Tuesday 25 October 2022
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
Baby Loss and Safe Staffing in Maternity Care
I beg to move,
That this House has considered baby loss and safe staffing in maternity care.
I am honoured to begin this important Baby Loss Awareness Week debate about safe staffing in maternity care, which is imperative. I speak today as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on maternity, but also as the mother of three children. I also speak today because of my three very different pregnancy and birthing experiences, which for me highlight the impact of different staffing approaches on pregnant women.
I lost my first baby in the very early weeks of pregnancy, and I was told by a very kindly midwife that sometimes you have to lose a baby to ripen the womb. This made me feel dreadful. I fought very hard not to grieve openly for that loss, because I felt guilty that I should not. Forgive me: I am full of cold and dosed up, so I will get very emotional.
My first experience of birth 30 years ago was, as it is for many first-time mothers, a long and painful labour. I was persuaded to have an epidural; I think the words were, “You need Slick; he’s very good. Call for Slick.” When it is your first baby, you do not know how labour should feel. You think, “It’s worse for me than everybody else, because I am in so much pain.” So I took the epidural. I was then left for long periods without being checked. There were not many staff on the labour ward that night, and I was in a room on my own with my husband. I was told that when I got nearer they would remove the epidural, because I would need to push.
Sadly, but thankfully, it was only when, unbeknown to me, my son was crowning and in distress that the midwife happened to look in for a check. I had to have an emergency episiotomy and an emergency forceps delivery, which resulted in me having a really severe post-partum haemorrhage, and I nearly died. I remember looking at my new baby in the arms of his father and thinking, “They’re safe; I can go now,” and then I blacked out.
My second son was an extremely large baby, at almost 11 lb, but this was not picked up and he basically got stuck—
He was a whopper; he still is a whopper. It caused long-term damage to my pelvis but, worse, he has had to battle his entire life with learning difficulties caused by a lack of oxygen at his birth. He was a floppy, quiet baby, and at 18 months he was diagnosed with, among other things, hypertonia. All his development was delayed, and he did not walk or speak until he was nearly two. I worked with him, and I am so proud that he kept battling on learning how to learn. Today, at 27 years old, he is training to be a nurse. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
It was only during my third pregnancy that I experienced continuity of care, which was wonderful. The ability to build a relationship with my midwife, who stayed with me throughout my pregnancy, labour and beyond, was invaluable. I did not have to go through my story with new people all the time and had someone I came to know and trust by my side. I was lucky enough to experience that and wish more women had that chance.
Despite the benefits of continuity of care, I look back on the pregnancy and birth of my daughter with mixed emotions, because there should have been two of them. Very early in that pregnancy I again started to bleed. I bled with my first son and ended up spending a week in hospital, with people saying to me, “Don’t worry, it’s very early on; you’ll have another baby.” I lay still for a week, I did not breathe, and I kept him. But this time I started to bleed again, and I miscarried my daughter’s twin. I did not know how to feel or how to grieve, while having to put all my efforts into sustaining my pregnancy, fearful every day that I would lose the baby I still carried. I was lucky that my beautiful daughter was born safe and healthy, but that loss never goes away. With each milestone, I reflect on how they should be celebrating together. There should be two of them.
Grab a breath for a second. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing forward this vital debate. The House is joined with her in supporting the cause that she is espousing. Does she agree with me—this is something that I certainly have suffered from—that the concept of the take-home child is something we all need to come to terms with? I have had three children, but I have been able to take only one home. For my hon. Friend, it is unquestionably the case that she loves and adores her daughter, but never forgets those who came along with her but did not make it in the end. Is that a fair description of the situation?
It is, Guy. Now you have made me feel more upset.
I was trying to help!
You have done. Yes, that loss never goes away. I still feel guilty, because it was so early; I did not go through what people such as my hon. Friend have gone through.
I thank the hon. Lady for sharing her deeply personal and emotional story. I want to place on the record my thanks to Alex Walmsley in my constituency, who recently won a BBC Radio Leeds “Make a Difference” award for founding Sands United West Yorkshire, a football team that provides peer support for men affected by baby loss. We often tend to focus on the women, but it is really important that we talk about the fathers who have suffered that loss as well. Does the hon. Lady agree that keeping open local maternity units, such as the Brontë birth centre in my constituency at Dewsbury and District Hospital, is essential to maintaining safe and quick access to maternity services for our communities?
I agree that local maternity services— I have the Rowan suite in Hartlepool—are invaluable, because the midwives know their community. They know the women—they are often friends with the mother or an aunt—and that gives them the feeling that people are listening all the time. It is also important that we get midwives trained in bereavement care. I wonder how that kind of care and intervention may have impacted my experience and helped me to cope with emotions of guilt and loss while still allowing myself to feel joy for the life that I had brought into the world in my daughter.
Sadly, experiences 25 years on from mine have not got any better. I am proud to be here today to speak on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory)—my friend and colleague—who, as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss, has told us all of her own recent terrible experience of baby loss. We have just had the publication of the Kent report, which details 200 incidents at hospitals in Margate and Ashford. Baby loss still happens all too often. We simply need more midwives so that they can feel confident that they are providing the very best care they can to all mothers. As noted in the Ockenden report, it is not just about safer staffing levels: it is about quality care. We need more trained bereavement specialist midwives.
I had not intended to intervene, because I have to leave the debate, but my hon. Friend mentioned the Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother Hospital; as the constituency MP, may I place on the record my concern, and the fact that we are pursuing with vigour—and I mean with vigour—every angle to ensure that what happened there never happens again?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. I am reassured that everybody involved in that case is working hard to put things right.
I am regularly in contact with the wonderful staff at the Rowan suite in Hartlepool. They, too, advocate for the importance of bereavement care for grieving parents. The reality is that bereavement specialists have on average just two hours of working time to dedicate to each baby death. That is simply not enough. I have heard from bereavement midwives who are left having to choose which parents they go to. There are simply not enough of those midwives to go round. Parents who were so full of hope hours earlier are left alone, suffering the rollercoaster of grief that fills the inevitable void from losing a pregnancy or a baby. Expert, kind and understanding support is vital at that terrible time.
I have also met representatives of Sands, one of the many great charities that work in this important area. They have told me that cases of stillbirth in England and Wales rose in 2021 for the first time in seven years. That reflects the experiences of mothers who contacted Mumsnet to say that during covid most of their maternity appointments were cancelled. Mumsnet contacted me to share those mothers’ stories. One mother said that her previous history and notes were ignored and that a previous condition she had suffered from escalated and caused unnecessary complications. She felt that was due to bad organisation, shortages, funding cuts and bad management during covid, which left the delivery unit at her local hospital dangerously understaffed on the night her daughter was born.
I have three asks of my hon. Friend the Minister. Covid is largely behind us, but maternity staff are still exhausted from that time, and 13 babies are stillborn or die shortly after birth every day. Will the Minister please tell us what steps the Government are taking to ensure the 2025 ambition announced by the Health Secretary in 2017 to halve stillbirth and neonatal death rates?
The joint meetings of the APPGs on maternity and baby loss have listened to evidence and stories from multiple women and agencies, and we have commissioned a report with Sands and the Royal College of Midwives. We want to ask the Minister whether she will commit to increasing investment in maternity services and fulfilling the shortfall of 2,000 midwives and 500 consultant gynaecologists and obstetricians. We need more and, sadly, it is becoming harder to retain staff because they are burnt out from the effects of staffing shortages. It is a vicious cycle.
I pay tribute to the way in which the hon. Lady has opened and framed this debate. I speak as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on premature and sick babies and I absolutely agree with the points she is making. Will she go slightly further and ask the Government to consider amending the shortage occupation list so that we can attract more people to come here and fill those roles? We all know a massive timebomb is coming down the line in terms of the neonatal workforce and those on maternity wards.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Sadly, that is not a matter for me as I am not a Minister; it will be for the Minister to reply to that.
Will the Minister look at training more bereavement midwives? Sands has developed the national bereavement care pathway, which provides the framework and tools to ensure that all health professionals are adequately equipped to provide the standard of bereavement care so sorely needed during the immediate aftermath of pregnancy or baby loss. That would prevent women like me, 30 years on, from hearing those same lines; health professionals would understand that, kind as they are meant, they do not help in the long term.
I thank my very good friend for her work on this issue. On the point about discrepancy, in my constituency a baby died—it was negligence—and the mother was sent home with four leaflets and never contacted again by the hospital. By contrast, my very best friend lost her baby at nine months in January—as Members can see, we all grieve when we lose someone that close to us—and she had phenomenal care from Tommy’s. Will my hon. Friend press the Minister to do all she can to ensure that there are national guidelines against which the NHS is held to account, monitored and graded for how it provides bereavement care?
I thank my hon. Friend; she must not apologise because obviously this issue is very close to us all. We feel very deeply for all mothers who lose. That is one thing that I wish to ask the Minister to do: will she ask the Government to mandate the national bereavement care pathway so that it is nationwide? Although 105 trusts are already formally committed to rolling it out, they need the additional funding to fully implement all the standards of the NBCP. It is no good just taking part of it; we need it all in place and all midwives need to have that training. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that all trusts can implement this vital support service?
Those are the three big asks. I know they are big, that times are not great and that there are not funds, but this is such a vital policy area and so much long-term pain could be caused. I thank Members for their time.
Order. Given the number of Members who wish to speak, I have to impose an immediate four-minute time limit. We need to get to the Front Benchers no later than 10.30.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) for securing this important debate and for speaking so movingly about her experience.
I draw Members’ attention to the fact that I am the vice-chair of the APPG on baby loss and a member of the APPG on maternity. I joined those APPGs shortly after my election last December because in Shropshire the issue of avoidable baby loss is extremely raw. Although neither of the Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Trust hospitals are located in my constituency, the vast majority of families in North Shropshire welcome their new arrivals in one of those maternity wards.
I did not have my baby in Shropshire as I lived in Buckinghamshire at the time. When he arrived in 2009 by emergency caesarean, making his feelings about the indignity of the situation known to everyone in the theatre at an enormously high volume, I never once worried that either of us were likely to be unsafe. The idea that things might go tragically wrong did not even cross my mind. Although the birth of my baby did not go to plan, I felt brilliantly cared for at all times. When I moved to Shropshire four years later, I realised that, tragically, that is not always the case. Friends with experiences similar to mine told of near misses, blue babies being resuscitated and long stays in special care baby units. A close friend told me she did not realise until many years later that flashbacks to the trauma of the birth were not normal.
We now know, thanks to the bravery of many families and the detailed review of Donna Ockenden and her team, that there were serious and systemic failings at Shrewsbury and Telford over a long period of time. The tragic stories include those of constituents and personal friends. I know of many other women who did not come forward, either because their baby did not suffer any long-term consequences or they did not want to revisit painful tragedies. It sometimes seems that everyone of my age in Shropshire knows a family who lost a baby.
The causes are multiple and this is not the time to discuss them, but safe staffing was fundamental in that tragedy. In the executive summary to the report, Donna Ockenden states:
“It is absolutely clear that there is an urgent need for a robust and funded maternity-wide workforce plan, starting right now, without delay and continuing over multiple years.”
The APPG’s report on staffing shortages found that hospital staff feel that post-natal care has suffered the most from cuts, with most aftercare being devolved to healthcare workers who do not hold the same level of qualification as a midwife. That will impact on the health of mother and baby—for example, if they do not have access to breastfeeding support because resources are stretched too thin. Does the hon. Member agree that post-natal care needs urgent attention?
I agree. Many of us have experience of less than brilliant post-natal care, and the staff shortages are well documented. The Health and Social Care Committee report recommendation that £200 million to £350 million a year is required to be invested immediately in maternity services speaks to that issue. On Wednesday 30 March, the then Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), confirmed that £222 million had already been committed but was not guaranteed for the future, although he would keep it under review. That was two Health Secretaries ago.
On 1 September, the next Health Secretary argued that, given how stretched the NHS was, services such as maternity might no longer be a priority. I seek reassurance from the Minister that that is not the case. Maternity services have been treated as a Cinderella service for years and we have been left with shocking scandal after shocking scandal, with thousands of families devastated by poor care at a time when they were supposed to be at their happiest. I am at a loss to understand the deprioritising of maternity services—the one service that every one of us will need at least once in our lives.
The workforce gap of 2,000 midwives and 500 new consultants has been referred to, but it is estimated that nearly 700 midwives have left the profession in the past year, and eight out of 10 report that they do not have enough staff on their shift to provide a safe service. Will the Minister commit to increasing funding to meet the £200 million to £350 million-a-year recommendation, for a specified period of time, and to developing a fully costed, multi-year workforce plan?
The safe staffing report produced by the baby loss and maternity APPGs, on which I serve, has already been referred to. I draw particular attention to the need for more bereavement midwives. The pressure and increased likelihood of failure, and the sheer exhaustion that overworked maternity staff feel, must be a cause of some of the other issues we have seen at Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Trust, and at the other trusts that face challenges.
Shropshire is not the only area of the country to have suffered a crisis in its maternity services, with Morecambe Bay, East Kent and Nottingham all facing serious issues. Far too many families have faced tragedy. I ask the Minister to ensure that their experiences are not in vain, and that the Government will act on unsafe staffing.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) for bringing forward this debate. This is my first Westminster Hall speech in seven and half years; it is an honour and a privilege to speak on such an important matter.
I have had three children, but was able to take only one home from hospital. Teddy and Rafe came and went in the summer of 2020—briefly—and were loved all too shortly. I welcome the work led by the teams at Oxford and Leicester to ensure that there is clear advice to support health professionals in assessing and documenting signs of life in extremely difficult pre-term births. That is what I want to focus on.
I should put on the record, as I am sure many will, the amazing charities such as Sands and others who work in this sphere and who have helped me get over the trauma, loss and bereavement, as have the Northumbria NHS trust in my constituency and St Thomas’s, where my children were born. I thank my constituent, Sarah Richardson, and all the teams at Hexham Queen’s Hall and Hexham Abbey for their support for baby loss awareness.
Consistency across the NHS is key. People will lose children; that is a fact of life. Pregnancy is, as we all discover, more complicated than we imagined it would be—even in 2022. There is work to be done on the improvement of midwives and maternity staffing levels, but the key for me is a consistent approach across all NHS trusts up and down the country. Why does that matter? Because there should not be a postcode lottery in which a parent in trust A is treated differently from a parent in trust B, and poor souls go on the internet and find out that in trust A they would have been treated in one way, but in trust B in another way.
We all have to accept that mistakes are made and that giving birth is a fragile process, but we should expect the NHS and our Government to promote consistency of approach in dealing with the individual issues that mums and dads have.
Does the hon. Member agree with me that the principle that he correctly outlines should also apply to the nations of the United Kingdom, and that equality of service should apply right across Great Britain?
It is a perfectly fair point that there is a difference of approach in the different countries of the great United Kingdom, and I utterly agree that if someone lives in the United Kingdom, they should have a consistency of approach. There should be a coming together of the various professional boards to drive forward consistent standards. I will give one specific example.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
My hon. Friend will take my time, but I will give way very briefly.
Before it even gets to treatment, a big problem is the way we assess the safety of a pregnancy, which is the same as it was in the 1960s. It has not changed. There is a new AI programme—the Tommy’s app—that could be rolled out across the entire country to ensure that technology is used to assess the vulnerability of pregnancies. Does my hon. Friend agree that that sort of tool is what we need rolled out to ensure consistency of diagnosis and safety in pregnancy, and not just treatment?
I endorse what my hon. Friend says. It helps doctors. Doctors and midwives are not the villains here; they all try very, very hard. It is easy for politicians to say, “This trust is not doing the right thing,” or, “This team is not doing the right thing,” but that is genuinely unfair. We have to shy away from being so critical.
This is about trying to provide the cover and approach so that clinicians are better able to deal with particular scenarios and situations. That is genuinely possible. There is good evidence that, on occasion, parents have been told that their child was stillborn when it should have been determined to be a neonatal death. That has consequences, because, as some will know, coroners can investigate neonatal deaths but not stillbirths. There is some evidence—only some; this is very much anecdotal and I do not want to start hares running—that a trust seeking to improve its figures would say that more births were stillbirths rather than neonatal deaths.
We have to be honest about the process and start from a position of generosity of spirit towards the doctors and clinicians who all try their hardest. If nothing else emerges out of today, driving forward a consistency of standards on how deaths are treated is vital.
I have one final comment. My second child came and went in one very long day at St Thomas’s, over the road from this place. The fact that his was a neonatal death meant that the trust attempted to save his life for a period of time and we were able to spend time with him, which is something that I will always treasure.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I recognise that health is devolved to the Scottish Government but, with your permission, I will give a cautionary tale.
Some years ago, we enjoyed a consultant-led maternity service based in Caithness General Hospital in Wick, but NHS Highland decided to downgrade it. The consequence is that pregnant mothers now have to travel 104 miles from Wick to Inverness to give birth to their children, which has caused a huge outcry in my constituency. Thinking about the north of Scotland, Members can imagine what it is like to be in an ambulance or a private car in the winter when the weather changes, which it very often does between Caithness and Sutherland, and people get caught in snowdrifts. Despite repeated demands, the Scottish Government have never conducted a safety audit of the huge change in the service. It is a massive issue in my constituency.
More recently, the NHS decided to similarly downgrade the maternity service based in a town with which the Minister and I are equally familiar—Dr Gray’s Hospital in Elgin. There was a huge outcry about that, and this time the Scottish Government said, “Okay, we’ll review the decision.” My first point is that wherever someone lives in Britain, what is good for the goose is good for the gander.
I will close—I will make it easier for you, Mr Davies, by keeping this a short speech—with two unfortunate tales. In 2019, a mother from Caithness expecting twins was being transported on the long journey to Inverness. As I say, it is 104 miles, as opposed to the distance between Elgin and Inverness, which is 38 miles, and I do not know why they are doing it for Elgin and not for the highlands. In Golspie in Sutherland, she gave birth to her first twin and then had to travel 52 miles to Inverness to give birth to the second twin. Miraculously, both children survived, as did the mother, but if that is not harrowing for an expectant mother, I do not know what is.
In the last few days, we have heard the terrible tale of a couple having to leave from the far north in their own car after the mother’s waters had broken. It was a three-hour journey. Recently, the Public Services Ombudsman ruled that her child suffered brain damage as a result. Can you imagine? Consequently, NHS Highland has been ordered to apologise. In my book, I do not think an apology is good enough. It is a cautionary tale. I recognise that health is devolved, but I feel very strongly that no mother, father, child or unborn baby should suffer increased risk simply because of where they live in our United Kingdom.
I could not, and I certainly do not, seek to compete with the personal testimonies of my hon. Friends the Members for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman). As Members know, I have been around for a while in this place. We sit through many harrowing and poignant debates, but none has been more emotional and more emotive than those that we have traditionally had to commemorate Baby Loss Awareness Week, and today is another example of that. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool for securing the debate, and to our colleagues for bravely coming forward with their personal testimonies, which make this problem so real. Understanding it is so important for our constituents.
I was lucky with my three children. I did not have to go through the traumas that we have heard about, but so many people do. Despite all the terrible news that we have heard recently, it is worth noting that maternity services in this country are still safe and that the infant mortality rate has fallen to a historic low. However, we are still 19th out of 28 European countries for mortality rates. The ethnic and regional variations in this country are still a disgrace, and those infant mortality rates do not take account of stillbirths. There are 13 stillbirths a day. No doubt lockdown has made the situation worse.
I want to focus briefly on stillbirth. Stillbirth is 15 times more common than cot death. I concentrate on it, because I have been campaigning on it for many years. My Civil Partnerships, Marriages, Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019 became law in February 2019. Two of its clauses have taken effect; two have not, and those two are to do with stillbirth. I should not have to discuss this today, because those clauses should have taken effect. My Act gave powers to the Secretary of State for Justice to amend the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 so that coroners had the power to investigate stillbirths. They do not have those powers, because coroners can only investigate the body of a deceased person and a stillbirth is not designated as a deceased person. That is a technical, historical situation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham talked about some infant deaths being described as stillbirths. Given those occurrences, rare though they may be, we have heard stories and The Daily Telegraph ran a campaign recently showing that this issue is still a problem. Given the scandals of East Kent, Shrewsbury and Telford, and Morecambe Bay, we need more than ever the reassurance that the coroner has the ability, if he or she chooses, in a limited number of cases, to investigate whether a stillbirth was a result of mismanagement or incompetence or whatever. Parents need that reassurance, and we could all learn from such cases. This measure must come into force, three and a half years after the legislation that enabled it to do so.
My Act included another clause, which was about recognising stillbirths that take place before 24 weeks but are not designated as ever happening. A panel was set up to look at that back in 2018. I was a member of that panel. It has still not reported; no conclusions have come forward. The Act made it necessary for those conclusions to come forward. Could we at last get on with this important legislation? We all agreed that it was necessary and it was passed unanimously through this Parliament.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) for bringing this important debate to Westminster Hall and for bravely sharing her experience. I also thank the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman). Sharing these experiences is what makes this House real to people. I know it is difficult to do so.
Today, I want to concentrate not on healthcare, which is devolved in Scotland, but on the professionals. Through my work in the APPG and on the Miscarriage Leave Bill, many have written to me to express their concerns and fears about returning to work after their own personal experiences of pregnancy loss. A swathe of healthcare professionals working in healthcare settings each and every day experience pregnancy loss themselves, and then return to work quite soon after to help to deliver another couple’s baby. It must truly be one of the most traumatic and devastating experiences to have to return to work after pregnancy loss, for anyone, but it must be especially devastating for these healthcare professionals.
Much of this debate is about safe staffing, and rightly so, because there is no more vulnerable time for any parent than through the pregnancy and at the birth of their own child. It is a time of fear and apprehension; a time when people ultimately place all of their trust and faith in healthcare professionals. I cannot imagine how triggering it must be for those healthcare professionals who have to return to work each and every day, and experience their own trauma time and again while supporting other parents to have their happy ever after. For some, that is not possible, which just reopens the trauma for those healthcare professionals.
The loss of a baby at any stage can be truly devastating for anyone, in any profession. That is why I have pushed repeatedly in the House for a basic minimum of three paid days leave for any individual who experiences pregnancy loss. Many people in this House have bravely shared their experiences. I do not particularly wish to go into each individual experience, but sharing experiences is so important because it reminds people that we are individuals, that we are human, and that we ourselves have an understanding of the pain and grief that come with pregnancy loss.
The Minister will no doubt tell me that there is provision for parents who experience pregnancy loss before 24 weeks in the form of sick leave, unpaid leave and other vehicles, but the fact is that there is no statutory provision. Last week, I met with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which informed me that, thankfully, there are whole sectors and industries that are introducing pregnancy loss policies. Sadly, however, no healthcare professions were among the list of organisations that are introducing such policies.
It is imperative that, regardless of sector or industry, when someone experiences pregnancy loss—there is no provision in law before 24 weeks—they are at least recognised and supported on their return to the workplace. The sad fact is that, for healthcare professionals, that is not the case. A third of employers say that they do not have a formal policy, and the CIPD notes that most smaller businesses feel that a formal policy is a luxury that they cannot afford. Without statutory provision, and without implementation in the healthcare profession itself, the reality is that day in, day out, more individuals will experience pregnancy loss and will have to return to work without the recognition of that loss. That is simply too much; it is simply a tragedy.
Order. I am sorry to cut the hon. Lady off during her speech.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) for securing the debate, and for her emotional and eloquent speech. She is an asset to the House. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who spoke passionately about his story, of which I was aware; whether intentionally or not, he highlighted the need for support also for the fathers who go through baby loss. I thank him for his bravery. It is always humbling and a privilege to follow so many emotional contributions. We remember all the babies who were sadly taken too soon. They will always be loved, and never be forgotten.
Every year, stillbirths, neonatal deaths and miscarriages devastate about 3,500 parents. In the west midlands, where I am based, there are about 5.3 deaths per 1,000 live births. Among people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, that figure is 6.4 deaths per every 1,000. The theme of this year’s Baby Loss Awareness Week is stepping stones, which focuses on parents’ difficult journey to recovery. It is important to provide focused support, and the Government have taken some action through the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018 and the extra £127 million for the NHS. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool made an appropriate call for further support. I am particularly taken by the idea of a national pathway, which would provide consistency and avoid a postcode lottery. That certainly merits further discussion.
I pay tribute to charities such as Sands, the Lullaby Trust, Abbie’s Fund and Tommy’s, which clearly do an immense amount of work. However, I pay specific tribute to the Lily Mae Foundation, which is based in my constituency. Just a week and a half ago, it celebrated its 10-year anniversary. Ryan and Amy Jackson lost Lily Mae on 7 February 2010, but they took that tragedy and loss and turned it into something good for people who go through similar experiences. The charity supports parents. It has distributed over 4,000 memory boxes and organises the Balsall Common fun run. Amy also provides one-to-one support. The charity has already supported over 1,000 parents. It also organises an annual skydive, which I have now committed to doing next year. I have not yet told my Whips, but I assure them that it is very much in my interest that I land safely and avoid a by-election at all costs. Will the Minister join me? I put that request on the record.
I am conscious of time, so I have some simple requests of the Minister. I ask her to recognise the support for charities such as Lily Mae, and the invaluable role they play in supporting parents and alleviating pressures on the national health service. I ask her to consider what further support can be given to those organisations.
I am keen to advocate for support for the roll-out of bereavement suites. Before I came to this place, while I was president of the chamber of commerce, I saw a bereavement suite in Birmingham Children’s Hospital. Magnolia House plays an immense role in providing a safe space for parents to process news or spend time with their children in their final hours. A lot of thought goes into it, from the wallpaper to the cups those parents hold.
Finally, I pay tribute to all the fantastic midwives, obstetricians, gynaecologists and grief counsellors for the immense work they do. They do an amazing job. I simply thank them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) for securing today’s important debate and speaking with such bravery. I also thank colleagues from the APPG for producing such an illuminating report, which looks beyond the stats and figures, and shines a much-needed light on the impact of staffing shortages in maternity settings.
Earlier this year, I met midwives in my own constituency, and what they had to say was deeply upsetting. They told me that they were in crisis, could not cope with the conditions, and felt burnt out, underpaid, undervalued and ignored. However, at the top of their list of concerns were the repercussions that that environment had on their ability to do their job. They described the constant stress of feeling unable to provide the quality of care they wanted to and that patients deserve, and spoke about the pressure they felt to take on extra shifts, knowing that if they did not, they would be leaving colleagues to suffer or, in the worst cases, patients in crisis.
My hon. Friend is making an important point, which is reflected in some of the conversations that I have had with people working in maternity services. I am sure she will be aware that we have lost 500 midwives from the NHS in England over the last year. Does she agree that it is important that the Government come forward, as a matter of urgency, with a plan to address this staffing shortage crisis?
I completely agree. The picture is the same up and down the country. Last year, the Royal College of Midwives warned of an “exodus”, as more than half of midwives surveyed said they would consider quitting their jobs. The result is that two thirds of midwives are unsatisfied with the quality of care that they are able to deliver. That is a bleak picture.
The solutions are quite simple: a proper workforce plan, pay that midwives can live off, conditions that do not drive them to burn out, and increased training opportunities for both new midwives and nurses wanting to convert to midwifery. Midwives across the country are calling for change, so I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the report. For the sake of midwives in my constituency and patients across the country, I hope she will commit to taking on board the recommendations.
Two years ago, during a Westminster Hall debate on baby loss, I was inspired by the brave Members around me to speak publicly for the first time about my own experience of miscarriage. I am glad to see the progress that has been made since then, and I put on record my huge appreciation to the campaigners and individuals who have worked tirelessly to achieve that, from Tommy’s and Sands to the campaigner Myleene Klass, who I have been working with. However, for the one in five women who will experience a miscarriage, not enough has changed. The support they receive is still not consistent nationally. Women must still experience three miscarriages in a row before they can access support and tests to find out what is causing the loss, and national miscarriage figures are still not recorded.
Just last week, I spoke to a constituent who has experienced three miscarriages. The experience has had huge repercussions on her mental health, but she has not been able to access NHS mental health support. Now that she has had three miscarriages, she can finally have the simple tests carried out, but she should not have had to wait.
Last year, the then Minister responsible for women’s health, the right hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), committed to addressing the issue. During an Adjournment debate on 17 June, she stated that the Department would include two of the three Tommy’s recommendations from The Lancet series, “Miscarriage matters”, in the women’s health strategy: to
“ensure that designated miscarriage services are available 24/7 to all”
“take steps to record every miscarriage in England.”
The Minister said that the implementation of the last recommendation—to end the three-miscarriage rule and bring in a graded model of care—was not in the remit of the strategy and would instead be left up to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. I am pleased that the college has consulted on a graded model and adopted it into its guidance, although leadership is still missing from Government to ensure the resources to properly end the three-miscarriage rule. These are welcome steps, but unfortunately the other two were missing from the women’s health strategy.
I received more promises from the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), that the recommendations would be included in the upcoming pregnancy review, but that review has not been published for years, as we have heard from other hon. Members. With the new Minister in charge, we are yet to receive any confirmation of when the review will be published and our calls will be met. In the light of that, will the Minister commit to including all three Lancet recommendations in the pregnancy loss review and to meeting with myself and campaigners at the earliest convenience to discuss that review? This cannot be something we speak about once a year and then dump in the “too hard to deal with” pile. These are vital and simple steps that we must take to improve miscarriage care for every woman who has or will experience a miscarriage. We cannot wait any longer; we need a new model of care for miscarriage.
Thank you for the chance to say a few words during this important debate, Mr Davies. There have been hugely moving contributions and testimonies from my hon. Friends the Members for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman)—he and I have been friends for many years, and we are with him in his loss and with all others experiencing such real sadness. We are fortunate in Macclesfield to have support groups, such as Smile Group, that provide help for people having difficulties during or after pregnancy and, no doubt, we have groups that help people during baby loss as well.
We have heard moving and important contributions about the importance of greater consistency in standards, which I completely support. Maternity services are highly valued in our communities. In Macclesfield, our maternity unit was temporarily closed during the pandemic over two and half years ago. It is one of just a few maternity units that is still temporarily closed, and it is greatly missed by parents, and mums and dads who are expecting babies. I am working closely with the East Cheshire NHS Trust and the Cheshire and Merseyside integrated care board to ensure that the unit reopens in line with Government policy—it is Government policy to reopen temporarily closed units—and with the trust’s ambitions in April next year. The unit is vital, as it provides reassurance to parents and the full range of maternity services, including support for baby loss, locally in our community. I would welcome the Minister’s support for the reopening of this much-loved maternity unit.
In closing, let me say again how grateful I am for these contributions across this Chamber. The debate has helped to highlight a vital issue that we need to talk more about and provide more support for.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) on securing this important debate.
The loss of a baby at any stage of pregnancy or after birth can be an incredibly painful experience for any parent. I pay tribute to everyone who has and will share their experience of baby loss in this Chamber. It takes a lot to relive that trauma, but I have heard that it means so much to everyone listening when we speak about such issues in this House. Sadly, when baby loss happens, people are often told, “It is one of those things” or “It just happens”. I remember being told in my grief that I was not the first woman that this happened to and that it was one of those things. It is heartbreaking that women continue to be gaslit in this way when we know that negative pregnancy and birthing experiences can drastically or even fatally change outcomes. We have to accept that it is not always “one of those things” and work to come up with solutions to end it.
I want to touch on two things. The first is a report conducted by Five X More—the black maternal health awareness campaign. It conducted the largest nationwide study of black women’s experiences of maternity services in the UK, and the results make for some shocking reading. The report will be presented to Parliament next Tuesday, and will be followed by a lobbying event by the campaign—where it will reiterate the call on the Government to set a target to address disparities and close the gap in mortality rates—to which all hon. Members have been invited. I put that request to set a target to the Minister again today.
The report encompasses the views of more than 1,300 black and black mixed-heritage women and their maternity experiences, including a number of black women who have experienced baby loss. As some will know, black women are four times more likely to die during pregnancy, labour or post partum; Asian women are twice as likely; and women of mixed heritage three times more likely. Black women are 40% more likely to experience a miscarriage, and black babies have a 50% increased risk of neonatal death and a 121% increased risk of stillbirth.
The Five X More report highlights all the negative interactions that women experience with healthcare professionals: feeling discriminated against in their care; receiving a poor standard of care, putting their safety at risk; and being denied pain relief. After experiencing negative maternity outcomes, 61% of the women surveyed reported that they were not even offered additional support to deal with the outcome of their pregnancy—something that, as we have heard today, is widespread. It is vital that we acknowledge these racial biases when we discuss maternity care.
To make maternity care safe for all patients, it is vital that the level of staffing and the treatment of staff is looked at. For every 30 midwives trained in this country, 29 are lost—what an indictment of the state of maternity services in this country. That is one of the reasons I am proud to support March with Midwives and the awareness it is trying to raise of the dire conditions midwives are facing. Midwives are overstretched, under strain and working in situations they know are unsafe, but pushing ahead anyway at a risk to their physical and mental health. They do not do it for the big bucks, but the least we can do is pay them decently—something that we know we are not doing.
All we ask from the Minister today is to address the pay conditions and shortages that midwives are facing. Everybody in this room owes their life or the life of one of their loved ones to a midwife. They deserve better, as do the women and babies they aim to care for.
I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) for setting the scene so very well and the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) his contribution. It is always good to hear about personal experiences in speeches, as it shows us all what some people have gone through. My mother has had four miscarriages, while my sister has had two; Naomi, who works in my office, has had one. Although I cannot say that I have personally experienced miscarriage in a real sense, I understand it through the losses of my mother, my sister and my assistant. It is something that very much touches all our hearts.
My heart aches knowing that one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, one in 80 pregnancies is ectopic and 13 babies are stillborn each day. For some, those figures may be just stats, but, in reality, every one is a personal story. We have heard some of those stories today.
I have been contacted by countless organisations and constituents about maternity staffing and training. In 2021, the Government announced an investment of £95 million to increase staffing, while a subsequent £51 million is being made available until 2024. I was shocked, although not really surprised, to be told by the charity Sands that that is still not enough to ensure that services across the UK are safely staffed.
Three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet Karen Murray and Jayne Cardwell of the Royal College of Midwives and the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust. I know that the Minister is not responsible for health in Northern Ireland, but I want to give that perspective to the debate, if I can. Midwives in Northern Ireland are experiencing the very same things as here on the mainland, as hon. Members present have spoken to. Karen Murray and Jayne Cardwell brought to light just how dire the situation is in Northern Ireland. We have witnessed recent reports of scandals in Morecambe Bay, where the deaths of 45 babies could have been prevented if adequate maternity care was provided. I stand here blessed and grateful that we have not experienced something similar in Northern Ireland. The representatives I met said that
“it is by the grace of God”
that we have not experienced similar scandals.
The Royal College of Midwives has issued a blueprint for Northern Ireland that paves the way for sustainable, efficient and safe maternity services for women in Northern Ireland. It is a blueprint that could be carried out across the whole UK. The RCM has made it clear that there must be an allocation of money to maternity services that is ringfenced for the full implementation of safety initiatives. There are serious systematic failings—the RCM’s words—that are putting the safety of mothers and newborns at risk. We need more midwives and more specialist bereavement care, especially having heard the stories from hon. Members today. Those are some of the things we need to look after. We also need better supervised neonatal units and consistent financial commitments from our Governments, both regionally and in Westminster, to deliver this.
Organisations such as Bliss, Sands and the RCM have made many recommendations on how we can improve the situation with our maternity services. First, the maternity strategy is in serious need of updating. We must see more midwives and those qualified in specialist care to ensure that even people in the most intricate circumstances are looked after. The Royal College of Midwives says its staff feel the pain of the people they work with; that came across clearly in the meetings I had with the organisation. All our healthcare professionals need better financial, emotional and mental health support as they recover from the devastating impact of the pandemic.
I urge the Minister to engage with our regional Minister, Robin Swann, to ensure that there is never again a repeat of the recent scandals and reports we have heard across the UK. Everyone involved in the political sphere wants to improve the situation, and we can all unite to ensure that our constituents are protected and safe through their maternity journey. Let today be the start of the journey for better maternity care.
Before we get to the Front Benchers, last but by no means least I call Richard Burgon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) on securing the debate, and on the candour and bravery with which she spoke from personal experience. I will use the limited time available to me to share the experience of my constituents, Hayley Storrs and Reece Watson, who wrote to me as follows:
“My name is Hayley Storrs & my partners name is Reece Watson. I’m 33 years old & live in Leeds. I work for NHS England as a Care Manager & my partner as an Electrical Engineer.
In October 2021, after a low risk pregnancy our first baby Ollie James Watson, passed away following a placenta abruption at 40 weeks & 5 days gestation. After suffering a haemorrhage at home, we were kept waiting at Calderdale Hospital in an understaffed Maternity Assessment unit, with bleeding & in active labour for over 1 hour before being seen by a midwife.
My son had already passed away inside my tummy & I wasn’t aware. Following his death & traumatic labour where I suffered a post partum haemorrhage, we received no bereavement support from the trust aside from a postcard on his 1st birthday.
The labour ward was short staffed when Ollie was born & I was left alone on numerous occasions with internal bleeding & no pain relief due to staff shortages. We have since learned that had a simple doppler scan been undertaken at any time during my pregnancy Ollie could have been saved. As a result of our experience, I suffered from PTSD, Birth Trauma, depression & severe anxiety, which still impact my day to day life.
Sands were an incredible support to me during the darkest days of my grief, when I wasn’t sure I would survive without Ollie. They provided information, comfort, support & a listening ear when I needed it the most. I attended a local support group which helped me connect with other women in similar situations to ours & made me feel less alone.
What people fail to understand when someone loses a child, it is that you have lost a lifetime. First days at school, first steps, graduations, what their favourite story would have been, birthdays, Christmases. Instead we walk out of a hospital with empty arms & into a world of grief & loss we are not equipped to navigate. My son deserved better than a memory box of scan photos, he deserved to live.
Please listen to us when we say that enough is enough, ask yourselves the question what will it take for change to happen? How many more babies like ours will die before something is done? How many more bereaved parents will it take to campaign for better, safer maternity care for you to take notice? How many more government enquiries will it take for someone to stand up & say ‘we see you, we hear you & we stand with you’?
In loving memory of Ollie James Watson, and all of the babies who never made it home. You will never be forgotten.”
Those are the words of Hayley Storrs, Ollie’s mum, from the constituency of Leeds East. I share them because to put on record Hayley’s and Rhys’s experience. Although I have not experienced baby loss myself, I think it is important that hon. Members who have personal experience share their experiences, that other Members share our constituents’ experiences, as I have done, and that we all come together on a cross-party basis really to address the issue.
This incredibly important debate has shown what can be done when we come together. I congratulate every Member who has spoken bravely about their personal experience, particularly the hon. Member for Hartlepool, who secured the debate and opened it in such an illuminating, informative and brave way.
I am pleased to participate this year in what has become a tradition of debating baby loss. I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) for opening the debate; I participate as someone who suffered a stillbirth at full term and who almost died in the process.
Over the last year or so, I have gone to more funerals than I have in the rest of my 54 years of life so far. When we gather to bury our dead at funerals, we talk about them: we talk about what they were like, their foibles and their character, using anecdotes told with affection and laughter. They are mourned and remembered for the person they were. But with stillbirth, there are no such stories. Over time, you simply learn to live with a loss that changes you forever. At the funeral, all there is is a life unlived. There are no amusing anecdotes, there are no character foibles to remember, and there is no personality yet formed upon which to base memories. There is only the madness of grief for a life whose promise and potential have been unfilled and unrealised—a much longed-for and much wanted child, born fully grown and often otherwise perfectly healthy, dead before it can take its first breath. “Born sleeping” is so apt because such babies look exactly like that—a perfectly fully grown, normal baby, but one who is just so unnaturally quiet, appearing fast asleep, with a room all ready at home, prepared and waiting for their arrival. Your very stake in your future is gone.
I want to talk about pre-eclampsia, because it is the cause of so many stillbirths every year. To make an impact on stillbirths, we really need to learn and understand more about this condition. Its most deadly form is HELLP—haemolysis, elevated liver enzymes and low platelets—syndrome. What is interesting is that pre-eclampsia is associated with very serious long-term health risks for women who develop it during pregnancy. They are at long-term risk of chronic hypertension, ischaemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, kidney disease, diabetes mellitus, thromboembolism, hypothyroidism and even impaired memory. Who is monitoring the long-term health of women who have suffered pre-eclampsia? Why are the longer-term risks not specifically monitored? Women in those risk categories are not even told that they face those risks and they are simply unaware of the long-term health challenges they may face once they are discharged from hospital. How can that be right?
People talk, quite rightly, about stillbirths being a product of health inequality, but we also know that too often they happen as a result of systematic errors in care. Sometimes, the most basic red flags are simply overlooked, or at worst, ignored. We only have to see the recent, and frankly horrific, independent reports—the latest of which came out only last week regarding maternity care in East Kent, Nottingham, Shrewsbury, Telford and, to my deep regret, the Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board. In my experience, far from seeking to review procedures and learn lessons, that board simply lawyered up to seek to intimate me—and who knows how many other bereaved parents—into silence. It failed to silence me, but I have absolutely no reason whatever to believe that it has learned anything from the systematic errors that led to the death of an otherwise perfectly healthy, 8 lb 5 oz baby. Staffing was not the issue; it was systematic failures, negligence and incompetence that killed my baby and almost killed me.
In all these cases—some publicised recently—bereaved parents all say they encounter the same thing: cover-ups, ranks closing and few, if any, answers—only the isolation and bewilderment of emptiness. I have no confidence that this situation will change, which is why independent reviews are necessary. Health boards and health trusts seem simply unable or unwilling to admit errors without being forced to do so, and that is unacceptable and inexcusable. Despite the warm words, I have seen no evidence that that situation will change.
The bereavement care pathway, which many have mentioned today, is a very positive thing. If parents are to be listened to, their questions must be answered without fear of serious mistakes being uncovered. If there are serious mistakes to be found, they should be found; all else is cosmetic and, quite frankly, patronisingly pointless.
We have made some progress since the first debate I secured about stillbirth in 2016. There is now much greater willingness to talk about the babies whose lives are snuffed out before they can begin. The more that bereaved parents feel able to talk about stillbirth, the less isolated they will feel, but the isolation is real and debilitating, and its impacts are long lasting.
This year’s Baby Loss Awareness Week theme was stepping stones—depicting the path that people must take after losing a baby and the various stages of that journey. The fact is that, for those of us who have to carry out the grotesquely unnatural act of burying a fully grown baby, the path of grief does not end. Grief stays with you for the rest of your life; you simply somehow find a way to live with it.
It really is time that we stopped hearing about serious failings in maternity care that lead to stillbirths. How many times have we had reports? How many times have we had reviews? How many times have we had investigations? What health trust or health board does not know in this day and age what is required to deliver babies safely and support mums through their pregnancy?
Sadly, we know that the latest failures found in East Kent will not be the last. I honestly despair, and I know that all those who have been through a stillbirth also continue to despair, each time we hear of yet more systematic failures. Of course staffing is an issue, but it is not the whole story. For those babies already gone, it is too late, but Governments across the UK must do more to do better; otherwise, more babies will be born asleep.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
May I start by thanking the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) for securing this important debate? I also thank all Members for their deeply emotional, moving and important contributions to the debate, especially those who shared their personal experiences and the experiences of their constituents. By talking about these issues so openly, we work to remove the stigma that sometimes surrounds them. This debate and Baby Loss Awareness Week are vital for voices to be heard, and I praise the work of the over 100 charities that co-ordinate and support Baby Loss Awareness Week every year, particularly Sands.
Across the UK, thousands of parents experience the pain of baby loss every year. As we heard, one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, one in eight pregnancies is ectopic and 13 babies are stillborn or die shortly after birth every day. Just last week, we saw the publication of the report into the failings of East Kent maternity services, where up to 45 babies could have survived had they received better care—45 lives that were needlessly cut short and 45 families who were made to suffer the most devastating heartache. I am heartbroken for the families who suffer the loss of a baby. Those who suffer such tragedy must receive the physical and emotional support they need and so deserve. Yet, as we have heard this morning, so often they do not receive it.
My constituent Katie suffered a miscarriage in 2017, when she was 13 weeks pregnant. Immediately after receiving the news, she was told to go to another hospital, and her pregnancy folder was replaced with two sheets of paper entitled, “Your options after miscarriage”. She said that she was not treated with compassion by staff at the next hospital. After her operation, there was no follow-up, no aftercare and no information about what to do next. On returning to work, she discovered that her pay had been cut, as her employer did not class pregnancy loss before 24 weeks as a reason to receive sick pay. Katie was lucky enough to find herself pregnant again, but at every appointment she had to go through the details of her miscarriage time and time again. I worry that the trauma Katie went through is shared by many women across the country.
There is a pattern of avoidable harm in maternity units across our country. There were nearly 2,000 reported cases of avoidable harm at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust. Half of maternity units in England are failing to meet safety standards. Pregnant women were turned away from maternity wards more than 400 times just last year.
Then there are the inequalities highlighted in the debate. I pay tribute to groups such as Five X More that do so much to highlight those disparities, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) for mentioning the important work they do. Stillbirth rates for black babies are twice as high as for white babies, and neonatal death rates are 45% higher. In the UK, black women are four times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth. A recent review by the NHS Race and Health Observatory found evidence of women from ethnic minority backgrounds experiencing
“stereotyping, disrespect, discrimination and cultural insensitivity”
when using maternity and neonatal healthcare services. Although I welcome some of the measures the Government have taken to address these problems, it is clear that so much more is still to be done.
As with the Government’s response to the investigation into East Kent maternity services last week, the women’s health strategy that was released about two months ago commits only to considering the recommendations of the pregnancy loss review expected later this year and the Lancet series on miscarriages. Considering further recommendations is not enough to reach the Government’s target of halving childbirth and neonatal deaths by 2025 and to provide the care that women need.
Underpinning all this across the NHS is the question of workforce, as we have heard from almost every Member this morning. More midwives are leaving the profession than are joining it. NHS England estimates that nearly 700 midwives have left in the past year—stressed, burned out and overworked. There is now a shortage of more than 2,000 midwives just in England. In a recent survey by Sands, almost one in 10 NHS trusts in England stated that they had no bereavement specialists in their maternity services—no services for parents who lose a child.
I thank all the members of the all-party parliamentary groups on baby loss and on maternity for the report they did on safe staffing in maternity services. It found that bereaved families are affected by staffing shortages, as stretched staff do not have the time to offer compassionate care, to understand what families’ needs are or to refer families to relevant services. We just do not have the staff to provide the good and safe care needed to prevent the avoidable loss of babies. Eight out of 10 midwives reported that they did not have enough staff on their shift to provide a safe service. Even the Chancellor agrees; last week, as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss, he signed the report, which describes maternity and neonatal services as
“understaffed, overstretched and letting down women, families and maternity staff”.
He went on to call for safe levels of staffing. So, as I asked in the main Chamber last week, will the Minister deliver on the Chancellor’s promise? Women, families and their babies deserve to be given the best standard of care to ensure the best possible outcomes. It is high time that the Government delivered that.
First, I thank all the Members who have taken the time to attend the debate and those who have spoken so openly about their own, and their constituents’, experiences and concerns. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) for securing the debate and enabling us to have this important conversation.
Let me take this opportunity to recognise the work of everyone who has been involved in Baby Loss Awareness Week. It is important that we make it easier to speak about pregnancy loss and enable people to have open conversations about their experiences, which in turn can help those who have experienced the tragic loss of a baby. I also take this opportunity to commend the work of the charities that provide excellent support to families experiencing baby loss, including all the members of the Baby Loss Awareness Alliance and the Lily Mae Foundation, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti).
As we take time to reflect, I want to acknowledge how difficult the loss of a baby is. Everyone’s grief will be different. It is a personal, individual process, which people will try to navigate in many different ways. Although it can be challenging to reflect on such tragic losses, this week provides an opportunity for people to remember, reflect, share and seek support and comfort from other people.
This is the seventh year in a row that a debate has been held to mark Baby Loss Awareness Week. I am honoured to take part as the new Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Care and to work with everyone to continue making a difference in an area as vital as maternity and neonatal safety.
The independent review into maternity and neonatal services at East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust, as mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), was published last Wednesday. I take this opportunity to extend my condolences to the families who suffered due to the care they received and express my gratitude to the individuals who were instrumental in establishing the review and to the inquiry team for carrying out the review to such a high standard. The Government and I take the findings and recommendations of that report extremely seriously, and I am committed to preventing families from experiencing the same pain in the future.
Our maternity safety ambition, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool, is to achieve half the 2010 rates of stillbirths, neonatal and maternal deaths, and brain injuries in babies occurring soon after birth. Since 2010, the rate of stillbirths has reduced by 19.3%, the rate of neonatal mortality for babies born over 24 weeks gestational age has reduced by 36% and maternal mortality has reduced by 17%. However, it is important to note that there was an increase in the rate of stillbirths between 2020 and 2021. This increase occurred at the same time as the covid pandemic, and detailed work is going on to establish why that was the case. I reassure hon. Members that we remain committed to our maternity safety ambition.
Every woman giving birth has the right to a safe birth, and the Government and NHS England are committed to providing women with personalised and individual maternity care. The role of NHS staff in maternity services is critical to safe care for families, and I recognise all the great, hard work by teams across the country and thank them for it.
Members on both sides of the Chamber have talked about funding and workforce. NHS England has invested £127 million in bolstering the maternity workforce even further and in programmes to strengthen leadership and retention and provide capital for neonatal maternity care. We will keep that funding under review. That investment is on top of the £95 million investment made last year in the establishment of 1,200 more midwifery posts and 100 more consultant obstetrician posts. There are increasing numbers of midwifery and obs and gynae trainees.
I am grateful to the APPGs on maternity and on baby loss for producing their report into the maternity workforce, and I acknowledge the important themes in it. The hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) raised the issue of retention. NHS England has established a nursing and midwifery retention programme, supporting organisations to assess themselves against a bundle of interventions aligned to the NHS people promise and it will use the outcomes to develop high-quality local retention improvement plans. In addition, in 2022-23 we made £50,000 available for each maternity unit in England to enhance retention and pastoral support activities.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not, because I have a lot of questions to get through in a really short time.
Many hon. Members talked about bereavement. In the difficult scenario of baby loss, we understand that bereavement care for women and families is critical. We continue to engage closely with the bereavement sector to assess what is needed to ensure that bereaved families and individuals receive the support that they need. This year we have provided £2.26 million of national funding to support trusts, expand the number of staff trained in bereavement care and directly support trusts to increase the number of days of specialist bereavement provision that families can access.
In the women’s health strategy, which hon. Members mentioned, published earlier this year, we discussed the introduction of pregnancy loss certificates for England. This will allow a non-statutory, voluntary scheme to enable parents who have experienced a pre-24 weeks pregnancy loss to record and receive a certificate to provide recognition of their baby’s potential life. The certificate will not be a legal document, but it will be an important acknowledgement of a life lost, and we hope that it will provide comfort and support by validating a loss.
We understand the impact of pregnancy and childbirth on mental health, especially for those affected by the loss of a baby, and we are committed to expanding and transforming our mental health services so that people can receive the support that they need when they need it.
As part of the NHS long-term plan, we are looking to improve the access to and quality of perinatal mental health care for mothers and their partners. Mental health services around England are being expanded to include new mental health hubs for new, expectant, or bereaved mothers. These will offer physical health checks and psychological therapy in one building.
I accept that my hon. Friend has many things to cover today. As a former Minister, may I advise her that she might want to be encouraged to write to everyone with detailed answers from civil servants to the points raised?
Does my hon. Friend agree on one key point—that the collation of data and the consistency of approach must be nationwide? While we have many wonderful trusts, that has to be driven by the NHS, for which she is a Minister.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
Going back to the issue of perinatal mental health, we have previously funded Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity, to work with other baby loss charities and the royal colleges to produce and support the roll-out of a national bereavement care pathway to reduce the variation in the quality of bereavement care provided by the NHS and ensure that, wherever a woman and family are being cared for, they get a high standard of care. The pathway covers a range of circumstances of baby loss, including miscarriage. As of April this year, 78% of trusts in England had committed to adopting the nine national bereavement care pathway standards.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) talked about pre-eclampsia. NHS England is establishing maternal medicine clinics. These are specialist networks across the UK, which will manage pre-conception, antenatal, post-natal and medical issues in women, and reduce long-term morbidity, thereby improving outcomes for those women who have co-existing medical conditions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) spoke about the maternity unit in his constituency. I know that he is a doughty campaigner for that unit. I will write to him with further information on progress in that area.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) talked about the Scottish health service and how it is performing in relation to maternity care. It is, of course, a devolved issue in Scotland, but I was moved to hear about what is happening in areas of the north of Scotland near Elgin. I would encourage the devolved Scottish Administration to consider carefully what is going on there and to see what they can do to improve care. It seems unacceptable for women to travel 102 miles to give birth.
The NHS in England has a medical education reform programme, co-sponsored by NHS England and Health Education England, to direct investment for specialty training for population needs back towards smaller and rural hospitals. That programme entered its implementation phase in August 2022.
Hon. Friends mentioned The Lancet recommendations. While the pregnancy loss review will be published shortly, I am not in a position today to commit to what it is going to say, but we will consider it carefully.
I understand that the Minister is not in a position to comment on that review, but now that she has had the opportunity to review the recommendations from the East Kent investigation by Dr Kirkup, is she in a position to say whether the Government will accept those recommendations, or when the Government will announce whether they are going to accept them? They will have a nationwide impact.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We were both horrified by the East Kent report, which made for extremely difficult reading. We are carefully considering the review. The hon. Lady will appreciate that we are having a change of Prime Minister today and possibly a change of Minister too, so it is difficult for me to make any commitments at this stage, beyond that the Government will consider the matter carefully and further information will be provided in due course.
Let me conclude by making three broad points. First, we appreciate how difficult and distressing baby loss can be at any point in pregnancy and childbirth. I highlight again the importance of sharing experiences and coping mechanisms that may guide other families through their own bereavement. It is important to continue this conversation past this year’s campaign and, again, I thank my hon. Friends who shared deeply personal experiences.
Secondly, I touched on the important range of targeted programmes we are developing to better support families with their bereavement and ensure all families have access to the care they need and deserve, such as pregnancy loss certificates and the national bereavement care pathway. We understand how difficult baby loss can be, and families deserve compassionate and personalised care from their local health professionals.
Thirdly, we are committed to our maternity safety ambition to halve the 2010 rates of stillbirth, neonatal and maternal death, and brain injuries in babies occurring during or soon after birth. NHS England will consider the actions from both the Ockenden report and the East Kent report and map a coherent delivery plan for maternity that will be delivered through the maternity taskforce programme. We have also established a joint working group led by the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to help deliver the plan as effectively as possible. I thank hon. Members for taking time to be here today and I thank everyone who took part in Baby Loss Awareness Week.
I sincerely thank all colleagues who have taken part in the debate, particularly those who have shared their own devastating personal stories. As the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) said, there is clearly cross-party support for addressing this important issue; I do not think anyone in the Chamber wants to quote from any more reports. Will the Minister kindly take what she has heard today to the Prime Minister and ask that it be made a priority?
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered baby loss and safe staffing in maternity care.
Rugby League World Cup 2022
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the contribution of the Rugby League World Cup 2022 to culture and sport in the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies—a fellow Bradford MP who recognises the power of rugby league. I am thrilled to be here to debate the rugby league world cup. I have the honour of speaking about the sport, the tournament and the importance of its legacy.
I know many Members share my passion for and belief in rugby league. The power and potential of rugby league is phenomenal, because of what it means to our communities and what it can achieve in those communities. That passion and belief is shared by Members right across the political divide. Rugby league is a unifying force indeed.
The world cup is always a special moment in the sporting calendar, but this year it promises to make a huge impact, setting a new bar for the sport and recognition of all that it offers to the country and on the international stage. The road to this world cup has not been easy. Preparations for the tournament began in November 2015. The lifting of the trophies will mark a seven-year journey that has spanned a global pandemic and multiple crises. That we have got here is a testament to the organisers, whose determination parallels the sport itself. Teams from around the globe have gathered in the birthplace of the sport. For the English heartlands of working-class communities in our northern towns and cities, rugby league has come home.
There is so much to celebrate and marvel at, both on and off the pitch. Since its foundation in 1895, rugby league has always been groundbreaking, and the world cup is no exception. For the first time, the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments will be staged simultaneously. It will be the biggest, best and most inclusive rugby league event in history.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. I am very proud of the excellent rugby league clubs in Batley and Spen, including the brilliant Batley Bulldogs, Birkenshaw Blue Dogs and Birstall Victoria, along with Batley Boys and Batley Girls. They provide opportunities for boys and girls, men and women of all ages and from all different backgrounds to play this fantastic sport, and are at the heart of our communities. Does my hon. Friend agree that the world cup—men’s, women’s and wheelchair—is a fantastic springboard to get more people into grassroots rugby league, who will hopefully rise up to be the world cup stars of the future?
I thank my hon. Friend for her important intervention and I welcome her statement about the inclusivity of rugby league. The competition does offer a springboard for grassroots rugby league to re-emerge much stronger post pandemic.
It is an honour to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Lady—my hon. Friend, in fact—for her superb chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary rugby league group. She talks about the beginnings of the sport; of course, it began in the George Hotel in Huddersfield. We have a quarter-final game in Huddersfield next Friday, which I will be going to with my dad.
On the essence of inclusivity, does the hon. Lady agree that it is great to see a sport’s top world competition including not just the men’s game, but the women’s game and the wheelchair game at the same time? As the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) said, rugby league clubs really are community clubs. The Huddersfield Giants Community Trust, for example, runs the National Citizen Service programme through the summer, getting young people out doing activities and going away together as a group. This is about not just what happens during the world cup, but the legacy for the future.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I hope that he and his dad very much enjoy the match at the weekend. I absolutely agree that rugby league is just the best game in the world. Anything that does it good in terms of growth in the community is worth celebrating. I hope he has a great time at the weekend.
I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate. Her enthusiasm for the sport is self-evident. Does she agree that the focus on team sports in the media and on TV can be the impetus that young men and women need to join a team that builds character and self-esteem, creates friendships, and brings people out of social isolation to social interaction? The promotion of that can only be a good thing for the mental health of people of all ages who could be involved in the riveting game of rugby. I have to say that I am a rugby union man rather than a rugby league man, but that does not make me less of a supporter.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I married a rugby union player, so I am saying nothing. It is a totally inclusive sport. It is great to celebrate sport full stop, but it is especially great to celebrate the rugby league world cup being held here. It is fantastic because it is so inclusive. We also have a very interesting mental health programme, which I will cover later in my speech.
We have 20 nations competing in the tournament, from Australia to Wales, Canada to the Cook Islands, Fiji to France and Scotland to Samoa—and Greece and Jamaica have made their debuts in the tournament. Every second of every minute of every match will be streamed live on the BBC, which has its own unique heritage with rugby league. Most games will be carried on either BBC 1 or BBC 2.
At its heart, rugby league is about people and communities. Week in, week out, local communities come together to support their clubs, their local kids’ teams and young players, giving up their time, money and energy, and sometimes even their blood, sweat and tears. The late Colin Welland said:
“Rugby league provides our cultural adrenalin. It’s a physical manifestation of our rules of life, comradeship, honest endeavour, and a staunch, often ponderous allegiance to fair play”—
very much like this place. Strong and insightful words indeed. The sport of rugby league has that power and potential. The tournaments are competitions at the very pinnacle of the sport, and they are spectacular, but the event is so much more; it is laying the foundations for the future of the sport, and for communities, regeneration and levelling up, through its social impact agenda and its legacy.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary rugby league group, I am incredibly proud that the world cup organisers and the Rugby Football League have placed that legacy at the heart of their plans before and after the event. Their trailblazing social impact programme has generated £26 million of investment in equipment and facilities, volunteering, mental fitness, education, culture, and an international development programme. That investment in facilities has helped transform clubs into hubs for their communities.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. I want to pay tribute to some of the legacy work that she mentioned. I recently went to Woolston Rovers, one of my local rugby league clubs, to see its brand-new, state-of-the-art changing room facilities, which were provided through the legacy fund. That will make such a difference locally, so I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. Does she agree that that legacy right across our communities is exactly what we should see from such an international event?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about investing in the legacy of the game; only by doing that will we see a strong and vibrant future for the game.
As well as widening access, the world cup has enabled more people to connect and take part in physical activity. More than 1,000 volunteers are supporting the staging of the world cup via a drive to make sure that everybody who wants to be involved can be, offering support and encouragement to those with additional needs. Some 83% of the volunteers said the programme had helped them to become more independent.
Figures for men’s suicide remain tragically high, and the sport has had its own tragic instances. The men’s health charity Movember is an official partner of the world cup. Its Ahead of the Game programme, which encourages players to “talk more, play better”, has been rolled out to almost 4,000 players and coaches. Now 92% of players say that they feel more confident in recognising the signs of mental health in themselves and in others, and 96% of coaches say that they feel better able to respond to the mental health challenges of young athletes.
Education is a major part of the programme. Even before the opening match of the tournaments, 36,000 children had benefited through the world cup’s partnership with UNICEF on the Rights Respecting Schools programme, which has seen more than 7,500 pupils educated on the importance of respect as an essential value.
A couple of months ago, MPs and Lords in Parliament welcomed all three world cup trophies into Speaker’s house. Mr Speaker is without doubt the biggest rugby league fan in this place. On the same day, Parliament hosted Julia Lee, Jackie Sheldon and former Lionesses, who brought their fantastic exhibition marking women’s often underplayed contribution to the sport.
Julia was the first fully qualified female rugby league referee, starting when she was just 17—the definition of a trailblazer. Hearing their stories was a timely reminder that sports such as rugby league are built from the ground up, with grit, hard work and determination. It was fantastic to see Julia and Jackie, along with Julie Stott and Sue Taylor, inducted into the rugby league roll of honour last week, in recognition of their huge contributions to the sport.
I welcome the world cup’s international programme, which has helped to double the number of women’s teams supported by the federation. The Lionesses’ victory in the football Euros this summer showed what can happen when athletes are recognised for their exceptional talent and skill. A record-smashing number of tickets has already been sold for an England-based women’s rugby league world cup fixture. I know that the women of rugby league will not rest until they are smashing that ceiling, too.
The world cup has also driven forward on disability and para sport. There has been a huge effort to ensure that physical disability rugby league games play a central role, and figure in the imaginations and ambitions of our young people as they look to the future.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we should all pay tribute to Adam Hills and the Warrington Wolves for all the work they have done over recent years to boost the profile of physical disability rugby league? Will she join me in welcoming the fact that the physical disability aspect of the rugby league world cup is being hosted in Warrington?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Of course, I recognise that Adam Hills has made a significant contribution to rugby league, not only in this country but abroad. He has done a sterling job for everybody.
From keeping ticket prices accessible, taking part in the match days and increasing access to sport and participation, we have seen a huge uptake of interest in rugby league, in all three competitions. The disability rugby league investment alone generates a significant social return. Every pound invested by players and their families generates a social return of almost £10. General investment more than triples its social returns. It is economically transformative and can fundamentally reform the way people think about disability.
Hold that social value in mind, because I want to turn to where it all started—the working-class communities of our northern towns and cities. A recent study identified the fact that investment in sport and physical activity generates a return of four times in social value, and the sector as a whole delivers £72 billion annually. Imagine what that energy and social value, linked to the right investment, could achieve. The transformational power of sport can be used to promote learning and attract employers and investment into places with huge untapped potential that are crying out for levelling up.
It would be remiss of me if I did not make a small mention of the Bradford Bulls in a speech about rugby league. The return of the Bulls to their home at Odsal stadium in my constituency of Bradford South was a tremendous boost to the city, and huge credit should be given to all those involved, because I know it took a tremendous leap of faith and a belief in the future of rugby league in Bradford.
Building on the dividend of the rugby league world cup, and Bradford city of culture 2025, a compelling levelling-up bid has been submitted to Government for a world-class stadium and training complex for elite sports, and a rugby league skills training and education centre, to serve the people of Yorkshire and the north. That would provide more than £1 billion of socioeconomic benefits for Bradford and create many hundreds of jobs. I know that the Minister is already coming to Odsal to see our plans and that you, Mr Davies, would be more than welcome. I cannot wait to host the next world cup in a decade’s time and to be standing in our very own Odsal stadium in Bradford, cheering England on.
Sport is so much more than competition. Regardless of the delight and disappointment experienced by players and supporters alike, sport brings people together. It is a rich cultural asset and a force for good in our society that can help transform fortunes and unlock the potential of our towns and cities, and the rugby league world cup is an incredible opportunity for our northern communities. A record-breaking 61 games in the world cup will be taking place across the north-east, the north-west, the midlands and, of course, God’s own county of Yorkshire. To share the joy, London has the odd game as well. Some of the venues will be household names; others will be new to many spectators and TV audiences alike. All, however, will be proud to play host to world-class players competing in world-class games, which presents the opportunity to promote and share their communities and culture.
Levels of investment and opportunities have not always matched the pride that we feel in our towns and cities, but moments such as the world cup give communities the opportunity to stand tall in the places they call home as they showcase them to the world. That is a testament to the unifying international potential of a sport as fantastic as rugby league, and it is essential that we build on the momentum generated by the world cup tournament. All MPs can get themselves to a game, and I encourage everyone present to go and see a match if they have not done so already, because rugby league is the best game in the world. It gives so much more back than it takes, unites communities and promotes values that make us proud, and we should be proud of the success of the rugby league world cup hosted here in England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) for securing this important debate. In these challenging times, it is nice to be able to debate a good subject that is not too challenging.
I know that there is wide support for the tournament and that the sport of rugby league has lots of support from Members, including through the active work that the hon. Lady does with the all-party parliamentary group. She mentioned that she is the chair of the APPG and Mr Speaker is its president, and his upcoming term as president of the RFL shows the strength of his support for the sport. I hope the tournament shows that the Government are fully committed to building and maintaining our world-leading status for hosting major and mega sporting events in this country. The rugby league world cup is a perfect symbol of that commitment and of why it is so important to this nation.
Despite the postponement of the event and all the challenges that that presented, it is good that the tournament started with great success, with over 43,000 fans watching the opening match at St James’s Park. As we have already seen over the course of 2022 with both the women’s UEFA European championships and the Birmingham Commonwealth games, major sporting events have the power to unite the whole nation, instil pride in our communities and give us all something to feel good about. The rugby league world cup is doing just that right now and putting the culture and values of rugby league at the heart of the tournament.
As hon. Members will know, the world cup kicked off on 15 October in spectacular style in Newcastle, with a match that saw England men take on the Samoan men—a match that I was lucky enough to attend. I also attended the men’s launch in Manchester and had the honour of meeting many of the nations’ captains. The matches have continued right across the north of England, with games held in Wigan, Leigh, Warrington and, of course, Leeds. It is incredible that towns and cities where rugby league is the lifeblood of their communities have been able to, and will continue to, host matches that represent the pinnacle of the international game.
Does the Minister agree that we are able to share not only the culture of the sport but the culture of the nations that we are hosting in our communities? In Warrington, we are proud to be hosting the Papua New Guinea team, the mighty Kumuls. It has been great to see them out in local schools and in the community, sharing their culture with people right across Warrington. Does the Minister agree that those opportunities, which the rugby league world cup has given us, are great for promoting cultural understanding and multiculturalism in Britain?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to mention that, and I will comment further on the cultural impact of the tournament. She is right: it is great to see so many teams going into the communities where they are staying. They are trying to build support for the tournament itself, but we are also able to share our great heritages and learn from each other.
It is important that, for the first time ever, all matches of the rugby league world cup, including women’s and wheelchair, are being broadcast on the BBC. The opening match, between England and Samoa, hit a peak audience of 1.8 million, which is fantastic. As we saw with the women’s Euros over the summer, visibility is key to bringing a new audience into a sport and giving the sport a platform. The opportunity of the BBC broadcasting the tournament live should not be underestimated. Over the coming weeks, it will be brilliant to see not just the men battle it out on the world stage but, as hon. Members have said, both the women and the wheelchair teams battling it out. Seeing the incredible fitness of those wheelchair teams—and the terrible brutality of what the matches look like—is awe inspiring.
When major sporting events come to the UK, we regularly talk about legacy: what the event leaves behind once the spectators leave the stadiums and the participants leave the field. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, that also highlights the importance of team sports to the rest of the nation. The rugby league world cup organisers prefer to call it the social impact of the tournament—not just what is left behind but what can be done right now. The tournament’s social impact programme is the first of its kind. It focuses on four areas: facility investments, to enable clubs to create welcoming and inclusive environments; a mental fitness programme; an inclusive volunteering programme; and an international development programme, which has developed new relations between emerging rugby league nations and supported development programmes in international communities.
Before a whistle was even blown, the CreatedBy facility investment programme saw investment in 38 club houses, 22 changing rooms, 18 pitches, and 102 kit and equipment packs. Over 50% of the CreatedBy programme went into areas of socioeconomic deprivation, and 90% helped to grow women and girls’ participation, which is an important aspect of the wider work in the Department. Nearly a quarter went to support and grow disability rugby league.
I saw the very real impact of the programme when I went to visit Leigh Miners Rangers rugby league club and saw the new 3G pitch, which the programme funded. That will enable the club to train at the ground all year round, which will save them from hiring additional facilities and enable the teams to have more training sessions. That is important for the grassroots element, which we have discussed. Our thanks should always go to all the amazing volunteers who ensure that such work continues.
As we have heard, the rugby league world cup has also partnered with Movember, and Rugby League Cares delivered its mental fitness programme, which aims to improve the mental fitness, literacy and resilience of young athletes, coaches and parents. Nearly 300 mental fitness sessions have been delivered to rugby league clubs, schools and online, reaching over 4,000 players and 400 coaches. A strong social impact and legacy programme helps to ensure that major sporting events continue to bring benefits to the whole country, and the rugby league world cup is a brilliant example of that.
As the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) mentioned, as well as being an incredible sporting spectacle, the world cup offers a great deal of culture to this country. A number of fan zones will be set up near the venues in city centres, and fans from competing nations will be able to mingle and learn from each other’s heritage. The games themselves also offer brilliant opportunities to witness other nations’ cultures. At the opening match, which I attended, I saw the spectacular Siva Tau, which is performed by the Samoan team. If I were facing that, I would have felt really intimidated. Of course, the New Zealand rugby league team kicked off its match against Lebanon with the Haka. In addition, the tournament’s cultural festival programme includes a major new outdoor performance, an epic touring public art and poetry commission and a programme of engagement projects rolled out across 40 library services across the whole of the north of England. It is important that major sporting events enable a broad reach across society and a strong cultural programme helps to do just that.
The benefits that the rugby league world cup has brought to its host town and cities and across the country are clear. The United Kingdom has a fantastic track record of hosting events such as this one and has seen a bumper year of incredible sporting events, such as the Commonwealth games, the women’s Euros and now the rugby league world cup. The Government are committed to continuing to build on our track record and bring more events like the world cup to the United Kingdom. England was recently announced as the host for the rugby union women’s world cup in 2025 and we will continue to build a strong programme of events to ensure that communities right across the UK get to experience the benefits and atmosphere of major sporting events like the rugby league world cup.
I thank hon. Members for their contribution and the hon. Member for Bradford South for introducing this timely debate. I note the point she makes about Bradford. If I am still in post by the end of the week, I will come. Otherwise, I will leave a note on my desk to my successor to say that their first trip needs to be to Bradford.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I hope he remains in post. However, if he does leave that message, will he also make a note to invite the Minister to the physical disability rugby league world cup, which is being hosted at Victoria Park in Warrington? We would be delighted to host him or, indeed, another Minister during the course of the tournament.
I will graciously accept the invitation, on behalf of myself or whoever follows, because that would be an important and great visit.
Finally, I repeat the points made by the hon. Member for Bradford South: I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will take time out to go and watch one of the matches. They are great to see. I know that we will want to send all our home nations the very best. This is where I get myself into trouble as I have a Scottish father, an English mother and I was born in Wales. Trying to decide which team to support is often a challenge, but I wish them all the very best. Let us hope we go from strength to strength with this amazing tournament.
Question put and agreed to.
Section 21 Evictions
[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the potential merits of ending section 21 evictions.
I am grateful to have secured time for a debate on this matter, which continues to affect all our constituents. I start by paying tribute to my constituents in Liverpool, Walton, who are the innocent victims of the country’s current broken housing system.
“Everyone renting in the private sector has the right to feel secure in their home, settled in their community and able to plan for the future with confidence. But millions of responsible tenants could still be uprooted by their landlord with little notice, and often little justification. This is wrong”—
those are not my words but the words of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), who was the Prime Minister in 2019, when the Government first committed to scrapping no-fault evictions. In the three years since, more than 200,000 renters have been evicted—that is the equivalent of an eviction every seven minutes, and that is despite an eviction ban that was in place for 14 months during the pandemic.
Section 21 evictions allow for landlords in the private rented sector to evict tenants from their properties without having to establish any fault on the part of the tenant. When a notice is served, it gives tenants just two months to leave their homes. Even the threat of eviction has detrimental effects on tenants. Section 21 notices mean that tenants are unlikely to exercise other rights, such as the very limited right to challenge rent increases, for fear of retaliatory eviction.
Research by Shelter shows that nearly one in five renters have decided not to complain about poor conditions in their homes for fear of being evicted. I witness that frequently in my constituency. A constituent who visited my office had complained to her landlord about the lack of essential repairs to the front and back doors. The landlord refused to carry them out. After she complained again, she received a section 21 notice in the post, telling her to leave the property. That shows the clear imbalance in power when tenants are held hostage to a bad landlord in an inadequate property.
It is easy to underestimate the dislocating and exhausting experience of someone being evicted from the place they call home: living in limbo; never certain of when their time may be up; having to pack up belongings, leave support networks and potentially change employment —all at immense personal, mental and financial cost. Children being unmoored and having to move schools or leave friends and family behind can have a lifelong impact on learning and development.
My constituency office recently spoke to a constituent who contacted us after being served a section 21 eviction notice. She has been living in her property for 13 years with her two children, aged 12 and two. She suffers from anxiety, and after being told she must leave the property her anxiety has “gone through the roof”. She has never had panic attacks as bad as they are now. She said it is
“exhausting to look after kids at the same time as worrying about where we will end up.”
She told us that being served with the eviction notice was “cruel”, and that
“you should not be able to drop a note through someone’s door telling them to pick their lives up and move on.”
If constituents are removed from properties, they are often placed on long property waiting lists, compounding the sense of uncertainty and insecurity that they experience. I want to take this opportunity to commend local organisations such as Vauxhall and Merseyside law centres, ACORN and my local Liverpool Shelter branch, which carry out fantastic work in almost impossible circumstances to support my constituents in the face of minimal Government support. All MPs here will have similar stories from their own constituents, and may be planning to share their contributions today. Indeed, it was those stories, and the tireless work of the renters’ unions and housing campaigners, that pushed the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, to promise a new deal for renters in 2019.
It will come as little consolation that the Labour party announced in December 2017 that any future manifesto would contain a commitment to remove no-fault evictions. The 2019 Conservative manifesto echoed that commitment, promising the abolition of no-fault evictions so that tenants were
“protected from revenge evictions and rogue landlords”.
Again, those are the Conservatives’ words, not mine. Of course, like many Tory promises, that was not worth the paper it was written on. The two and a half years of the premiership of the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) passed without any Bill being published.
We have had a consultation, which the Government responded to by again vowing to abolish section 21, but now we find it kicked into the legislative long grass. It was not a priority for the previous Administration and no one knows what the new Government are minded to do—I hope the Minister can shed some light on that today. This is all despite the huge public support for the reform of private renting: some 79% of the public, 80% of Conservative voters and 86% of voters over the age of 65 back greater protections for private renters, according to Generation Rent data.
The private rented sector is dominated and characterised by insecure tenure, increasingly unaffordable rents, poor housing quality and the ever-present risk of eviction. Data from Crisis showed that in the last financial year nearly 20,000 households faced homelessness after receiving a no-fault eviction notice. Losing a private tenancy is the second biggest cause of homelessness in England. If the Government are serious about ending homelessness, what are their reasons for delay? No one should be going homeless.
When we know that private sector tenants have to move more often than people in any other tenure, and then face average moving costs of well over £1,500, we should be doing all we can to ensure that constituents are not pushed into destitution following receipt of a section 21 notice. That is more important than ever in the midst of the current Tory-engineered economic chaos that is causing absolute misery to many people throughout the country.
We are all aware of the huge challenges that our constituents face: the skyrocketing cost of living, food prices at a 40-year high, record energy costs and skyscraping inflation. All those conditions make the need for a safe and secure home more important than ever before. Add to that the dwindling supplies of affordable housing, and more than three decades of deregulation, and it is easy to realise how we have created the toxic conditions that we now find ourselves in.
Where is the Government’s plan to deal with this? It may prove to be too late for many people throughout the country. To use just one example, statistics from the Ministry of Justice show that the situation is not getting better for renters but much, much worse: there was a 52% increase in the number of no-fault evictions between April and June 2022.
Conditions for private renters are continuing to deteriorate, and the Government’s neglect is the cause. That increase in forced evictions took place against the background of 11% inflation, and rent increases of 11.8% outside of London, according to Rightmove. Those rent increases are widespread—data from Shelter shows that 1 million private renters were hit with a rent increase in August 2022 alone—and have a clear knock-on effect: eviction claims for rent arrears are at their highest level since records began.
No one from the Conservative party seems to recognise that rent increases also cause inflation. They are frequently eager to call for pay restraint, or for benefits to be held down, but never for landlords to heed the same advice. The Government continue to consult on a rent cap in the social housing sector. Why is it that private sector tenants are always forgotten about? Announcing the consultation, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said:
“Putting a cap on rent increases for social tenants offers security and stability to families across England.”
Highlighting the potential increases of 11% next year for social tenants, the press release stated that this move would
“prevent rents…from rising significantly.”
When we know that price rises will be the same or potentially higher in the private rented sector, why will the Government not provide the same protection to private renters?
In Scotland, emergency legislation has been announced to freeze rents and establish a six-month moratorium on evictions, for both the private rented and social sectors. That demonstrates that, where the political will exists, action can be taken quickly and decisively to provide relief for tenants. What analysis of that legislation have the UK Government carried out? Would the Government be minded to announce a similar pause on evictions?
A dramatic increase in the availability of buy-to-let mortgages, little growth and access to the social rented sector, and now skyrocketing interest rates caused by a mix of backwards ideology and financial illiteracy, have led to a growth in the number of households renting privately. The lack of housing affordability and tenant security in the private rented sector go hand in hand. The cost of frequent, unwanted moves makes people worse off, and money spent on rent is money that is not spent on putting down a deposit or saving for a mortgage.
The hon. Member cites the experience in Scotland, where they have had to introduce rent controls on the back of abolishing section 21; is he advocating that we should adopt rent controls for the private rented sector?
Yes, I am. I thought I had laid out that argument quite clearly. We have a system in which housing benefit subsidises landlords who own property. A much wiser use of that money would be to use it to build new council housing. That saves money in the long run, and allows those living in the properties to have the sense of belonging and security that is vital to wellbeing.
Frankly, successive Governments have not taken this problem seriously enough. The Government must recognise the damaging consequences of this delay and announce what is vital legislation as soon as possible. The promise to abolish no-fault evictions was included in the Conservative manifesto of 2019. The renters reform Bill was included in the Queen’s Speech of December 2019. Three and half years, three Prime Ministers and four Secretaries of State later, that legislation has still not been put before the House.
It is no surprise that many organisations simply do not trust the Conservative party to deliver on these much-needed reforms. Just a few weeks ago, in one of her many U-turns, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) had to reassure the House that it was her policy to press ahead with banning no-fault evictions, after reports had suggested the opposite. Anyone seeking another example of the Government’s half-hearted approach in this area need look no further. Even today, we see another change in Administration. Who knows whether that manifesto commitment will be kept or tossed aside?
We need to see action, not more delay. That is the very least that private renters deserve. We need to keep tenants in their homes. Will the Government investigate incentives to sell with tenants in situ? What will they do to work more closely with councils to help them to create and buy more social housing? Will they look at unfreezing housing benefit, which is currently lagging way behind rents? Will the Minister explain why social tenants may receive a rent cap, following a consultation, but there have been no similar moves in the private rented sector?
I invite the Minister to meet me and organisations such as the Renters’ Reform Coalition to discuss these matters further. Will he give a clear date for the introduction of legislation? To give security and certainty to tenants, it must be in this parliamentary Session.
Before I finish, I pay tribute again to the fantastic organisations that work in this area, particularly all members of the Renters’ Reform Coalition. To use a term that the Government and their allies hold very dear, the renters reform Bill is oven-ready, so set a date and publish it.
It is a pleasure, Ms Nokes, to speak with you in the Chair. I realise that when you are in a minority of one, although you are not necessarily wrong, it probably increases the chances of your being wrong, so I will probably swim against the tide of some of the speeches in this debate.
Before I go any further, I should say that there is no doubt that there is a problem in the private rented sector. Everybody would like to see a solution so that people who want to live in accommodation for the longer term are able to. However, let me take Members back to 1985, if I can. I was a relatively young estate agent in York. If someone wanted to rent a property back then, they had a very limited choice—it was probably between three or four quite dark and shabby two-bedroom terraced houses off Bishopthorpe Road in York. There was so little choice back then because we did not have section 21, so if someone invested in the private rented sector and rented a property out—if they were a landlord—and somebody occupied their property, in effect they did so permanently, if they wanted. Members might think that is a really good idea and the solution to our problems; I fear it would lead to many unintended consequences, as it did back then.
Back then we had rent controls. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) may say that having rent controls is a really good thing, but it would end up putting layer upon layer of legislation on top of what the Government are currently thinking of doing in terms of the abolition of section 21. That will lead to more and more regulation, which will lead to less and less supply. Ultimately, that is very counter—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that was the reality of the mid-1980s.
I know we are not here to talk primarily about rent controls, but they go back to at least 1915. On section 21, the hon. Gentleman may be flogging a dead horse. I do not know whether he has seen the briefing from the National Residential Landlords Association, but it says that 70% of landlords could envisage operating without section 21 and another 8% say that it had never been important to them in the first place. The hon. Gentleman may be defending the landlords’ cause, but they may have accommodated the Government’s position and our position already.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I have seen that briefing. That means that in effect somewhere between 20% and 30% of supply might go overnight, or go very quickly, and we have seen that in Scotland—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can shake his head, but it is a reality. We have seen in Scotland a reduction in supply on the back of the abolition of section 21, followed by rent controls.
Back in York in the mid-1980s, what the Government are saying will happen is—
On a point of order, Ms Nokes. I do not mean this with any malice, but I think that the hon. Gentleman should refer to his entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I appreciate that. The hon. Lady could have made an intervention and I would have responded, but she is absolutely right, and I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. For many years, I owned an estate agency lettings business, which I do not own any more. I have, I think, four private rented properties in the private rented sector, but I absolutely do not speak on my own behalf; if anything, I speak on behalf of tenants, because I think that the measures being advocated would lead to a reduction in supply, which would ultimately be massively counterproductive for tenants. That is the conversation we should be having: one about whether or not this idea is good for tenants.
If the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton will just indulge me for a second in terms of responding to his points—he is shaking his head, but if he just listened to my points, it might be useful. Rent controls applied back then. It was not as if rent controls were set according to market value, because there is no market value at that point. As soon as we introduce rent controls, we effectively get rid of market values. That is what happens. Back then the rent offices would compare a property only with other properties that had been rented out, none of which were accessible by the open market. Rent controls take us away from a free market completely.
The Government are also saying that if a landlord needs to reoccupy a property or wants to sell it, they will allow them to do that and ask the tenant to leave on that basis, but that loophole was closed then and it will be closed again. Back then, if someone wanted to ask a tenant to leave, they had to find another house for them. They had to be provided with another house, because the Government did not want that to be used as a back door to getting that tenant out.
To bring the debate back to the merits of ending section 21 evictions, does the hon. Member think that his Government should deliver on their promises, or should they backtrack on them?
My speech is very much in the context of section 21, in that the end of section 21 will not be the end of such measures. I do not think we should abolish section 21, certainly not without more measures relating to how we deal with section 8, which is the other mechanism for getting to grips with difficult tenants—difficult not just for the landlord, but for communities. Some 50% of section 21 notices are used to get people who are guilty of criminal or antisocial behaviour out. Let us not forget the impact of what the hon. Gentleman proposes on local communities.
It’s your Government.
I have spoken to every single Government Minister about my opposition to their plans. Section 8 uses a court-based process. It takes around eight months to get somebody out of a property using section 8. If a person is guilty of antisocial behaviour or is well behind on the rent—measures cannot be taken until somebody is about two months behind—it will take months. It is not that much of a problem for Legal and General, Grainger, Fizzy Living or whatever. They have thousands of properties. If they have a few dodgy tenants, they can blend that problem across their whole estate, so everybody pays for the tenants who make trouble, do not pay their rent or behave in an antisocial manner. What about the small landlord?
I like it when the Opposition talk about business. They always talk about small and medium-sized businesses, as do I. They say that we should abolish section 21, but if someone with one or two properties has a tenant who does not pay their rent for eight months, for whatever reason, that can be devastating to their investment, so lots of SMEs will exit the marketplace, particularly if we abolish section 21 without first reforming court- based process.
When the section 21 measures were introduced in the Housing Act 1988, we saw a massive increase in supply, which has been very good for tenants. The reality is that in most parts of the country, most yields on properties—the return on capital investment—are pretty low. We are looking at a rental yield of 2% to 4%. Interest rates will be 5%, 6% or higher, so if landlords borrow money to buy a property, most will not get an annual return. Most landlords are not profiteering from the private rented sector—far from it.
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that it is appropriate for people who live in rented accommodation to be subject to the vagaries of the market? We are talking about people who live their lives in these homes. What exactly does he envisage they will do in this scenario?
That is an interesting point. The vast majority of people in the private rented sector are happy with the shorter-term nature of rented accommodation. I wish the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton, would not shake his head and would listen to what I say. There is a cohort of people who want to live in rented accommodation permanently. They want it as their family home. I absolutely agree that the Government should provide accommodation for those people. The Government should invest in this much more, and provide long-term, affordable rented accommodation and social rented accommodation. That is definitely the Government’s job where there is market failure.
I concede that there are market failures for people who want to live in permanent rented accommodation. I am not against the Government stepping in and ensuring that can happen. However, if they step in, tell the private rented sector to ensure that, and set out the rules that apply to someone who wants to make an investment in the sector, the reality is that we will get a reduction in investment in the private rented sector, which will mean a reduction in supply, which will make it more difficult for the tenants on whose behalf Members are speaking. That is the reality of the situation. So, yes: we should make greater public investment in long-term rental accommodation to deal with this issue. However, we should not tell landlords, who invest their private money in the private rented sector, that they have to let their property for life, which is what the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton is considering.
If the hon. Gentleman wants the private rented sector to do that, a way of dealing with the issue would be to offer incentives for that. We could look at capital gains tax, for example; perhaps people who are willing to rent their property for a much longer period—for five or 10 years, or maybe even for life—could get beneficial capital gains tax treatment. Alternatively, we could reverse some of the changes we made in the Finance (No. 2) Act 2015, in which we restricted mortgage interest in the private rented sector; that was pretty damaging for lots of landlords in the sector. We could say to landlords, “We are no longer limiting the way you can deduct interest against your annual rental income, as long as you’re willing to rent your property out for longer, or for life, to give security of tenure to those kinds of tenants.”
I will conclude very shortly, Ms Nokes. The other unintended consequence of what the hon. Gentleman proposes is that private rented sector landlords will prioritise the best tenants. They will not take a risk because of concerns about non-payment of rent. You are going to disadvantage the people you seek to protect through the measures that the Government are planning and that the Opposition—
Order. Not “you”—that would be me.
I am ever so sorry. That is the first time I have done that in seven years in this place. What is being proposed will disadvantage the people the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton, seeks to protect.
I am fully convinced the Government will push ahead with the proposals, and that the Opposition will double down on this if they ever get into Government. I am just saying that they should be careful what they wish for, because this would be very damaging for the people they seek to protect.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have a quarter share in a private rental somewhere in the country—it was an accidental rental. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), for bringing this issue to the House and giving us the opportunity to talk about it today. His speech was absolutely excellent. I am grateful for the chance to add my two penn’orth.
As we should all know by now, the economic crisis is putting families at financial risk. Spiking mortgage rates are not just affecting homeowners, but causing massive worries to renters, so it was appalling to see reports that the Government were going to drop rental reform. The Conservative party has promised these reforms over and again without, it appears, ever starting to act on its promise. I can only hope that the incoming Prime Minister will see how the issues of economic stability, renters’ rights and homelessness are linked, but I am not holding my breath. To help families in this country, mortgage rate projections need to come down, inflation needs to be controlled and the economic damage done by this Conservative Government over years needs to be repaired. We can surely all see that. To prevent homelessness from rising even further, the Government need to repair their policy on renters’ rights as well, which means honouring the promise in the Conservative manifesto and finally ending section 21.
Let me tell the Minister a little bit about Newham, just in case he has not come across it during his tenure. We have the highest homelessness rate and the second highest child poverty rate in the country. At the last count, before the cost of living crisis hit, one in 22 people in Newham was homeless. That mostly means that families are stuck in poor-quality temporary accommodation month after month, year after year. That can be a hotel with no facilities for cooking or for washing clothes, and there is a huge cost to the council and a massive cost to those who wait. Imagine having children but no cooking facilities at all. Imagine how expensive and unhealthy that is. In those circumstances, it is massively difficult for people to live a normal life and to give their children the opportunities that all our children deserve. How much worse will that get now, with rents, bills and mortgages all rocketing? We have seen estimates that private rents in London have increased by as much as 16% over the past year. Whose wages are going up by that much?
Let me talk about Syeda, who has been on the waiting list for social housing in Newham for 15 years. She lives with her husband and three children in a basement flat. She and all her children, who are between the ages of five and 18, sleep in one room. Her children are afraid to sleep alone because of the recurring rat infestation, and they have to do their homework on the floor. Understandably, they are falling behind at school. Syeda’s children have increasing breathing difficulties and frequent illnesses because of the severe damp and mould. Syeda has a disability, which makes getting up and down the stairs to the flat very difficult. Unsurprisingly, her mental health is damaged by the family’s awful living situation.
Syeda’s landlord has served them with a section 21 notice, and her family are on the verge of homelessness. The landlord says they want to make comprehensive repairs—from hearing the description, that is absolutely necessary—but instead of recognising the duty that they owe their existing tenants, they are ending the contract. They will no doubt seek a massively higher rent from new tenants once—or if, frankly—any repairs have been effected. Section 21 gives exploitative landlords a free hand to abuse families such as Syeda’s. It makes it much easier for rents to be ramped up far beyond what local people can afford and, frankly, what the property is worth.
Morgan is a single mum of four who already works almost full time. One of her children has a disability. Morgan is on the local housing register and has been waiting for a social home for 18 years. That would be shocking if it was not normal. Until she found her flat, Morgan was in temporary accommodation. She and her children were moved five times from place to place, and had to deal with rats, mould and the additional cost that moving entailed. Her current home ain’t great. It is in bad disrepair, with mould, leaks and broken lights. The flat costs Morgan £1,800 a calendar month—barely affordable even before prices started to increase so much. Having the flat avoids the need for constant moving and the consequent costs, and it is close to Morgan’s work and her children’s schools, but the landlord wants to increase her rent for that poorly maintained flat to £2,500 per month—an almost 50% increase. It beggars belief.
What can Morgan do when the law is on the landlord’s side? What will the Government do to help Morgan and the hundreds of thousands of Morgans and Syedas? I want to hear a really clear reassurance from the Minister that this Government will bring forward a Bill to abolish section 21, and will implement the comprehensive protections for renters that are urgently and desperately needed. If rapid progress is not made, there is surely only one conclusion that we can draw: that this Government and their previous incarnations in the past 12 years have not given a stuff for the plight of renters in Newham, London and across this country. What we need, not just for renters but for the entire fabric of our society, is a general election, and a Labour Government, now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I, too, think that we need reform for renters. I disagree with the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) that all landlords think that that would be detrimental to them. There has to be a partnership between landlords and renters, and in most cases that goes very well, but we need to protect renters more. That is my firm conviction as a landlord and as a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament.
As the cost of living rises, people in my constituency facing a choice between paying unsustainable rent or becoming homeless. People have been put in a desperate situation, one that is shameful for the fifth richest country in the world. Severe shortages of social housing mean that more people depend on the private rental market, which can be expensive and insecure.
Section 21 evictions make these issues worse. They tie renters into insecure situations and leave landlords with total control. Earlier this year, Shelter found that since the Government’s original commitment to the ban, more than 200,000 private renters were served with a section 21 eviction notice. That gives private renters just two months to find another home, uprooting their entire life, as we have heard. Section 21 evictions create a culture of fear among private renters. They give landlords the leverage to exert undue power. Private renters may complain to their landlord about problems that the landlord should fix, including damp and mould, but in the case of rogue landlords, that sometimes makes it even more likely that they will face eviction. Indeed, private renters who complain about such issues are almost twice as likely to be evicted within six months than those who say nothing. We are creating an atmosphere of fear: people do not say to their landlord directly what needs sorting out, although they are living in unsuitable accommodation. As a landlord, I do not want that. I want people to have good housing, and I do not want other private landlords to get away with providing unsuitable accommodation. People should never be forced to live in poor conditions because they are frightened of an unreasonable landlord.
Shorthold tenancies leave renters at risk of significant rent increases and unfair no-fault evictions. The English housing survey found that a quarter of private renting households in England were finding it difficult to pay rent. The south-west is particularly struggling. Rent prices are soaring in my constituency of Bath. I see constituent after constituent who is at the end of what they can do; they are in a desperate situation.
Renters are already experiencing excruciating pressure. The support has not kept up with the real cost of living and the real cost of renting. That leaves people with a choice of either paying rent or buying food. Numerous organisations have warned that the current crisis will increase homelessness. Section 21, which is already a leading cause of homelessness, will make that even worse. Nearly 20,000 households in England faced homelessness last year as a result of section 21. The number is set to rise in the cost of living crisis.
Our renting laws provide little security. They make it very difficult to plan for eviction. Renters have been living with huge uncertainty during the recent economic shocks. Research by Shelter found that last year nearly 40% of private renters felt anxious and experienced increased mental health issues because of housing problems. People are being placed under horrific stress by rising bills and prices. We must do all we can to ensure that tenants have a safe place to live. Ending section 21 evictions should be just the start. We must promote longer tenancies to give renters more security. We must unfreeze the local housing allowance to ensure that benefits are closely aligned with rent rates, and we need to introduce mandatory licensing to stop rogue landlords once and for all.
The Liberal Democrats would introduce a new regulator for all private renters and require all private landlords with more than 25 homes to register with it. I personally would go further; everybody should register, so that we can make sure that we have only good rented accommodation for renters in this country, who will increase in number. More and more people live in rented homes. People are worrying about whether they will have a roof over their head. We have a new Government; where is the promised reform? I call on the new Prime Minister to end section 21 evictions. Today would be a good day, or maybe tomorrow or next week. Please ban section 21 evictions now, Prime Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) on securing this debate and on his excellent opening speech; he is a powerful advocate for his constituents.
All private renters deserve a safe and secure home. According to the charity Crisis, 4.4 million households live in the private rented sector, including 1.3 million families with children and 382,000 households over the age of 65. Government statistics show that nearly 20,000 households in England faced homelessness in the last financial year, after having received a section 21, or no-fault, eviction notice. It shows that evictions more than doubled in the last year and are a leading cause of homelessness in England. Although there are landlords who use section 21 properly—for a host of reasons, including to combat things such as antisocial behaviour—Shelter has highlighted that there is a significant proportion of rogue landlords, who use section 21 as an excuse to shirk their responsibilities, preventing tenants from accessing safe, decent and secure homes.
In its 2019 manifesto, the Conservative party pledged a “better deal for renters”, including abolishing no-fault evictions. This year’s Queen’s Speech included a rental reform Bill, one of the main elements of which was to abolish no-fault evictions by removing section 21 of the Housing Act 1988. According to the Government, doing so would provide security for tenants in the private rented sector, and empower them to challenge poor practice and unfair rent increases without fear of retaliatory eviction. That Bill was meant to be introduced during this parliamentary Session, but just a few weeks ago it was reported that the then Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke), was reviewing the policy, and that banning no-fault evictions could be delayed or even scrapped altogether. Two weeks ago, the then Prime Minister was forced to confirm that the ban would go ahead as planned. It is interesting to note that the then Secretary of State said last week that the Government would
“introduce the rental reform Bill in the course of this Parliament.”—[Official Report, 17 October 2022; Vol. 720, c. 355.]
That was echoed by the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the right hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), who said in response to a written question just yesterday:
“Ensuring a fair deal for renters remains a priority for the Government. We intend to legislate in this parliament.”
I hope that the Minister can give us a guarantee today, given that we have another new Prime Minister—our third in a matter of months—that the commitment to banning no-fault evictions will remain the Government’s policy. I hope he can show that the matter needs dealing with as a matter of urgency and commit to bringing forward a ban as soon as possible, because private renters really cannot wait.
Crisis is clear that banning no-fault evictions will help to reduce the number of people pushed into homelessness. However, a ban could risk an increase in evictions through unaffordable rent rises. The Government need to ensure that there are effective protections against that. Rents are increasing sharply across the country. According to the property website Rightmove, in July this year the average advertised rent outside London was 11.8% higher than the year before; in London, it was up by 15.8%. In August, Shelter reported that more than 3,400 households in the private rented sector were evicted by bailiffs between April and June this year—up 39% on the previous quarter.
Research by Shelter found that 64% of private renters said the current economic climate meant that, if they were evicted, they would struggle to afford the cost of moving. This could put more people at risk of becoming homeless. It could also risk private renters being pushed into illegal renting arrangements to make their rent more affordable because they feel they have no other choice, creating situations whereby renters are not named on tenancy contracts and are therefore powerless to get in touch with landlords over mould, damp and other maintenance issues.
Eviction causes misery, bringing uncertainty, upheaval and financial anxiety. The Government must take action and reaffirm their commitment to ending section 21 no-fault evictions as a matter of urgency. I hope the Minister will be able to give us some solid news this afternoon and a date by which that is going to happen.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) on his excellent introduction to the debate.
For far too long, housing has been an investment as opposed to a human right. That is why it is so important that we start turning the equation around and ensuring that everybody has access to housing. The reality is that few people want to live in the private rented sector. They aspire to have a home that they can call their own, but as rents increase, they are unable to save up to live the dream. It is important that we build the housing stock required to meet need now and in the future.
There has been discussion about who exactly is in the private rented sector. People may not wish to live long term in the private rented sector, but too many of our constituents are trapped there. The travesty of this Government is that their economic chaos has probably led hundreds of thousands of people in areas such as mine, who would have wanted to get on the housing ladder in the next couple of months and years, to rethink their plans and stay put.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many people saved up for that much-wanted mortgage, and events in recent days have meant their sales disappearing before their very eyes. Demand for property is outstripping supply, which means that the availability of property is such that hope is fading fast for so many people.
This issue is about power and control—about who has wealth and who has none in our country. More and more is being extracted from people who are desperate just to have a level playing field. That is why this debate is so important. If a Government have given their word to the electorate, they should keep it—not least when we are dealing with a significant housing crisis. York so exemplifies a place where there is housing chaos and challenge that I would invite the Minister—if he remains in his place this afternoon—to visit us and see what is really happening.
Will the hon. Member give way?
I will continue my speech for the moment, if I may. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton highlighted the sudden 52% increase in the number of evictions this year. There is a reason for that, and the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) referred to it: section 24 of the Finance (No. 2) Act 2015.
We have to look at cause and effect in relation to evictions. In came legislation to curb the advantages of the buy-to-let market, meaning that landlords did not get the tax advantages they had previously had. As a result, they are in negative equity, and are therefore looking at how they can derive a profit. I see that happening in two ways in my constituency: first, landlords putting up rents significantly so that they can break even on their investment; and, secondly, landlords evicting tenants, either to put up rents—that is rare—or to flip the house over to become an Airbnb.
In my constituency, we have seen a sharp increase in the short-term holiday let market. The statistics for whole properties show that back in January 2018 there were 973. Now there are 2,118. That decreases the supply of available housing even more, so if more demand is placed on the market, up go the rents again. People in York are pulling their children out of school, giving notice on their jobs and moving out of the area. That has skewed the local economy. We cannot recruit to our public services, and we are in rapid decline, because those 2,000 homes were built to be residential. With a council that is not building, the market is rapidly becoming overheated; it is broken. When someone can make £700 over a weekend on a property—a party house, as we see in the Airbnb market in York—or £945 on rent every month, why would they hang around and not flip their property? That is how the section 21 notices are being used in the residential areas of York. It is breaking communities and harming the market. It also shows how broken the whole market is.
On top of that, the local housing allowance does not meet the levels required, for people who would much prefer to be in social housing. We have to look at the broad rental market area, which is far too large. When there is a heated-up housing market, people who cannot get into social housing also cannot get into private housing, and they have nowhere to go.
The hon. Lady is making a good point about holiday homes. Does she concede that section 24, which limits mortgage interest for people who provide homes to the private rented sector but does not apply to holiday homes, is one incentive to make a property a holiday home? If section 21 were abolished, there would be at least two reasons to provide a holiday home, rather than a property to the private rented sector.
The hon. Member makes a point, but it is not an either/or scenario. I appreciate that it is a mess, but the Government have to mop up that mess, as it is of their own making. The fact we have seen landlords rapidly flip their properties demonstrates the urgency of addressing the issue.
I hope hon. Members will support my private Member’s Bill—the Short-term and Holiday-let Accommodation (Licensing) Bill—which is due to have its Second Reading on 9 December. I am looking to license the short-term holiday let market to provide security and allow local authorities the control to prevent some of that flipping. We have to get to the source of the problems. I trust the Minister will address that today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank and commend the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) for setting the scene. In Northern Ireland, we do not have section 21 evictions. We have a different system. However, I want to add my support to what the hon. Gentleman and other Members have said.
In the 2019 Queen’s Speech, the Government led by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) stated that abolishing section 21 evictions was one of the main housing priorities. Sadly, today’s debate shows that that was not the case. This issue is so important. Although we do not have section 21 notices in Northern Ireland, housing uncertainty is an issue across the whole UK, so it is great to be here to discuss what we can do to ensure stable housing for our constituents. There are colleagues here who have constituents who are clearly under pressure.
Since the Queen’s Speech in 2019, it has been reported that over 25,000 evictions have been handed out. That is 25,000 families plunged into complete disarray, with their security and shelter taken away. While I understand that there are circumstances where landlords may have to ask their tenants to leave the property, it is completely unjustified to give them no reason and no time to get an alternative property organised. The number of claims under section 21 legislation has fallen since 2019, purely down to the eviction ban over lockdown. Now we are back to some sense of normality, there is no doubt this fear for private renters is back on the rise. As life returns to normal, evictions are back on the agenda.
Back home in Northern Ireland, the rental sector falls under the Department for Communities, as opposed to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities here on the mainland. Under Housing Rights guidelines, there are a set of rules that landlords must follow. If they are not abided by, the council has a right to consider prosecution. Notice is one of the key features of the process, and it depends on how long the tenant has been renting from the landlord. There are 8,406 private rental transactions in Northern Ireland—a 1.3% increase since 2018.
The three council areas that fall into my constituency area are Ards and North Down, Lisburn and Castlereagh, and Newry, Mourne and Down. The highest number of private rentals is in Ards and North Down, where my constituency office lies, with 988 people renting privately. In addition, Ards and North Down has one of the highest average rental prices at £627 per month. I know that does not sound a lot when I hear the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) refer to £1,800, but for those back home on a reduced wage it is difficult to match that every month.
We must take action to ensure that our constituents have security of tenure, especially in the coming months, when the rising of living and the cold winter pose further risks for those in fear of being evicted from their properties. Homelessness is a massive issue across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Statutory homelessness figures for England revealed a 105% surge in families facing eviction, which is again very worrying.
In addition, there are already 20,000 people declared homeless in Northern Ireland. I have no doubt that a percentage of those figures are down to unjust evictions through section 21 notices. The Big Issue and Shelter have been instrumental in rental reform and challenging the Government on delays in introducing legislation this parliamentary term to tackle unjust evictions. There is no doubt there is a clear divide in opinion on the issue. However, with the current rise in the cost of living crisis, our constituents need our assurance that we are here to support them and act for them.
I call on the Minister and the new Prime Minister, where the responsibility now lies, to ensure that the legislation is fixed to protect our constituents from homelessness this winter and beyond. I also call on the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to listen to the concerns of tenants and landlords who have the interest of tenant safety and housing stability at the centre and close to their hearts.
It is a pleasure to see the Minister in his place. He answered me very well in a debate last Thursday, and we were all encouraged by that. No pressure, Minister, but we are looking for the same level of response today. There is a Government commitment and I want to see that on paper, in action and legislated for. I also want to ensure that discussions are initiated with relevant Ministers of the devolved Administrations to ensure that Northern Ireland and Scotland, which have different legislation, are not left behind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Nokes, and to take part in a debate instigated by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden).
I will start by trying to agree with the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on this point at least: it is a complex matter to get rid of section 21. Just doing so is not going to be an answer to all our problems in the private rented sector or the housing market as a whole. He took us back to 1985—somewhere I am always happier, politics apart. The housing market was very different in those days. We had just had the Housing Act 1985, which introduced secure tenancy for local authority tenants. A few years later, the Housing Act 1988 introduced assured tenancies, which are still the default tenancy, and are the main—should be the exclusive—tenancy for other social landlords, such as housing associations. We also had protected and controlled tenancies. Other Members with constituencies such as mine, with large private rented sectors, will still come across some protected tenancies, which predate that Act. Generally speaking, those tenants have had, by definition, decades-long good relationships with landlords, fuelled by the fact that they not only have security but a degree of rent control—a fair rent, though not entirely.
That is an interesting point, but the hon. Gentleman will concede that when trying to sell a property with a protected tenancy, the value is usually about 30% below market value. If he is suggesting that that would be the effect of abolishing section 21, that would have a very detrimental effect on property values throughout the country.
I will develop my argument and hope to take in that point.
I was giving the background to saying that the one thing that dramatically changed—one of the most fundamental changes in housing law, in the Housing Act 1988—was the ability to opt out of an assured tenancy and create an assured shorthold tenancy. Some social landlords do that; I deprecate it, but they do. Certainly, most private landlords would do that. That was a real change: introducing the free market, changing the relationship between landlord and tenant, and treating people’s homes as commodities for the first time. It is not that most landlords are not well intentioned or do not look after their tenants or, indeed, that they are not entitled to make a return on their investments, but I fundamentally believe there is a slightly different relationship because we are dealing with someone’s home.
The dramatic effect of that is disguised by the fact that—even in 1989, after council house sales had been going for most of a decade but had not really taken off—we still had a thriving social housing market in the 1980s. It was the first port of call for people who wanted a secure home in the rented sector. That disguised the full effect of assured shorthold tenancy and section 21. The briefing we have from Crisis for this debate tells us that 1.3 million families with children now live in the private rented sector of nearly 4.5 million households. I am sure that most of them would prefer the security and affordability of living in the social housing sector, but that is simply not open to them.
The dramatic decline in social housing really began with austerity in 2010, with the almost complete eradication of the social housing grant, after which more and more pressures and misery were piled on social landlords. Post Grenfell, we now have essential work on fire safety, but it is costing individual landlords tens of millions of pounds and they are getting very little of that back from the building safety fund. There is also retrofitting to comply with environmental standards. There are all those issues, along with the lack of resources among housing associations.
I have a major housing association in my constituency that has no build programme until at least 2030. It is selling off hundreds of its properties as they become void, just to make ends meet. The social housing that was the first port of call for people who wanted secure, affordable rented accommodation is no longer there for many people. As for the other source, which was through planning gain, I am afraid we are still—despite the best efforts of the Mayor of London and others, along with individual councils—subject to viability assessments. Therefore, we are not in any way delivering the degree of social housing that we need to.
Such is the context in which we see the private rented sector. It will take time and a Labour Government, I am afraid, to turn that round. I wish the last Labour Government had done more on building social housing and possibly on reforming the private rented sector. Yet as I say, the problems were not as apparent then; they are now. It will take years to build the properties we need. To make the substantive changes in the law, we probably need another major piece of housing legislation. In the time it takes to turn that round, the private rented sector has to be reformed; that is a quicker option. That includes getting rid of no-fault evictions to give people that basic security, but that will not be sufficient in itself. It has to be done in the round.
We have to look at rent levels; if landlords can put rents up as high as they want to, that will just be another way of evicting people without due cause. We have to look at disrepair, which is worse than I have seen it for 20 or 30 years. We have to look at what the exemptions and exceptions are that would allow a landlord to evict. Clearly, there have to be some, but if there are too many and they are too vague, we will simply be replacing one type of no-fault eviction with another.
I do not say all that to get the Government to say, “We will take this away and bring it back in a couple of years’ time.” We would like the Minister to keep the promise that has been made. I know it was a couple of Prime Ministers ago—I think it was last week—but I think we heard from the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) that this was still part of the legislative agenda. I hope it still is and I hope they get on with it and do it. What they must not do is think that that is the end of the matter. We will have to wait for a Labour Government to have wholesale housing reform, but if the Minister is going to surprise me on that, I will be very grateful.
This is my last point. I mentioned earlier that the National Residential Landlords Association had given a very thoughtful briefing for this debate. As a body, it is helpful in engaging with people, including with tenants’ organisations and trying to represent decent landlords in that way—all their members probably are decent landlords, because indecent landlords would probably not be members of the NRLA. It specifically mentioned improving tenants’ access to legal support. That is absolutely vital, whereas other things that the Government are doing are not.
If tenants want to challenge matters—even section 21 notices can be challenged if they have not been properly served or executed, or if there are other matters, or if there has been harassment—legal advice is very important. Next April, the Government will impose fixed recoverable costs, which means that not-for-profit organisations such as law centres and those few solicitors who still operate under legal aid will not be able to subsidise their housing work by recovering costs inter partes in that way. I have nothing against fixed recoverable costs in principle, but in practice they will mean a further collapse in the housing legal sector, which in turn will mean that it will be increasingly difficult for people to challenge matters.
The other issues that the NRLA raised are local housing allowance and universal credit, including the delay in paying universal credit, and the gap between what housing allowance gives and the actual cost of properties. Those are all legitimate points. If the Government think they will get a big tick from the private rented sector—any part of it—simply by dealing with the section 21 issue, I need to disabuse the Minister of that notion. Nevertheless, we would like to hear a little more confirmation about what the Government are going to do to about the situation—most of these people, whether they would prefer to be in social housing or to be owner-occupiers, increasingly do not want to be in the private rented sector.
If we had a decent and thriving private rented sector, then some people would make it their first choice, but many people are in the sector because they have no other option. They have run out of options in terms of their living conditions, their overcrowding, their security and the amount of rent they have to pay. The sector needs a proper look. Since the Housing Act 1988, we have declined into a society in which people’s right to a decent home—that is a human right, although if we are going to have another change of Lord Chancellor, perhaps it will not remain one for very long—has declined. The Government need to look at this sector in the round. They cannot just say, “We will do one or two piecemeal things”. They cannot tinker with the housing market; it needs full, wholesale reform.
It is a pleasure, Ms Nokes, to serve with you in the Chair.
This has been an important and timely debate because, as we have heard in the many excellent contributions this afternoon, the problems inherent in a sector that for far too many renters has always been characterised by insecurity, high rents and poor conditions, have become far more acute over recent months, as those renting privately struggle to cope with the impact of high inflation and rising prices.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) on securing the debate and on the characteristically powerful way in which he opened it. He always speaks with strength and clarity on behalf of his constituents and he did so again today, making a powerful case that overhauling the private rented sector in Liverpool and across the country is a matter of the utmost urgency.
I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for West Ham (Ms Brown), for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), as well as the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), for their excellent contributions. Although there are common problems and solutions, I am always mindful of the fact that there are different “geographies” of renting and challenges that are specific to certain parts of the country. The debate usefully highlighted that point.
Doubtless it was not the choice of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton, but when I read the title of this debate late last week it struck me as somewhat odd, given its implicit suggestion that the merits of ending section 21 evictions are still essentially being contested. While there are, of course, those who remain resolutely opposed to reform of any kind, the reality is that there is now a broad political consensus on the need to ban these so-called no-fault evictions. It is obvious why such a consensus exists. As things stand, and as we have heard again today, landlords can evict tenants, after giving as little as two months’ notice, at any point after their fixed-term tenancy has come to an end. They do not have to give a reason for doing so, or even have one.
As a result, large numbers of private renters live day to day in the knowledge that they could be uprooted with little notice and minimal justification, if any. With the threat of summary evictions hanging over them, a significant proportion of those people concentrated at the lower end of the private rental market, who have little or no purchasing power, have to put up with appalling conditions for fear that a complaint will lead to an instant retaliatory eviction. Far too many tenants are evicted each year using a section 21 notice, which is why it is a leading cause of homelessness in England. Abolishing section 21 no-fault evictions is therefore long overdue and will give private renters much-needed security in their homes.
The available evidence also suggests that scrapping section 21 is likely to provide private renters with greater certainty and control over their lives without any corresponding detrimental consequences—unintended or otherwise—or disruption. I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) to research carried out by Shelter into the impact of the effective abolition of no-fault evictions in Scotland, following the introduction of new private residential tenancy agreements there in 2017. It found that the measure had no discernible impact on either the size or functioning of the private rented sector there, or on increased levels of homelessness.
I add my thanks to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) for bringing forward the debate. He raised some good points at the start of his speech, which we should consider.
The hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) might be interested to know that, in the past year, UK rents have risen fastest in Scotland. If he was including me among the people who do not want any reform, then he should not: I absolutely do want to see reform. I would like to see property rental standards that landlords must adhere to, and reforms of the section 21 process, but just not the abolition we are talking about today.
I deliberately did not assign to the hon. Gentleman a blanket position of “no reform”, but I think that, on this point, he is fundamentally wrong. We need reform, on section 21 and more widely; I will come on to that point.
That research for Shelter is telling because the predictions made by landlord groups in Scotland prior to the introduction of PRT agreements, including that they would kill the sector entirely, have ultimately not come to pass. We should have that at the forefront of our minds when vested interests in the English sector warn of the dire consequences of renters reform.
We in the Opposition still appreciate that good landlords may still harbour concerns about how reform will impact them. We recognise that when section 21 evictions are finally abolished, landlords will need recourse to robust and effective grounds for possession in circumstances where there are good reasons for taking a property back—for example, anti-social or criminal behaviour. We also share the sector’s concern about how ongoing delays in court proceedings could impact on a landlord’s ability to make use of such grounds. However, it is a welcome sign that most landlords and landlord associations now appreciate that greater security and better rights and conditions for tenants are the future of the lettings sector.
When it comes to reforming the private rented sector, scrapping section 21 evictions is obviously not the end of the matter. Among a wide range of necessary measures, we need action on standards to address the shameful fact that one in five private rented homes does not meet the decent homes standard, and one in 10 has a category 1 hazard posing a risk of serious harm. We need changes to landlord-to-tenant notice periods and a national register of landlords. We must make it illegal for landlords and agents to refuse to let to renters claiming benefits, and we need effective measures to address unreasonable within-tenancy rises.
Those go alongside other reforms that are desperately needed. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central will know, we have argued for many months in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill Committee that the Government must act with far more urgency on the growing short-term and holiday lets sector. That is why Labour has made clear that, in Government, we will introduce a new renters’ charter, a new statutory decent homes standard, and take action on short-term and holiday lets.
Thankfully, there is significant consensus across the Chamber on the need to reform the sector more fundamentally, and a number of the measures that I have just outlined were in the White Paper published by the Government earlier this year. The problem is that, as things stand, not only do we not have any firm parliamentary timeline for a renters reform Bill, but, given the disarray within Government, we do not even have the certainty that one will ultimately come forward in this Parliament or, if it eventually does, that it will contain all the proposals set out in the White Paper. As such, I would like to use the opportunity presented by this debate to ask the Minister two simple questions to which private renters following our proceedings will expect answers.
First—as many hon. Members have asked today, and as I have asked many times without receiving a satisfactory answer—when do the Government plan to finally introduce a renters reform Bill? It was in the Conservative party manifesto, so presumably the Government intend to have it secure Royal Assent before the end of this Parliament. However, the Minister must appreciate that private renters facing a difficult winter cannot wait until 2024 for the Government to act. If they introduced emergency legislation, we would support it, but private renters deserve at least some assurance today that the Government will make that a priority.
Secondly, can the Minister confirm that if and when it is finally published, the promised renters reform Bill will contain all 12 of the proposed reforms set out in the White Paper? The last piece of legislation that fundamentally altered the relationship between landlord and tenant in England was the Housing Act 1988, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith rightly made clear in incredible detail, the private rented sector has changed beyond recognition in the more than three decades since that legislation was put on the statute book. It is simply no longer possible to regard its role as primarily a residual tenure for those temporarily unable to access owner occupation or social housing.
Some 11 million people now rent from a private landlord. As well as the young and mobile, the sector now houses many older people and families with young children, for whom greater security and certainty is essential to a flourishing life. At the end of the day, that is what we need to be thinking about here—not the price of housing or the commodification elements involved in the sector. To ensure that private renters get a fair deal, we in this place need to transform how the private rented sector is regulated and level the playing field between landlords and tenants.
As hon. members have said, it is now well over three years since the Conservative Administration of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) promised to abolish section 21 no-fault evictions. In that time, over 45,000 households have been threatened with homelessness as a result of section 21 evictions, and the figures released so far this year suggest that possession claims resulting from them are increasing markedly as the cost of living crisis intensifies. It is high time that the Government stopped talking a good game about renters reform and got on with legislating for it, and the Minister needs to make it clear this afternoon that they will do so.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I thank all hon. Members present for their considered contributions to the debate. It was valuable to hear real-life examples from different Members’ constituencies. To those who have invited me to visit, such as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), I say that I will be delighted to do so if I remain in post.
I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) for securing this important debate on the merits of ending section 21 evictions. He made a number of pertinent points regarding issues in the private rented sector. Those issues are faced in all our constituencies, including my own constituency of Pendle, and the Government are committed to tackling them.
As Members will know, the private rented sector is the second largest tenure in England. More than 11 million people call the private rented sector home, and it represents around 19% of households in England. Many of those households—1.3 million of them—are families with children. It is right that they and all tenants feel that their rented house is a home and that they can take jobs and start schooling, confident in the knowledge that they have long-term security. Right now, families across the country are worried about having to uproot their lives at short notice, and millions of tenants have less security than those who own their own homes or are in social housing. That does not need to be the case and should not be.
Everyone deserves a secure and safe home, and the Government are committed to ensuring a fair deal for renters. To do that, we will introduce a renters reform Bill in this Parliament to protect tenants, support responsible landlords and improve standards across the private rented sector. The reforms will be the largest changes to private renting for a generation, so we know how important it is to get them right. We are grateful to those across the sector who have worked closely with the Government on developing the reforms, and we will continue to listen to their concerns, just as I will ensure that the concerns set out by hon. Members are reflected in our responses.
Hon. Members are right to mention the insecurity caused by section 21 no-fault evictions. It is not right that a landlord can ask a tenant to leave without giving a reason, and with as little as two months’ notice. The Government are clear that they want to support the majority of landlords, who act responsibly, but it is not right for tenants to live in fear that their lives may be uprooted at the whim of a minority of rogue landlords. Too many tenants do not complain about dangerous conditions, criminal behaviour or unjustified rent increases, fearing they will be subject to revenge evictions if they do.
As we have set out in our manifesto, which has been mentioned by several Members, and confirmed in the House, the Government are committed to abolishing section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 and giving millions of private renters a secure home.
At the same time, we will simplify complex tenancy structures and move all tenants who currently have an assured tenancy or assured shorthold tenancy on to a single system of periodic tenancies, which will allow either party to end the tenancy when they need to. This will enable tenants to leave poor-quality properties without remaining liable for the rent or to move more easily when their circumstances change, such as when they take up a new job opportunity. Landlords will always have to provide a specific reason for ending a tenancy, which will provide greater security for tenants while retaining the important flexibility that private rented accommodation offers. This will enable tenants to put down roots and plan for the future.
The Minister is clearly aware of the very difficult circumstances that face so many of our constituents. I said in my contribution that 200,000 people have been evicted because the Government have not acted since they promised to act. If the new Prime Minister leaves the Minister present in his job, will he give us a sense of urgency that the Government are going to act?
We are in strong agreement that we need to act. It has not been mentioned too many times today—[Interruption.] Well, the hon. Gentleman will remember that the December 2019 manifesto was soon followed by a global pandemic, when the Government took swift and decisive action to protect tenants across the country, so we have taken action. However, we were unfortunately unable to pursue other legislative priorities included in the manifesto with as much speed and vigour as we wanted. We are making significant progress, though. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the White Paper was published in June and some of the consultations that came under it closed only earlier this month.
Just to clarify—I think it might be helpful. I think the Minister said it is the Government’s intention to introduce a renters reform Bill in this Parliament. Will he give us a firm commitment today that the Government intend to make the necessary parliamentary time available to get that Bill on to the statute book by the time this Parliament ends?
I thank the shadow Minister for that remark. It is very much the priority of the Government to introduce the Bill and provide parliamentary time for it to proceed. Obviously, the Government’s policies can change, but, in today’s speech, the new Prime Minister underlined his commitment and the new Government’s commitment to the Conservative party’s 2019 manifesto, which included commitments in this area. I am sure that, whether it is myself or another Minister in post, this will remain a priority for the Government and we will want to bring forward the legislation in good time so that it can go through all the stages before the next general election.
We know that landlords need certainty, too. If a tenant needs to leave a tenancy, we will increase the amount of notice they must give. This will ensure that landlords recoup the costs of finding a new tenant and avoid lengthy void periods. The new system will be simpler for tenants and landlords to understand, enabling them to exercise their rights and fulfil their obligations. We are striking the right balance between improving security for tenants and ensuring that landlords continue to feel confident to invest in the market.
Good landlords play a vital role in providing homes for millions of people across the country, and we want to reassure them that the new system will continue to be a stable market for landlords to invest and remain in. No one will win if our reforms do not support landlords as well as tenants.
It is only right that landlords should be able to get their properties back when their circumstances change or tenants break the rules. We will reform the grounds of possession so that they are comprehensive, fair and efficient. We will streamline the possession process, removing unnecessary restrictions on landlords seeking to recover their properties, introduce a new ground for landlords wishing to sell their property and allow landlords and their close family members to move into a rental property. This, alongside the existing grounds for moving in, will give landlords confidence that they can get their property back if their circumstances change.
The vast majority of tenants abide by the rules, but landlords have told us how difficult it is to act when they are unfortunate enough to have an antisocial tenant. Antisocial behaviour causes misery to a tenant’s neighbours and the wider community. Where a tenant’s behaviour cannot be addressed in the property, we will support landlords to end the tenancy. In cases of criminal or serious antisocial behaviour, we will reduce the notice period, with landlords being able to make a claim to the courts immediately. We will explore prioritising those cases in court so that communities do not have to suffer for longer than necessary. We are working across Government to develop guidance for landlords on identifying and addressing antisocial behaviour, and we welcome further input from hon. Members on what we can do to further support landlords with antisocial tenants. Alongside that, we will continue to listen to landlords who provide much-needed accommodation for the thousands of students across the UK every year, to ensure that the sector continues to work for those in higher education.
Hon. Members here will agree that going to court should be the last resort when all other avenues have been exhausted, but sometimes it is unavoidable. Court proceedings can be costly and time-consuming for landlords, which is why we are working with the Ministry of Justice and His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to streamline the process and ensure that the most serious cases are prioritised. Alongside that, we are reviewing the bailiff process. It is currently the biggest source of frustration and delays for landlords, and we want to make sure that it is as efficient as possible.
Removing section 21 will help millions of tenants, but we understand that many are facing real pressures with the cost of living now. That is why the Government have provided over £37 billion-worth of cost of living support this year to those who need it most. We have also announced unprecedented support to protect households and businesses from the high cost of energy. The energy price guarantee and the energy bill relief scheme are supporting millions of businesses with rising energy costs. That is in addition to the £400 discount already announced through the energy bill support scheme. We have boosted investment in the local housing allowance by nearly £1 billion since 2020, and we are maintaining housing allowance rates at that increased level this year. Those most at risk of homelessness are able to access discretionary housing payments, alongside £316 million-worth of financial support through the homelessness prevention grant.
Finally, several hon. Members have raised the issue of the poor quality of some private rented homes. Most landlords and agents treat their tenants fairly and provide good-quality, safe homes. However, that is not always the case. Too many of the 4.4 million households that rent privately still live in poor conditions, paying a large proportion of their income to do so. Poor-quality housing undermines renters’ health and wellbeing, and we are determined to act. More than one in 10 privately rented homes have serious health and safety hazards that we need to address, as mentioned by the shadow Minister. We have strengthened local authorities’ enforcement powers by introducing financial penalties of up to £30,000, extending rent repayment orders and introducing banning orders for the most serious and prolific offenders, but we intend to go much further.
I hope that all Members here recognise that the Government are committed to reforming the private rented sector in a fair and balanced way, abolishing no-fault section 21 evictions and providing more clarity for landlords when seeking repossession. We are committed to giving tenants more security, meaning that they can stay in their communities and put down roots. In that spirit, I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton for his thoughtful speech, and hon. Members across the Chamber for their contributions. Delivering a fair deal for renters through these reforms remains a priority for this Government, and I look forward to working with hon. Members to deliver on that agenda.
It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank all the Members who have contributed. There has been widespread agreement and support for these changes. I will finish on this point alone: our constituents are facing a terrible winter, with economic pressures from all sides. I encourage the Minister to start the process of acting on these commitments. The Government could act now to cap rents and stop evictions, as our constituents face a torrid winter.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the potential merits of ending section 21 evictions.
Super Health Hub in Plymouth City Centre
I will call Luke Pollard to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up; that is the convention for 30-minute debates.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government support for a potential super health hub in Plymouth city centre.
It is good to see you in the Chair today, Ms Nokes. Plymouth’s NHS is in crisis. Our brilliant NHS and social care staff are working their socks off. The health crisis is not their fault. Things in Plymouth are getting worse, with severe ambulance waiting times, a critical shortage of hospital beds at Derriford Hospital, a social care system in crisis, a shortage of GPs and gaps across our NHS that we simply cannot fill, and we have dentistry waiting lists that last for years. I am here today to deliver a very simple cross-party appeal from Plymouth for the funding we need to build a super health hub, or Cavell centre, in Plymouth city centre.
I know the Minister is familiar with what a super health hub is, but the genesis of the project is important to understand as it shows Plymouth’s health services and our political parties all working together to deliver something truly transformational for our city. The super health hub project is one that I have been associated with for many years. In October 2018, I proposed that Plymouth should build on the success of the network of health hubs across the city with a super health hub in the city centre, repurposing one part of our city centre and bringing health to the high street. That was in response to GP practices, including the one that I was registered at, handing back their contracts and closing.
The proposal was swiftly adopted and advanced by Plymouth City Council and then ultimately rolled into the nationwide Cavell centre programme. Both Conservative and Labour-run councils in Plymouth recognised the importance of the scheme, which enjoys considerable and locked-in cross-party support. The project goes by many names—the super health hub, the West End health hub, the Cavell centre. They are all different names for the same pioneering development.
The Minister will know that the Cavell centre’s programme, developed by the NHS, has six sites under consideration nationwide, of which Plymouth is by far the furthest advanced. Although it was not funded in the comprehensive spending review, the Plymouth Cavell centre project advanced thanks to financial reassurances from the NHS about using capital underspends elsewhere in the national budget. I am sorry to report that the promised funding is no longer available and the project is now at risk. The Minister confirmed to me about the funding last week. So my job today is simple: to ask the Minister to restore or find from elsewhere the £41 million NHS funding that we need for Plymouth to build the super health hub.
Plymouth’s primary care crisis is acute. In 2019, the BBC’s “Panorama” programme showed the severe problems that staff face at the North Road West medical centre: GP vacancies unable to be filled, severe illness and far too few staff. The practice was due to move into the new super health hub—the West End health hub—into modern facilities, and that is now at risk.
Hiring a GP in Plymouth is almost impossible, especially for the practices in the most deprived areas. We are moving at pace to move to paramedic and senior nurse-led practices, because there are simply no doctors available to provide the healthcare that they might provide elsewhere. As a city, we are innovative and creative because we have to be. One third of Plymouth’s population is currently covered by GP practices with emergency standing contracts, but as more GP surgeries close in our communities and practices hand back their contracts, we need an alternative long-term and large-scale intervention. That is what the super health hub, the Cavell centre project, delivers in buckets.
The new super health hub would provide a number of considerable health benefits. At least three GP surgeries in substandard accommodation, currently with large lists of patients—North Road West medical centre, Adelaide surgery and Armada surgery—would relocate to larger premises where they could see more patients. There would be space for 24/7 out-of-hours GP surgeries and pharmacy and X-ray facilities, enabling earlier diagnosis and better management of conditions, such as weight management, smoking cessation, district and practice nursing facilities, physiotherapy and occupational therapy space, mental health services, drug and alcohol treatment, and nutrition. Importantly, alongside that would be advice and information services, debt assistance and housing support, and access to training and employment, volunteer support, social care and prevention services, all under one roof with a single entrance. People would not have to travel miles and miles and fork out for buses or taxis to see someone who can help. In short, the super health hub in Plymouth is about giving people better chances to live longer, healthier and happier.
The benefit that the super health hub would bring to the area cannot be underestimated. The super health hub is to be built on Colin Campbell Court car park, in Stonehouse. Stonehouse is a community with extreme levels of poverty and deprivation. It is an area full of life and full of good people, but the economic and social picture is challenging and the cost of living crisis is making it worse. Stonehouse is in the bottom 0.2% of communities for super output in the entire country, and in the bottom 1% for nearly every other major economic indicator.
Life expectancy in that community is a full 7.5 years lower than the national average; health outcomes are poorer; cardiovascular and heart disease are found in younger people than elsewhere. A third of our private rented homes are classed as non-decent in that community, school grades are a third lower than the city average, and crime is a considerable scourge. Health problems are exacerbated by poverty. This community is responsible for approximately 20% of Derriford Hospital’s emergency admissions. I say this not to talk Stonehouse down but to make the case that this is a community worthy of investment, priority and attention.
The Cavell centre’s focus on early prevention and good healthcare is key not only to dealing with the health inequalities that we have face as a city but to cutting the ambulance queues at Derriford hospital. At this very moment, nearly 20 ambulances are queuing outside our hospital. Derriford has the fourth worst record in the country for ambulance queues. The pressure on our emergency department is critical. Staff there do an extraordinary job, but we need to find ways of reducing the number of people going to the hospital—not just building better facilities at the hospital but reducing the flow.
As more surgeries and dentists close in our community, the case for a super health hub—a centrally located facility—is more profound and powerful than ever. Bringing health to the high street really helps: it repurposes the city centre with the creation of a new health village, with the super health hub at its heart. Plymouth city centre is a very large, post-war city centre serving a population that has found new ways to shop, so we need to repurpose many of the empty buildings. The Colin Campbell Court part of town is an area that could do with a bit more love. It would not only regenerate a part of our city centre but would create more local jobs and, importantly, healthcare accessible to local people. Every bus in Plymouth goes to the city centre—it is not just about supporting people in Stonehouse; it would support people right across our city to access first-class healthcare services.
We have had some mixed messaging from the NHS about this project. It is well regarded and supported. One part of the national health service believes that the £41 million of capital funding would be available for the project. However, it now seems apparent that the intention to make that funding available is no longer present. I thank the Minister for investigating the funding options and speaking to me and my neighbour, the hon. Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter), so frequently. This issue matters right across Plymouth. A predecessor of the Minister, the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), has also been very helpful. I encourage the Minister to continue being helpful as we look at the options to ensure that we can build a super health hub in Plymouth.
There is considerable support for this project from our local NHS infrastructure, the NHS system and the city as a whole: from the primary care sector to the acute hospital at Derriford; Livewell, our health social enterprise; NHS England; the University of Plymouth; Nudge Community Builders; our local councillors of every party; and our integrated care commission. The project is well supported. But the Minister knows that the capital funding does not exist in the Devon healthcare system to deliver the project without Government support. Without the spending commitment being honoured, the plans for the super health hub in Plymouth will not be able to proceed. The intention was that spades would be in the ground in the new year, once demolition of the site was complete. At this very moment in Plymouth, JCBs are knocking down buildings surrounding the Colin Campbell Court car park in preparation for construction to begin in the early new year.
The business case for the super health hub has been praised locally and regionally, and is supported nationally, but it cannot proceed unless the funding can be allocated within an NHS budget. Because the hub does not neatly fit into an NHS line item, there was always going to be a challenge of sweeping up underspent capital funding from other projects, but being able to do so was the route whereby we could construct this project, as a trail- blazer for the country.
I would like to propose the three ways to proceed that could rescue this project. First, I ask the Minister to look again at the capital underspends across the NHS to see whether a combined effort with our local NHS groups’ funding could deliver this project as a national pilot for a Cavell centre roll-out in every town and city in the country. I would like a research and evaluation project to be attached to this project, so that when it is rolled out the expected massive benefits can be calculated, valued and understood.
Secondly, the Minister knows that so many of the so-called new hospitals are exceeding the spending envelope that has been allocated for them, so that without huge extra sums being allocated to many of the 40 new hospitals, they simply will not be able to proceed. Extra funding is very unlikely given the state of the national finances, but there is a way through. Will the Minister consider whether as part of the Government’s new hospitals programme, funding could be allocated to the Cavell centre programme, delivering a new fleet of pocket hospitals or health hubs before the next general election? It would use only a fraction of the allocated capital budget for the so-called new hospitals.
Work at Derriford’s new emergency department extension starts in the new year. That is because as a city we were further ahead in wanting to invest in our NHS facilities, before the Cavell centre and new hospital programmes were even invented. I encourage the Government to not punish us for being innovative early. I do not mean to do the Government’s PR for them, but I suggest that the super health hub could be the Tesco Express of new hospitals, with everything people need on a regular basis, while still allowing for a big shop at a larger store on an irregular basis. There would be GPs, nurses, physios, diagnostics, X-rays and prevention services on the high street, with the emergency cases, complex treatment and scans at larger hospitals, thus taking pressure off the acute hospitals and ensuring that healthcare is more accessible.
The super health hub is precisely what Dr Claire Fuller’s stocktake of primary care recommends in many ways. The Minister will know that report’s vision for integrating primary care and improving access, with more personalised care available locally to the individuals. The integrated offer is powerful. More importantly, it is more cost-effective than the distributed model we have today, which is failing. It also gives patients more of what they want—more same-day services, less travelling and greater continuity of care—not to mention the expected boost for recruitment and retention of GPs and medical staff in more integrated and better facilities.
The Cavell centre in Plymouth would deliver these objectives, the Government’s own objectives and so much more. That is why I am here to ask for a rethink on the funding—not just to help Plymouth, but to provide a national pilot that the Government could champion nationwide. The building’s design is already set, and it is common across all six Cavell centres across the country. Why not replicate that model elsewhere as well? These pocket hospitals could revolutionise primary and social care.
To raise an issue that is closer to home, we need to be bolder about reimagining our high streets. I have heard the Minister in a previous role talk about the need to put health on the high street and have more innovative city centre and high street models. That is precisely what the Cavell centre model could deliver. I would like to see the Cavell centre in Plymouth be part of a new Plymouth health village, attaching to Plymouth not just a super health hub, but a dental development centre and community diagnostics hubs. It would be a new destination for healthcare. That would not just be for Plymouth; it would be a model for elsewhere. Importantly, that would take pressure off Derriford Hospital, allowing it to breathe and ensuring a better flow through the hospital, which is what we need. While the super health hub project is on pause until we find the funding, can the Minister give reassurances that the other ambitions for the health village—the dental development centre and the community diagnostics hub—will not be sidelined as part of that integrated plan?
If the Minister is looking for shovel-ready projects that demonstrate the Government’s commitment to addressing ambulance times, backlogs, care, doctors and dentistry, this project would be an excellent way of delivering it and, importantly, delivering it quickly. The Minister needs to know that, although I am making the case for this project as a Labour MP, it enjoys cross-party support. Richard Bingley, the Conservative leader of Plymouth City Council, said:
“The Super Health Hub will critically reduce demand on Derriford Hospital and is a key development in addressing some of the vast health inequalities in the area.”
Labour’s Councillor Mary Aspinall said:
“I am absolutely shocked that the rug is being pulled from under this huge investment in our city which would provide about 3,000 appointments a day and employ 250 staff and we will fight for it tooth and nail. People in Plymouth do not deserve to be treated this way.”
I thank all the NHS staff who have been working so hard on the project, not just in Plymouth but in the regional NHS and the national Cavell centre programme. I know the work that they are doing. I will be grateful if the Minister looks again at where £41 million could be found to support our work. For many people, today is the day they learned that that £41 million has been lost. Work was expected to start in just a few weeks’ time, and the news will be a gut punch for many of our GP services, which were hoping to move out of dilapidated premises and into the super health hub. It will be a real dent to our confidence. We know that the problems in primary care will worsen over the winter, and for many people, this was our hope that better days would be ahead.
Such is the strength of feeling that I alone cannot hope to do justice to the case for the super health hub. Will the Minister therefore commit to visit Plymouth and hold a cross-party multi-stakeholder roundtable, so he can hear about the real benefits that the hub would bring to our community? It would be not only a nation-leading project for Plymouth but a trailblazer for healthcare in the rest of Britain.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing the debate, and also make honourable mention of his constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter). The hon. Gentleman raised this matter with me within, I think, hours of my appointment as a Minister, and he raised it assiduously with my predecessors, so I know that it is something about which he is extremely passionate. He has made a very persuasive case for the new centre this afternoon. I join him in thanking NHS doctors, nurses and other staff in Plymouth. I appreciate the strain that services are under at the moment and are likely to be under this winter as we continue to move out of the long shadow cast by the pandemic. I thank them for their service to the NHS.
I will first set out the current situation regarding NHS capital funding and the new arrangements for allocating that funding, as that is critical to understanding the prospects of the health hub project, the merits of which have been laid out very persuasively this afternoon. The Government are backing the NHS with a significant capital settlement, which is welcome and will be a step change for the quality and efficiency of care up and down the country. The NHS has a significant budget, but has been marked in recent years—indeed, decades—by under-investment in its capital and estate. Subject to the state of the public finances, we need to correct that as a country. The capital settlement includes over £4 billion a year for each of the next three years, and a total of £12 billion in capital for systems to invest in the estate. Those are part of our changes to health and social care capital funding arrangements.
We are greatly increasing the role of local health system planners in determining local health infrastructure in collaboration with NHS England. In line with nationally published guidance, integrated care boards can decide how the NHS operationally capitalises the spending for their own area. Although we have a range of nationally funded projects, to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, they are already quite well defined. For example, we have committed an initial £3.7 billion over four years to make progress on delivering 48 hospitals by 2030, and 70 upgrades to hospitals, worth £1.7 billion. I want to highlight the fact that much of this investment is benefiting Devon. Over the last few years, there has been £15 million for estate improvements and A&E upgrades at hospitals in the Plymouth NHS trust, and £17 million in hospital upgrades funding awarded to the integrated care board; that includes £9.3 million for imaging facilities at Derriford Hospital and Barnstaple.
Turning to the specific project, I am pleased that the system continues to develop plans so that we can consider a pilot. Plymouth has been able to progress through the business case process more quickly than expected. That is a testament to the hard work of local partners and the strong stakeholder relationship management by the council. The hon. Gentleman paid tribute to the role of the council, and I echo his remarks.
The health centre is designed to address the needs of the local population by providing exactly the kind of one-stop-shop facility the hon. Gentleman described, incorporating GPs, community and mental health services, dentistry, out-patients, diagnostics and pharmacy, as well as space for several community and voluntary groups. That will help to tackle the root causes of poor health and poor wellbeing in the area, which contains some of the most deprived communities in the country.
As I said, we have changed our capital funding mechanisms and introduced integrated care boards to ensure that local investment decisions are guided by local priorities. To that end, it is the local integrated care board that is empowered to invest in the Plymouth health centre if it deems it to be a priority. I understand that Devon integrated care board has been allocated £250 million over the next three years. For the scheme to progress, the NHS Devon integrated care board would need to prioritise its construction via this operational capital budget or other locally sourced funding solutions. I appreciate that this is not the answer that the hon. Gentleman was seeking, but as things stand, there is no additional national funding to deploy for projects like this. The new hospital programme, which he alluded to, is already allocated. Indeed, as he acknowledged, it is possible that that cost of the programme will be greater than the existing budget, so a great deal of work will be required in the years ahead to deliver those hospitals alone, without adding further projects to the programme.
However, given that the hon. Gentleman has brought this debate to the Floor of the House and I have been unable to give him quite the answer that he wishes, I would be more than happy to visit Plymouth and to broker a meeting between his local ICB chair, the stakeholders, such as the council, that have been involved in the project and have advocated it so strongly, and NHS England, to see whether there is anything innovative or creative that we might be able to do to try to move this forwards. I can see the arguments for it are very strong, and it must be frustrating to the hon. Gentleman and to the local stakeholders that its further progress seems to be in doubt.
I am all in favour of the idea of a health village and community diagnostic centres. That is something that we are taking forward on a national scale and so what the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve here is entirely in line with national policy objectives. If I can, I will revert to him as soon as possible after this debate and arrange that visit and, perhaps more importantly, arrange that meeting in which we can explore why NHS England ultimately was not able to provide the funding that he hoped for. As I understand it, it was never approved funding, but there had been a discussion with NHS England as to whether it might be available. But it never ultimately committed to do that. Perhaps we can explore whether there are any other potential routes, so that we do not close the door on what seems to me to be an extremely valuable project.
I thank the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport—I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon as well—for the extremely constructive manner in which he has handled this debate and our previous conversations. I hope that I will be able to take this forward and move it to a successful conclusion.
Question put and agreed to.
Agriculture in Sussex
I beg to move,
That this House has considered agriculture in Sussex.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. We are all clearly proud of Sussex, even if it represents only 2% of England’s farmed area. There is ambition and potential, and there are very many good people working in the sector whose cause we champion today.
The farmed area of Sussex makes up 550,000 acres, 59% of the total Sussex area. Tenants make up 48% of all farmed land in Sussex—that will be a key factor later in the debate. Forty-five per cent of farmed land in East Sussex is used for livestock grazing, 36% for arable use, and only 2% for horticulture, though that is still highly significant for food production. West Sussex uses a higher proportion of land—45%—for cereal and general cropping, with 32% used for grazing and dairy.
Overall, Sussex has a mixed farming picture, using different soil types and land structures. Unlike other English counties, it still has a healthy mix of livestock production, arable and dairy. For the majority of our farms, the average farm size in Sussex is under 100 hectares. A disproportionate number of county farmers therefore rely on local supply chains in order to market product.
My bijou constituency of Eastbourne, sitting in Sussex, may not be best known for its farming. People tend to think of the pier and the beauty of the seafront. Ours is a very Victorian seaside tourist town, which is most important to our economy. As important in Eastbourne are the fisheries, at the eastern end of the constituency, and our highly valued under-10 metre boats. To the west is farmland, which is by nature downland, because as well as being a popular tourist destination Eastbourne is hallmarked as the eastern gateway to the South Downs national park.
Although farming is significant in Eastbourne, food consumption is equally important to all who live there. According to figures, this year alone it is estimated that those in Eastbourne will consume a record 12 million eggs, 11 million litres of milk and 600 tonnes of beef. My point is that everyone in Eastbourne is concerned about food production and security, local provenance and quality. We are all very much in it together.
This debate was inspired by a meeting I had with my local farming community. The Minister will be pleased to know that there was much agreement about the principles of policy on public good. There was also recognition that our greatest asset is in our soils. There are shared aims on nature reset and recovery, the protection and preservation of our beautiful environment, and the need to produce as much homegrown food as possible. Those concerns are very much shared.
Today I will share the concerns expressed at that meeting, because in another guise they provide opportunities to reach greater potential in our area. The agenda centred on food security, the environmental land management scheme, trade, labour and local infrastructure. It was not a short meeting.
On ELMS, one or two of the points made by my local farmers rested on the timeliness of the schemes. They wanted to know when more clarity, guidance and information would be made available, and, notably, when the standards would be published. Unless and until they are published, farmers up and down the length and breadth of the UK will not be in a position to apply to those schemes. That concern is underpinned by the fact that the basic payment scheme is now fading away, so the need to pivot to the new schemes is becoming more important. Any kind of uncertainty about the shape of the schemes will cause consternation, so I look forward to hearing what the Minister might be able to share. From a local perspective, my understanding is that take-up has not really taken off, so I am keen to understand the issues and barriers that sit behind that, not least the elements of the scheme that might preclude farmers in my constituency, and Sussex more generally, who have SHINE—Selected Heritage Inventory for Natural England—features on their land, for which our area is very well known.
The National Farmers Union estimates that 50% of the farmland in my constituency is tenanted rather than owned, which is far higher than in other parts of the country. Therein lies a particular need for clarity on the future of agricultural policy, because tenant farmers’ access to support is perhaps less clear than that for land- owners. Of course, uncertainty is a catalyst for short-term rent agreements, which are an unlikely vehicle to return a productive agricultural system or the environmental benefit that we are looking for.
I am keen to understand more about the outworkings of the Rock review, which was carried out by the independent tenancy working group and looked at accessibility within ELMS. It made more than 70 recommendations, including on the landlord-tenant relationship and on changes to legislation and tax arrangements. The review essentially says that the schemes must be accessible and relevant to tenants and landlords alike, and that many of our counties’ farm estates are key entry points for the next generation of farmers. Of course, we want to make sure that tenants and landlords are making significant investments by upgrading and improving their holdings in terms of both infrastructure and natural capital.
Another feature of my constituency, and more widely in Sussex, harks back to the SHINE features. Our current reading is that they may well be precluded from some of the schemes. The South Downs are rich in archaeological features that were created during several millennia of human occupation. I will not cover the history and pre-history, but farming in Eastbourne apparently dates back to 4000 BC. There is a definite heritage, and there are also 28 scheduled monuments and a whole plethora of burial mounds and ancient farm systems.
As a long-standing member of the Sussex Archaeological Society who has dug on farmsteads on Beachy Head in my hon. Friend’s constituency, I can tell her that it is likely that farming went on before 4000 BC in and around Eastbourne.
I thank my hon. Friend and near neighbour for his intervention and correction. I delight in knowing that farming has been taking place in the area for more than 4,000 years. All this must surely point towards a good future, as agriculture is so well established there.
We understand that the new sustainable farming incentive scheme provides few avenues to enter if SHINE features exist on the land. Our farmers in Eastbourne and East Sussex in general would be unable to access payments from the new scheme, and that is despite the reduction in the basic payment scheme, which would put them at a disadvantage compared with other farmers.
Another critical point raised at the meeting was the sector’s vulnerability due to the vulnerability of local abattoirs. I know that the Minister has taken a very keen interest in this issue and that he is a strong supporter. The numbers continue to decline, which is definitely of concern in Sussex in general, including East Sussex, where there are only two left. The lack of local slaughter facilities can prevent farmers from adding value by selling directly to the consumer or through other small-scale marketing initiatives, such as farm shops or boxed-meat businesses, which are all important for resilience. There are also the matters of bureaucracy and competition. The industry states that without changes to regulations, nearly 60% of small abattoir businesses are expected to close in the next two to five years. I understand that, for my farmers, that could be terminal. The question of abattoirs is incredibly important.
Am I right in saying—I hope to stand corrected, again—that the funding commitment made by Ministers in the House of Lords was limited to producer-owned abattoirs? If so, that would prevent the majority of small abattoirs from accessing ancillary funding. According to industry, many of those establishments operate a model whereby the producer sends livestock for private kill, with return of the product to the producer. Can we explore how funding could be extended to non-producer-owned small abattoirs?
There are many wider reasons for wanting to keep the abattoir sector resilient, including animal welfare. Despite strong legislation and a very high-performing Sussex rural crime team, which was the subject of particular thanks at my meeting with local farmers, the NFU estimates that the cost of rural crime in Sussex last year was £1.13 million. It has gone down significantly since the excellent work of our Sussex police and crime commissioner Katy Bourne, who established the 21-strong Sussex rural crime team, which I understand is the largest in the south-east. The team has made a substantial and sustained difference. However, the incidents continue, not least in a post-pandemic world where more of the community have learned to enjoy the open space. Yet the legislative language, which says that dogs must be kept under close control rather than on a lead, means that the incidents—which are bloody and have in some cases proven fatal—have continued. Is there a need for stronger messaging on responsible dog ownership? Is there a need for tighter language?
In 2021, NFU Mutual surveyed 1,200 British dog owners and found that three quarters of them let their dogs roam free in the countryside—up from 64% in a similar survey the previous year. Just under half admitted that their dogs did not always come back when called. On livestock worrying, SheepWatch UK estimates that 15,000 sheep are killed by dogs each year. Furthermore, the cost of dog attacks on farm animals across the UK rose to more than £1.5 million in 2021. Those are figures and that is money, but it is far more impactful, beyond the financial; it is distressing for the farmers to see their livestock worried in that way.
In summary, Sussex farmers deliver environmental benefits and significantly contribute to national and local food production. In common with others, they face global challenges stemming from the Ukraine conflict, policy development and an ELM scheme that is still rather embryonic. That is compounded by the fragility caused by diminishing abattoirs and markets.
How can we find the pragmatic solutions to ensure that Sussex farmers can continue for, at the very least, another 4,000 years? What assessment has the Minister made of the ability of farmers managing permanent pasture, and with SHINE features, to access SFI payments? What further steps is the Department taking to address the decline of small abattoirs in Sussex? What assessment has the Department made of the payment rates under SFI, in the light of inflation?
I know that the Government have done significant work in this area. Ambition is high, but the challenges are equally so. My farmers are keen to work with Government policy and to deliver on those shared ambitions. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, so that I might take that back home to them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell), for securing this debate. As luck would have it, on Friday morning I and some of my farmers met the NFU over bacon sandwiches and tea, and we discussed many of the issues that she has raised.
I want to raise four key areas with the Minister. The first is the cost of food production. As a farmer, he will know only too well the particular cost of fertilisers. The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board estimates that there has been a 152% increase in the cost of fertiliser since May 2021, and farmers are struggling to afford it. That has a knock-on effect on the cost of the food that they produce, the costs in our supermarkets, and the overall cost of inflation, which is affecting each and every one of us.
If farmers can afford fertiliser, the struggle to get it seems even greater. We produce only 40% of our own fertiliser, and one of the two plants that we had has closed, again, due to running costs and the cost of energy. There is real concern because some countries that were exporting to us have capped exports in order to bring costs down in their own country and because of the global availability. Access to fertiliser is therefore a huge problem.
I know that the Government have brought in the BPS payments in several chunks to improve cash flow and that they have reduced restrictions around the use of manure. That has helped, but it only scratches the surface of the problem.
Farmers have two key asks. The first is to grow our domestic supply of fertiliser. What discussions have there been with Ministers in other Departments on supporting the fertiliser sector and increasing production so that we are more self-sufficient as a country? The second ask is about the storage of slurry. It is difficult and expensive for farmers, and some of the regulations on slurry covers mean that it is also impractical. They are keen to be able to store it, but improvements to the rules and regulations, and support to increase storage, would help them greatly.
The second key area is ELMS. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne has said. An NFU survey found that 84% of farmers are keen to take part in ELMS, but only two parts of the scheme are open. The NFU also mentioned access to SFI, which is difficult. Of course, we want to protect and promote the environment, but we must increase food production and be as self-sufficient as possible in this country. The two do not need to be mutually exclusive. Farmers are very keen to get involved, but there are no timelines and no details. As the Minister knows, they need certainty before investing in equipment and staff. They need the forward-thinking plans one or two years in advance, and time is running out.
The third area that was raised with me was labour. I met dairy farmers, poultry farmers and arable farmers who all said the same thing: they need an all-year-round supply of staff, not just seasonal workers. Their two key asks are to expand the temporary worker visa to two years and to look at whether agricultural workers could be on the shortage occupations list. What discussions have there been with the Home Office on that? Particularly in the south-east, where the cost of living is high, it is difficult for farmers to find workers to do quite low-paid but difficult jobs.
My fourth and final ask is around avian flu, which is a huge problem for us in Sussex. It is starting to emerge—thanks to West Sussex—and it might affect my East Sussex poultry farmers fairly soon. The sheer scale is something that has never been seen before by poultry farmers in this country—they are used to seasonal avian flu. They are locking up their free-range chickens and using the measures that are in place, but inspectors are overworked. The compensation scheme is based on the number of birds a farmer has left when the inspector comes to call. The inspectors used to be able to visit 48 hours or 72 hours after a call, but they are now turning up two or three weeks later, when all the birds are dead. We are not talking about a few dozen birds, but hundreds of thousands, and farmers are going out of business.
The clean-up scheme is costing in the millions—not the hundreds of thousands. With all that is going on in the world, avian flu does not seem to be high on the agenda, but it is wiping out the egg industry in my patch. My poultry farmers who are left could sell their eggs hundreds of times over because there is such a shortage, but if their birds get infected, those farmers will be wiped out, and there is no coming back because of the cost. Can we therefore look at the compensation scheme or at least at supporting the assessors so that they can get out to farmers as quickly as possible? Can we support farmers across their whole flock, rather than looking at the number of birds that are still alive by the time the assessor sees them? Can I also ask about a vaccine roll-out? I am not an expert, but apparently there is a vaccine available. Farmers are keen to get involved, even if there are pilot studies to be done, because they are so worried about avian flu hitting their farms.
I have outlined my four key areas. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how we can support our farmers, who do an amazing job. Now that we have seen what has happened to Ukraine, which was the breadbasket of Europe, we can appreciate more than ever the hard work of our farmers, who get up early and work into the night. They are dependent on the weather for their living and put in all the hours. If they get a bad season, it hits them really badly. I just want to place on record my thanks to them, and I hope we can support them in all that they do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I had not intended to speak this afternoon, but I have been tempted by my colleagues in East Sussex—my hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) and for Lewes (Maria Caulfield)—to be a voice for West Sussex and to defend us against charges of spreading avian flu, which my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne seems to be accusing us of. I do not know whether I need to declare an interest as the current president of the West Grinstead & District Ploughing and Agricultural Society, but I do so with great pleasure.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne, in whose constituency I was a couple of days ago—I have spent many happy years there, having been born in Eastbourne—has brought about this debate on Sussex agriculture. Those of us who have had the privilege of being born and brought up and having lived most of our lives in Sussex know that the artificial division into East and West Sussex as a result of the local government reorganisation was a most ghastly occurrence, and Sussex wunt be druv, so Sussex is Sussex.
I endorse all the comments that my hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne and for Lewes made. Sussex is an interesting county in terms of agriculture. It is a hugely rural county, whereas my constituency is largely coastal and urban, although 52% of the Adur council area, which forms most of my constituency, is in the South Downs national park, which places far more restrictions on the council’s powers when it comes to planning and the availability of land for building more houses.
I often speak to the farmers in my constituency who are within the South Downs national park, and I also spoke at a dinner of the ploughing society recently, and the big issue at the moment is food security—indeed, it is absolutely paramount. Furthermore, if Ukraine has taught us anything, it is the importance of energy security and the pitfalls of becoming too reliant on imports of energy from one or two countries. Energy security is absolutely vital, and our farmers want to play their part in restoring and building our energy security.
Our farmers have greater powers and flexibility to tackle those issues now that they are no longer part of the common agricultural policy, which gave rather artificial subsidies based on what Brussels decided it was best to grow around Europe, rather than on what our farmers knew how to grow locally and what was most sympathetic to our agricultural scene and our local environments. I look forward to seeing different colours making up Sussex fields in years to come, as we grow those things that benefit us most and provide the most effective and most needed foods for local people, and help to build our food security, because we still import far too much food—well over a third.
In Sussex, we have very hilly areas because of the South Downs, which are not suitable for arable farming but which are suitable for a lot of rough grazing. Hence, South Downs sheep and many other breeds of sheep adorn the South Downs, as well as many varieties of cattle. Let us remember that pasture, and active pasture, is one of the best ways of locking in carbon. Those whose protests see them waste milk by pouring it over supermarket floors or who glue themselves to whatever it is they have glued themselves to this week should remember that farmers are probably the most important component in achieving net zero and contributing to environmental stewardship. They are the stewards of the environment. If they undermine and destroy it, they undermine their own livelihoods and their ability to produce food, which is what they are in farming for and have been for many generations. I therefore pay tribute to our farmers, and we should have no truck with people who want to thrust their own lifestyle choices on the rest of us, as if they have a God-given right to dictate what is best for the environment, our health and our welfare.
Many farmers are now moving to shallow plough methods or indeed to no-plough methods, and it will not be long before arable agriculture takes place through minimal ploughing or no ploughing at all, meaning that more carbon will remain locked into the land.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend about how important pasture-land is. The Eastbourne constituency is set to lose one of the last pockets of green space between Eastbourne and Willingdon, which is currently pasture-land for sheep grazing for one of our farms, exactly as my hon. Friend described. However, if all things remain equal, it will become a new housing estate, to the tune of several hundred homes. Does he agree that we should look to afford greater protection to such land, for all the reasons he has just cited?
I completely agree. The point is that we must get the balance right. Our part of the country is the most densely populated outside London, and we need more homes. We also need more space for businesses, and particularly higher-skilled businesses, to grow. However, we absolutely need as much land as possible for high-quality agriculture and food and drink production. I am certainly in favour of some land being used for solar farms and other environmentally friendly energy production, but not high-quality agricultural land. So we have to get the balance right in terms of what is best in which parts of our rural landscape, because each element will suffer if we do not.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes made a good point about farmers’ costs. I think the cost of fertiliser has gone up from something like £250 a tonne to £900 a tonne at its peak. Fertiliser is energy-intensive and comes from Russia and other such countries. In that respect, I hope the Minister is aware of the Sussex Kelp Restoration Project—indeed, his Department has given a grant to the pilots ongoing in Sussex bay. The project is one of the most exciting and environmentally friendly going on at the moment. We are assessing whether the decision by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—for which I am glad we lobbied—to ban near-shore trawling in Sussex bay will enable us to restore the kelp beds so that seaweed can once again become a thing of Sussex beaches. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, around the time I became the MP for Worthing, you could often smell Worthing before you could see it. On hot days in high summer, seaweed would be washed up on the shore where it would rot. In the old days, local farmers would bring their tractors on to the beach and gather up the seaweed to use as a natural fertiliser. However, when industrially produced fertilisers became much more economical, that fell by the wayside. Then, the seaweed disappeared, because of the aggressive activities of trawlers—some of which came from Newhaven, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, although it is a long-running saga between Newhaven and Shoreham as to which harbour is responsible—and a whole host of other reasons.
We now have the prospect of regrowing that seaweed in a planned agricultural, farmed way. Seaweed absorbs six times as much carbon as trees and provides marine habitats, with breeding and feeding environments. It is exceedingly efficient at absorbing energy and therefore cuts down on the need for sea defences, so the Environment Agency is a big fan of this plan. Seaweed also provides cattle feed and fertiliser and is a superfood for humans as well. It ticks a whole lot of boxes. If we can make it work in Sussex bay, the prospect of it catching on along other parts of the United Kingdom coastline—we have 12,000 miles or so—is considerable. It would help with fertiliser, our carbon commitments and assorted other things. That form of agriculture could turn out to be a major benefit on so many fronts, and I very much hope the Minister will give his support to the project as the results from the pilots come in over the next few years.
Agriculture is about so much more than just arable land and livestock. In West Sussex, we have the best vineyards in the country—of course, there are a few in East Sussex as well—which produce the finest sparkling wine in the world. Sussex Sparkling is, of course, a trademark, pioneered by Mark Driver at Rathfinny vineyard in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, where I grew up and spent many happy years in ancient times. It is a fast-growing and successful industry that is taking on the world with the quality of its produce.
Agriculture is also bringing tourism into Sussex. Just as people might go to Bordeaux or the south of France and tour the vineyards, they can now come to Sussex and tour various vineyards in East and West Sussex. People can go to farms, farm shops, galleries, seaside resorts—to Eastbourne pier and Worthing pier—and to decent restaurants serving local produce, such as scallops from Shoreham, which is the United Kingdom’s main centre for landing scallops. Agriculture is going to be a serious element in attracting domestic tourism—people spending time at home—and foreign visitors coming to our shores.
As noted by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne, although her chronology was a little out, agricultural land houses agricultural and heritage assets as well. Our farmers are important custodians of scheduled monuments and many other important historical sites. In my constituency, we have Cissbury Ring, one of our largest iron age hill forts, which was the scene of Neolithic flint mines, a mint in medieval times and so on. We must remunerate and recognise farmers for the important duties they have as stewards of the land—not just for environmental and agricultural production reasons, but for the preservation, conservation and promotion of our heritage.
I am pleased by the pioneering work of the Sussex police commissioner and the local police force in looking after our agricultural areas. Their job is not just to look after some of the heritage sites, but to clamp down on the dog attacks we have seen. Sussex fares particularly badly in that respect, and we need to do more to clamp down on irresponsible dog owners. Farmers also have to deal with the big menace of fly-tipping, which costs them many thousands of pounds, with the hare coursing that goes on and with unlawful Traveller encampments. All of that tends to hit farms and agricultural land disproportionately. Having 21 officers across the whole of Sussex to police the crime that happens in our rural areas is not nearly enough.
I emphasise how important agriculture is. It is not just about farmyards producing wheat, some nice chickens, eggs and everything that goes with that. The knock-on effects—on the local economy, small businesses and the workforce—are considerable. The labour shortage is causing serious problems, and I would certainly reinforce to the Minister the point about having greater flexibility about agricultural worker permits.
Let us celebrate our farmers. Let us celebrate our agriculture. Let us celebrate the food security that our local farmers bring us. But, above all, let us celebrate the world-beating, outstanding food and drink—particularly the sparkling wine—that we produce in Sussex. It can take on the rest of the world with confidence and beat it. Long may it be encouraged to do so.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing the debate and on her excellent introduction to the beautiful part of the world that she represents. She made a series of important points, many of which I would like to associate myself with—particularly those on local abattoirs, rural crime and ELMS, which I will come back to in a minute.
I also welcome many of the comments made by the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield)—particularly those around fertiliser, which we have raised on many occasions; labour issues, which are worthy of further discussion; and avian flu, which is very serious. Indeed, I would really encourage the Minister to make a statement about it to the House, because we would welcome the opportunity to have that discussion. Avian flu is really hitting people hard, and it is important that it is discussed in this place so that people realise that we understand the pressures they are under. I also welcome the comments made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) about seaweed, which presents huge opportunities and potential.
Despite all that, my opening point relates to the pressure that food producers in Sussex and elsewhere are under because of the cost of fuel and other inputs, as well as labour supply issues. The pig and poultry sectors are under huge pressure, and we have heard comments about bird flu and about the contraction in the pig sector in general, which we have heard about in previous discussions.
The Government have control over some of those issues, but some less so. It is slightly difficult to talk about the Government today—I have some sympathy for the Minister this afternoon—because we are not quite sure which bit of the Conservative party is now in government. Will we see the rather settled approach that we have lived with since 2019 or the growth, growth, growth mantra of the never-mind-the-environment bunch, who have been in place for the last couple of months? Perhaps the Minister could respond to that—perhaps an answer will work its way through as the afternoon progresses—because I am sure that the farmers and residents of Sussex and beyond are keen to find out.
One thing that we know the Government have direct control over is the environmental land management schemes, to which reference has been made, and the long-term system of agricultural support that is being phased out. Across England as a whole, we estimate that at least £1 billion has been taken out of the rural economy so far. What is less clear is how much has gone back. Will the Minister tell us how many applications for the sustainable farming incentive have been received so far for England, and for Sussex in particular? The big promise during the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020 was that, as area payments were withdrawn, they would be replaced by environmental payments for public goods. I warned at the time that that could be a sleight of hand because promising that the budget would be maintained through the Parliament gave good political cover, but there was never any real guarantee that money lost by farmers in Sussex would actually come back to environmental schemes in Sussex. Will the Minister tell us how that is going and whether there has been any assessment of the knock-on effect on the rural economy in Sussex? Lower farm incomes mean less money spent locally on farm machinery and other agricultural services. Do the Government have any mechanism for assessing the impact?
On the withdrawal of basic payments in Sussex, there was a further scheme under the 2020 Act to encourage farmers to leave the sector. That was ostensibly to make way for new entrants, but although the retirement scheme has been implemented, we see no sign of a scheme to replace those who have left. Just last week, in response to my written parliamentary question, the Minister admitted that there had been only just over 2,000 applicants for the schemes nationally. Will he tell us how many applications have been received in Sussex and how many new entrants he expects to replace those who have left? Why are the numbers so low? When might we expect the details of any such scheme to encourage new entrants?
I have two final observations, and they reflect the point made by the hon. Member for Eastbourne in her speech. A few weeks ago, Baroness Rock published her recommendations on agricultural tenancies. As was explained, patterns of landholding are complicated—in Sussex and elsewhere—and the landlord-tenant relationship is complicated. When can we expect a Government response to those recommendations, and which of the 70 will be implemented? Will the Minister at least give us a steer? Without clarity from the Government, I fear we will have further drift, which helps no one.
In conclusion, for Labour, agriculture in Sussex has an important future. Food security matters to us, which is why we argued throughout the passage of the 2020 Act that food production is central to our mission as we seek to buy, make and sell more in Britain, and to use public procurement to source more food locally. We believe that can be done at the same time as ensuring food production is much more environmentally friendly. We think that goes with the grain of where most farmers want to be, and public policies should be there to help them to make investments for the future. That is good for the whole rural economy across England, and good for Sussex. However, it will happen only with consistent leadership from the Government. I trust the Minister will be able to answer my questions, as we all seek clarity on the Government’s position.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for calling this debate.
Before I continue, let me refer to some of the comments made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner). Today is an unusual day. My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) has left his position as Secretary of State, so I think I am currently stood here as the most senior Minister in the Department. I may seize this moment and take the power. I am sure there will be more clarity on some of the shadow Minister’s questions as the reshuffle continues.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne started by giving us a tour of Sussex and talking about how much food Eastbourne consumes. That is an important place to start, because food producers should be thinking about consumers. It is an interesting twist on the whole thing, because consumers are interested in not only how much their food costs but how it is produced and whether that is environmentally friendly, as well as its impact on the environment and the landscape that they see. The view of the beautiful, rolling hills in Sussex, which she and other colleagues described, is there because of the food producers in Sussex who have created that landscape over the 4,000 years for which it has been farmed. It is important for us to remember that when we bring forward new schemes to help food producers and farmers. We should think about the impact that will have on the environment.
My hon. Friend went on to talk about food security. Never in my farming or political lifetime has food security been as important or as high on the political agenda as it is today. That is a huge opportunity for the industry, the sector and the Department to shape and influence the direction of travel. There are lots of opportunities; she referred to the ELM scheme, which is going to be a flagship moment for the Department once we have finished its short review. I hesitate slightly because a new Secretary of State will come in, but I expect that any new Secretary of State or Minister in the Department will have a close eye on the fact that we need to improve our food security. We need to grow the amount of food that we produce in the UK. However, that is not a barrier to improving our biodiversity and environmental benefits; we can do both at the same time. For decades, UK agriculture has demonstrated that it can improve efficiency and increase productivity while protecting the environment, but we need to do better.
We need to do more on biodiversity and on improving our environmental output, but of course that works only if farmers engage in the schemes and get involved. The previous iteration was quite a complicated system—there was a bit of bureaucracy in there. The shadow Minister referred to the number of people who were applying for those schemes, which is not as many as we would like. If we are to have the environmental benefit and biodiversity output, we must engage with all the food producers, ensure that they want to get involved in the schemes, make the schemes simple to apply for and make the first rung on the ladder easy to access. Once the new schemes are released, farmers will have an easy opportunity to get involved and to benefit the landscape as we want them to.
Abattoirs have featured a lot in the debate, and they are a passion of mine. Nottinghamshire, which is my home county, does not now have an abattoir within the county boundary. That is a huge disadvantage to livestock producers in Nottinghamshire. We need to do better than that, but—it is quite a big “but”—we have engaged a lot with the Food Standards Agency to ensure that we get the balance right. If we loosen regulation and make it easier for abattoirs to operate, I emphasise that we must not do so at the price of the credibility of the food sector and meat industry.
The meat industry works only because of consumers’ high level of confidence that the system will ensure that the food they consume is safe. There have been a number of occasions through history when that confidence has been rocked, such as when horse meat entered the food chain, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which happened early in my agricultural life. Confidence was rocked and that had huge implications. We must ensure that our system maintains the safety of our food and gives credibility to the meat industry.
On abattoirs, some of my local farmers would like to export their beef, but if they were to export to places such as Singapore, the abattoirs need to meet certain specifications. That takes a lot of investment. Are there are any schemes to help exports of British beef and to enable abattoirs that want to take on that extra specification to do so?
Certainly. As we expand trade deals and co-operate with people around the world, that will be an important factor. To turn the point around, if we are consuming those products only in the United Kingdom, there may be some tweaks that we can look at that could help smaller abattoirs that produce only for the United Kingdom, so that they may have fewer of the checks and barriers that are necessary for exports. However, I emphasise that that is only what I would like to achieve, and we must reflect on whether it is achievable. We are engaging with the Food Standards Agency regularly to look at what we can achieve together.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne talked about rural crime, which is very important. I join her in paying tribute to the Sussex police and crime commissioner, who has done great work. She referred to dog attacks, which are particularly traumatic for livestock farmers. Attacks can often lead to abortions or worse at a later date. They can be very traumatic not just for the livestock but for the farmers who find the animals after an attack. Farmers are very attached to their animals.
My hon. Friend started by talking about fertilisers—another topic that is close to my heart. We find ourselves in a very challenging position. CF Fertilisers, which currently has the only production facility in the north-east, has limited the amount of fertiliser that it is producing. It has changed to buying in ammonia to produce ammonium nitrate, rather than producing the ammonia on site. That has had a knock-on effect on the amount of available carbon dioxide, which is a very important product for the food sector. The company actually owns another factory in the north-west near the Wirral, and we have been engaging with Ministers from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to try to work together to encourage CF to work with other partners who may want to take that factory on. That is a work in progress. My hon. Friend can rest assured that the Department takes the issue seriously and we will try to assist if we can.
We then got on to avian flu, which is a very important topic, as highlighted by the shadow Minister. We have seen hundreds of thousands of birds—not only in the agricultural sector but wild birds—lose their life to avian flu. There is a tragedy taking place in our countryside as we stand here today. It is something the Department takes very seriously. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) made reference to the ministry vets, who are working day and night to try to assist farmers and get insight.
I cannot emphasise enough how important biosecurity is. It is not just about washing boots and hands before entering one of the units; it is about thinking about where the bedding is stored, because introducing bedding into the facilities is often how the flu comes in. Vermin control is very important to stop rodents making holes in sheds that can allow small birds that may be affected into the units.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes asked about vaccination. It is possible that vaccination has a role to play, certainly in the laying or turkey sector. In the chicken-meat system, the turnaround of the birds is very rapid, so vaccinating all those birds is often financially not rewarding. Certainly, that is something the Department is looking at and working with the NFU and other sector stakeholders on.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned food security, which is an important topic. He spoke of the no-plough, minimum-tillage and no-tillage systems, which are very important. The opportunity for agritech and new technologies and systems of working is going to be fundamental if we are to increase the amount of food we produce at the same time as improving our environmental credentials and biodiversity.
I am quite excited by the opportunities that agritech will bring, whether it is robots, computers, new systems of working or a twist on some of the practices of the last 4,000 years. There is often nothing new in agriculture. We can learn a lot from the way our ancestors farmed without artificial fertilisers. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made reference to the seaweed on the beaches of Sussex, which is also something the Department is looking at closely. In fact, one of my senior civil servants in the Department has just received a Nuffield scholarship to go and look at the benefits of seaweed. I am sure that in getting him into Hansard I have ensured he will buy the cakes for the Department very soon.
We finally got to vineyards, which I thought would be the main topic of the debate because Sussex is enormously proud of its vineyards. I think there are 145 vineyards in Sussex. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made reference to the finest wines in the world, which some colleagues may have taken as being flippant, but it is actually factually correct. We should put on the record that the wines of Sussex have won competitions worldwide. I pay enormous tribute to the producers who have succeeded in that way.
Plumpton College is doing a lot of work to educate the next generation of wine producers and vineyard managers. That offers a huge opportunity for people to diversify into different sectors within the industry.
The Minister is absolutely right that they are world-beating wines, particularly the sparkling wines. He has just mentioned Plumpton College, which is an excellent agricultural college. I know it well and live close to it. Agricultural colleges have not come up so far in the debate, and they are really important. Plumpton is leading the way with its viticulture department. Most people connected with English vineyards will have had some connection with Plumpton now.
Agricultural colleges are often overlooked and neglected by our education Departments. It would be helpful if DEFRA would work more closely with the Department for Education to see how we can promote agricultural colleges and a career in agriculture as a really worthwhile career. That career will be higher skilled because of agritech and everything that has already been mentioned.
That is an absolutely pertinent intervention. Yesterday, I was at the launch of a new system from TIAH—the Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture—which links up all the education systems to make sure we have a continuous education process all the way through agriculture, so that young people can build a career in the industry. Education is always the answer to everything. We referred to the agritech sector; if ever there were a moment in history when we needed the brightest and most aspirational people to come into agriculture and food production, now is that moment. They need to see that career path and we need to make sure it is easy to get on and engage with.
We have had a fascinating and interesting debate. I can tell the pride this afternoon among colleagues from Sussex. They should be enormously proud of the achievements of their farmers. There are huge challenges facing them, but the Government will be there to assist them on the journey to make sure they continue to keep the people of not only Eastbourne but the whole United Kingdom fed. We will improve our biosecurity to make sure avian flu is limited. We will also improve our environmental output and make sure we improve the amount of wildlife we see in Sussex, as well as producing large amounts of food to keep us all well fed.
I thank the Minister for his remarks. As an educator, I concur with him that education is all things. There is a real role for colleges such as Plumpton in our area to really underpin and pump-prime this sector. That applies to every part of the sector, too.
I wonder whether there is also something to be considered around our holiday activity food programmes and how we might open up a farm experience to children. Last summer, they hit the water; it would be great for them to understand rather more about food and its provenance. West Rise Community Infant School in Eastbourne has its own farm shop. The children keep their own animals and understand the process all the way through. That can only be a good and important thing. I should also mention my one vineyard—one—in Eastbourne: Compton Combe is great in ambition but stands alone. I can see it from my mum’s house. It is small in scale but big in ambition.
We have heard today about the high value in which we hold our farmers, not least for all that we need them to take forward by way of safeguarding and protecting our natural environment, which is our No. 1 asset. I look forward to taking up some of the other points raised in the debate, particularly in respect of those SHINE features, in conversations to come, for which I hope to find the Minister still in his place—or perhaps higher.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered agriculture in Sussex.