Thursday 27 October 2022
[Mrs Sheryll Murray in the Chair]
Local Air Quality Breaches
PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMITTEE
Select Committee statement
We begin with the Select Committee statement. Dame Meg Hillier will speak on the publication of the 22nd report of the Public Accounts Committee, “Tackling local air quality breaches”, for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of Dame Meg Hillier’s statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement, and call Dame Meg Hillier to respond to them in turn. Questions should be brief. I call the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I record my thanks to the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee for this report. As many Members will know, the National Audit Office does great work to support us, analysing the numbers from Government and making sure that we are working on the basis of the facts in front of us. I record a special thanks to my deputy Chair, the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), who chaired this particular session of the Committee’s work. We also took evidence from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—it is good to see the Minister in her place—the Department for Transport, and National Highways on their work to tackle air quality in England. Our report covers the nitrogen dioxide programme and work to address other air pollutants.
The Committee was particularly keen that we make a statement on this report in the House because of the vital importance of the issue. Quite simply, poor air quality can cause significant damage to people’s health, as well as harming the environment. There is some good news: emissions of most air pollutants have been falling in recent decades in the UK. However, poor air quality continues to cause damage to people’s health and the natural environment. As we highlight in our report, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants estimated that human-made air pollution in the UK has an effect equivalent to between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths each year. Of course, there was the very tragic case of a young girl who died, where the coroner concluded that her asthma had been exacerbated by the pollution around the south circular in south London.
There are two types of air quality target in the UK: national emissions ceilings, which are breached if too much of one pollutant is emitted across the UK within a year, and local concentration limits—about which I think most Members get the most letters—which are breached if the average level of a pollutant in a specific area is too high. Current national targets cover pollution from ammonia, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, non-methane volatile organic compounds and sulphur dioxide, as well as others. Between 2010 and 2019, the UK complied with most of its legal air quality limits for major pollutants at local and national levels, with the exception of the nitrogen dioxide annual mean concentration limit, of which there have been long-standing breaches. The Committee was particularly concerned about those breaches, and the report reflects that concern.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Transport helpfully established the Joint Air Quality Unit in 2016 to oversee delivery of the Government’s plans to achieve compliance with air quality targets. Measures to tackle nitrogen dioxide pollution include bus retrofit and traffic management schemes and, in some areas, clean air zones where vehicle owners are required to pay a charge if their vehicle does not meet a certain emissions standard. Through their nitrogen dioxide programme, the Government have directed 64 local authorities to take action to improve air quality. They have also commissioned National Highways to examine breaches on the strategic road network in England. I should say that across that network, only a total of about 51 miles has actually breached that limit across 31 local areas. Air pollution is often very localised, and only about 250 homes are directly affected by that air pollution, because it dissipates. However, one of the challenges is how to measure it, and I will touch on that challenge in a moment, because the Committee is concerned that the Government need to look at the model for measurement as we go forward.
As of May this year, a lifetime budget of £883 million has been committed to the programme to support local councils, and the Government separately spent £39 million to improve air quality on the strategic road network between 2015-16 and 2019-20. The Government published a clean air strategy in January 2019, outlining their approach to air quality much more broadly. At the time, we took evidence from the Government, and they have since published their air pollution control programme to make sure that the 2030 targets are met.
However, the Committee concludes that current policy measures are insufficient to meet four of the five 2030 emission ceiling targets set for the UK as a whole. There has been progress, but there is still a lot to do. Progress to address illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution in the 64 authorities and 31 sections of the strategic road network, which I mentioned, has been slower than was expected in 2017. Central Government had expected that there would be a change within three years, but as of 1 April this year, 17 local authorities were still in the process of implementing measures. It has been four and a half years since the target was set, and most of those 17 authorities do not have a firm completion date, although eventual compliance is expected because of the Government’s moves to introduce electric vehicles and other upgrades to vehicles. However, we have separately looked at the electric vehicle programme, and there are challenges there too.
One of the main conclusions of our report is that the public find it hard to find information about air quality in their area, and it is difficult to know what has been done by either central Government or local government to address illegal levels of pollution. We conclude—I do not think it is rocket science—that air quality issues require local government and the national Government to work very closely together, yet we do not think that the Government have quite got the balance right. The lack of a co-ordinated central communications campaign means that activities by local councils are not always supported by a strong national message about the need for air quality measures. For example, low emission zones can be unpopular locally but are vital. Often, it is about the Government saying, “You need to take measures in order to reduce emissions,” but when measures are taken, they are not always backed up by the national message. National messaging can also help to make sure that people know how they can be affected by air quality breaches and how they can take mitigating action, especially if they have respiratory problems, because that obviously has a very big impact on their health.
Of course, as the Public Accounts Committee, we are very concerned about value for money, and we would like the Government to look at how money is being spent across Whitehall on air pollution issues. We know it is difficult to get a precise figure, but we think it important that DEFRA takes a lead and nudges or pushes other Departments to identify in their budget what they are spending, so that we can all see that, DEFRA will be able to see that and, crucially, Departments can be held to account to make sure that they are doing their bit to tackle air pollution in the UK.
I will not go through every recommendation in detail, but the issue of information is worth highlighting. The Government’s main source of public information on air quality is the UK AIR website, but this is impenetrable for the average user if they want to find out information about their local area, and it does not present very clear information on the legal limits for each pollutant. It needs to be looked at again, and I hope that the Minister hears this and will feed it back to the Department. We really believe in transparency—not just the Public Accounts Committee, but all Members of the House—and it needs to be pushed through, because the best group of people to help us tackle air pollution can be local people, who have a real interest in the issue and who need to be able to see what is going on. They can also adapt their behaviour, perhaps by travelling less and thinking about not using cars on short journeys, in order to tackle pollution in their area.
One of the other issues is the national model that the Government use to identify areas that are likely to breach air quality limits. They use that information to direct councils to take action, but the national model does not directly use the results of monitoring by local authorities. Instead, there is a national network of monitoring stations, which is a good thing, but there are obviously gaps—they are not everywhere—and the Government have to use that for the national model. Some local authorities have raised with the Committee their concerns that this may result in an unfair situation, whereby councils with high levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution are not required to take action because the national model did not predict a breach. It sounds quite technical, but it is actually about local government and the national Government working closely together, having a good look at the model, and making sure that the uncertainty in the model is highlighted.
The Committee is clear that local authorities have a key role to play. As I said, they have the freedom to set different exemption criteria and different charging levels for clean air zones and so forth, but the joint air quality unit at Government level has been a bit inflexible and lacks understanding of local politics, with too much emphasis often placed on clean air zones as the default option, instead of measures that may be more suited to the area. I am a great believer in local communities deciding as much as possible for themselves, while Government have an overarching view and challenge where there is a failure at local level. There is a will in local government to deal with this and we need to see a better way of working between local and national government. I hope that is landing with the Minister.
We have recommended introducing a national communications campaign on air quality to provide a strong national message about how we can all change our behaviour and the purpose of those measures to support us all in staying healthy and keeping the air clean in our areas. We have also recommended ensuring that councils have sufficient flexibility to determine the approach in their area. In summary, we have seen some progress, but there is a lot to do. If the Government take their foot off the pedal, we would very concerned. The impact of not tackling air quality is not something we can contemplate The bones of action are there but there needs to better working together. That is the summary of our report.
Did the Committee arrive at an overall ballpark figure as to the cost to society as a whole from air pollution? I think you, Chair, and I were on an unprecedented joint transport, local government and environmental committee two or three years back that looked into air pollution and I think we arrived at a figure in the ballpark of £20 billion a year in terms of health and other costs to the country. Those figures are always quite useful, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) agrees, when making arguments for the Treasury about the cost-benefit of taking real, meaningful action on an issue such as air pollution.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. The National Audit Office has looked into that in detail. I do not have a figure to hand, but he is right. All these measures have an important role in health prevention, which plays a hugely important role in the cost. NHS spending was just over 40% of the resource spending of all Whitehall Departments. When we think of it like that, there is a clear incentive for Government to work together to tackle things such as air pollution to try and reduce health problems and health inequalities, which will also have an impact on an already massively overstretched NHS budget.
Colleges Week 2022
I remind Members that I would like to leave a couple of minutes at the end for Mr Aldous to wind up.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Colleges Week 2022.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Murray. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, in which we shall consider, celebrate and reflect on Colleges Week and the work that colleges do in local communities all over the UK. We are actually a week late, as Colleges Week was last week. The recent changes to the parliamentary timetable made it impossible to secure this debate then, but that may not be a bad thing. The debate now coincides with the appointment of a new Prime Minister, who has already highlighted his determination to put further education and vocational schooling at the forefront of his Government’s work and his policies. With that in mind, I welcome the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), to her place. I look forward to her restating the Prime Minister’s commitment.
This is an opportune moment to not only showcase the great work that colleges are doing, but highlight how, with the right means and support, they can do even more to promote the communities that they serve, deliver sustainable economic growth and help local people to realise their dreams and achieve their ambitions. As well as looking forward with the new Prime Minister and his new team, it is appropriate to take stock after what has been a hectic 18 months for colleges in policymaking terms. In January 2021, the “Skills for jobs” White Paper was published; the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 received Royal Assent earlier this year; and colleges are now working with local employers, councils, local enterprise partnerships and other interested parties to put in place local skills improvement plans, or LSIPs.
It is important to emphasise the multitasking work that colleges are carrying out. They are driving the post-covid recovery, supporting learners who, through no fault of their own, are having to catch up. They are helping to deliver the net zero economy. In my own constituency, East Coast College is in the vanguard of promoting training for the jobs that are needed in the offshore wind and nuclear sectors. I should point out that this week may not be Colleges Week, but it is actually Offshore Wind Week, and it was a pleasure to welcome local apprentices to RenewableUK’s reception on Wednesday afternoon.
Colleges are addressing regional inequalities. Meaningful and proper levelling up will be delivered only if the colleges are provided with resources so that they can play their full role. They are also promoting lifelong learning. In today’s world, a job for life is a thing of the past. There are so many people with so much potential with whom colleges can work to acquire the skills to achieve their ambitions.
Finally, colleges can ensure that the economic growth we all want is sustained and enduring—not a short-term boom followed by a painful bust—and helps to deliver the improved productivity that the UK so desperately needs.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this important debate. My constituency, like his, is heavily dependent on the offshore sector from an economic point of view. I want to take the opportunity to congratulate Peter Kennedy and his team at Franklin Sixth Form College in Grimsby, which serves my constituency. Would my hon. Friend agree that apprenticeship courses in particular are vital if we are going to get our young people into the offshore and similar sectors?
I agree wholeheartedly. Later in my speech, I will highlight some of the strategic working that is required to make the most of the opportunities in the offshore energy sector that are emerging not just on the east coast, but all around the UK.
I have the privilege and honour of chairing the all-party parliamentary group for further education and lifelong learning, for which the Association of Colleges provides the secretariat. It is appropriate to take stock of the work that colleges do and the impact they have on their local communities. English colleges educate more than 1.6 million students every year and employ approximately 103,000 full-time equivalent staff. Some 913,000 adults study or train in colleges, while 611,000 16 to 18-year-olds study in colleges. There are 166,000 people on apprenticeship provision in colleges, and the average college trains 1,000 apprentices. Some 110,000 people study higher education in a college. Some 23% of 16 to 18-year-olds and 24% of adult students at colleges are from minority ethnic backgrounds; 21% of students in colleges have a learning difficulty and/or disability; and 46,000 college students are aged 60 and over.
Those figures demonstrate that colleges are the Heineken of the UK education and training system: they reach the parts and the places that other establishments do not. They invariably do this to a high standard, with 91% of colleges judged “good” or “outstanding” at their most recent inspections. Colleges support the Government’s ambitious plans to roll out T-levels, increase apprenticeship delivery, promote adult learning and introduce higher technical qualifications. While colleges are up for these challenges, there are significant obstacles in the way of them playing the role they want to—a role that will bring so many benefits to local people and communities.
First, despite a 2021 spending review that recognised some of the long-established funding issues facing colleges, further education funding still compares extremely unfavourably with both university and school funding. In its 2021 annual report on education, the Institute for Fiscal Studies highlighted that:
“Further education colleges and sixth forms have seen the largest falls in per-pupil funding of any sector of the education system since 2010–11.”
Although the budget for 16 to 18-year-olds is rising for the five-year period from 2020 to 2025, the pressures of extra catch-up hours, increased prices and the cost of living are holding back progress on flagship programmes in key national skill shortage sectors. The situation is exacerbated by the dramatic energy price increases. Some colleges have long-term contracts with suppliers agreed in 2021, which means that they are not covered by the six-month scheme. However, it means that they face the prospect of treble, quadruple or even worse price increases in 2023. It should be borne in mind that for many technical and vocational courses, there is no good alternative to in-person education at the college.
Secondly, colleges across the country are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain staff, given the widening gap between what skilled teachers can earn in colleges and what they can earn in industry or even in schools. An Association of Colleges survey, commissioned by the Financial Times, shows that 85% of colleges reported staff shortages in construction courses, 78% in engineering and 62% in IT and computing. In August, the AOC wrote to the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), urging her to make investment in schools a central plank of her premiership. I hope the Minister will confirm, following this morning’s comments attributed to the new Prime Minister, that his Government will make that commitment.
Thirdly and finally, colleges are concerned about the speed of the Government’s reforms to level 3 qualifications. It is right to have the ambition of having a respected and well-understood set of technical qualifications in place across England. However, it is a worry that funding for 160 existing qualifications will be withdrawn when clear replacements are not yet in place. It should be demonstrated that these replacements properly prepare students for progression, meet the needs of industry and promote social mobility. Concerns remain that T-levels will not be accessible to all students ready to do a level 3 qualification and that the required industry placements will not be readily available. I urge the Minister to work with colleges and business to address these worries, so that this flagship policy has a positive and proper launch and does not immediately run aground.
One of the great things about colleges is that they are innovative, imaginative and entrepreneurial. It is in that spirit that Stuart Rimmer, the principal of East Coast College in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, has brought together colleges and trainers from across the UK that run energy-related courses to form the national energy skills consortium. The consortium meets virtually three to four times a year, and I have the privilege of being invited to those meetings. Clean energy and the low-carbon economy provide an enormous opportunity for creating new and exciting well-paid long-term jobs, often in deprived areas where they are badly needed. The consortium has the objective of maximising those opportunities and removing barriers that might get in the way. My right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) made a presentation to the consortium when he was Energy Minister, and my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) joined us in the summer, when he was skills Minister. I hope the Minister will also meet us in the near future.
In following up the meeting with the former skills Minister in July, Stuart Rimmer highlighted three issues that must be addressed if colleges are to properly train people to acquire the necessary skills to work in the energy sector. First, he said it is wrong that colleges and universities are required to take high-risk, up-front investment decisions to build capacity and deliver training for nationally important infrastructure projects, such as Hinkley Point and Sizewell C. Secondly, he said that energy and civil construction qualifications required by employers should be brought into core funding for young people, apprentices and adult learners. Thirdly, he said that, while local skills improvement plans will play an important role in ensuring that skills promotion is tailored to, and bespoke for, local areas, it is important for the energy sector, where supply chains often extend across the whole the UK, that a national framework is in place. The consortium, along with the National College for Nuclear and other bodies, such as the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board, is keen to work with Government to ensure that this strategic approach is pursued.
The UK desperately needs sustained economic growth that reaches all parts of our four nations, and in which all people, whatever their backgrounds and ages, can participate. Colleges are already doing great work, but if they are given the resources and means, they can do much more. Working with the Government, they can help to put this traumatic and turbulent time behind us, and we really can build back better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech. The colleges sector has in him a doughty champion. He gave a very effective and comprehensive summary of what colleges can achieve and how much more they can do with the right national policies in place.
I wish to illustrate that success and potential with the story of my local college in Exeter, which is a good example of what colleges can do and how they can transform not just individual people’s lives but the economic performance of a whole community. When I was first elected, more than 25 years ago, Exeter College was a pretty mediocre, middling kind of place. It was dilapidated and did not have great results, and that reflected a lack of aspiration in education in my city generally. Our high schools were also not very good.
Over the past 25 years, that picture has been completely transformed by some good policies, local leadership, and the almost unique partnership and collaborative education system that we have built in Exeter, involving the college, the university and our high schools under the umbrella of a community-run trust named after the great educationalist Professor Ted Wragg, who used to run the school of education at the University of Exeter. That led to a huge improvement in attainment and results in not just our high schools and primary schools but our college and university.
When I was first elected, families would send their children out of Exeter to neighbouring schools in the countryside because they were better and also had sixth forms. The high schools in Exeter do not have sixth forms; most young students do their A-levels at Exeter College. We used to haemorrhage a lot of young people into the private sector, if the families could afford to send them.
Today, the opposite is the case. We are attracting students from parts of Cornwall—from your constituency, I am afraid to say, Mrs Murray—and from Dorset and Somerset. Those young people travel for two hours on the bus every day to Exeter and back—a four-hour journey—to attend Exeter College. At sixth form, we are attracting young people from private schools to Exeter College because its results are so good and its standards so high. We are also attracting students from outside Exeter into our high schools because they are performing so well.
I want to give a couple of examples of the levels of achievement that Exeter College has been hitting in recent years. This year’s A-levels were the best ever: an astonishing 69% of students got either A*, A or B, and 16 students secured places at Oxford or Cambridge. Last year, Exeter College was the top college in England for apprenticeship starts, and it has consistently bucked the national trend of decline by increasing the number of apprenticeships every year. Exeter College is the biggest T-level provider in England, with results this year 4% above the national average.
There are a few individual achievements that I would like to highlight. Last year, the highest performing A-level PE student in the country with one of the major awarding bodies was from Exeter College. Given the difference between our facilities and those of some of our leading private schools, that is an incredible achievement. One of only four students in the country to score top grades in digital T-levels was from Exeter College. A female joinery apprentice from Exeter College won best in country in the Institute of Carpenters’ national competition.
As well as those incredible academic and skills achievements, the college also performs an important community role. Over the last year, it has been educating 300 Ukrainian refugees, helping them to improve their English as a foreign language. However, the college and its excellent principal, John Laramy, would not want me to extol its achievements without, as the hon. Member for Waveney did, highlighting some of the challenges—for both the college and the tertiary sector as a whole.
First, there is the issue of space. Exeter College has grown rapidly in quite a restrictive city-centre location. It has been regularly constrained in what it can do because of a lack of physical space. It had to introduce 10 mobile classrooms on to the site this summer and to pause its expansion of T-levels because of a shortage of space. It really needs funding from the Government’s FE transformation fund to continue to fulfil its full potential, and I am glad that I have had the opportunity to make that point to the Minister directly.
Secondly, there is recruitment. As the hon. Member for Waveney said, the cost of living crisis has significantly impacted the college’s ability to recruit qualified staff, and Brexit has also had an effect. Although there are problems across the board, they are particularly acute construction, digital and engineering—all subjects in which we need to succeed as a nation if we to achieve the growth the hon. Gentleman referred to and the improvement I am sure we all want to see in our productivity as a nation.
I hope the Government will come forward with policies to address some of these issues. Like the hon. Gentleman, I was very encouraged to read the briefing in The Times today about what the new Prime Minister would like to do with our education system. Radical ideas are long overdue, and on the face of it the ideas that have been put forward are very good, but this will be a big challenge to deliver on. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister can give us any more details in her summing up.
I will conclude by suggesting that many colleges across the country, including Exeter College, are already doing much of what was outlined in the No. 10 briefing in The Times today, but they could do an awful lot more with the right policy framework, if the staffing and skills supply issues were addressed and if the necessary funding was in place. As the hon. Gentleman said, FE colleges have been historically underfunded compared with A-levels and universities. If we could tackle all those things, we could really achieve the vision that the new Prime Minister outlined in The Times and work together—cross-party—to do exactly what he hopes to achieve.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Murray.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), because he outlined what successful colleges can look like. I will hold to that vision as I speak about the situation in my constituency and about the Malvern Hills College situation in particular.
I want to start by thanking the Minister, because on taking post she wrote me an incredibly helpful letter. She has clearly studied the situation at the wonderful Malvern Hills College very closely, but I will reiterate it for the record and for the benefit of colleagues. The college has been in existence in the centre of Malvern for nearly 100 years. In 2016, the trustees entrusted its ownership to what has become Warwickshire College Group, which is obviously headquartered in Warwickshire, the neighbouring county. In their wisdom and prudence, at the time of the transfer the trustees put in place a covenant on this precious building in the heart of Malvern. I will read the covenant into the record. The property cannot be used for anything
“other than a Further Education College and ancillary uses thereto without the prior written confirmation from the Transferor that the Transferor is satisfied…that the Learning and Skills Council (or any successor in function) has properly determined that there is no longer a functional need for a college in Malvern”.
Malvern is a beautiful town of 35,000 people. It is a growing town. Places such as Malvern are exactly where we need to have the precious resource of a good college—I see that colleagues are nodding their heads. With the vision that has been outlined, and stability in our education team, which I hope will endure, I hope that we can focus on the fact that the community very much wishes to retain the site as a college—so much so that, through the Bransford Trust, a local philanthropist is offering a substantial sum to purchase the site so that it can be maintained as a going concern in the heart of Malvern. Our local council, Malvern Hills District Council, has allocated a £400,000 grant to secure the future of the college, and our county council has also very helpfully allocated a £400,000 grant. Between them, there is a substantial—possibly multimillion-pound—offer to keep the site working as a college in the heart of Malvern.
Hon. Members would think that that would satisfy the board and trustees of Warwickshire College Group—that they would remain faithful to the covenant, the district council would not lift it, and the college would rise like a phoenix from the closure that Warwickshire College Group announced under the cloak of the pandemic. Unfortunately, so far the board seems to have focused on ensuring that it simply gets maximum value for the site and is able to sell it—presumably, for a housing development.
That is not what the community wants. We have protested; we have marched outside the college. We have also put forward a very valuable offer to take the college from Warwickshire College Group. I look forward to meeting the group’s new chair, Anna Daroy, and its president, Louise Bennett, who are both actually from Worcestershire, to emphasise to them how important it is to find a happy solution.
Unfortunately—I use parliamentary privilege to make these remarks—Warwickshire College Group has chosen to retain lawyers and to sue Malvern Hills District Council. It is using public money to sue my council to get it to lift the covenant, on the pretext that the Learning and Skills Council no longer exists, and its successor body, the Education and Skills Funding Agency, feels that there is sufficient provision in the area. That would mean that we as a community cannot determine the future of the college.
I want a future for our college like the one that the right hon. Member for Exeter outlined for his constituency. We are a thriving town, and we want a college right in the heart of it. That is why I have updated colleagues on what is happening. I hope that, having listened to this tale of woe, the Minister’s very helpful letter to her officials will say, “We do have the power.” The Secretary of State has the power to determine that she wants to see the college preserved in the heart of Malvern.
I assure hon. Members that the people of Malvern almost unanimously wish to see this wonderful college preserved. We have a plan and a business case. While this situation goes on, the site is being left to go to rack and ruin. That is in nobody’s interest. Will the Minister urge her officials to look at this issue one more time? Will she tell them that she has the power to do something here? Power to her elbow.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this debate, even if it is a week late.
OECD data shows that Scotland is the most educated country in the UK and Europe. Data from 2021 shows that 55.2% of Scotland’s 25 to 65-year-olds have been through further or higher education. That is partly due to Scottish colleges, which I was surprised to find have a system that does not operate in England—or did not operate the last time I looked, which was when I served on the Education Committee here. We have a system called articulation. It is very possible for a student to start in a college in Scotland aged 15, perhaps—an early leaver—and study for a national qualification, then move on to do a higher national certificate, a higher national diploma, and sometimes go on to do a bachelor of arts degree at that college. Alternatively, they can choose to move on to another place—a university such as Edinburgh Napier or Glasgow Caledonian—and go straight into their second or third year, continuing their academic studies there.
It is a really good system; I know, because I used to work as a further education lecturer. I retired in 2011—that went well—but I loved teaching in further education colleges because of the breadth, width and variety of students. I am pretty sure that the same happens in England. We were very involved in retraining people who had lost jobs when major factories closed down, such as Motorola in Livingston, where I worked. We were also heavily involved in helping women returners; indeed, one of my proudest achievements—if I may be so immodest—is that I helped many women who had perhaps left school very early. In particular, I remember one woman who was 15 when she became pregnant and left school. She came back looking for a wee part-time course many years later, and I put her straight on to a higher national certificate course. She went forward, and eventually articulated to a university and got a degree—not because of my efforts, but because of her own.
It is always a pleasure to look back on my time in colleges, just to reflect on the opportunities that they give our young people, our middle-aged people and our older people. My husband went to Motherwell College, as it was then—it has had a refresh since—and did an access to higher education course. All our children had gone to university, and he thought he might try it himself.
One of the most upsetting things said to me about Warwickshire College Group’s decision to close Malvern Hills College was that most of the students were older. Surely, that is not the kind of message that we want to be sending out across our land.
I am appalled at that remark—not the hon. Lady’s remark, but that being given as a reason to close down a college. No matter where in the UK we live, lifelong learning is an extremely important tool for every one of us. It will help the economy, but it also gives us more satisfied and better citizens. We can all learn, no matter what age we are; I am a continual reminder of that in my role as disability spokesperson for my group here.
I am really pleased to be able to say that 93% of Scottish pupils who left school last year had gone on to a positive destination, including work, training or further study, nine months later. Many of those pupils go on to local colleges; in fact, many attend local colleges while they are still at school, doing things such as foundation apprenticeships, which are a really good start for people who are not quite so academic. When I did my teaching qualification in further education, many years ago in the 1990s—that is how long ago it was—I did a study of how we deal with academic and vocational education, comparing Scotland and Germany.
I am going to leave it there, because I see the hon. Member for Waveney nodding vociferously, but in Germany, for example, vocational education has parity of esteem with academic education; no part of the UK has managed that yet. It is important for all of us that that parity of esteem should become a reality before too long.
It would be remiss of me not to talk about widening access as part of Colleges Week. When I was at West Lothian College—there’s a name check—I taught disabled students and students who came from very deprived backgrounds. To give them an opportunity was a privilege because many of them had been told at school, “Sit at the back of the class. You’re not going to go to university so just sit there and don’t make a noise so we can teach these really bright people at the front.” They arrived in college and if I handed out a piece of work they would say, “I cannae dae that.” That was their first reaction and, because they had been so held back at school, for six months of any course we had to say to them, “Yes, you are able”. At college, they blossomed. Again, it is a privilege to watch students doing that.
I may be straying far too much into my recent history, so I will move on and talk about my local college, New College Lanarkshire. It has six campuses, although I hasten to add that the best—certainly the largest—is in Motherwell in my constituency, right on the edge of where the Ravenscraig steelworks used to be. It is a large college and has a wide variety of courses, with everything from a national qualification in hospitality to a BA in music and musical theatre.
Some hon. Members may have heard of Lewis Capaldi, who is a graduate of New College Lanarkshire and recently went back to Motherwell to talk to people doing music courses there. I, too, had the privilege of talking to them one day, reminiscing about when I first heard the Beatles; I was talking to one student and was absolutely surprised to find the whole area had stopped what they were doing to listen to this historical monument talking about the ’60s. The students are always winners and big contestants in the WorldSkills UK competition—indeed, last year, the Motherwell campus hosted the event. I take the opportunity to thank everyone this year who is going forward.
It would be remiss of me not to talk about the people who work in colleges. Everyone involved in colleges in my experience has been glad to work there and be part of the journey made by students. I have already declared that I am a former FE lecturer, but I do not know a single FE lecturer who does not go over and above to help their students achieve the best they possibly can.
I am pleased to have spoken in the debate. There are some issues that the Minister could take forward in terms of the differences in colleges in Scotland. I am always going to stand up here, when I can and when it is true, to say that we do things better in Scotland. We certainly get that articulation route better and we have a slightly more positive attitude towards vocational qualifications and their worth to the economy. If there is a large job loss at a large company, the Scottish Government call on local colleges to upskill and help those folk get jobs, perhaps in another industry. That is why lifelong learning is so important.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing the debate. He has a long track record of advocacy for the further education and skills sector, and he resolutely champions the cause of FE, often in a difficult environment, with great commitment.
I want to take this opportunity to apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), who was due to respond to the debate but is unfortunately unwell today. I know how disappointed my hon. Friend is to miss this important opportunity to speak up for the sector and outline Labour’s approach, but he feared that the entire room would end up with his very heavy cold if he were to turn up. However, I am delighted to have the opportunity afforded by my hon. Friend’s absence to celebrate the amazing work of colleges and I pay tribute to Lambeth College, Southwark College and Morley College, all of which provide a wealth of opportunities to learners from my constituency.
As has been said, last week was Love Our Colleges Week. Every one of us has an FE college serving our local areas, and they are incredibly important institutions, which Labour wants to see far better supported and utilised. We are hugely grateful to the Association of Colleges for all the work that it does all year round, and its Love Our Colleges Week celebrations continue to get better and better each year.
I thank everybody who has contributed to the debate. The hon. Member for Waveney clearly set out the breadth of provision in colleges across the country, from post-16 qualifications to higher education, and the vital role that colleges have in building the skills that our economy needs for growth. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) talked about the excellent work of Exeter College and the impact that it has on the economy of Exeter and the wider Devon area. I should also say that Exeter College has been fortunate to have my right hon. Friend as its champion for the past 25 years.
The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) spoke of the terrible situation facing Malvern Hills College, and I wish her every success with her campaign to ensure that learners in Malvern and her wider constituency have access to the important opportunities that the college previously provided. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) spoke compellingly of her experience of teaching in further education colleges and the role that colleges play in helping women returners. That was certainly the experience of my mother, who was able to gain her GCSEs and A-levels, and ultimately to graduate as an occupational therapist, in exactly the same years that I did those same qualifications, thanks to the provision that a local college provided in her place of work, which was our local hospital at the time. The hon. Lady also talked about the role that colleges play in retraining workers who have faced redundancy, which is important work.
Further education colleges perform amazing work across their communities. Often colleges are the most visible places in a town or city, and people go there if they want to learn, retrain or improve their skills. Colleges are the brokers of second chances—the repair shop that gets so many people on the path to a better future. They literally change the lives and prospects of learners in every community on every single day of the week, and the funding cuts that they have experienced over 12 years has been a national act of destruction. After another tough year for our colleges, the theme of Colleges Week—staff, students and skills—really says it all, because colleges are all about people, with learners and staff at their centre.
The greatest advocates for our colleges are the learners themselves. Regardless of whether they are heading towards university or the workplace, or returning to the labour market, learners speak volumes for the value of our FE colleges. The learners in our colleges are inspirational. Some have had poor experiences in formal education, others want to retrain and change career, and some simply want to pursue a vocational path that academia just cannot offer.
The staff in our colleges never fail to impress with their dedication, hard work and love of the work they do. They are all too aware of the role that they play in their local area to support learners to get on in life, to increase in confidence and to achieve their goals. Just this month, Labour’s shadow FE and HE Ministers, my hon. Friends the Members for Chesterfield and for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), visited West Notts College and Nottingham Trent University to learn more about the exciting new collaborations between further and higher education institutions and how they can offer an holistic education experience to learners. Labour sees collaboration and working together as the right approach for the sector after years of market forces being allowed to dictate the direction. Neither FE nor HE should be placed as more important than the other. A Labour Government will facilitate partnerships that draw on the strengths of both sectors to improve learning opportunities in every community in the country.
Sadly, as we celebrate Colleges Week and the work of colleges, many institutions still face uncertainty about rising energy prices. It is vital that colleges are able to plan for the future, and I urge the Government to end the uncertainty with regard to spiralling energy costs.
Another issue that has faced our colleges this year has been the Government’s obsession with axing BTECs and stripping away level 2 and level 3 qualifications. It would be helpful to get an early steer from the new Government as to what their approach is to the question of level 3 qualifications, because the new Secretary of State for Education was pretty critical of BTECs when she held the skills brief.
Labour has been proud to back the Protect Student Choice campaign, which saw an impressive collaboration between the FE and skills sector, businesses, student groups, and others too numerous to mention, in their attempts to salvage BTECs, which are held in high regard by employers. We welcomed the Government’s U-turn on level 3 BTECs and would be grateful to know today what the approach of this Government will be. We also share the concerns of many in the sector regarding the axing of valuable level 2 courses. We would be glad to know whether that policy will be reviewed by the new Minister.
While we celebrate the achievements of colleges and their staff and learners during this debate, we should acknowledge that the best approach for the further education and skills sector is collaboration and proper funding, with a well resourced further education estate working hand in hand with employers, learners, higher education institutions and devolved authorities in order to deliver world-class skills. I hope that the new team at the Department for Education heed this call. I thank all hon. Members for their interest in this sector, and I thank every single person working in our colleges for the life-changing work that they do.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this important debate. I am well aware that further education colleges are an important part of education in his constituency. There are some great colleges doing some good work in his area, such as East Coast College, Suffolk New College and West Suffolk College. He mentioned our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s commitment to technical and vocational qualifications. I have been saying for some time that I want to see parity of esteem whereby technical and vocational qualifications are held in the same high esteem as academic qualifications, so it is music to my ears to hear our new Prime Minister talk of this. I definitely think that is the right direction and I fully support him in this.
My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney also touched on the importance of apprenticeships, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) did, and how important it is that they are future-proofing our economy. We are also looking at working with emerging industries to ensure that we can future-proof our economy. This is certainly something that I have been working on. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned how colleges reach across all sections of society; I think every Member in this room agrees with that. They really reach out to the hard-to-reach places.
I thought that, before beginning my main speech, I would just touch on some of the things that hon. Members brought up. The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) proudly highlighted the excellent work of his local college. I am also pleased to hear how he is championing T-levels. I know his principal, John Laramy, is a strong advocate for T-levels, so please pass on my regards. The right hon. Member for Exeter discussed the challenges of space, which I know from some of the colleges in our local areas can be a challenge. I will happily meet with the right hon. Member and his college principal to look at options. As your principal is an advocate for T-levels, they have already received £2.5 million, which is half the cost of refurbishment. The great news is that they are successful in securing the approval for wave 4 of T-levels; that is testament to the great work that they are doing in that area.
I have to say to my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin): you have been an amazing advocate for your college. When I got this position three months ago, yours was one of the first letters I received. I want to pay tribute to the great work that you do in championing this. Obviously, if legal wranglings are going on I cannot comment on that, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and stakeholders to discuss things further in person. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the amazing work that you do as chair of the APPG—
Order. The Minister is speaking through the Chair. Just a gentle reminder.
Thank you, Mrs Murray.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire for the great work she does on the APPG on global education. I also thank the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for the great work she has done in the sector. My sister worked in FE for quite a number of years and I know the challenges, but at the same time I know how you pull out all the stops for your students. Thank you for the work that you do.
Order. The Minister really should not be referring to me.
Sorry. I thank the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw for discussing how important it is for us to build up strong relationships with our devolved nations. I will work on doing that with my counterparts. It was wonderful to hear the story of how FE has helped one of the hon. Member’s constituents. On T-level results day this summer, I went to a college in the north-west. It was amazing—I wish I could bottle that enthusiasm and spread it across the whole country. Students told me how the T-level and being at college actually changed their lives. That shows the great stuff that colleges do.
Colleges do fantastic work up and down the country, every single day. I have already mentioned some of the colleges I have visited. Darlington College had a fabulous robotics department; Leeds College had engineering and construction. They are amazing learning environments enabling students to flourish, get on in life and land the jobs they have always dreamed of.
FE colleges have a role like no other education provider; they reach parts that other education providers cannot reach. They deliver the skills a nation needs to support growth. That could be at level 1 or level 7. They support those who need a second chance and those who need to reskill and retrain. They support those who need higher-level technical skills, and they work with schools, other providers, universities and employers. They are a jack of all trades, and, importantly, also masters of them all.
All that is happening in colleges up and down our country, helping to level up the nation and support social mobility. That is why I see colleges as engines of social mobility, encouraging students to reach beyond what they thought was possible and smash expectations. Colleges focus on what can be achieved by every student who comes through the doors. As a former BTEC girl, I get that. I will touch briefly on what the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) said about BTECs. We need to get on the record that we are not doing away with BTECs; we are reforming the whole landscape to ensure that every qualification that anybody takes leads to good outcomes for the students. That is so important; outcome is everything for students because they invest so much time in their education.
Can I get some clarity from the Minister on her plans for level 2 and 3 BTECs?
I will cover those points later in my speech.
My BTEC experience—I studied for a BTEC national in business and finance—helped me on my way; importantly, I gained transferable skills. I fully recognise that others like me—and indeed not like me, which is a real beauty of the FE sector—will benefit from the provision that colleges deliver, as they offer so much in our communities, to our students and to our economy.
With the recognition of the value and worth of colleges comes the need to ensure that they are properly funded, which is why throughout this Parliament we have sought to substantially increase investment in post-16 education. We are investing: £3.8 billion more in FE and skills over this Parliament, including an extra £1.6 billion for 16-to-19 education in 2024-25; an extra £500 million for T-levels, when they are fully rolled out; £1.34 billion in adult education and skills through the adult education budget in 2022-23; and £2.5 billion over the course of the Parliament for the national skills fund to support eligible adults to upskill and reskill. We are also increasing apprenticeship funding to £2.7 billion by 2024-25.
We are also investing in facilities, as I mentioned earlier, with £2.8 billion in capital investment to improve the college estates, and over £400 million to ensure that they have the facilities and equipment needed for T-levels. We have big ambitions for colleges and the whole further education sector, but we cannot shy away from the challenges, which I know some hon. Members have mentioned.
Rising costs and the energy crisis are hitting everyone. Colleges are certainly no exception. The investments that I have outlined will help to support the sector to deliver on its ambitions against this backdrop. The energy relief scheme that the Government announced only last month will be a much needed help for colleges. We are working continually with the sector, and I have asked colleges to let us know about their cost pressures, so we can consider that in determining the next steps. I will listen carefully in order to fully understand the challenges and opportunities that the sector faces, and to understand the challenges that colleges face. We ask a lot of them, but we know that they can deliver what learners, businesses and the country needs. The whole nation needs to be thankful for what colleges do.
Regarding skills reforms, colleges play an important role in our ambition to develop one of the best technical education systems in the world. I am pleased to hear that the Opposition are on the same page as us. We value the importance of technical education, so it is great that we are in government and delivering on this. We are investing in the skills system so that colleges have the means and support to offer learners the chance to retrain, upskill and reskill anywhere in the country, so that they can get good jobs wherever they live.
Since the publication of the “Skills for jobs” White Paper in 2021, we have been working closely with colleges to improve courses and qualifications to ensure we are focused on giving people the skills they need to get into great jobs. Colleges have been pivotal in the delivery of new, high-quality provision, and we thank them for all their hard work these past few years in rolling out this significant reform programme.
Successive reviews, including the Wolf review and the Sainsbury review, have found that the current qualifications system is overly complex and does not serve students or employers well. This is why we have undertaken a series of reviews of academic and technical qualifications at level 3, level 2 and below. As I said earlier, this is about outcomes for students. The reviews will ensure that every funded qualification has a clear purpose, is high-quality and will lead to good outcomes for students. We have already removed funding approval for over 5,000 qualifications that have low, or no, publicly funded enrolments at level 3. That is the right move. Although we want momentum, we want to introduce these reforms at a manageable pace, given the extent of change in the wider qualification landscape, including at level 3.
Let me turn to higher level technical education. Many colleges are already delivering excellent higher technical education, yet uptake of these courses is low compared to other levels of study internationally and previous figures in England, despite strong employer demand for higher technical skills. We are therefore delivering supply and demand-style reforms to grow uptake of high-quality higher technical education. Our reforms are focused on quality, to lay foundations for the long-term sustainable growth of higher technical qualifications.
My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned local skills improvement plans. Employer representative bodies have been appointed to lead on the development of local skills improvement plans in all areas of the country. That includes the Norfolk chamber of commerce, which is leading on the LSIPs across Norfolk and Suffolk, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
We have moved quickly since launching LSIPs in the “Skills for jobs” White Paper in January 2021. We piloted the plans and the development fund to see what worked well, legislated to put LSIPs on a statutory footing, and ran competitions to find the strongest employer bodies to lead on developing each employer-led plan. LSIPs place employers at the heart of our local skills, facilitating more dynamic working arrangements between employers, colleges and other training providers. Together with the strategic development fund, which supports providers to make changes to their curriculum, LSIPs make technical education more responsive to employers’ needs.
I know that the sector is facing challenges with the recruitment and retention of teachers; that is one of the main things that colleges around the country tell me. I recognise that great teachers are fundamental to the success of our skills system, which is why our “Skills for jobs” White Paper sets out our continuing support for the FE sector to recruit and train great teachers. We will support the sector through the national recruitment campaign programmes to recruit industry professionals into FE teaching roles, and upskill FE teachers to deliver new T-levels by improving the quality of FE initial teacher training education.
Let me turn to the Office for National Statistics reclassification. I appreciate that there are some concerns in the sector about this work, but we are continuing to work closely with the sector, and will provide information and guidance for providers in the event of a reclassification. We will ensure that any changes are managed smoothly, and that all in the sector are kept fully up to date at all stages so that providers can continue to deliver the best provision for learners. It is important to recognise that this is the moment that the FE sector remains classified as part of the private sector, and colleges should continue to operate as usual.
Most providers are doing a brilliant job of transforming the lives of people in their community, but our funding system does not always help them to do so. We want to change this and ensure that the system actively supports FE providers to work collaboratively with local providers, employers and other key stakeholders. Our reforms to funding and accountability for colleges will help us to ensure that colleges are better supported to focus on helping their students into good jobs. We have reduced the complexity of funding so that colleges can focus on their core role of education and training, and define clearer roles and responsibilities for the key players in the systems.
We want to build a world-class further education system that delivers for the whole nation. A key part of this is ensuring that colleges are fit for the future, with better facilities and great buildings. That is why, through the FE capital transformation programme, we are investing £1.5 billion over six years between 2020 and 2026 to upgrade and transform the FE college estate.
I am particularly proud of our skills bootcamps, and I pay tribute to colleges for the way in which they have embraced them, as one of the newest programmes. I visited a skills bootcamp on heavy goods vehicle driving, and I got to drive one of the big trucks myself. I saw a few people looking scared when I got behind the wheel, but I managed not to crash it, thankfully; it was amazing. I met a young chap with severe mental health problems, who was a real champion for a men’s mental health charity that helps with suicide prevention. He said that retraining through the skills bootcamp gave him a new lease of life.
Skills bootcamps have the potential to transform the skills landscape by helping local regions and employers to fill in-demand vacancies, and are an important block in the foundations of our skills reforms. I am therefore delighted that colleges are playing an integral part in supporting their delivery in local areas. They are helping to fulfil the aims of the programme by providing opportunities to adults and plugging the skills gaps. Funding for skills bootcamps from the last spending review will enable us to continue to grow that offer significantly with support from colleges. That will help tens of thousands of adults across the country to gain new skills.
We touched briefly on T-levels. We got off to a great start: our first cohort of T-levels achieved an impressive overall rate of 92.2%. I am a real advocate of them, because they are great for social mobility. Middle-class families can get work experience, internships and so on through their connections, but those from disadvantaged areas find it much more difficult to get work experience. It is excellent for young students to get that on their CV, as it helps them to climb the ladder and go on to a great career.
It is clear that the great work of providers such as colleges is setting students up for successful careers and equipping them with the skills the country needs. The numbers of T-level providers and students are increasing quickly, and we are confident that that will continue. In 2021 alone, 5,450 people took up T-levels. Students tell us that they favour these courses, especially when they have industry placements.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney for securing this debate, and for supporting and promoting the sector. I also thank other Members for their equally valuable input. The debate has made it clear that FE colleges are held in high regard throughout the land. The Government and I believe colleges are important, and that is backed up by serious investment. This debate has not changed my position; I am even more convinced of it after hearing the great things that hon. Members have said about the FE sector.
I was impressed and moved by the points that hon. Members made about the colleges in their constituencies and the great work that their constituents do. I have already said that the Government value the importance, impact and value of the FE sector, and our policies and investment back that up. I am honoured to be the Minister with responsibility for further education colleges. Hon. Members can rest assured that I will continue to be their champion.
We have had a very good debate. Perhaps it would have been greater if more Members were here, but we have the graveyard slot on a Thursday afternoon.
I want to highlight some of the issues that Members raised. The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) and my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) spoke about the good and bad that colleges can do. It is clear that Exeter is a long way advanced on a path that I hope my constituency goes down too. The right hon. Member for Exeter and I both represent coastal communities, and coastal communities have real challenges right through the education system. In Exeter, the college has come together with a very high-quality higher education institution and has worked with the primary and secondary schools to raise standards across the board and create a centre for excellence. We can all learn from that.
Then we heard about the—dare I say it?—tragedy of what is happening in the Malvern Hills. When it comes to regeneration, levelling up and ensuring that the whole country can participate in the proceeds of growth, there is a hole in the heart of the Malvern Hills, because they will not have that opportunity.
We all talk about levelling up and want to show how our particular constituencies can benefit. We probably all—I am the worst example of this—want shiny new edifices. We want roads, railways and bridges—I have a great bridge coming—and we need to build them as a catalyst for growth, but ultimately it is the investment in flesh and blood, rather than concrete and steel, that will ensure meaningful and long-term growth. That is what colleges have to offer. All 650 MPs have a college in or within striking distance of their constituency, and colleges will be the engine of regeneration. The Government should be commended for bringing in reforms and recognising the importance of the sector, but they need to take the sector with them and work with it. There is sometimes an anxiety about the speed of travel.
The debate on the Skills and Post-16 Education Act, which took place across both Chambers in the last Session, was a good one. My slight regret is that it was a real opportunity to make a landmark Act and we did not quite grasp that. Perhaps some of the amendments that were tabled in the other place, which probably had that intention in mind, should have been taken on board. LSIPs have enormous potential and, as the Minister said, put employers at the heart of these reforms. However, if the employer, who is in the driving seat, kicks out the other partners—the colleges, universities, local enterprise partnerships, mayors or councils—that car will quickly go off the cliff, so they need to be collegiate with colleges when playing their role. In my own area in Norfolk and Suffolk, that is indeed what is happening.
Staffing is a challenge. Look at what is happening in East Anglia with the opportunities in offshore wind and in nuclear at Sizewell. It is a real challenge to getting teachers and trainers with skills in fabrication and the other expertise we need. The Government must focus on that and employers must also play their role.
I will finish on the matter of funding. As a Conservative, we probably overlooked the sector for much of the past decade. In 2021, we woke up to that, and the spending review was largely positive as far as FE is concerned, but it is not the end of the journey; it is the very beginning.
In the next 10 days, some important decisions will be made. The Government will have to make tough choices, but they should be very cautious about making cuts to the sector. It seems like a long time ago now, but we had that growth plan in September. We all want growth, but it needs to be sustained and its proceeds available for everyone to participate in. In my constituency, very few people earn in excess of £150,000, but we want everyone to be able to participate in the proceeds of growth, and investing in our FE colleges enables us to do that and enhances social mobility.
When we achieve growth, it should not just be a quick boom to coincide with the electoral cycle, followed by a bust. It should be sustained and gradual growth that everyone can participate in. That is the role that colleges can play. I hope that today we have made an important contribution to ensuring that that can happen.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Colleges Week 2022.
World Menopause Day
[Relevant document: First Report of the Women and Equalities Committee of Session 2022-23, Menopause and the workplace, HC 91.]
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered World Menopause Day.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for this important debate. I am delighted to co-sponsor it with the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who shares my passion and determination to improve access to support and treatment for those experiencing symptoms of the menopause.
Anyone in or around Parliament last week might have noticed a buzz of activity. The reason, obviously, was that last Tuesday was World Menopause Day. It was an honour to welcome a group of women who have been instrumental in campaigning for change, from grassroots campaigners to clinicians and celebrities who are using their platform to amplify the message. The day ended with a rally in Old Palace Yard, almost 12 months on from our last Westminster menopause rally. Last year, I stood among jubilant women in Parliament Square. We were celebrating the fact that the Government had listened and committed to dramatically reducing the cost of NHS prescriptions for hormone replacement therapy in England, which would bring them somewhere near the free prescriptions in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. They also committed to setting up a taskforce to look at other barriers women face.
This year, many of the same women were back again. They were as determined as they were last year. They were loud—possibly a little louder than last year. But they were a little less jubilant, a little more sceptical and far less confident in the Government’s commitment to the promises that they made in October 2021. However, they have not given up.
At the rally, Menopause Mandate launched a wonderful book, “It’s Beyond a Joke”, a collection of real lived experience stories from women. Some are graphic, some are funny, but some will break your heart. Every one is an honest account of a woman’s personal menopause journey, and every one is different, because no two women experience the same menopause. There are stories of misdiagnosis, insufficient workplace support and HRT shortages. There are stories from women who are struggling to afford the cost of the menopause, and from women who are hitting brick wall after brick wall when they try to access support. Thankfully, there are stories from women who faced some dreadful experiences but came out the other side—stronger, happier and ready to be their wonderful selves all over again.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this vital debate to Parliament. Her speech is a wonderful contribution on what so many people have gone through. Does she agree that menopause is not just a physical condition or response in the body, but something with a mental health and wellbeing impact? People need access to specialist services and clinicians, so that their psychosocial needs can be met in a holistic way.
I certainly agree with the hon. Lady. I myself spent eight years on antidepressants, believing that I had mental health problems, only to discover that I was actually menopausal. I can assure everyone that that was a relief.
I urge the Minister, his colleagues and any Member who does not have a copy—copies are available in my office—to read the book, and to join the campaign for change and for better access to menopause care. As I said, it has been almost a year since the first Westminster menopause rally, which followed the introduction of my private Member’s Bill, the Menopause (Support and Services) Bill.
Since then, we have seen a Government in chaos. There have been three different Health Secretaries, but now one has returned. An HRT tsar has come and gone within a few short months, leaving merely a list of recommendations. The HRT stock crisis rumbles on, months after the Department of Health and Social Care promised that it would be resolved. We still await the promised annual prepayment certificate for HRT prescriptions in England. As families up and down the country struggle with the costs of fuel, food and energy continuing to rise at an alarming rate, the prepayment certificate is more important than ever. Choices are being made on where to cut back on household expenses and on which luxuries can go. Menopause is not a choice and HRT is not a luxury but, for many women, the monthly cost of their prescriptions will be one of the casualties of family finance cutbacks. It is therefore vital that the promised prepayment certificate is implemented as soon as possible—women have already waited a year. The latest date we were advised for its introduction was April 2023. I would be grateful if we could have a guarantee from the Minister today that this will not slip any further.
Around the same time as my private Member’s Bill on menopause, the all-party parliamentary group on menopause, which I chair, launched its inquiry into the impact of the menopause. Earlier this month we published our latest report, which highlighted a number of areas where urgent change is vitally needed, including a call for better training for medical professionals. Stories from “It’s Beyond a Joke” show just how much that is needed. One woman says:
“The GP doesn’t want to ‘dabble’ in drugs with me”.
“The GP had no idea…Despite me telling him how much better I felt on HRT, it seemed that he was only concerned with getting me to stop taking it as soon as possible”.
A third shares:
“I spoke to my female GP. Her response when I mentioned the menopause was ‘Well you’re about the right age’. She prescribed antidepressants”.
Evidence taken during the APPG inquiry saw the same pattern of misdiagnosis, ongoing symptoms and repeated appointments with GPs. I am not blaming GPs. At most, they will have had only a few hours’ training on the menopause during medical school, and some will have had none at all. I am pleased that the women’s health strategy commits to changing that, but it really does not go far enough. The women who are suffering now cannot wait seven years for current medical students to enter practice. We need a programme in place to upskill those who are practising and prescribing to support women today and ensure that everyone who needs it has access to accurate and comprehensive information and treatment.
We also need the Government to make resources available to the health service to allow it to provide this training and support to help it to improve its menopause service. Adding menopause to the quality and outcomes framework would also help. Incentivising doctors to improve their knowledge of menopausal symptoms and treatment options would undoubtedly increase levels of diagnosis and, ultimately, benefit patients.
The APPG report also recommends that all women be offered a specific menopause check-up with their GP. Identifying and addressing symptoms early is vital. We know that some women will go through perimenopause and reach menopause early on. For some, this is due to medical treatment or surgical procedures, while for others it is due to a natural decline in their hormones. For a high percentage of women, an appointment in their 40s to discuss symptoms and treatment could be life-changing. Early detection saves women not only months and possibly years of unnecessary pain and anguish, but careers, relationships and lives—it is no coincidence that the suicide rate among women increases by 16% between the ages of 45 and 55.
We also need to look at the postcode lottery that women face in accessing HRT. The stark divide between those who can afford to see a private menopause specialist and those who cannot, coupled with the different products offered as primary treatment options in different parts of the country, results in women from lower socioeconomic communities being far less likely to be able to access the best care. Evidence taken during the APPG inquiry made a clear case for the need for a national formulary, which would allow prescribers across the country to offer their patients a choice of all available HRT products.
Another issue that became a key topic of both the report and the book is support in the workplace. A report published earlier this year by the Fawcett Society found that, shockingly, one in 10 women is leaving the workplace due to a lack of support, with thousands of others reducing hours and avoiding promotion. This trend was echoed in the evidence sessions during the APPG’s inquiry and the stories submitted to the Menopause Mandate book. One woman said:
“I have had to recently step down from my role at work as I’m still not able to perform at the level needed…I tried to keep my chin up and work through, but this failed.”
“I had to retire early, aged 59, as I simply couldn’t cope anymore. So, I lived in poverty for four years. I had so little money I bought no new underwear until I got my pension. I even stole toilet paper from cafes to make ends meet.”
Another woman said:
“I was dismissed from my job because of my debilitating symptoms…I was told by my employer that I was ‘fabricating an illness’. According to them, I had made it into work and looked fine.”
She was told that there was nothing wrong with her.
Such stories are devastating and, sadly, far too common. Thankfully, we are seeing change, and employers are gradually realising that they need to do more. Just two weeks ago, I hosted an event alongside Swansea City football club for businesses in Swansea to learn more about what their staff are experiencing and what employers can do to help. I was delighted by the turnout and was particularly encouraged by the desire among employers in my city to do so much more. I would love nothing more than for Swansea to be a city that really understands and embraces the menopause, and this week I saw signs of that beginning to happen. I went to watch the football on Sunday—the Swansea-Cardiff derby—and I was astounded by the number of men who came up to me, congratulated me on the work I am doing on the menopause, and asked for selfies to show their wives, so that their wives would be proud that they had spoken to the menopause MP. I hope that translates into votes.
By contrast, I heard of a woman who had gone to see her GP for some help for her symptoms. She was told by her GP, “That Carolyn Harris has a lot to answer for.” Well, perhaps I do, but is it really too much to ask that those who are suffering have access to the best possible care and treatment, and that menopausal women across society are given the attention and respect that they deserve in medical settings, in families and in the workplace? Currently, only a quarter of businesses have menopause support policies in place, but by making simple adjustments, employees will feel valued and, ultimately, businesses will retain loyal and experienced members of staff.
We really are just at that start, and I hope that the Government will sit up and listen and prioritise this area of women’s health. Progress is slowly being made, and the conversations taking place in the media and across communities are wonderful to see, because the more we talk, the more we learn. But it is not enough on its own. Support remains woefully inadequate, which, for 51% of the population, is really not good enough.
Twelve months ago, Government Ministers stood at the Dispatch Box and promised that change was coming. Twelve months ago, women celebrated triumphantly in Parliament Square. Twelve months ago, we all felt that our voices were finally being heard. Twelve months on, our economy is very fragile, families are struggling and menopausal women feel that they have been let down. We cannot keep waiting for the Government to fulfil the promises they have made.
Some colleagues in this Chamber will have been lobbied by their constituents to attend today’s debate. Many will have posted menopause-related content, which I know will have been well received by their constituents, because the menopause revolution is marching on. We are not going away. We are not going to stop asking for what is needed, and we will not be silent. We are not asking for special treatment, and we are not asking to be treated differently. We just want the resource, the respect and the support for women to experience the normality that the menopause can all too often rob them of.
The debate can last until 4.30 pm. I am obliged to call the Front Benchers at no later than 3.57 pm, and the guideline limits are 10 minutes for the Scottish National party, 10 minutes for His Majesty’s Opposition, and 10 minutes for the Minister. Then, Carolyn Harris will have three minutes to sum up the debate at the end. It is Back-Bench time until 3.57 pm and eight Members wish to contribute. There is a strict four-minute limit and I strongly discourage speakers from accepting interventions, because if you do, it means that somebody will drop off the list. If you keep it to four minutes, everybody will get in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this important debate and on giving us the opportunity to speak out and help raise awareness further.
I wanted to speak today to thank the hon. Member for Swansea East for her tireless work on raising awareness, improving education and increasing the availability of HRT to women across the country. I have to confess that I have learned more about the menopause since becoming an MP than in the previous half a century. I also want to thank the previous Health Ministers who have delivered the women’s health strategy, included the menopause in schools’ sexual health and relationships education and ensured it is included more fully in healthcare professionals’ training.
The Fawcett Society reports that one in 10 women has left a job due to menopause symptoms. At a time of such huge job vacancies across the country, I am sure the Minister, given his former roles, will agree that anything that can be done to facilitate more women feeling able to continue in their jobs and careers is vital. The vast majority of women report no employer support, no policies, no awareness and no training. I hope that by raising the menopause in the House again this afternoon, more women and their employers will think about what more can be done.
HRT is increasingly available more widely and I urge all women of that certain age to speak with their doctors about whether HRT may help with their symptoms, and to ensure they get their full year’s supply on that single prescription. Ladies, let us take back control of this time in our lives. Go and see your GP and ask the question. Speak to your friends and support each other, as half of us of that certain age are anxious and losing confidence. We can help each other. Indeed, these debates are highly therapeutic for all of us to recognise that the brain fog is not quite a senior moment yet.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for her continued work in this area, together with the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to this debate.
Approximately 13 million women in the UK are peri or postmenopausal. Ten per cent of women over 50 quit jobs due to menopause symptoms. Ninety per cent. of women get menopause symptoms, yet women get inadequate support due to the taboo around menopause in work, society and home life, as well as medically. The cost of HRT creates socioeconomic divides in access to support for the menopause, and I reiterate the point made so well about the fact that the Government’s commitment to securing the cost of HRT will not come into place until April 2023. Given the current cost of living crisis, that has a real impact on working-class women in my constituency of Luton South, particularly as the menopause is not a choice.
Similarly to the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), I want to focus on menopause in the workplace. As our workforce age year on year, studies show that around 75% to 85% of menopausal women are in work. It is hugely important to tackle attitudes and policies relating to the menopause in the workplace, to ensure that women are supported and do not feel forced into leaving their positions. We have heard how nearly 1 million women leave the workplace due to menopause every year, and that just exacerbates gender inequality in the workplace and the gender pay gap. There are many employers who are still failing to consider menopause as a proper health condition and who lack supportive policies that help those going through the change.
Women who have experienced the menopause while at work have discussed their frustration at suffering from loss of concentration, brain fog, fatigue, anxiety, hot flushes, sweats or bleeding while they are at work. And the brain fog is real—I can assure the Minister of that.
Many of these symptoms of menopause are taboo, and they have a detrimental effect on women’s position and ability to advance their careers. Many women have said that they are unable to carry out their jobs to the best of their ability due to the impact of the menopause. Seventy-seven per cent. of women say that they experience one or more of its symptoms, which makes it very difficult for them. Sixty-nine per cent. experience difficulties with anxiety or depression due to menopause. Eighty-four per cent. experience trouble sleeping, and 73% experience brain fog, which I have experienced myself.
I urge the Minister to ensure that the Government update and promote guidance for employers on best practice policies on menopause at work and supportive interventions. That should include the economic justification and productivity benefits of doing so, and it should be tailored to organisations of different sizes and resources, to ensure that it is as effective as possible. What interaction has the Minister and his Department had with the TUC and trade unions on this key workplace issue regarding menopause?
Finally, I want to give a shout-out to the women who have supported me as we have all shared our menopause experiences. This is for my menopause massive: Trish, Sarah, Julie, Caz, Liz, Helena, Anne-Laure and Marie. We have all experienced different angles of the menopause and I have learned more from them than from a lot of the stuff that is out there.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hollobone.
I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). Not only did she share some purple hair dye with my daughter, who at the time was 17, but she persuaded my daughter, who is now 18, to ask me about the menopause, so in my household anyway, the hon. Member is quite a famous person.
I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). I always get confused by that constituency name, because I represent South Northamptonshire, so it is somehow a real tongue-twister; I am sure she understands.
I also pay tribute to everyone here today who is now openly talking about the menopause. For me, all the way through until I started menopause—quite late, as it happened—I did not know the foggiest thing about it, literally. What is it? Nobody ever talked about the menopause, and that is extraordinary. We all chat about Viagra, and that serves a very different purpose; but the menopause, which affects 100% of women at some point in their lives, is somehow a taboo subject, particularly the consequences for women—feeling terrible, not being able to sleep and all the things that hon. Members have been talked about today.
Yet 41% of medical schools do not teach menopause as a mandatory subject. How utterly bizarre is that? It is completely strange. A study by Newson Health highlighted that 79% of women surveyed had visited their GP regarding clearly menopausal symptoms, yet only 37% were given hormone replacement therapy, and 23% were given antidepressants. In addition, women often face a wait of more than a year to get help. It is utterly ridiculous.
As Liz Earle, who is famous for her face products but is a real campaigner for helping women through the menopause, has said:
“It’s all about how to have a better second half of life, and I do believe the second half can be even better than the first.”
Hear, hear to that. Actually, in the second half of life, once the kids have grown up and you have got your life back and you are now an MP and want to get on, you actually want your hormone replacement therapy to be available on tap—don’t you, Mr Hollobone? “Yes”, I hear you say—shout, even.
I know that the Minister of State will be very sympathetic, because he really is a good listener, and while the menopause may not be his normal dinner-time conversation either, he will appreciate how important it is to all women of a certain age.
I will finish with the words of a lovely constituent who came to see me at my surgery:
“My GP encouraged me not to give up and 6 months later, after taking HRT, I’m now a new woman.”
So let us hear it for new women.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, especially in this debate. I will probably not take four minutes—that will sound strange to many folk who hear me here regularly—but I am just here as a cheerleader. I went through the menopause—I was trying to work it out, but my arithmetic is absolutely rubbish—about 30 years ago. I know it is hard to believe, but it is true. It was an early-ish menopause, and no one spoke about it. It was the Cissie and Ada time—Les Dawson and his colleague, who just mouthed “the change”.
I find it refreshing, glorious and essential that we talk about menopause. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) knows that she is my heroine, even though I got to meet Richard Gere and she did not—that has always been a bone of contention between us. I pay tribute to her and her work. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), with whom I served on the Education Committee. They are great role models, including for people like me.
Another of my role models is my First Minister in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. She recently went to a centre in Coatbridge—I may have got the location wrong—to talk to other women about the menopause. That would not have happened even five or six years ago, but it is vital for all the reasons that everyone has talked about. We have heard the statistics about working women who are going through the menopause, and about the lack of understanding from employers.
I was fortunate, because I worked in an FE college and I commanded the room. If I felt hot, the students had wide open windows. If I did not feel too great, they kind of tiptoed around me, but I did not tell them that I was suffering from the menopause. They did not really know what was going on. It is important that younger women, younger men and older men know what the menopause involves. We must not make life even more difficult for 50% of the population, who are experienced—usually highly experienced—working colleagues.
I say to colleagues here: more power to your elbow. I think you are all doing a wonderful job, and I am just sailing along on your coattails. Mr Hollobone, I think you are having an education this afternoon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), and to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), who did so much to ensure that people can get prescriptions for HRT over the counter. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), who is here but cannot speak in the debate. In her role as employment Minister, she recognises that the menopause is not simply a health issue; it also affects the economy, employment and women’s wellbeing in later life. I hesitate to use that phrase; I must declare my interest.
I will give the Minister a hard time. Back in July, the Women and Equalities Committee published our “Menopause and the workplace” report. I recognise that he is a Health Minister, but I hope he understands my disappointment that we are still waiting for a Health response to our report. This afternoon, I was sent an email apologising again for the fact that tomorrow the response to that report will be one month late, and telling me to expect the full response in the coming months. It is a very bad plan to tell a menopausal woman to wait for anything. They should not be waiting for their single prescription over 12 months, and we should not be waiting for months for the Government to come up with a response to a very sensible—I would say that—report.
What do I actually want from that response? I want to see flexible working, so I want an employment Bill. That is not the Minister’s responsibility. I want to see a consultation on whether the menopause should be a protected characteristic. That is not the Minister’s responsibility either. I am disappointed, because we should have a cross-Government response to the report.
We should see mandatory workplace policies, with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy leading the way to provide that resource to employers, free of charge on its website, as easy as anything. Great organisations such as Henpicked already do that. I was at the Menopause Friendly employers awards last month, and it was absolutely brilliant. Lots of employers have signed up, but why is BEIS not leading the way on that? We want to see the enactment of section 14 of the Equality Act 2010. That will be lost on the Minister; he will not know what I am talking about. I urge him to talk to the Government Equalities Office and at least consider that.
I want to see menopause ambassadors Government. It was great that Maddy McTernan was appointed HRT tsar, but she has returned to vaccines now. I want confidence from the Health Minister, as I have him here today, that Dame Lesley Regan will stay in place as the women’s health ambassador and that there will be a real commitment to the women’s health strategy. I shuddered when we had an “ABCD” of priorities, because I thought, “How long does it take to get to W for women’s health?” That was from the former Health Secretary; I hope the new Health Secretary will reinvigorate the women’s health agenda, and I urge the Minister to encourage him to do so.
I would like to see the Government working with a large-scale public sector employer to trial menopause workplace leave. I hesitate to point this out to the Minister, but it seems to me that the NHS is a large-scale public sector employer with lots of women working in it, so it might be ideal. I also want to see better training for GPs, and I want to know who is supporting our GPs. It is great that the workforce in general practice have been hugely feminised over the last few decades, but those women working in the health service also need support.
I want to champion the local women doing such fantastic work, whether that is Claire Hattrick and Jo Ibbott in Hampshire, or the brilliant GP I met at the Sutton Women’s Centre, where I went to do a menopause event, who was absolutely taking the message out there: “Your menopause can be celebrated and enjoyed, but it also needs to be managed.” For my final shot to the Minister, let us have a national formulary, let us deal with HRT shortages once and for all, and let us ensure that the info is out there for women.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this debate to mark international Menopause Day, and also on their work to raise awareness of the need to be talking much more about menopause and to challenge many of the taboos that exist around this issue in women’s health. Potentially, around 51% of our population will experience menopause, so the lack of discussion absolutely needs to be challenged. I know that, in my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East, there is no better champion to bring a focus to this issue and shine a light on the needs of women across the nation, and of course those of their families.
I absolutely do not profess to be as aware as many others here of the issues and challenges faced by women going through the menopause, but I recognise that it is a significant issue and one that has a big impact on society, workplaces and, more importantly, women themselves. That is why it is incumbent on us all, including men, to be aware and to do everything possible to offer support, because we know that around 75% of menopausal women experience symptoms and that around one third of those suffer severe symptoms.
We have heard from hon. Members about the various studies showing that around 75% to 85% of menopausal women are in work. There is a great need to tackle attitudes and implement policies related to the menopause in the workplace, to ensure that women are supported and do not feel forced out of their jobs. It is staggering to learn that nearly 1 million women leave their workplaces due to menopause every year, and we all appreciate that that will exacerbate gender inequality in the workplace and, indeed, the gender pay gap. It is unfortunate and absolutely wrong that many employers still fail to consider menopause as the proper health condition that it is. We know, too, that there is a significant lack of supportive policies to help those going through the menopause.
Women who have experienced the menopause while working have discussed the frustration of suffering from a loss of concentration—we have heard many examples today—brain fog, fatigue, anxiety, hot flushes, sweats and bleeding while at work, along with a range of other symptoms. My awareness of the symptoms and impact of menopause was raised when I was invited—that is perhaps not the right word—by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East to a menopause event at the Labour conference in Brighton last year, where, among other things, I attended a session of menopause bingo. That certainly raised my awareness—yes, there are lots of symptoms.
Many will have seen the Fawcett report, “Menopause and the Workplace”, which has been referred to today. It highlighted the fact that only 22% of women and trans men disclose when they are experiencing the menopause, while half said that it made them less likely to apply for promotion and a quarter said that they would consider early retirement. These are quite depressing figures. Surely the Government must therefore co-ordinate and support an employer-led campaign to raise awareness of menopause in the workplace and help to tackle the taboo surrounding menopause and work. Of course, the most important thing is that employers recognise the need to be aware and offer support to their employees. Policy may differ, but the key thing is that employers do not ignore the issue. Sadly, that has been the case for too long with many employers.
I end by once again congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East and the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North, and thanking all those involved in the APPG for the work it does to support women and their families across the UK and to tackle the lack of awareness. The APPG’s recent report highlighted the impact of this issue, and it is incredibly welcome. The report rightly highlights the need for reform and the need for more to be done to increase awareness. I hope that the Government will listen and take action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I express my appreciation to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for securing the debate and for all the work they do in this space.
I want to speak briefly on the grounds of my chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group for prescribed drug dependence. As the hon. Member for Swansea East says, one of the great tragedies in this space is the ignorance of GPs and their willingness to quickly diagnose depression or some other condition that requires prescription drugs, which are often misprescribed and people struggle for years to get off them. That comes at a huge human cost and at great financial cost to the NHS, and it takes a huge toll on our society. Our research for our APPG demonstrates that there are at least half a billion pounds of savings to be made to the health service if we stop misprescribing habit-forming, dependence-inducing medication.
What to do? I agree with the recommendations we have heard about, particularly those in the APPG report. I also look forward to the Government’s response to the report from the Women and Equalities Committee, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North chairs. I am not sure about the value of expanding protected characteristics to include the menopause, but I would be interested to see what the Government say about that. I do not know that the Equality Act is the solution to every ill in our society, but it is a valid suggestion. Fundamentally, we need to treat each other better, at all levels.
I particularly recognise the imperative of improving training in primary care. GPs absolutely need to understand the symptoms of the menopause and not misdiagnose, disregard or belittle people who present with those symptoms. What we have heard is shocking. I particularly welcome the suggestion that the GP quality and outcomes framework should include the menopause and that training should be improved.
Then, of course, we have employers. As we have heard from my right hon. Friend, millions of people are suffering in their careers as a result of misunderstanding and discrimination against menopausal and perimenopausal women, and I echo the recommendation that all large employers should have proper menopause policies in place. Fundamentally, it is down to all of us to understand the menopause. Obviously, men do not experience it—I have to say, though, that brain fog is not confined to women—so it is a case of sympathy, not empathy. But our job, as men, is to understand the menopause, to help women in our lives who are experiencing it, and, whether as employers or relations, to be there for them and support them through it.
My daughter is here today, wondering what we are talking about. I will quickly mention my mother, who has been on HRT for many years. We hear all the terrible stories about the menopause, but my mother is a great success story of what HRT can do. She is a tremendous advocate for it, and I honour her for talking publicly about it.
I very much welcome what the Minister has to say. This should be a priority for the Government. I particularly welcome the emphasis that we need to see on women’s health, and I echo the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North made on that.
What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I preface my remarks by putting on record again my thanks, and the thanks of women across the country, for the steadfast campaigning work of my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who has ensured that this important topic is kept on the parliamentary agenda. She has also been such a wealth of information and advice when I need pointers for constituents who come to me with issues related to the menopause. Everything I know about the menopause and the help I have been able to give others is thanks to this woman right here. From me and from my constituents in Warrington North, thank you, Carolyn.
I would also like to thank the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for sharing her experiences—and to ask what moisturiser she uses, as I cannot believe that those experiences were 30 years ago.
From speaking to friends, family and colleagues experiencing menopause and perimenopause, I know how transformative access to appropriate treatment can be. So many have told me that HRT has given them a new lease of life and given them back the ability to function that they thought they had lost, having struggled with brain fog and cognitive impairment. That is not a normal sign of ageing. We risk writing off thousands of women years before they have reached their peak, because of how insidious it is and how mad it makes them feel.
As the recent Fawcett Society report already mentioned shows, almost one in 10 women are leaving the workforce as a result of the menopause and a lack of support, denying their employers and our economy the benefit of their experience and making it more likely that they will experience poverty as they grow older. However, as we have heard from hon. Members in this debate and debates that we have held previously, there are certain groups that may find it harder to access appropriate support and guidance beyond the postcode lottery for GP services.
Women who start the menopause early may be less likely to be diagnosed, as watchful waiting is too often the course of action, leaving them suffering in the meantime. Women from ethnic minority communities and women of colour too often do not see themselves represented in medical literature or online campaigning; and for religious or cultural reasons, the discussions may not happen in families. I am glad that campaigners such as Menopause Mandate are making a concerted effort to improve the visibility of women of colour in their campaigning, highlighting the voices of women of colour and helping women to identify their own symptoms and experiences with those of role model campaigners. Trans people, especially those taking hormone replacement, women on contraception that disrupts or stops their menstrual cycle, or women who have had medical procedures including endometrial ablation, may be more likely to miss some of the symptoms of menopause, particularly as periods are one of the first things they will be asked about if seeking medical support, and they may not be aware of the other ways they might be affected.
Women should not have to go private to be taken seriously, to see a specialist or to have a choice of HRT products. My constituents are growing increasingly frustrated with the pace of change and with the GP backlogs under this Government that make getting an appointment harder than ever.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East rightly said that what women experiencing menopause need is resource, support and respect. I hope that the Minister today will update Members and our constituents on progress that is long overdue towards those aims, and on when we might see the employment Bill, through which we can ensure that women experiencing menopause have the rights to the support they need to help them to stay in the workforce.
It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate. The reason why I wanted to be here was, first, to support the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), but I also commend the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for all that she has done. I wanted to be here because my wife went through the menopause. The two hon. Ladies will know it, but others will know it as well. It is not because I am any wiser than anybody else; it is because, from the close relationship that I have with my wife, which is pretty understandable, I perhaps appreciate more than most, from a man’s point of view, what it means for a lady to go through all those extreme circumstances.
I recognise the passion of the hon. Member for Swansea East in relation to the challenges of menopause, a word that she has put on the lips of nearly everybody in the media—on the radio and in the papers. Therefore, whenever the hon. Lady has brought these things forward, I have always been here to support her, and I wanted to do that today. I apologise, Mr Hollobone. You know where I was; we had lost 50 minutes in the main Chamber and that was the reason why I could not be here on time. However, I want to make some points very quickly.
What needs to be addressed is the lack of specialist treatment and care for menopause and the issues that can arise as a consequence. I hope that the Minister can give us some idea of the position on specialist care. That specialist care needs to be in all the hospitals that we have across the United Kingdom. I know that it applies to us in Northern Ireland, where the Minister does not have responsibility. In Northern Ireland, we have the Kingsbridge Private Hospital, which opened the first menopause clinic in Northern Ireland. It is great to have that, to have a private clinic, but provision is needed for those who cannot source treatment and care from the private clinic because they do not have the financial resources to do so. That puts the emphasis on the NHS. It is only right that access to specialised treatment and care for menopause is implemented in the NHS as well. We need to see specialist menopause treatment rolled out in all hospitals. We need to provide for women experiencing the difficulties of menopause the personally tailored treatment that they unquestionably deserve.
GPs are always the first call for women suffering from menopause. Those women deserve clarity and conclusiveness from GPs, rather than, as often happens—I say this with respect—stagnation and short answers. “We’ll get you a blood test, then we’ll offer you some HRT, or you can just grin and bear it.” Those are the offers that are made, so it is of the utmost importance that we rectify the training process for GPs to include more than a passing module on the effects of menopause and its treatment. The side effects of menopause sometimes include osteoporosis, broken bones, or aches and pains. Those are the realities for ladies, and probably for my dear wife as well.
I made this point once before in another debate, but it is important to repeat it: women are unable to work for long periods of time without suffering from the menopause. Women over 40 are the fastest-growing demographic in the workforce. That is the group we are talking about—the group who need the help—so we look to the Minister for that help, and other Departments will need to provide it as well. It is estimated that some 900,000 women in the UK have left their jobs as a result of menopausal symptoms. That is an issue that has to be addressed, maybe not by this Minister, but certainly by the Minister who has direct responsibility for it.
My last point is that the mental health of women can be shattered by the remorseless effects of menopause. There are women who are not only unable to go to work, but who struggle to maintain any rudimentary sense of a social life, unable to see their friends, do their job or enjoy themselves. That is a crushing impediment to sustainable mental health, and it needs addressing. As a man, I am very happy to ask for what every lady in this Chamber has asked for, and what other men have asked for as well, because it is only right that it should happen. We look to the Minister for answers, and we hope that we will get them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I am delighted to be in the Chamber with this very fine group of women and men to speak in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on having secured it. The hon. Member for Swansea East’s opening speech was outstanding, and exemplified her approach to this issue, which—unusually for this place—is something we can all agree on. That is quite refreshing.
It is also refreshing to be in the Chamber talking about this issue. It is very slowly—far too slowly—getting better, but as the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) said, we do not speak about it enough. That is what needs to change, and we in this place have a big role in pushing for that to happen. We all know what I am talking about, don’t we? My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) referred to it: that unspoken sense of “This is not quite proper to discuss”, that it is maybe wrong, or a bit unspeakable. Well, it is not. It is absolutely normal; it will affect more than half of us. Not to put too fine a point on it, I suspect that if it was the other half of us who experienced menopause, we might hear a good deal more about it, and we might see better provisions at work and in wider society.
There are some important voices out there who are doing a brilliant job of keeping the issue on the wider radar and making sure that these conversations about menopause are not unspeakable—that they do happen. We have heard about Liz Earle, and I also want to mention Davina McCall. Her work—I am very grateful to Carolyn McCall for drawing my attention to it—is really helpful in getting people talking. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw talked about Nicola Sturgeon, and I think the First Minister of Scotland discussing menopause and her own feelings about it is really powerful and important. It does not matter who you are or what your job is: menopause is something that will affect all us women.
Locally, too, I would like to mention some of the wonderful work that goes on in East Renfrewshire. My friends and colleagues Councillors Annette Ireland, Caroline Bamforth and Angela Convery are great advocates for women, and are practically supportive as well; they are the ones who champion information sharing and practical steps to support women going through the menopause. Councillor Ireland shared a great graphic from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde on World Menopause Day. It was really helpful—I did not know all those facts, and I think about this issue quite a lot, for personal as well as work reasons. We should know these things.
The average age for a woman to reach the menopause is 51. One in 100 women reaches menopause before the age of 40. Some 70% of women—as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referenced—experience some form of mental health impact during the menopause, and 38% of partners feel helpless when it comes to supporting their other halves through the menopause, as we heard clearly just now. This one gave me the heebie-jeebies: menopause symptoms can last for 15 years. I am not sure I can cope with that. I did not know that until recently and I have not quite come to terms with it. I heard that fact, and a lot more, at the Menopause Café at The Bank in Neilston, which I went along to recently. It was absolutely brilliant. It was utterly reassuring, informative and full of smashing women having really frank conversations and supporting one another. If someone is at the point in their life when they are able to go along to something like that, please do so.
We cannot do all of this ourselves. Even those of us in this Chamber cannot do all of this ourselves, nor should we think we can. We need structures put in place to support and inform women, and create the space to talk. Women’s health issues should be a topic of conversation any and every day. The polite silence that surrounded things for far too long needs to be consigned to history. I mention the voice of the hon. Member for Strangford in that; he speaks up about those issues, and it is very helpful.
I really appreciate the work that has been done in Scotland on free period products. I mention that because, as well as appreciating the practical support that provides, we need to be comfortable talking about periods if we are going to be comfortable talking about menopause. I also appreciate the free prescriptions that we have in Scotland under our SNP Scottish Government. That is a bit of a game changer in terms of HRT provision. As the hon. Member for Swansea East said, menopause is not a choice and HRT is not a luxury. She is absolutely right. It sounded to me a wee bit like women in England are facing a menopause tax. That is really challenging in the context of the current cost of living crisis, as the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) raised.
Women’s health matters here, it matters in Scotland and it matters all over the UK. In Scotland, as the first country in the UK to publish a women’s health plan last year, I think it is important that we are constantly looking at those things, as we need to be. We have got a specialist menopause service in health boards. That is important because it needs to be a subject that we are focused on.
Why does it matter? We have heard about the really challenging situations that some menopausal women face. There is a 16% increase in the suicide rate of women aged between 45 and 55; that is a really stark statistic. We do not talk about that. That is a taboo that we need to address. The silence, inability or lack of knowledge about some of those facts means that many women—most women, I guess—should know more. There is an awful lack of knowledge among women generally about what menopause can mean. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw spoke very powerfully about the silence and the unknown, and the problems they can cause. That lack of knowledge damages lives. We have heard about what that means in reality, whether that be for family life or work. We must remember that this affects more than half the population.
I welcome the Women and Equalities Committee report. The right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North spoke very powerfully about why it is important that we consider looking at making menopause a protected characteristic—that we look at reasonable adjustments. From my point of view, bravo to the Scottish Government for their focus on fair work. There will be another action plan shortly, focused on fair work—with focus on women and those over 50. It would be interesting to hear where the UK Government are on that.
I know it is perhaps unfair to ask this Minister, but I would like to know where he thinks the employment Bill is—I certainly cannot see it anywhere. It is really important. The employment Bill would be the appropriate vehicle to deliver a lot of the structures in relation to work and the menopause. Menopause support in the workplace will not happen by magic; it is our job here to facilitate some of that. Things like the right to flexible working from day one, for instance, might be the very thing that helps a woman who is going through menopause cope and sustain.
The graphic that I mentioned had a couple of really interesting statistics about work, which I thought were important. Nearly half of women—45%—feel that menopause symptoms have had a negative impact on their work. That should terrify us. We have heard repeatedly today that 10% of women have given up work or thought about giving up work because of their symptoms. That is a huge chunk out of the labour market. I appreciate that, despite the lack of an employment Bill—and I continue to hope one appears—there are employers out there that are doing great things on the menopause anyway. Well done to them; they will be the employers of choice, they will be the ones who retain the talent in their workforces and they are the leaders—we will all know who they are.
I appreciate that dealing with menopause in the workplace might not always be completely straightforward. Menopause is not linear, and that is before I even get into my questions about the huge gaping holes in knowledge about how menopause interacts with polycystic ovary syndrome and other medical conditions. Even at the most basic level, the symptoms, duration and physical and emotional impact are very individual and variable, but women need us in this place to get a grip on the issue, because at the moment many of them feel unable to seek support for the menopause at work. That could be the same for any one of us, or for our friends and family members. We will all know—perhaps we are—women who have experienced uncertainty, misery, confusion and symptoms of all kinds.
The hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) spoke eloquently about the groups who are even more disadvantaged in all this. Some of us might sail serenely through the menopause, but it is still far too often the case that women’s troubles—I really, really hate that phrase—are not to be spoken of or dealt with. The reason that we have not done that is simply sexism. That is all there is to it. Let us decide that we are not going to accept that anymore, because this issue matters. Let us talk and share, as the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) said, and let us push for improvements in education and employment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw spoke eloquently about why younger people need to know about the menopause. We should not suddenly need to know about it when we reach middle age. Let us talk about the menopause and how we can practically improve things, because women’s health should be part of normal, everyday conversations. We should make sure that the conversations relate to our work and our families, and to people of different age groups and different backgrounds, because the menopause is absolutely normal and we need to talk about it as if it is.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) not just for securing today’s debate to mark World Menopause Day, but for being tireless champions of women. They have been pioneers and continued to make women’s voices heard at a time when, frankly, no one wanted to listen. The work that they have done already is beginning to change the lives of millions of women. On behalf of women my age, I thank them very much. I look forward to continuing to work with them and standing alongside them. I also thank all Members for their contributions to the debate.
As we have heard throughout the debate, too many women continue to suffer in silence and are afraid to break the taboo of speaking about menopause. Many have been misdiagnosed or simply ignored. It is a national scandal, and women, who make up 51% of our population, should not be made to put up with it. Having a frank and honest conversation in this House is a start, but when women cannot have frank and honest conversations with their own doctors, what hope do we have? From the consultation for the Government’s women’s health strategy, we know that 84% of women feel that their voices are not being heard when it comes to healthcare. That is simply not acceptable.
It is essential that women have confidence that the healthcare professionals treating them have the knowledge and understanding to provide quality healthcare. According to the charity Menopause Support, four in 10 British medical schools do not have menopause education on their curriculum, as we heard from the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom). Without changing that, we will continue with a generation of healthcare professionals who simply do not know what to do when it comes to menopause. We know the Government are trying to make headway on this issue, and I really welcome the commitment made in the women’s health strategy to improve education, particularly in primary care. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify what discussions have been had with the General Medical Council to ensure that the proposed new medical licensing agreement makes specific reference to menopause. Furthermore, can he clarify what actions will be taken to upskill current staff, given the commitment in the women’s health strategy to lifelong learning?
We have heard today, as we have on several occasions in recent months, about the problems caused by the shortage of HRT. It should not be a luxury. It is not a “nice to have”. It is an essential part of treatment, recognised by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, that makes a real difference to the lives of women going through menopause.
When alarming problems with supply became apparent, it took a public outcry from women—as it often does with women’s health issues—for the Government to sit up and listen. Despite repeated warnings, nothing was done. Not only did that deepen problems in the supply chain, but it put a cost burden on many women who can ill afford it during a cost of living crisis.
Delaying changes to prescription charges meant that some women were left paying up to £200 more for HRT this year. For many, that is simply unsustainable. There have already been delays in delivering the Government’s commitment to a single annual prescription charge for HRT. Will the Minister confirm that there will be no more delays and that the commitment will be delivered in April 2023, as promised by numerous Ministers?
Issues of access are compounded for black and minority ethnic women, with 45% needing multiple GP appointments to establish they were experiencing symptoms of menopause or pre-menopause. That is a shocking statistic, which shows a system that far too often ignores women’s concerns. Given the now former Health Secretary’s decision to scrap the health inequalities White Paper, I would be grateful if the Minister would outline the specific steps being taken to address that disparity.
This issue adds to the growing pile of those the Government are just not doing enough on. We can have all the ambassadors, tsars, reviews and taskforces in the world, but they mean nothing if there is no tangible action to improve women’s lives. No more talking shops, Minister; we need action. If the Government think that the issue will go away and that women will put up and shut up, they are sorely mistaken. That is proven by today’s debate and by the voices of women in the media. Women from every party in this House, every corner of the country and every part of society are speaking up. They will not stop until their voices are heard and justice is done. I look forward to the Minister’s response to all the questions raised today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is great to be back and to be reappointed. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate about World Menopause Day. With reference to the comments of the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), this has been an education, certainly for me and no doubt for you, Mr Hollobone, as these debates should be.
I rise as the husband of a menopausal woman. I pay tribute to my wife Clare and to PHS Group for the support that it has given her. Does the Minister agree that all men of all ages need to understand more about the menopause so that they can provide support to colleagues and family members who are experiencing its challenges?
I certainly agree with that. I also want to say thank you in passing to PHS Group; it is important that employers play their part, and it is good to hear about what that organisation is doing. I did some work with it on the period product scheme in a previous role as Minister for Children and Families. We should celebrate companies that are doing the right thing by their employees.
Somebody said that the hon. Member for Swansea East—I will call her my hon. Friend—has a lot to answer for. There is no more effective campaigner in the House of Commons. I recognise the incredible work that she has done in raising awareness of the menopause, which affects millions of women across our United Kingdom. I also thank her for chairing the all-party parliamentary group, which recently published its first report, on menopause support.
It will not have escaped your notice, Mr Hollobone, that I am not my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson). I have stepped in at the last minute, and I wish her well.
The hon. Member for Swansea East said that women are more sceptical and less jubilant. Although I am not the Minister responsible for this policy area or brief, the hon. Lady knows me and knows the issues on which we have campaigned together. She knows that, in me, she has an ally at the Department of Health and Social Care. She referred to men at the football coming to get a selfie with her. I think I speak for all men in the Chamber when I say that I would be honoured to have a selfie with her. In seriousness, I was moved by the stories that she and others told of the impact of the menopause on women in the workplace. In bringing about the change that we all want to see, she has an ally in me. That change is an issue not just for the Department of Health and Social Care but for BEIS. I have heard that loud and clear.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for all her work as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee. Its recent report, “Menopause and the workplace”, to which she referred, demonstrates the significance of the topic to the House. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham has written, albeit today, to my right hon. Friend to explain that we are carefully considering the Committee’s recommendations. We will respond in due course, and I will ensure that that happens—I will chase it up today. I will also speak with BEIS and the Government Equalities Office about the issues my right hon. Friend raised.
I thank all Members who have spoken, whether on behalf of themselves or their constituents, to mark World Menopause Day. It is important to say that 51% of our population will experience the menopause. There is no question but that the stigmatisation of this important part of life must end. That begins with us talking more openly about the symptoms and the treatment and support available. Vitally, when women talk, we have to listen.
I would like to update the House on the Government’s important work in this area and to reflect on how far we have come and the distance we still have to go, and I will respond to as many of the points raised by hon. Members as I can. For too long, women’s experiences of menopause support have not been good enough. That was the clear message from our call for evidence on the women’s health strategy last year. The menopause was the third most selected topic for inclusion in the strategy. It was chosen by 48% of nearly 100,000 individual respondents.
During last year’s debate on World Menopause Day, the Government committed to listening and to making menopause a priority for our women’s health strategy. I am delighted that the first ever women’s health strategy for England has been published. It contains our 10-year ambitions and the immediate actions we are taking to improve the health and wellbeing of women and girls across our country, from adolescents through to older age. It details an ambitious programme of work to improve menopause care.
It is important to stress that we are not implementing the strategy alone. As I think was said already, we appointed Professor Dame Lesley Regan as the first women’s health ambassador. The hon. Member for Swansea East and I have worked with her on both baby loss and maternal health. She is an expert, and she will do an amazing job as the first women’s health ambassador for England. She will help us to raise the profile of women’s health and break down harmful taboos. I have no doubt that she will bring a range of voices to help us implement the strategy and deliver on our commitments.
Numerous Members raised healthcare support. I bring to the House’s attention the NHS England national menopause care improvement programme, which is improving clinical menopause care in England and reducing disparities in access to treatment. That important work sits alongside a menopause education and training package that the NHS is developing for healthcare professionals.
I turn to the important point of raising awareness. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) said that we know more about Viagra than about the menopause, and she may well be right. Awareness is vital to tackling the stigma around the menopause. We want everyone in this country to be educated about the menopause from an early age. All women going through the menopause and perimenopause should be able to recognise the symptoms and know their options. We are transforming the NHS website into a world-class first port of call for women’s health and have recently updated the menopause page.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) rightly pointed out, we should educate the next generation of boys and girls to help break taboos and ensure that children growing up today can speak about the menopause openly. Menopause is included—I know this as a former schools Minister—in the statutory relationships, sex and health education curriculum, and we are working across Government to understand women’s health topics that teachers feel less confident about to provide further support.
The hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) raised the issue of HRT supply. Although most HRT products remain in good supply, various factors, including increased demand, have led to supply issues with a limited number of products. That has improved significantly recently, and we have been working hard to ensure that women can access the treatment they need. We are implementing the recommendations of the HRT supply taskforce and continuing to use serious shortage protocols where appropriate. We keep that under close review.
The hon. Members for Swansea East and for Enfield North and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire mentioned the cost of HRT—an incredibly important issue. We are committed to reducing the cost of HRT prescriptions through a bespoke prepayment certificate for HRT, which we will introduce from April 2023, subject—here is the caveat—to the necessary consultation with professional bodies. The hon. Member for Swansea East asked me for a cast-iron guarantee, but she knows that I do not make promises that I cannot keep. I am not the Minister responsible, but I do know and firmly believe that politics is the art of the possible, and as long as I am a Minister of State at the Department of Health and Social Care I will ensure that the Department’s feet are held to the fire to deliver on that April 2023 ambition. It is taking longer than any of us would like because we have developed an entirely new system, and we have to create an implementation programme as well.
I am not sure that what we have heard is entirely consistent. The Minister, who I know will work hard on this, indicated that there still needed to be a consultation with professional bodies, but he then indicated that the delay was in bringing forward a whole new technical system. Can he clarify that point?
My right hon. Friend is right to push me on that point. The reason for any potential delay would only be around the consultation that we would need to have. The delay—as in why we could not have done it before April 2023—is because we needed to design a whole new system. We are confident that that will be okay for April 2023. I am caveating it only because I am not the Minister responsible, and I try wherever possible not to make promises that I definitely cannot deliver on. I will not be the Minister delivering on this, but I have no doubt that the Minister who will be responsible will be able to update my right hon. Friend in due course.
Importantly, numerous Members mentioned menopause in the workplace, and, as I mentioned earlier, there were some very difficult stories. As a former Department for Work and Pensions Minister, I know the impact that that has on individuals who want to go to work and on employers, so we have to tackle that. This summer the Government responded to the independent, Government-commissioned report into menopause in the workplace, and we committed to working with a range of stakeholders to consider what more we can do. That will include an employer-led, Government-backed communications campaign on menopause in the workplace.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North mentioned the civil service and the NHS. They are two of the biggest employers and they have signed Wellbeing of Women’s menopause workplace pledge, which is a public commitment to making our organisations a supportive and understanding place for employees going through the menopause. I encourage all other employers to do the same.
Hon. Members also referenced an employment Bill. Again, that is a promise that I cannot make because it does not fall under the remit of the Department of Health and Social Care. Nevertheless, I will have that conversation with my counterpart at BEIS.
I want to ensure that the hon. Member for Swansea East has plenty of time to sum up, so I will conclude by thanking all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to this important debate and for their dedicated work across Parliament to improve the experiences of women in this country going through the menopause. As I said, they have an ally in me at the Department of Health and Social Care. I am glad that we have had the opportunity to discuss this hugely important topic and that I have had the opportunity to update the House on the work under way. It is vital that this conversation continues.
I thank the Minister for his kind words. We have worked together previously and I trust his word—I look forward to the certificate happening in April 2023.
I thank all colleagues for everything they have said. Women out there are listening to this debate, and they are grateful that we are talking about the menopause, because it is talking about it that will make a change.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) did not enlighten the House about the fact that he is now a local hero, after I mentioned him on “Loose Women” as a male menopause warrior. He has now been elevated to sainthood in Strangford.
We are changing the narrative, and we are changing it by talking—in here, to women, to Ministers and to each other. We have taught so many women about the situation they are in. Who would have thought we would be doing that as MPs? The right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and I sometimes feel like doctors when we are asked for advice on the menopause. So many people have asked to have that conversation.
I am going to contradict the words of a song written by the male menopause warrior-in-chief, Sir Rod Stewart, that says,
“I don’t wanna talk about it”.
Well, that is wrong, because we do need to talk about it. We should talk about it, and we will talk about it until every one of the 13 million women in this country who are not having the appropriate treatment for the menopause have the respect they deserve and their lives are returned to normal.
Question put and agree to.
That this House has considered World Menopause Day.