cost protections will come into force on 28 June, and costs already paid out in the last five years, including for interim measures such as waking watch, will count towards that cap. I reiterate that we are protecting leaseholders, in law, from that date. Leaseholders no longer have to worry about being landed with excessive bills that they cannot afford.
We will not stand by and allow developers and contractors who have created these defects to get away with it. Significant new powers in the Building Safety Act will allow those who created building safety defects to be held to account. We are retrospectively extending the limitation period under the Defective Premises Act 1972 to 30 years, giving new powers to courts to remove the protection afforded by shadowy shell companies and special-purpose vehicles, and creating new powers to hold construction product manufacturers to account.
Remediation orders and remediation contribution orders will allow the first-tier tribunal to force firms to fix—and pay to fix—their buildings. We have introduced those powers so that legal action can be pursued against developers, contractors, manufacturers and freeholders. The Department’s own recovery unit has been established to pursue firms who fail to do the right thing, including through the courts. Leaseholders deserve accountability from those who built the buildings and those who have owned and exploited them.
I am conscious of time, but I will quickly touch on the insurance issue, because I know that hon. Members have mentioned it. We are working tirelessly with industry to unlock that market. Where individual buildings have struggled to access cover, we have worked with industry to highlight the issues, and we have seen the British Insurance Brokers’ Association place those risks through its members. I offer my full support if such help would prove to be useful to the hon. Lady’s constituents.
To address the lack of affordable and adequate buildings insurance, we have been working closely with the Association of British Insurers to develop solutions, and my colleague Lord Greenhalgh met the association last month to discuss progress on an insurance pool. The Secretary of State received an initial report from the FCA on 10 May as part of its ongoing review, the findings of which will be critical to developing a full understanding of the issues in the market.
The FCA will consider all routes, whether enacted by the regulator, Government or industry, to ensure leaseholders get the value for money that they deserve. I understand the many concerns that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood has raised. We must bring proportionality back into the system, and I know that the Secretary of State takes this very seriously.
On the point that the hon. Lady made about including insurance payments in the cap, that is obviously something that I cannot commit to right now, but I will certainly take it back to the Department. However, I do take this very seriously, and we will take the recommendations very seriously. No solution is off the table when it comes to getting back to a competitive and fair insurance market for leaseholders. As I said at the beginning, I am happy to continue to work with the hon. Lady, and with other hon. Members who may have constituents affected by this, as we roll out the benefits of the Act.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Antisemitism and Other Racism in Football
I beg to move,
That this House has considered antisemitism and other forms of racism in football.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, albeit on a solemn subject. The prevalence of racism directed at footballers was brought sharply to public attention last year when Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka faced an horrific wave of abuse on social media after the Euro 2020 penalty shoot-out. Former professional footballers, such as Rio Ferdinand, Anton Ferdinand, Lianne Sanderson and Marvin Sordell have spoken movingly to Committees of the House about the torrent of hate to which they are routinely subjected via their social media accounts.
Although much good work has been done to seek to drive racism out of football, it remains a problem in the game, as it does in wider society. I want to focus today on anti-Jewish racism. I feel that does not get the attention it deserves, and that the gravity of the harm that it causes is not fully recognised. I want to pay tribute to organisations, such as Action Against Discrimination, Kick It Out, the all-party parliamentary group against antisemitism, and to Lord Mann, the Government’s independent adviser on antisemitism, for all the work they have done to tackle the pollution of our national game.
It would be helpful to list a few of many recent antisemitic incidents connected to football. In January 2021, a vile antisemitic comment was posted online, directed at Celtic’s Israeli midfielder Nir Bitton, following a game against Rangers. In March 2021, a “Happy Passover” message, posted by Aston Villa, received a number of negative and abusive responses. Those comments were deleted, and a further statement was posted by the club, which received 27,000 dislikes. In April that year, the announcement of a proposed super league prompted an outpouring of antisemitic hate on social media, much of it directed at the owners of Chelsea, Manchester United and Spurs. Vile tropes and stereotypes were deployed, and Jews were accused of “ruining football”.
In August, talkSPORT issued an apology after presenters failed to challenge a caller who used an antisemitic stereotype on air in relation to a Jewish figure in football. In November last year, three men were arrested in connection with a social media video showing West Ham fans chanting an antisemitic song towards a Jewish man on a plane. In that same month, a Chelsea supporter was jailed for posting antisemitic tweets, including photos of Auschwitz and a man performing a Nazi salute.
In January this year, an Everton supporter was found guilty of singing antisemitic chants. He was given a football banning order, preventing him from attending matches for three years. In March 2022, a clip was posted on Twitter of a group enthusiastically singing an anti-Spurs song, ending with the words, “f-ing Jew”. In May, two Burnley fans were arrested on suspicion of racially aggravated public order offences, after one of them was videoed making a Nazi salute towards Tottenham supporters during a premier league game.
I am afraid time prevents me from embarking on anything like a comprehensive account of the harassment and intimidation to which Jewish people are routinely subjected at football matches. Those are just some of the more serious incidents, which have been followed up by the media and, in some cases, the police. A very long list of antisemitic episodes in football across Europe is set out in a 2021 report by Lord Mann. He was assisted in that work by 15 young people who are ambassadors for the Holocaust Educational Trust. In the introduction to that report, those young ambassadors emphasise their love of football and their determination to rid it of racism. They state,
“This report must be a catalyst for footballing authorities to recognise that antisemitism is well and truly alive both in and out of the stadium, on matchdays and online, and that consistent action must be taken.”
I hope the whole House will agree with that statement.
There is no place for antisemitism or racism in sport or society, and stronger deterrents must be in place for both clubs and fans. What does the right hon. Lady make of UEFA’s commitment to review loopholes in its policies for behind-doors matches where games are supposed to be played without spectators as punishment for previous fan behaviour?
I totally agree that we need much more serious consequences for racism and antisemitism where it is displayed in football grounds, and the international football associations have a real role to play in delivering that outcome.
I want to highlight some of the positive work that is underway to tackle the kinds of problems I have spoken about. For example, in January 2018, Chelsea football club announced a “Say No To Antisemitism” campaign to raise awareness and educate their players, staff, fans and the wider community about antisemitism in football. In January 2020, it became the first club to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism. In December that year, the English Premier League also adopted that definition, and many clubs followed suit. The English Football League and the Football Association did so on Holocaust Memorial Day 2021. In February 2021, Kick It Out, the game’s leading anti-racism body, working with Lord Mann, prepared an action plan to combat antisemitism, which it launched at training workshops in London and Manchester.
This February saw another important development, this time at Tottenham. That brings me to the Y-word. I appreciate that it is a contested term, but there can be no doubt that it is widely viewed as offensive and racist—it is a term of abuse. Since the 1970s, I understand, it has featured in chants by Spurs supporters. The club has indicated that it was initially used as a response to a lack of action taken in relation to antisemitism directed at Spurs fans, so some supporters have historically used the word as a means of taking ownership of a term routinely used to insult the club’s sizeable Jewish following. However, Jewish groups have described it as antisemitic, whatever the context. Its inclusion in Tottenham chants is therefore offensive in itself, and can also trigger antisemitic responses, with consequent harms. As such, following a review of the issue, the club stated that
“it is time to move on from associating this term with our Club.”
It went on to say:
“The Club already refrains from engaging with any social media handle or bio that contains the Y-word and we do not permit it being printed on shirts in any official retail outlets or used in any official Club context”,
to which my response would be, “About time too.” I find it somewhat shocking that there could ever have been any question of that term appearing on shirts, or in official retail outlets.
While these various initiatives to root out antisemitism in football are very much to be welcomed, there is clearly much more to be done. The professional game needs to take this issue much more seriously than it does currently. It needs to deploy far more resources to combating antisemitism, holding those responsible for it to account, and making it clear to its supporters that antisemitism is wholly unacceptable. That must include programmes aimed at ensuring supporters understand the issue better and are made aware of the hurt and harm caused by antisemitism. Urgent action is needed to crack down on the online manifestation of football-related anti-Jewish racism.
The Football (Offences) Act 1991 made racist chanting that is
“threatening, abusive or insulting to a person”
an offence when committed within football grounds. The police need to take action when those offences are committed. They need to take antisemitic crime in the football arena much more seriously than they do at the moment, and there needs to be enforcement against this kind of behaviour online, as well. In July last year, the Government announced that football banning orders would be extended to cover racist attacks on footballers on social media, meaning online trolls could potentially be excluded from grounds for up to 10 years. The Prime Minister has called on tech companies to step up and take responsibility for what they publish.
The Online Safety Bill is now on its way through Parliament. This world-leading piece of legislation will require the big tech firms to do more to tackle harmful abuse posted on their platforms, both by preventing it in the first place and by taking it down when it appears. Under their new duty of care to users, companies will have to tackle antisemitism and racism on their platforms much more effectively than they do today. Platforms will need to have appropriate systems and processes in place to stop criminals using their services to spread hate, and they will need to respond more quickly than they do currently if someone posts racist comments, whether words, images, emojis or videos.
Companies that fail in this duty of care could face big fines of up to 10% of their global turnover. For major social media operators, that could amount to billions of pounds. I urge the Minister to ensure that the legislation is effective in combating antisemitism online. In particular, big tech companies must be required to address the risk that algorithmic recommendation tools and hashtags can amplify antisemitic and other racist content. Keeping people safe online and dealing with the torrent of hatred to which so many are subjected is one of the defining challenges of our time. The Government must rise to that challenge.
In conclusion, I have campaigned against antisemitism for many years. One of my first ever visits to this Parliament was as a student in the late 1980s, when I attended a lobby to call for Jewish refuseniks to be permitted to leave the Soviet Union where they were subject to discrimination and injustice, and to seek to persuade the Foreign Office to raise that with the Soviet leaders. I was also one of the co-authors of the 2006 report of the all-party inquiry into antisemitism. That ground breaking piece of work led to real change, including an obligation on all police forces to collect statistics on antisemitic crime.
I took part in both the recent debates on antisemitism in the House and the two public protests in Parliament Square denouncing the incidents of anti-Jewish racism in Labour. I find it deeply disturbing that this toxic prejudice is still present in our society. It is distressing that that form of racism is directed against a community for which I have such a high regard and which plays a hugely positive role among all the other communities in the diverse constituency of Chipping Barnet, which I am very proud to represent.
Antisemitism is a poison that dates back millennia. Millions have lost their lives to that vicious hatred over the centuries, culminating in the horrors of the Holocaust and industrialised killing. Every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day we make a commitment never to forget what happened and to remain always vigilant against antisemitism and racism.
Just this afternoon, I was at a meeting of the Holocaust Memorial APPG and we heard chilling testimony from a holocaust survivor, my constituent Mala Tribich. We must extend that vigilance to the beautiful game. It is hard to think of another pastime that generates such emotion in its followers. There is a visceral connection between fans and clubs, but no emotional connection justifies racist hatred and abuse of others. Let the message go out from this House today that antisemitism has no place in English football. It will not be tolerated and those responsible for it will be brought to justice.
I intend to call the SNP spokesperson at 5.08pm in order to leave two minutes for the right hon. Lady to wind up. That leaves us with just over 20 minutes for the debate. There are five Members standing but I have been notified of three Members wishing to speak, so I hope people will respect the time and be brief. That applies to interventions as well. I call Rosie Duffield.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing this important debate. Antisemitism, like every form of racism, is ugly, aggressive and ignorant, but also often overlooked or left out completely when we discuss racism in sport. We applaud the lead taken by Lewis Hamilton, and other national sporting icons, when taking the knee to highlight racism, and the important work of groups such as Show Racism the Red Card, and Kick It Out. But rarely a mention is given to the antisemitic chants or language that are seemingly just accepted or ignored on the terraces.
Several Members here are part of the APPG against antisemitism, and are familiar with the work of Lord John Mann and our secretariat, the Antisemitism Policy Trust, who work tirelessly to highlight the problems, and work with football clubs and other institutions to actively find solutions. Back in 2008, Lord Mann, then the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, undertook a big piece of work called, “Antisemitism in European football: a scar on the beautiful game”. He updated his report as the Government’s independent adviser on antisemitism, working with young football fans in association with the Holocaust Educational Trust. The report highlights some shocking examples: Nazi salutes; the use of swastikas; disgusting racist chants; and even the depiction of Anne Frank on some mock football cards.
While it is positive that some police forces and football clubs are striving to do better, others inexplicably turn a blind eye to this particular form of racism. Perhaps the title of David Baddiel’s book is especially relevant here: “Jews Don’t Count”. In the book, Baddiel talks about his own experiences as a lifelong football fan and gives some stark examples of the kind of language that Jewish fans like himself and his brother have heard on the terraces. The APPG visited Chelsea football club just before the pandemic, and it was reassuring to hear that there seems to be more recognition of the problem, and some determination to adopt a zero-tolerance policy. The adoption by Chelsea, and the English Premier League, of the IHRA definition was also welcomed by the APPG against antisemitism.
Debates such as this can and should prompt sports fans to be more alert, and perhaps call out those incidents when they see or hear them. However, even getting antisemitism included in anti-racist campaigns has been slow and extremely difficult. There are more examples of that in David Baddiel’s book. I have to declare an interest here, as my partner is currently directing the Channel 4 documentary version of the book, which will be shown in the autumn. The book contains many examples of the author finding it really hard to get anyone to take antisemitism as seriously as the other forms of racism that we are more familiar with in sport.
I hope that we will see more awareness of the issue, more being done to stop it and that football—and all sports—will be safe for everyone to enjoy, free from the fear or anticipation of any form of racist abuse.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. Racism in football has reduced dramatically over the last few decades. Indeed, we are thankfully in a different place to where we were in the 1970s and 1980s. However, we must be under no illusions; racism still does exist in the game, as we saw most notably following the appalling comments on social media directed at England players after our defeat in the final of last year’s Euro championships. Given the club’s long association with the Jewish community, it would be remiss of me not to refer directly to Tottenham Hotspur, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) did, when discussing antisemitism in football. I declare my interest as a proud but long-suffering Spurs fan and season ticket holder, who looks forward to being back at White Hart Lane when the season kicks off in August.
Historically, the use of the Y-word by Tottenham fans was initially taken as a positive step to deflect antisemitic abuse that they were subjected to at matches more than 40 years ago from opposition fans who faced no sanctions for their actions. The term continues to be used to the present day by many of my fellow supporters. Tottenham, as a club, has always maintained that fans have never used the word with any deliberate attempt to offend. Spurs fans often use the word as a term of endearment towards one another, and as a defence mechanism against the antisemitic abuse that still exists in the stands today—something the club has acknowledged in the past. I know Spurs fans who are Jewish and who see the word as a term of endearment to the club’s Jewish fans and a recognition of its historic connection with the Jewish community. However, it is clear that not all Jewish supporters see the term in the same way.
The club deserves credit for starting that debate and consulting widely with its fanbase on the usage of the word. The results of the consultation have reaffirmed the club’s commitment to working with all sections of its fanbase to reduce the use of the term, and rightly so. Given how ingrained the word is among Spurs fans, that will not happen overnight—it will probably be a rather long process—but the club deserves recognition for leading that debate and engaging with its fans in the process.
It should be made clear that the use of the Y-word by Tottenham fans should never be cited as an excuse for the evil of antisemitism, both in society at large and in football. As I mentioned, the adoption of the term was a direct consequence of the lack of action when it was used against Spurs fans. In using the term, Spurs fans are universally well intentioned, but make no mistake, there is genuine antisemitism in football, and it is used with the intention of causing deliberate harm and offence.
Let me give one example. On my way to a game at the old Upton Park ground, I was in a pub with West Ham fans. After singing disparaging chants about Tottenham, those fans proceeded to hiss to imitate the evil of the holocaust, in a direct reference to Tottenham’s Jewish heritage. It was not just a few mindless idiots, but dozens of people, and it lasted a long time. From recollection, that incident happened in 2015 or 2016. We might hope that things have since improved, but as my right hon. Friend mentioned, it was only last month that an opposition supporter at Tottenham was ejected for making a Nazi salute—again, presumably in reference to the Jewish connection to our club. Those are just two examples of the continued evil of antisemitism in football, but a further example would be the use of the Israel flag by Rangers fans, which is often met with blatant antisemitism online as well.
Some great initiatives are being undertaken to deal with wider racism in football, and I commend the Government, the Football Association, the Premier League and the English Football League for leading that work, but antisemitism remains a serious issue in football and more needs to be done to combat it. I commend my right hon. Friend for securing the debate, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister about how the Government will continue to address the matter.
It is an absolute pleasure to speak in the debate. I thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for setting the scene so well. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) is a Spurs supporter; I would have thought he would be a Blackpool fan. I come from outside Newtownards, so Ards FC is my home team. That does not mean that I do not support Leicester City; nor does it mean that I do not support Rangers Football Club, which I think the hon. Gentleman said he supports. On a Saturday afternoon, I always look for the three results. I have been a fan of Leicester City for 53 years, and of Rangers and Ards for probably much longer.
Sport gives us an opportunity to come together and unify our enjoyments. I have always been a football supporter—I love the game, played it at school and still follow it—so it saddens me that there are still instances of racism in sport. There is no place whatsoever for racism. I do not care if in some people’s minds it is one small incident; in my mind, it is a big incident of something should never happen. The right hon. Lady should be commended for securing the debate and giving us a chance to add our comments.
We must do more to remind those who want to inflict abuse on others that we are all the same but simply different. We have the same blood in our veins and we were brought up in the same culture. Being of different religions does not make us any different, nor does having different outlooks on life. It does not make a ha’penny-bit of difference, as we would say back home.
I am very pleased to see the Minister in his place. I always genuinely enjoy hearing the Minister and I know he will give us much encouragement in this debate today, because of his nature. I look forward to the other contributions as well.
I said to the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet before the debate that I was going to mention a wee bit about what we have done in Northern Ireland. It is an example of where there are two very different sides of the community, from the Unionist and the nationalist points of view and from a religious point of view as well. I was brought up in the ’60s, so the troubles were very much part of my life. There was maybe a certain sectarianism in football—you supported this team or you supported that team. That is the way it sometimes happened. The Irish Football Association took a decision to address the issue of race and identity from a very early stage. I am sure our very knowledgeable Minister will already know about the excellent work we have been doing in Northern Ireland. We have taken giant steps forward to bridge the gaps and bring the community together.
Northern Ireland youth soccer experienced much racism and hatred at one stage. There is even a short film titled “Where You Really From?” that was released in March this year, which highlights the racism around Northern Irish football. The Irish Football Association has worked extremely hard, as a collective, to create a culture worth celebrating. We must do more to encourage others to take pride in diversity and not abuse others. In Northern Ireland, inclusivity has transcended both sides of the community. We have seen massive steps forward. I put on the record my thanks to the IFA for what it has done at every level of football—the premier league, the intermediate league and the lower leagues and ordinary community football that we all grew up loving and enjoying.
I have no issue with fans having passion when it comes to sport—they should have passion for their team; but they must have respect for the others as well. I recall an incident that occurred in 2020, just after England’s victory against Ukraine in the 2020 Euros. A 17-year-old boy admitted to verbally abusing a Jewish man on the London underground. Sometimes people understand they are wrong, but they still do not take the correct precautions to not say these things. Respect for others is so important, but we live in an era where racial abuse is all too common and young people see it being normalised through social media.
As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said, action needs to be taken not just at our level, but at European football level as well. I think of Hungary, which I mention because that team has some very right-wing fans. I am not saying that people do not have a right to hold right-wing views, but their views are disgraceful—the chants, the verbal abuse and the physical abuse have been outrageous. UEFA’s way of punishing the team was to close the ground, but I will tell hon. Members the best thing to do: they should not be allowed to come to any more football matches—keep them away. That would be a better idea, rather than allowing them to come back again sometime in the future. There is a big job for Europe to do as well.
For decades, there have been multiple instances worldwide of antisemitism in sport. The Anne Frank House works tirelessly to fight the issue—it stems back to as far back as the holocaust—as issues in sport hold a special place in the organisation’s heart. It held an international conference, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Health and held in the Amsterdam Arena. Yet instances of fan interaction have been witnessed in Germany where fans encourage others to remain peaceful. People often underestimate the impact fans can have on football stadiums. Unity is powerful, but it must be the correct type of unity. We can all join together and support our teams, whoever they may be, but we must have respect for others as well.
The Henry Jackson Association has stated that antisemitism has become a blight across the European continent. It certainly has; there are plenty of examples. The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet could have gone on at some length with more examples, if time had permitted. The Premier League only adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism in December 2020. More needs to be done to address this everlasting problem. Only recently, Tottenham’s chairman, Daniel Levy, was subject to antisemitic slurs, which is absolutely disgraceful, and they were not addressed—they were ignored—by the radio presenters. When these things happen, we must condemn them in the strongest terms whenever we can.
The hon. Member for Blackpool South referred to the Israeli flag. I have a small Israeli flag in my office. I keep it there all the time; it never moves because I am a proud supporter of Israel—that is not a secret. I am a member of the Friends of Israel in this place and in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I will continue to take that stance and be that voice for Israel against all the people across the world who do them down. Our modern society must drive for inclusivity at every level, and rightly so. However, on too many occasions, this inclusivity does not extend to our Jewish friends—it extends to my Jewish friends—and society must grasp that. Those Jewish friends are as British as you and I, and that lack of inclusivity needs to be addressed. We need change, and it must begin in this House. Today’s debate is one way of doing that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer, both as a neighbour and an MP covering a large and proud Jewish community. Women and men, girls and boys, northern and southern, blue and red, and religious and non-religious meet arm in arm and stand side by side at our football stadiums, supporting their beloved teams. Communities come together to passionately rally behind their sides in the hope of that everlasting and euphoric victory. There is no feeling quite like it and as a United fan, it has been a while since I have felt that feeling.
We all remember the glorious scenes across the country last summer as that inspiring England team came so close to bringing it home. However, what we saw directed at our three lions, Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho, after the game shows that a serious and worrisome trend continues to infiltrate our games and spread like a poison across our stands. It is the poison of racism, aimed mostly at working-class black lads merely for doing the job they love.
Discrimination wherever it occurs and in whatever format needs to be rooted out and eradicated. If the abuse directed at players on pitches in this country and elsewhere is not stamped out, it will send a worrying message to the next generation of stars and spectators. That is why I was heartened to see the immense courage of Blackpool player Jake Daniels, who recently came out as gay, giving gay players a role model and normalising the fact that football is a game for everyone regardless of sexual orientation.
There is a growing trend of Jews attending games hoping to see their team defend with vigour, but instead finding themselves defending their children from racist vitriol. However, this is news to no one. Everyone knows that antisemitism has haunted the stands of British football for far too long. Antisemitism seems to be a common feature of the sport. While some clubs have shown an increasing commitment to stamping out prejudice and discrimination in their clubs through the adoption of the IHRA definition, as well as Chelsea’s “Say No to Antisemitism” campaign, it seems to have had little traction as of yet.
We see examples of antisemitism in football everywhere. Tottenham Hotspur football club is, of course, home to a large Jewish population, and rival supporters have used the pejorative Y-word, as has already been mentioned, with little consequence for doing so. West Ham fans found themselves banned from attending club games after they sang antisemitic songs on a commercial flight. Arsenal fans spat at Spurs fans that they would be “gassing Jews”. Even at grassroot and junior football, I have heard local reports from Maccabi of their Jewish players—some only seven years of age—being hissed at by players on the opposite side, replicating the noise of the gas chambers. I am sure that we can all agree that is truly shameful, shocking and abhorrent.
This racist abuse is widespread, though, with most Premier League clubs having witnessed antisemitic abuse within the last decade, so I am happy to contribute to the debate to address what has been done and what remains to be done to fight this concerning trend of antisemitism and racism in British football. I am delighted to see that some clubs across the UK have taken steps to combat antisemitic behaviour among their fans as well as among their players. Clubs like Chelsea have recently been in the news for doing just that. Much more needs to be done within football and throughout wider society—indeed, other sports, too, as we saw in cricket with Azeem Rafiq and the Islamophobia that came out just last year.
Sport provides an opportunity to create new friends and be part of a community, and it teaches young people how to co-exist in diverse politics. Sports is an incredibly powerful tool. Football, in particular, reflects society, and that is why I am concerned to see examples of antisemitism during the local elections this year from Conservative candidates in my own area of Bury because, again, antisemitism needs to be rooted out from our stands, society and politics. There is no time or place for it; it has to stop.
We need to do much more to ensure that British football players can play the beautiful game without being subject to unacceptable abuse. We need tougher sanctions against offenders, action by social media companies, better education about the plight of Jews and all other races who find themselves subject to racist attacks, and a zero-tolerance policy that does not allow for repeat offenders, as well as—perhaps—policies that punish offenders retrospectively.
The normalisation of racist abuse is a significant step towards the normalisation of racist attacks. We need to be hard on this issue, otherwise we will bring about a worse situation in which our ethnic minorities are physically abused. Nipping this problem in the bud is the correct course of action in order to get back the community and family feeling at British football games, and to finally give antisemitism the two-footed slide tackle that it deserves.
My hon. Friend mentioned online antisemitism. I am a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Taskforce To Combat Online Antisemitism. We found that popular subjects, such as football and other sports, were being used on social media, for instance in videos, and people included things such as tropes and conspiracy theories to gradually groom and recruit people into the far right and racist gangs. And these practices actually become prevalent in sporting arenas, such as football grounds. Do we not need more to stamp that out online, so that it does not appear in the grounds?
We absolutely need to do that, because if antisemitism and racism are allowed to breed online, it ultimately ends up on the streets, in our football stands and in any sporting arena, as well as—again—in our politics.
The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) who secured this debate spoke about the great work of Lord Mann in tackling this issue. I was very fortunate to speak in a conference in Jerusalem last year about antisemitism and how it is tackled on a global scale. We heard from representatives from Hungary, from Borussia Dortmund and from Chelsea as to how they have seen antisemitism not only grow but start to be tackled. In some stands, we saw swastikas being flown just a couple of years ago, but those clubs are now very family-friendly, because they nipped the problem in the bud and have a zero-tolerance approach. We need to see the same on our online platforms, which is why —again—the Online Safety Bill was a fantastic opportunity. However, it has been a missed opportunity, when so much more could be done to tackle this harmful abuse online.
That is why we really need to tackle this problem. We need to tackle it seriously and make sure that it is banished to where it belongs—in the history books.
Thank you very much for calling me to speak, Mr Stringer.
I start by congratulating the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing today’s important debate, which comes on the 36th anniversary of one of the best moments in Scottish football history—the Diego Maradona ‘Hand of God’ goal in the Mexico 1986 World Cup. [Laughter.] I have lost the room before I have even started.
The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) mentioned in his contribution that we have come a long way and that the racism issue is a lot better than it used to be. Obviously though, it is still a massive issue; hence today’s debate. Only a few years after that goal in 1986, in the early 1990s, I remember that black players who had come up to Scotland—such as Justin Fashanu, who played for Airdrie and Hearts, and Mark Walters, who played for Rangers—were subjected to monkey chants and inflatable bananas were thrown around the crowd, and what-have-you. It was a fully horrible time to witness that behaviour. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman is right that we have made some progress. However, there is still a heck of a lot to do, which I will outline.
The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, who secured the debate and led it off, rightly started by referring to the horrendous racism faced by the England players last year, before going on to focus on antisemitism. She mentioned Nir Bitton, the Celtic player and Israel international, who faced antisemitic abuse following an Old Firm game. Indeed, this happens on the pitch as well. During a European game, Glen Kamara, the Rangers player and Finnish international, faced racist abuse by a player—a Czech player, I think—who was banned for 10 games. That is a rare example of UEFA actually dealing with racism appropriately. I say that because I share the view of the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), who is no longer in her place, who expressed concerns about UEFA’s approach to this issue.
The hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) spoke about David Baddiel’s book, “Jews Don’t Count”, which I have on my reading pile. I have not got round to reading it yet; it is in a pile of about 12 books in my flat. She mentioned the work of Lord Mann; I was pleased to help facilitate a meeting between Lord Mann, a representative of Borussia Dortmund and the Scottish Sports Minister on a recent visit. The hon. Member for Blackpool South, who I have mentioned, spoke of how ingrained the Y-word is in Tottenham. I appreciate his point but I am not entirely sure that historical use is a proper justification for continued use of that word.
The hon. Member for Westminster Hall—sorry, I mean Strangford. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) proudly mentioned that he was an Ards, Leicester and Rangers fan. Indeed, having had conversations with his colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party, I think he perhaps needed to be a Rangers fan to pass the vetting. He has spoken in a number of debates on abuse, particularly abuse of a religious nature, and he has a depth of knowledge and experience, having grown up during the troubles.
My colleague on the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), lost the crowd almost as quickly as I did at the start of my speech by announcing he was a Man United fan. He quite rightly brought up the Blackpool player Jake Daniels, who came out. In 2022, it is actually a disgrace that we have to celebrate these things. It just shows how far we have to go.
Football clubs are hugely important institutions, with vital links to the community and to people across the world. We talk of the power of sport in this country, as I think the hon. Member for Bury South did. For many people, that is football. We have to harness that power a little better than we do. Inclusion and representation matter to promote better values and tolerance of differences that may be seldom understood unless awareness and education is promoted.
Young fans are incredibly impressionable to the behaviour of footballers. I do not know whether this has been mentioned, but a 2018 CNN investigation into antisemitism in Europe found that a third of Europeans in the poll knew little or nothing about the Nazis’ systematic killing of 6 million Jews. A survey carried out on behalf of the Claims Conference 2018 found that 11% of American adults were not sure they had ever even heard of the holocaust. Debates such as this and Holocaust Memorial Day are still massively important. Equality in football is essential, free from discrimination such as antisemitism and other forms of racism.
I should say that I am a St Johnstone fan, although I was brought up by my dad as a Rangers fan, but sent to a Catholic primary school. The west of Scotland is clearly not where the hon. Member for Strangford grew up, but it had—
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing the debate. We have had excellent speeches, from my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) and for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), and across the Chamber.
We agree that football is a game that brings people together. It can break down divides, foster friendships and create a positive sense of community. But a minority of fans bring unacceptable attitudes and language. UK football policing authorities note that there was an increase in hate crime incidents reported in stadiums in the first half of last season. After two incidents in one weekend at the end of the season, the anti-racism charity Kick It Out commented that “hate is alive and well” in the game.
According to a FIFA report, more than half the players in the most recent Euro 2020 and Africa Cup of Nations finals were abused online before, during and after the game. We remember today the appalling reaction from some England fans to England’s loss in the Euro finals and the racist targeting of Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho. We still have a lot to do.
It is important to address antisemitism in the context of a worrying upturn in antisemitic hate crime in the UK. In recent years, as we have heard in this debate, Jewish fans have been abused at matches and Nazi salutes have been used. Antisemitic slurs are still used online in relation to football. Antisemitic chants are still sometimes sung from football stands across Europe. The authorities really need to do more to tackle that. The Antisemitism Policy Trust has documented antisemitic incidents in football internationally, but also highlights good examples of how we can respond.
Chelsea fans have been involved in several incidents of antisemitism, but the club has taken a strong stand and been praised for its response. Last year it won the King David Award from the European Jewish Association. Its “Say No to Antisemitism” campaign has been educating the clubs, players, staff, fans and community about antisemitism and football.
Another club taking action is, of course, Tottenham. This year the club urged supporters to move on from using the Y-word after consultation with fans and Jewish groups. I recently met Ashley Lerner, the chief executive of Maccabi GB—and a Spurs fan—to discuss this issue among others. Maccabi is an excellent charity that promotes British Jews’ health, wellbeing and participation in sport. The history of the Y-word at Spurs is complex. I used to go and watch Man City at White Hart Lane in the ’80s, and Spurs fans used to use the term to take ownership and as a badge of pride. However, times and attitudes change. While not all Jewish Spurs fans find the word offensive, it is widely regarded as an antisemitic slur and the majority of those surveyed by Spurs agreed it was a racist word. We support the club’s efforts to ditch the Y-word.
There are good initiatives to tackle racism more widely, such as Kick It Out, as I have mentioned. In 2020 the Football Association launched its football leadership diversity code. Last year the Premier League launched its “No room for racism” action plan, which accompanies a new equality, diversity and inclusion standard that has been applied to all clubs. These are all steps in the right direction. The fan-led review of football governance proposes an independent regulator, which Labour wants to see in place as soon as possible, that can set clear equality, diversity and inclusion standards that clubs must meet as part of their licensing conditions. However, we will not have an independent regulator until 2024 at the earliest, so what action can the Government take now to ensure that football improves efforts to tackle discrimination?
I want to mention Baroness Casey’s review of the chaos at the Euro 2020 men’s finals at Wembley. She highlighted the unacceptable racist actions of some of those present, as well as online after the match, and called for more action. Her review, published last December, highlights some pressing issues on safety. When will the Government respond to her review?
Finally, Labour welcomes the fact that football banning orders have been extended to those who carry out online racist abuse. However, can the Minister say what conversations he is having with clubs and governing bodies about tackling the rising trend of hate crimes in stadiums? All Members present agree that antisemitism and racism have no place in our society, and they should have no place in football. We must redouble our efforts to kick them out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for securing this important debate and all those who have participated. There is a very clear message coming from this Chamber today; it is clear from my right hon. Friend’s comments—and those of all Members who have spoken—that we all share the view that it is of the utmost importance to continue tackling the issues of antisemitism and racism in football, in sport and, indeed, in society.
That is why the Government and its arm’s length bodies, Sport England and UK Sport, have worked closely with football authorities and the sector to ensure that tackling all forms of racism and discrimination remains a priority. I am personally committed to this, as I want sport to be welcoming to everyone and a true reflection of our diverse society. It is therefore particularly disappointing to have this debate about racism, discrimination and antisemitism in football, because it is one of our most diverse sports. Indeed, many of our highest-profile stars are from ethnically diverse backgrounds.
However, as we have seen in the media and online over the past few years, there have been continued incidents of discrimination at and around football matches. Over the past year, incidents have been recorded of antisemitism and of Jewish fans being abused in the UK and across Europe. My right hon. Friend gave a rather alarming list of such incidents. Many colleagues today have mentioned the Euro 2020 finals, after which there was an increase in online abuse, in particular, and racism, indicating that this remains a serious issue in football. Over the past few years we have continued to work with football authorities to try to tackle the issue, but so much more needs to be done.
What has been done? There have been actions targeted at and around football grounds, such as improving reporting systems, providing better training and support for referees and stewards, who are often abused themselves, and improving the quality of CCTV and other equipment around stadiums. One significant action was the Government amending legislation to extend the use of football banning orders so that online abusers can be banned from stadiums for up to 10 years, ensuring that action is being taken both online and offline.
As my right hon. Friend and other Members mentioned, we hope that the Online Safety Bill, currently going through Parliament, will also help to tackle some of these issues. One thing that I think we all find quite alarming is this. Abuse, including online abuse, is against the terms and conditions of social media companies already. The problem is that they are not always able or, I am afraid, willing to implement their own terms and conditions. That is one reason why we had to bring in that Bill.
As the national governing body for football, the FA has a responsibility to address all forms of discrimination in the game. Of course, that includes antisemitism, and I know that this is something that it does take seriously. Last year, as the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) and others mentioned, the FA and the English Football League joined the Premier League in adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. That provides clear and united guidance across football on what language or actions may be considered antisemitic. The FA has issued fines and bans to players found guilty of antisemitic behaviour. It also works closely with independent bodies, such as Kick It Out, to use the vast reach of football to help educate people, in an effort to wipe out antisemitism.
Mercifully, I am not aware of any publicly known antisemitism regarding Woking football club and similar clubs in the locality, but in 2017 there was a small graffiti war, played out on walls and garage doors in Woking, that contained a lot of antisemitism, and that was from rival Polish football fans. As well as attacking things domestically, will we use our positions in UEFA and FIFA—we have a World cup coming—to ensure that the IHRA definition is also imposed internationally and that our international friends also take this matter really seriously?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, we do try, both as a Government and in the sporting bodies and entities whose voice carries a lot of weight internationally. The UK sport bodies are generally quite highly regarded and respected and show great leadership on these issues. I would certainly encourage them to continue those conversations and that dialogue with the international bodies, so that they follow the leadership that is sometimes shown in the UK. When I meet Sport Ministers from the G20 and the G7 around the world, these are precisely the kinds of issues that we raise. I am sorry to hear about the incident that my hon. Friend became aware of.
Other bodies are working on this issue too. An example is the Premier League. We welcome the Premier League’s No Room For Racism action plan and the announcement of new enhanced anti-discrimination measures such as league-wide bans for offenders. In June 2020, the league launched a dedicated reporting system for players, managers, coaches and their family members, which has proven successful in pursuing legal action against offenders.
I think that this is an important point to emphasise—my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet mentioned it in her speech. This offence and abuse can be a hate crime, which is illegal, and can be and often is pursued in the courts. It is not banter; it is not something to be taken trivially. It can and should lead to pursuits in the courts. The Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), also made the important point that times change and attitudes change, and it is not really an excuse to say, “Oh, well, we used to do this in the past.” My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) also raised this issue. What was perhaps not intended or perceived to be offensive in the past can be now.
We need to be very conscious of the difference between intent in using certain words and behaviours, and the impact that it has on people. I think that is very important in this debate as well. Even where action may not be intended to be abusive or offensive, the reality is that it can be, and there is a responsibility on individuals, governing bodies and clubs to communicate that it can be and is offensive to their fanbase.
We know that there is still a lot more to do across football as a whole. The fan-led review of football governance, which the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington mentioned, recommended that the football authorities work even more closely to ensure consistent campaigns across the various organisations. The Government are pleased that the Premier League, the FA and the EFL have agreed to collaborate on an overarching campaign for equality, diversity and inclusion across football, with Kick It Out. As suggested by the review, we will explore a new, single repository for reports of discrimination—more on this will likely be coming in the White Paper in the coming months. The Government will continue to work closely with all football authorities on this issue.
We know that it is not only football that is facing these challenges. In June 2021, Sport England, UK Sport and the other home nations’ sports councils all published the results of a detailed, independent review of tackling racism and racial inequality in sport. The review brought together data and gathered lived experiences of racial inequalities and racism in the sector. The findings make it clear that racism and racial inequalities still exist within sport in the UK. The sports councils agreed on a set of overarching commitments, and they will work together. Updates on progress are being provided every six months, and I am keen to ensure that this momentum is sustained over the long term.
The updated code places an increased focus on diversity in decision making and ensuring that sports organisations reflect more accurately the communities they serve. The code now requires sports organisations to produce individual diversity and inclusion plans. These have to be agreed by Sport England and/or UK Sport, they have to be published, and they have to be updated annually, so there is positive action there. Diversity and inclusion is absolutely essential to sport. We want people to enjoy taking part in their chosen activity, and we want to attract and retain talented athletes from all backgrounds. That cannot happen if people do not feel welcomed or respected.
Let me briefly address a couple of other points raised by colleagues before I conclude. A couple of hon. Members raised the issue of penalties, particularly in international competitions. That is an important point and again one that we discuss, because penalties for bad behaviour by fans are the responsibility of the clubs. The clubs need to be punished accordingly, and that punishment needs to be effective and needs to hurt. I will always back what some might see as quite tough punishment, but it is needed because we need to take these issues seriously and take every action to make sure the clubs take it seriously.
It should go without saying that there is no place for racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other kind of discrimination in football or sport more widely. We have heard that loud and clear from all colleagues today. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet has raised many important points, and I sincerely thank her for her interest and passion in this subject. Indeed, it is something that she has spoken about eloquently for many, many years. There is still more to do, but she has my assurance that the Government are committed to continuing to work with football authorities to combat racism, discrimination and antisemitism, both in person and online, from the grassroots to the boardroom.
This has been a really good debate. There was, I think, universal acceptance that the situation is much improved from the dark days of the ’70s, but also that antisemitism and racism is still a serious problem in football, and that we want the football establishment to take it more seriously and to be more active in dealing with the problem, not least because it is so influential on the younger generation.
We also had a chance to look at the particular complexities of the situation at Spurs. It was disturbing to hear of the abuse directed at supporters of that club. We also heard from the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) about the role of international footballing associations in cracking down on this problem. I welcome the Minister’s assurances that the Online Safety Bill will crack down on the social media companies to ensure that they take this more seriously and police their own terms and conditions.
But what I was most disturbed by was the example cited by the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford). The idea of people making hissing noises at seven-year-old Jewish footballers is just revolting. It is profoundly disturbing and is a real illustration of how antisemitism remains a serious problem in football in our society. I am pleased to have had the chance to table this debate to ensure that we as a House make it clear that this kind of conduct is utterly and completely unacceptable.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered antisemitism and other forms of racism in football.