Tuesday 1 November 2022
[Dame Maria Miller in the Chair]
Religious Education in Modern Britain
I beg to move,
That this House has considered religious education in modern Britain.
It is good to be here serving under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. Some families—sadly they are a minority, I am sure—will deliver religious education to their younger members, who will grow up with an understanding of whichever faith the family adheres to. But the majority of children, I suspect, learn something of religion at school.
The point is important, because a rounded religious education helps our young people to appreciate the place of religion in our culture, and supports them as they develop their own world view. RE will help them take their place in society. It will support them to be effective and engaged in both the workplace and the wider community, and allow them to critically consider the fundamental questions of life, God, meaning and purpose on the basis of which they will live their lives in modern Britain. It will enable them to learn from centuries of reflection on those questions.
I recall attending a parents’ meeting when my daughter was at junior school. The headteacher said that he regarded school and RE lessons as taking young people to the threshold of faith. That phrase has always stuck with me. It is a valuable one, and I would like our schools to adhere to it.
Life in modern Britain demands a knowledge not just of Christianity but of other faiths. A knowledge of the Christian faith is important not just as an end in itself but as a way of understanding much western culture, art and music. Many of the phrases used in everyday language come from the Bible. We frequently hear sports commentators refer to a “David and Goliath struggle”; if Grimsby Town, which I support, were drawn against Manchester City, that would certainly be appropriate. There are others, such as “the writing is on the wall” and “the salt of the Earth”, and two in particular that we politicians should particularly note: “how the mighty have fallen” and “a house divided against itself cannot stand”.
If we accept the importance of RE, and we accept that it is in school that most of our young people will learn of the importance of religion in our society, we must ask whether our schools are providing RE to a high standard. I googled “law on school worship”, which referred me to the gov.uk website, which then referred me to guidance note 1/94—“94” indicating the year it was published. Is guidance from 28 years ago still relevant to modern Britain, or should it be updated? The guidance states:
“All maintained schools must provide religious education and daily collective worship for all registered pupils and promote their spiritual, moral and cultural development.
Local agreed RE syllabuses for county schools and equivalent grant-maintained schools must in future reflect the fact that religious traditions in the country are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of other principal religions. Syllabuses must be periodically reviewed.
Collective worship in county schools and equivalent grant-maintained schools must be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character, though not distinctive of any particular Christian denomination.”
If, as the guidance states, all schools must provide that, what are the Government doing to ensure that they do? Way back when, I attended Welholme Primary and Havelock schools in Grimsby, and we indeed had a daily assembly with prayers and a hymn. Around a third of my class also attended Sunday school, as I did at Grimsby’s All Saints’ church, which is appropriate to mention on All Saints’ day. Adding those who attended All Saints’ to those who went to local Methodist and Catholic churches, we appreciate that the vast majority of young children in the area attended Sunday school and got a good grounding in Christian teachings.
Let me refer again to the Government website and the collective worship in schools document. The section headed “Government aims” states:
“The Government is concerned that insufficient attention has been paid explicitly to the spiritual, moral and cultural aspects of pupils’ development, and would encourage schools to address how the curriculum and other activities might best contribute to this crucial dimension of education.”
That was the view of the Conservative Government in 1994. Does it remain the view of the Government? I trust the Minister will clarify that.
I suggest that we have a postcode lottery in the provision of RE across the UK. Some of our children receive a comprehensive, well-taught religious education; unfortunately, others receive merely a tokenistic level of teaching. According to the Christian Institute, the Department for Education school workforce census 2021 demonstrated a worrying trend in schools—reporting on other curriculum subjects, but not on RE. That trend was higher in schools following the agreed syllabus and academies without a religious character, at 23% and 22% respectively, while the figure for schools with a religious character was only 5%. One school in five reported offering zero hours of RE for year 11, in a breach of their statutory responsibility. Just under a third—27.4%—of academies without a religious character reported providing zero hours of RE to year 11. About 10% of all schools reported zero hours in years 7, 8 and 9, on average. The figure with respect to provision in academies without a religious character is significant.
I thank the hon. Member for bringing this important debate to this place.
Yesterday was a day of mixed emotions for me as it was the end of De La Salle School in my Liverpool constituency of West Derby: the school was handed over to a non-faith academy. I want to thank the De La Salle Brothers for their fantastic service to West Derby and nearly 100 years of Catholic education, which positively changed the lives of so many of my constituents. That ended yesterday.
While I will work closely with the academy to ensure that our children continue to get excellent education, does the hon. Member agree that it is crucial that religious literacy is improved? Religious literacy is so important at a time when persecution and the limiting of religious freedoms have increased globally. It is also crucial to maintain the independence and integrity of the subject in schools of a religious character. In Catholic schools in particular, the academic discipline of RE is based on theological teaching, which is already vigorous and has been developed and refined over centuries.
The hon. Gentleman makes some important points, many of which I would agree with.
On provision from academies without a religious character, 13% report zero hours. What action are the Government taking to improve that state of affairs? I hope the Minister will directly address the fact that there should be a national plan for RE, and the fact that all secondary school teachers of RE should be well qualified and specifically trained to teach high-quality RE, either through initial teaching education or continuing professional development. The Government must reintroduce initial teacher training bursaries for RE to support trainee teachers into the profession.
On a national plan for RE, the national curriculum is used as a benchmark for standards in other subjects; if academies do not choose to follow it, they must provide a curriculum that is similarly broad and ambitious. However, there is no national standard for RE, and therefore no effective means to challenge weak or even invisible provision. Former schools Ministers have argued that RE is a vital part of fostering understanding among different faiths and beliefs. Despite that, by the Government’s own admission, no Government money was spent on RE projects in schools over the five years between 2016 and 2021. By way of comparison, during this time English has received £28.5 million, music £387 million, maths £154 million and science £56 million. I suggest there should be a national plan for RE, at least on par with music.
I turn to teacher training and bursaries. At present there are insufficient RE specialists to meet the demand in secondary schools. The Department for Education has missed its recruitment target for secondary RE teachers in nine of the last 10 years, whereas the total number of secondary teachers in history and geography has risen over that period by 6% and 11% respectively. The number of teachers of RE declined by almost 6% during that time.
Recently, the Department for Education failed to include RE in the list of subjects eligible for initial teacher training bursaries, meaning that trainee RE teachers continue to have no financial support from Government despite historic under-recruitment. The result is that pupils are now three times more likely to be taught RE by someone with no qualification in the subject than, for example, in history. RE often becomes the lesson filled by a teacher of another subject with a few spare lessons on their timetable. Recruiting sufficient specialists into training takes such a long period that it leaves senior leaders with no choice but to cut RE or fill lessons with teachers who mainly teach another subject.
Ofsted inspections can make or break a headteacher’s career. Their ratings can affect pupil admissions and, consequently, capitation funding. They can attract or put off high-quality applicants for teaching posts. As a result, school teachers frequently pay more attention to Ofsted than guidance from the Department and even the law. Evidence from a 2019 survey conducted by the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education showed that 61% of academies without a religious character received an inspection rating of “good” or “outstanding”, while only 50% of non-faith academies were compliant with their duties for delivering RE. Of community schools, 62% received a “good” or “outstanding” rating, but only 60% were RE-compliant. This contrasts with Ofsted’s approach to teaching other aspects of a school’s basic curriculum, which sits outside the national curriculum.
Failure to deliver relationships and sex education— the subject RSE—that meets Ofsted standards almost guarantees a rating of “requires improvement” or “inadequate”. In its report “The Watchmen Revisited” from February 2020, the think-tank Policy Exchange suggested that Ofsted defended this position by saying that the teaching of RSE is a matter of providing for the personal development of pupils, whereas the teaching of RE is simply about compliance with the law.
The Policy Exchange report concluded,
“We consider this approach concerning. Firstly, the view that RSE is of importance in personal development but that Religious Education is simply about compliance is a value judgement that suggests a lower importance is being placed upon matters of faith than upon other subjects. More fundamentally, regardless of a person’s individual beliefs about the relative importance of RSE or Religious Education, it is not the role of Ofsted to determine which statutory obligations schools should, or should not, be required to comply with, but rather to inspect according to the democratically expressed will of Parliament, or, in cases of Department for Education policy, the will of its democratically elected Ministers.”
It may also help if I remind hon. Members that the UK Government is a co-signatory to the statement on freedom of religion or belief and education, which states that signatories will commit to
“prioritising inclusive curricula and teaching, matched to all students’ needs, regardless of their background, that provides foundational skills for all”.
Signatories will also
“support teaching that promotes the equality of all individuals, regardless of their religion”.
I am sure the Minister will agree that freedom of religion or belief is a key principle that must be upheld. By taking the actions I have outlined today, we can be sure that the UK remains fully aligned with that principle. Sadly, a lack of knowledge and understanding about religious and non-religious world views, exacerbated by the reduced provision of RE, limits school leavers’ ability to have respect and tolerance for people with different religions and beliefs in their own communities.
The rise of faith hate crime in Britain is another indicator that more high-quality education in religion and world views is needed. RE is essential in equipping young people with the knowledge they need to work and interact with those who have different perspectives. It not only plays a vital role in ensuring that young people receive a broad and balanced education; it also ensures that our children are well equipped to interact and engage with their peers in our local communities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech, and I am very pleased to see the Minister back in his rightful place in the Department for Education. Does my hon. Friend agree that faith-based schools have greater educational attainment rates than schools that have no religious element? Places such as the Hendon constituency in the London borough of Barnet have above-average exam results as a result.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, with which I entirely agree.
Modern Britain is a global Britain. It is more common than ever to meet people from all over the world in both a professional and personal capacity, and to deal with business partners, colleagues and friends who draw from a wide range of world views. Some surveys indicate that almost 70% of the world’s population affiliate with a religious tradition, so if we do not provide our children with knowledge of religious and non-religious world views, we are leaving them ill prepared for life in the modern world.
To recap, my main asks today are that the importance of RE should be reflected in a properly funded national plan for RE, with all pupils taught by well-qualified and trained teachers who have access to bursaries where necessary. This will ensure that high-quality RE is delivered, thereby promoting respect and tolerance, encouraging strong community relations and promoting freedom of religion or belief. Through a comprehensive, well-taught curriculum in RE, our children can engage with diversity with confidence, sensibility and respect. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) pointed out, we are pleased to see the Minister back in his place, and I urge him to give strong consideration to the points I have made. I hope that he will agree to meet me and the RE Policy Unit to discuss matters further.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Dame Maria. I thank the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) for introducing the debate so well and for clearly setting out his asks, which are shared cross-party.
I declare an interest as the proud son of a theologian. My mum taught me from an early age the importance of not just understanding difference but celebrating it. That is at the heart of the utility of religious education—the teaching of religions in modern Britain. If a cause can unite a fabulously camp lefty MP such as me and Government Members, I have to say to the Minister—it is good to see him back—that it is a cause worth listening to, because it unites the entire stretch of parliamentary debate.
RE is often valued for its contribution to values education—the teaching of values, which are the foundational building blocks of our society. Our diverse society provides an opportunity for students to examine values from a variety of religious and secular points of view. That is at the heart of what teaching religious education can provide as an output. Although the west is increasingly secular, it is worth saying that we are an outlier globally. The vast majority of people on our planet lead a religious life in some way, and we are setting our children up to fail if we do not teach them the value of understanding different societies, so that they can draw on the benefits of that diversity in their own lives and in a way that benefits our culture as a whole.
British culture would not be where it is today if it were not for religion. Regardless of whether someone is religious or not, understanding our culture, philosophy and politics matters, and that will be so much harder unless we equip our young people from an early age with an understanding of religion, the different values within religion, the tensions between religions and the fact that, at the heart of every major world faith, is a similar principle: to love each other and to do good to one another. However it is formed, in whatever book it is written, and however people worship, it is the same human principle of looking after one another.
Religious education matters, and it should matter to more of us more often today. Teaching a child to engage in the differences in the sensitive area of religion equips them with the skills of critical thought and listening to others and with the attitudes of empathy and discernment, expressed with courtesy. Those words matter because that is the type of person I want to see leaving our school system: someone who has strongly held, thoughtful views of their own, but who can also listen to someone else, even if they disagree, and who can challenge their own views and help inform others.
Like dance, modern languages and drama, RE is an endangered species in our school curriculum; it is being squeezed out by an attempt to focus on a smaller number of subjects. That is not to say that the subjects the Government have focused on in recent years are not worthy of focus—maths and English are important for everyone—but our education system should deliver well-rounded young people to the world. Without an understanding of RE, there is a hole in their education.
RE is vital to being not only a good global citizen but a good British citizen, which is what we should seek to create. That is why this debate is about not just faith but politics. At the next general election, I would like every major political party to include a simple line in their manifesto stating that RE should be taught more in schools. Parties should say, “We recognise the value of this. We think there is importance in studying it.” We should therefore focus on how we train our teachers and ensure they are equipped with the deep knowledge to interrogate and communicate faith and share experiences with others. That is why the asks of the hon. Member for Cleethorpes were so powerful.
The good folks at NATRE have done a great job in sharing briefing materials with Members—I am sure we will hear that a few times. In particular, I pay tribute to Katie Freeman, a brilliant young RE teacher from Plymouth, whom many hon. Members will have met. The way she expressed to me her calls for a national plan for RE made it human. It is not just a document to sit on a Department for Education shelf; it is a way of motivating RE teachers to see their own value and of saying to them, “What you teach our young people matters.” It is a way of saying that weak or invisible teaching should be challenged, whether by Ofsted, governing bodies, headteachers, parent governors or children themselves, with a focus on what has happened.
Over the past five years, more and more teachers have come into our school system with zero hours of teaching in RE, so they lack a deep knowledge of religious education. Teacher training lasts five years, and 20% of teachers reported no RE training, and a further 20% reported less than three hours’ training. That is wholly insufficient if teachers are to understand the fabulous diversity of faith on our planet, let alone how to communicate it to our young people.
I support the call for the Government to look again at reintroducing initial teacher training bursaries for RE. If we are to value RE in our school system, we must value the teaching of it and, therefore, the training of teachers in it. As mentioned, having a national standard for religious education to challenge Ofsted is really important.
Worship is not religious education, but it is what many people come to this debate through. They are concerned that the values they were taught have somehow deteriorated or been eroded or removed. However, the same value that we come to the debate with should encourage us to ensure that every child has an understanding of the diversity of faith, the diversity of values and, importantly, the similarity of values. When hate is on the rise, we have a choice about what we do about it. We need to arrest the immediacy of rising hate—the hate crimes against people based on their religion, background or sexuality—but we do so best when we root out the causes of that hate. That is not just with a counter-terrorism strategy or increased policing; it is with education.
I wish the Minister the best of luck in his role. I encourage him to look at how religious education can be not just a hallmark of the Department for Education’s approach to our young people, but part of our overall strategy to address rising hate in our society by working across Government to celebrate diversity and equip all our young people not just to understand the world they are going into but to thrive in it and benefit from the diversity in our communities and across our planet.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. It is also a pleasure to participate in this debate called by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), and I commend him for his speech. It is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), my co-officer on the all-party parliamentary group on religious education. I have rarely felt more in agreement when listening to a speech by an Opposition Member—I am almost concerned about that. I absolutely agree that RE should be taught more in schools.
It is important that today’s generation, who will grow up to be tomorrow’s citizens and leaders, should have a knowledge-based understanding of religion and religious beliefs. It is important that that is taught in schools because, as we have heard, it is often the only place in today’s increasingly secular society where it will be heard by young people.
As we have also heard, understanding religion is critical to understanding so much of what is happening in the world today. Modern Britain is a global-facing Britain, and hate speech is on the rise—often much more so even than in this country. I will turn to the international perspective in a moment, but it is critical that we give our young people an opportunity to understand the religious context and content of society today and ensure that they have mutual respect for, and understanding of, those of different faiths or beliefs.
In that regard, RE does work. A pupil from Manchester spoke movingly about how studying RE helped him to be a better friend to a classmate during local repercussions following the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert. We hear, too, of how often other faiths are now shared in our schools. Nursery children at a Catholic pre-school have enjoyed a series of lessons on Eid, Diwali, Hannukah, Christmas and Chinese new year. It is vital that we continue to rigorously teach content-based and knowledge-based religion in our schools.
Understanding different religions is critical if our young people are to navigate the international scene that they are growing up and living in. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes mentioned the percentage of people across the world who regard religion as important, but there is also the increasing disturbance affecting different religious groups across the world. The Pew Research Centre assesses that 83% of the world’s population lives in countries where there are high or very high restrictions on those living with religious beliefs. Yet the issue is profoundly under-recognised and under-addressed compared with many other global concerns.
Sadly, hate is on the rise across the world. People are losing their jobs, education, homes, livelihoods, families, freedom, access to justice and even their life itself simply on account of what they believe. People are being discriminated against, marginalised, beaten, threatened, tortured and killed, often by their own authoritarian Governments—the very Governments that have a duty to protect their freedom of religion or belief.
I have the privilege of serving for a year and a half now as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. It is distressing to see how, in the year and a half since I was appointed, religious disputes across the world have escalated. Putin is weaponising Orthodox Christianity in the war against Ukraine. We have seen the military coup in Myanmar exacerbating the persecution of religious minorities, such as the Rohingya Muslims. We have seen the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, with every religious group there, other than those willing to succumb to the Taliban’s ways, now oppressed and living in daily fear. In Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses are now being imprisoned as criminals, simply for being pacificists and for being unwilling to serve in the army. We see daily disturbances in Iran, where the Baha’is cannot own land and are restricted from going to university. Elsewhere, Ahmadiyya Muslims cannot vote and, in Nigeria, tens of thousands of Christians and moderate Muslims have been massacred by Islamic extremists. That is the world our young people are growing up in.
Even in what we might call peaceful countries, religion is a key issue and motivating factor in people’s lives. This week, in the elections in Brazil, religious views were a key factor when people decided how to vote. They will also be a factor in the US mid-term elections next week. To deny our young people an understanding of different religions and their importance in people’s lives is to do them a disservice as they grow up and mature. Those who wish to water down the content of religious education are doing our young people a disservice.
We cannot have RE watered down so that it is just an opportunity to have a chat or to discover oneself. How can young people discover and understand anything unless they are given information and knowledge-based academic teaching, so that they can make informed decisions about their way in the world? They have plenty of opportunities in this country to understand the secular environment they live in, but few opportunities to understand the importance of religion to so many others and, hopefully in time, to themselves.
In closing, I would like to pay tribute to the report on religion and world views provided by the Independent Schools Religious Studies Association. It contains some excellent comments and content, which I will not go into, because I am conscious other colleagues need time to speak. However, the report states:
“Religion is more than a worldview—it is a way of life, which involves community, shared values and the sense of the transcendent.”
That is critical; it is so important for young people to be given an opportunity to understand that in the world today, when so many of them are often questioning and looking for answers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Dame Maria. I too thank the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) for setting the scene so well and for giving us a chance to participate. It is good to see the Minister is his place, and I look forward to hearing his comments, as well as those of the shadow Minister.
This debate could include many conflicting opinions, yet I trust we can all come from a place where we respect the ideal of faith. Although we may treasure our individual faiths, there is undoubtedly a place for all in the diverse United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I know that the ideal of religious education differs from region to region. I bring the Northern Ireland perspective to these debates, as I always do, and that is somewhat different yet again. The importance of religious and theological teaching could not be more prominent today, given the expansion of belief and the ever-changing faiths we all have.
It is great to be here today to discuss the importance of religion in schools, both primary and secondary. According to the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, religious education in Northern Ireland is a compulsory part of the school curriculum. As I am sure all hon. Members are aware, Northern Ireland is no stranger to different and diverse religious beliefs and the impact they can have on modern society. For young people to be able to understand our changing world, they must be able to interpret different religious issues.
The Department for Education and the four main Churches in Northern Ireland define the religious studies curriculum, allowing for the teaching of the revelation of God, the Christian church and morality from both Protestant and Roman Catholic perspectives. That is as it should be, because the personal relationship someone has with the Lord Jesus is what is important, not their denomination or the church they go to.
Seven out of 10 people—73%—surveyed across the United Kingdom—agreed that the role of religious education in schools is to provide pupils with opportunities to learn about other people, beliefs and cultures. A further 65% stated that the subject also allows young people to evaluate their own political beliefs. That is why the hon. Member for Cleethorpes referred to political beliefs with a religious viewpoint.
I understand that some young people nowadays have become disillusioned with religion, but it is crucial that they have a basic understanding of how religion plays a part in modern society and indeed in modern Britain. Parents are allowed to withdraw their children from some or all aspects of the teaching of religious education, but I always encourage them not to do that, regardless of what they may think of that religion. Having strong faith oneself is one thing, but being able to understand and respect other people’s faith starts from a young age—as early as P4 teaching in Northern Ireland.
The High Court in Northern Ireland ruled that exclusively Christian religious education and worship was discriminatory. However, we must ensure that this ruling, and the calls for it to be considered UK-wide, do not diminish the place of the larger practised religions, such as Christianity, in religious education, but rather allow learning about other faiths equally. I have the utmost belief in Christ as my saviour, but that does not mean that the faiths of Judaism, Sikhism or Islam are of no interest to me.
I can recall the 1960s and 1970s, when I was at secondary college. Our religious education teacher asked the class whether we wanted to know about other religions, and the answer from us all was that yes, we did. Our teacher then introduced us over a period of time to other religions. In the closed society we were in, we perhaps did not have any knowledge of other religions. That teaching gave us an opportunity to understand these things at an early stage. Through another teacher in a different subject I had the chance to understand Irish history. As a proud Unionist, it did not do me any harm to understand Irish history—understanding it a wee bit better never made me less of a Unionist. It does not harm anyone to understand things from another perspective, but it does let people develop a wider understanding and respect for others, which is what I try to do in my life.
We live in an ever-changing world; nowadays people can believe and be practically anything. In my eyes, one thing that does not change is the importance of religion—not just my own belief in Christianity, but everyone else’s beliefs as well. As chair of the APPGs for international freedom of religion or belief, and for Pakistani minorities, I know that the study of religious education allows us a chance to learn about religions without feeling the socialisation or pressure of today’s society.
As always, there was not a thing that the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said that I do not agree with. She touched on the Uyghurs, the Falun Gong in China, the Baha’i in Iran, the Yazidis in Iraq and the Rohingya Muslims. In Nigeria, which we visited in May and June, we ascertained just how bad the persecution of Christians was, but it is getting worse—there is less understanding. That is so frustrating, because the people we talked to told us they were trying to bring things together, but the reality is that that is not happening.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not too lofty a thing to say that helping our young people understand how important it is to respect the freedom of religion or belief of others of different faiths and beliefs contributes towards nothing less than global peace? So many atrocities across the world start small and locally and then grow. If we can develop a generation in this country that has respect, and we can promote that across the world, we will be able to stop local friction developing so that people can learn how to live together peaceably. We will then see a better world for the next generation.
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady. That is something we should all strive to make happen. I am reminded of the Hindus in Pakistan and the Ahmadi Muslims in India as examples of people across the world with a different religious viewpoint who are terribly persecuted, both physically and mentally.
My youngest staff member chose to drop religious education at GCSE in order to focus on mathematics, as that was what she wanted to do. She has since said on numerous occasions that she does not feel informed about what people believe and why they choose to believe it. She says it was great to pursue mathematics, but in a way it is a pity that she did not get that understanding at an earlier age.
While I appreciate that education is devolved and our curriculum guidelines differ slightly, the principle that religion is important remains the same. I call on the Education Secretary—we are pushing at an open door—and respective regional Ministers to ensure that the teaching of religion in modern Britain remains in our schools to help to tackle religious discrimination and promote respect for others with a different religion or faith. It is difficult to see a path forwards if we do not know where we have come from. For me, the teachings of Christ, which tell a child that they are loved and chosen, that there is a plan for lives and that they are not alone, are imperative. When social media tells them that the opposite is true, we need the calming influence of religious education in schools.
I am far from perfect—I am probably the most imperfect person in this room—but I believe that the creator, God, has a job that he has set only me to do. Oh, that more of our young people across this great nation would understand their unique, divinely appointed role and that, no matter what the world may say to them, they are special and worthy. I believe that RE plays an important part in understanding that. It is as essential a skill as home economics or technology. When we talk about the important things for future vocations, we should note that religious education in schools is a calming influence and gives us a better understanding of those around us. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes referred to a Scripture text, and I will finish by quoting Jeremiah 29:11, which says:
“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans…to give you hope and a future.’”
Who does not need that?
Happy All Saints’ day, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who indeed is a very good friend, on securing this debate.
It is not all doom and gloom. There is an extraordinary, vibrant faith school sector in this country that provides tolerance and superb religious education. Indeed, I was a bit torn over whether to come to this important debate or to the mass at my granddaughter’s primary school this morning; however, I could not miss this debate because the subject is so important. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes made a powerful case in his introduction to the debate. It is extraordinary and, in a way, shocking that one in five schools offers zero hours of religious education. That is around 500 secondary schools. My hon. Friend is therefore right to say that children are subject to a postcode lottery. The entire thrust of our education reform since 2010 has been to drive up standards in all subjects.
It is a fundamental principle that parents are the primary educators of their children; that is in the universal declaration on human rights and the European convention on human rights. The state’s role, then, is to act as the agent of parents and facilitate their role. That we have a diverse ecosystem of schooling in this country reflects that our society is a rich tapestry, rather than a boring grey cloth. Each child is an individual, and finding a school or other educational route that matches and suits the needs and nature of that individual child is the task of their parents.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes that we need a national standard in religious education. I am rather bemused at the decline of religious education and the ability of so many schools to ignore what is in the Butler Education Act and more recent guidance. As I understand it—the Minister can comment on this—it is the duty of schools to provide some religious education.
My hon. Friend, again, is right to say that parents need the tools to challenge poor or non-existent provision. We need to give them the levers that they can pull to raise standards in our schools and hold staff and school leadership to account. The statistics he has cited regarding the number of RE specialists are disconcerting. We know—it is clear from this debate—that the current provision of RE in schools is not enough, but it seems that we also do not have the number of properly trained specialists to meet the existing level of provision. I hope this debate may make a difference.
I am sympathetic to our Education Ministers. I think we have achieved great things since 2010, and the Minister of State, Department for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), has achieved so much himself; I think of him a lot as I try to converse with my granddaughter, who is learning through phonetics, rather than the alphabet that I was brought up on. The Minister has achieved great things, and he and other Ministers have been responsible for the free schools programme that has fundamentally shifted the balance away from a decrepit, left-leaning echo chamber in education provision. Parents have been put in the driver’s seat, and we have greatly lowered the barriers to entry into the education sector for those who wish to start new schools. However, there are still problems that need working out.
In that context, I mention the faith schools admissions cap, which I have campaigned against for many years; the Minister is well aware of my views. I am disappointed that we have not got rid of the totally counterproductive admissions cap for faith-based free schools. It was introduced as a sop to our Liberal coalition partners in the wake of the Trojan horse scandal, when Islamist extremists were infiltrating schools. That policy has been a total failure—it has not achieved what it was supposed to. First, all the schools involved in the Trojan horse scandal were secular, not faith based.
Secondly—this is the key point—the admissions cap only hits schools that are over-subscribed from outside their faith grouping. Whatever their merits or virtues, Islamic-run state schools tend to educate members of their communities and receive very little interest from non-Muslims. Catholic schools, on the other hand, are incredibly popular with non-Catholics, but although Catholic schools educate many non-Catholics, their primary purpose is obviously to provide a Catholic education to Catholic children. For that reason, our Catholic schools have not been able to take part in the free schools programme. In fact, the only practical effect of the cap is to prevent new Catholic schools from being founded. The policy is not even in legislation—all it would take is the Education Secretary’s signature for it to go away. In our 2017 manifesto, we made a promise to parents that we would scrap the counterproductive admissions cap and allow the Catholic schools sector to expand. We have still not fulfilled that promise, and I very much hope that when the Minister sums up the debate, he will deal with that issue.
Returning to general matters, I know—we all know—that Ministers are balancing a wide range of priorities, but our job in this debate is to remind them that RE is important, and needs to be backed up with funding and support. We last had a debate on this subject in 2011, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) mentioned. She was far too modest; it was her debate. Since that time, she has been made the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. She made a point that I will repeat, because it is obvious: the fact that we live in a world where persecution of people for their religious beliefs or world view is increasing only reinforces the importance of religious education as a school subject, and religious literacy more broadly. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) spoke powerfully in that respect—I think we all agree with everything he said, and he said it in a very moving way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton is right that as Britain becomes more diverse, we face more challenges. There is a danger that Britons know less and less about their own background, and how central Christianity has been to the development of our society—to our family of nations, our monarchy, our democracy and our constitution. Indeed, Christian iconography is all over this building. Meanwhile, Britons from newer communities often have very vibrant and active religious faiths: Christian, Muslim, Hindu and otherwise.
Without sufficient religious education in schools, there is a danger that newcomers will find there is no culture to assimilate or acclimatise to, because the natives have forgotten it themselves. We need a holistic and inclusive approach that teaches pupils about not only their own faith, which is vital, but others; in this country, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism are important. Catholic schools in England and Wales devote at least 10% of their curriculum to RE, which allows them to do preciously that. Pupils in Catholic schools spend more time learning about other faiths and world views than students in most secular schools. Despite over a third of pupils in Catholic schools being non-Catholic, the withdrawal rates are almost non-existent at 0.02%, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference survey data. I wonder if the lessons from the model that Catholic schools provide could be deployed in other state schools. This is an excellent and important debate, and I hope it makes a difference.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I declare an interest as someone who was an RE teacher—although not a specialist, I must confess, which may upset some in the room—and my partner is a head of religious education. Of course, hon. Members will understand the lobbying that took place at home before attending today’s debate.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb) on his return as the Minister for School Standards. I did not have the honour of following him directly—although I told him that was my lifelong dream—but being replaced by him is something I am more than happy to take, because he is one of the best Ministers that this Government have had since 2010. A lot of the Gove-Gibbean reforms, as I always refer to them, have meant that education standards have dramatically improved in this country. As someone who worked on the frontline for eight and a half years and saw that at first hand, I want to thank him for his work in this area then and now.
RE is a compulsory subject. It blows my mind to this day that although it is compulsory, some schools are not delivering it up until the age of 18, as is meant to be the case. There has therefore been a watering down of the quality and take-up of this subject in schools, and I have witnessed that at first hand. The term “postcode lottery” is perfect; I have worked in London, Birmingham and other parts of the country as a secondary school teacher and seen at first hand the impact it has had on pupils wishing to take the subject forward. In some schools, pupils were made to take RE, and in others it was an option. It is sad to see the low take-up, which is why we are seeing a driving down of recruitment figures.
It is clear that people who want to come into teaching do not feel that RE is valued in our curriculum. Although I am broadly supportive of a national standard for RE teaching to ensure that there is equalisation across the country, there is an easier way to put RE on the map. I know the Minister disagrees with me about this, but I dare to utter it: we could put RE in the EBacc, giving it the same status as history and geography. Many RE departments sit within the humanities department and feel like the ugly duckling in that department when RE is the only subject not to go in that EBacc pot. Doing so could have a positive impact, enabling pupils and parents to understand that RE is a subject that is worthy taking, and giving it the status it requires to be in schools. That will have a positive impact on recruitment figures, and on the take-up of RE into GCSEs and post-16 education.
When it comes to recruitment figures, I confess that I was the Minister who signed off the latest round of bursaries and scholarships, and I accept that RE was not on that list. That is because—for good reason—subjects such as physics and geography, which also face under-recruitment, offer highly competitive professional wages in the private sector. On top of the £30,000 starting salary that we are committed to delivering as per our manifesto, we had to give bursaries for those subjects—particularly physics, for which new teachers will get a £29,000 scholarship—to drive up recruitment. Had I had longer than my 50 days in post, I would have ensured that RE was included in that list. We reintroduced the bursary for teaching English. It would be good to see that happen in religious education as well. I will certainly support that from the Back Benches.
Although I do not think that someone needs to be a specialist to teach RE to a high standard—of course, I am biased as someone who did that myself—having more specialist teachers for a subject will always improve educational outcomes and attainment. There is no one better than someone with that passion. I am interested in politics and was trained in citizenship, so I was able to deliver those subjects with passion and gusto. Similarly, my partner, who did philosophy at university, is able to go into school and deliver incredibly high-quality religious education teaching. Again, I accept my bias, but her ability to teach is because of her passion for her subject area and the deep knowledge she has gained through her degree. The more we can do to drive up specialisms, the better.
Hate crimes and radicalisation are real threats, as we know at first hand in Stoke-on-Trent. The attack on Fishmongers’ Hall was carried out by a man from my constituency who had been radicalised within Islam. Islam is not a radical religion—let us not forget it is the faith that says, “To kill one human is to kill all of mankind”—but sadly there are those in every faith who push a perverse ideology. We also see that on the far right in the great city of Stoke-on-Trent, with some people pushing a white nationalist agenda.
If we do not have high-quality religious education alongside the fantastic Prevent work that is undertaken by the city council, police and local schools, how will we ever tackle the misunderstandings, mis-teachings and perverse ideologies that are pushed, particularly on to young people? That is why it is so important that we get religious education right, and we make sure that young people understand and challenge their misconceptions.
It is most important that we accept that faith schools are an important part of our system, and even allow some schools to select by faith. The idea that we would not push RE to be a compulsory subject that is taken up properly in the school system seems to be a bit of an oxymoron, and challenges what we are saying in other areas. We should be pushing work at schools such as St Wilfred’s, St Mary’s and St Thomas’s—all within Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke—to give a high-quality, faith-based education alongside a high-quality, rigorous curriculum. The Minister would want and demand that, and I fully support him in that.
I hope that we have sent a big signal today. This is definitely a cross-party effort and feeling. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) gave a fantastic speech, and his idea that every Government and every party should commit to religious education in their manifesto is something that I will push within the Conservative party come the next general election.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on securing a debate on this important issue.
It was less than two months ago that Her late Majesty the Queen lay in state in Westminster Hall. As a nation, we remember that time with sorrow, but we have immense gratitude for her life of service and faithfulness. In that life, she was strengthened by a personal faith in Jesus Christ. That was explored in the only book to which she personally wrote a foreword, entitled “The Servant Queen and the King she serves”, which was published on her 90th birthday. Her personal faith in Christ, which sustained her in service to people of all faiths, was also an expression of important principles at the heart of the UK’s culture, law and constitution.
The cross and orb that surmount St Edward’s crown, which is used in the coronation, represent the same truth as the title of that book. When the monarch sits on the throne wearing the crown, he or she is sitting below a representation of the cross of Christ that itself sits atop an orb representing the globe. The meaning is profound: the monarch is accountable to God for his or her rule. All human rulers reign under God. The laws that they enact must be accountable to a higher standard of morality, embodied in the character of God as seen in Christ and in his word.
The cross represents the fact that we all fall short of that higher standard. None of us can live up to it, but Christians believe that Jesus suffered on the cross so that we can be redeemed and restored to have a relationship with God. They believe that he rose again to reign as the ultimate king, not of a kingdom of this world—as he said to Pontius Pilate—but of a spiritual kingdom. His reign sets the example of servant leadership—of the one who stooped to wash the feet of his disciples and then stooped lower, even to the grave. Many people—young, old and of all faiths—admired the expression of that in our late Queen’s life of service. However, there is a real concern that our education system robs young people of the chance to understand the substance of Christian belief, which shaped not only the life of our late Queen and of our nation, but the lives of countless people in this country and across the world.
Of course, Jesus Christ was Jewish, not British or European. Christianity is not a uniquely western religion, and, sadly, we as a nation have often fallen very short of his example, but without an understanding of Christianity it is not possible to understand British culture or the foundations of our institutions and laws. It is right that the law requires state-funded schools to provide religious education to all pupils, and that that education reflects the fact that religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian, while taking account of the teachings and practices of the other principal religions represented in our country.
It seems to me that that balance is exactly right. We are not about excluding other religions from consideration —quite the opposite. They should be properly recognised and taken account of in the preparation of the RE syllabus, but RE needs to recognise the particular place of Christianity in Great Britain. Young people are entitled to be taught about it; that is what the law requires. However, under pressure from many competing demands, the failure of Ofsted to hold schools to account regarding this requirement means that it is all too tempting to let it slip, particularly when the failure to invest in teachers and to resource religious education makes it hard to deliver the subject well, yet RE is a popular subject at GCSE and A-level. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister could tell us what can be done to ensure that schools respect the will of Parliament in this matter.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on and thank him for securing this important debate on a subject that is vital to the future of young people and our country.
Let me take this opportunity to welcome the Minister of State, Department for Education, the right hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb) back to his place. Although he is the fourth Minister in post in the 10 months I have had the privilege to shadow the role—I do not know whether that is my doing or his—I look forward to working with him to put our nation’s children first and give our schools the support they so desperately need.
It is clear from the contributions this morning that Members from throughout the House agree that religious education is a vital part of children and young people’s development. I pay tribute to RE teachers up and down the country for their professionalism and dedication.
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes spoke about the importance of religious education and of religion’s importance to art, culture and society. He raised concerns about the postcode lottery of RE teaching in schools and the need for a national plan for RE. I was also struck by his remarks about the contribution that RE can make to the prevention of hate crime.
Those views were echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). As ever, he spoke passionately, recognising and celebrating the diversity and importance of RE and the role it has to play in the curriculum. He also spoke about the importance of training RE teachers. He raised the issue of tackling rising hate crime and said there should be a cross-departmental effort on that, including by investing in RE. Other Members spoke about why all this matters at a time of uncertainty and conflict, when we are mindful of the world that young people are growing up.
The critical role that religious education plays in children’s learning is felt throughout the country. According to the RE Policy Unit, 64% of the UK adult population think that an education in religion and world views is an important part of the school curriculum. However, although Members have made clear in this debate the importance of religious education in schools and the role that RE plays in the development of children’s understanding of the world around them and their fellow classmates, the cracks are starting to show in the Government’s attempt to deliver RE.
According to analysis in the National Foundation for Educational Research report that was published earlier this year, the recruitment of secondary school RE teachers was nearly 20% below the level required to meet the 2022 target. The report also said it was expected that the recruitment of secondary school RE teachers would finish below this year’s target, despite it being a subject that has
“recruited relatively well in recent years”.
The RE Policy Unit has highlighted the lack of RE specialism in schools—a concern raised by Members in today’s debate. According to the unit’s 2022 report, 25% of RE lessons are taught by teachers with no A-level qualification in the subject—more than three times the proportion for history. Furthermore, the same report also identified a fall in the number of GCSE entries, with entries for a full RE course falling by close to 20% between 2016 and 2021. The organisation’s conclusion about the Government’s performance on religious education was that words need to be backed up with action. Labour agrees.
Let me put to the Minister a number of questions; I look forward the response. What specific action is he taking to ensure that the Government meet their targets for the recruitment of secondary school RE teachers, to address the lack of RE specialism in schools and to address the concerning drop in full-course GCSE entries for RE? Will he introduce a national plan for RE? If not, what are his reasons for not doing so?
Ministers will point to the wider economic fallout for their failure to recruit the teachers we need, but the actions of the past 12 years of this Government have got us into this mess. Labour is ambitious about our children’s futures and would deliver the well-rounded education they need and deserve, to ensure that they are ready for work and for life. If Conservative Ministers will not deliver that, a Labour Government will.
It is a pleasure to debate this important subject under your beady eye, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on securing the debate.
Quality religious education is an important part of a knowledge-rich curriculum. It ensures that all pupils understand the value and traditions of Britain and other countries, and helps to foster an understanding among different faiths and cultures in our modern, diverse nation. In his powerful speech, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) rightly said that a proper understanding of politics and culture requires a deep knowledge of the world’s great religions. That point was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes, who cited common phrases such as “the writing is on the wall”, “the salt of the earth” and—perhaps pertinently to this place—“how the mighty have fallen”, all of which come from the Bible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) demonstrated how important academic knowledge of religion is to an understanding of many of the great events and conflicts around the world. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), citing two teachers from his school days—which were probably a few decades ago—reminded us of the important role that teachers play in our lives. They ensure that we have the knowledge—in his example, of Irish history and of other world religions—that we need to understand the world.
RE is an important part of a modern school curriculum that aims to promote the spiritual, moral and cultural development of children and young people and to help them to prepare for the responsibilities and experiences of adult life. It is important that pupils know about the world’s key religions. We need to develop students’ knowledge and understanding of religious beliefs, of the teachings and sources of those beliefs, and of the key religious texts and scriptures of all the world’s major religions.
Knowledge of world religions is also valuable in supporting Britain’s relationships with other countries. It is clearly important to understand the values and perspectives of those with whom we wish to conduct business or build diplomatic relationships. It is because of the importance of the subject that it remains compulsory that all pupils at maintained state-funded schools in England—including, through their funding agreements, academies—study religious education up to the age of 18.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes will be aware of statistics that indicate that 64% of the UK adult population think that an education in religion and world views is an important part of the school curriculum, and that 71% agree that the subject should reflect the diversity of backgrounds and beliefs in the UK today. We require schools to publish on their websites details of their curricula, including RE. We want parents to have a clear understanding of what their child will be taught and to be able to talk to the school if they have any questions or concerns.
The support for RE shown by Members in this debate is reflected in the continuing popularity of the religious studies GCSE, to which the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), referred. Provisional 2022 figures show that 34.3% of pupils at the end of key stage 4—some 221,000 of them—took the GCSE in religious studies. It has more entries than each of art and design, computing, business studies and PE. In 2010-11, the figure was 195,109, but that was of course for the full-course GCSE. At that time, there was also the short-course GCSE. The 2010-11 figure amounted to 31% of the cohort. In 2016-17, the figure was higher than it is today, with 264,000 pupils—some 45% of the cohort—taking the GCSE.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) raised the issue of the EBacc, as he is wont to do. As he will know, we deliberately kept the EBacc small enough to enable pupils to study other subjects, such as music, art, RE or vocational subjects. Our overriding concern when we introduced the EBacc was that the core academic subjects it represents—English, maths, science, languages, and history or geography—were being denied to too many pupils, especially the more disadvantaged. Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his period in office as Minister for School Standards. I know he is committed to raising academic standards in schools. He did so during his period in office and will continue to do so in the other roles he plays, in which I wish him well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes referred to a decline in the time spent teaching RE. While figures will vary from school to school, at a national level the proportion of time secondary schools spend teaching RE has remained broadly stable: it made up 3.2% of all teaching hours in 2010 and 3.3% in 2021.
The hon. Member for Strangford raised the issue of the right to withdraw from RE. Although our view is that RE is an important subject, we think it is equally important that parents and older students have a right to withdrawal. We currently have no plans to change the situation.
In respect of a school’s RE curriculum, except for subject content specifications for the religious studies GCSE and A-level, the Government do not prescribe curriculum content, how RE should be delivered or how many hours should be taught.
In Northern Ireland we recently had an outrageous court judgment that declared that exclusively Christian RE lessons in primary schools are unlawful. In my mind, this ruling reveals the real agenda of so many: the removal of Christianity from school settings. In this broken land and society, we are seeing the breakdown of the family unit and soaring rates of suicide, born out of hopelessness. Surely the teaching of love, hope and charity within Christianity is what society needs more of, not less of?
The hon. Member makes an important point—those are common features of the world’s major religions—but obviously RE and education is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland.
RE is part of each school’s basic or wider curriculum. While academies, free schools and most maintained schools designated as having a religious character may design and follow their own RE curriculum, all other maintained schools must follow their area’s locally agreed syllabus for RE. The locally agreed syllabus specifies details of the RE curriculum that they should deliver and is monitored by the standing advisory council on religious education that is established by each local authority.
I understand the concern raised by several Members that some schools may not be taking their duty to teach RE seriously. I should be clear that all mainstream, state-funded schools are required to teach RE. Schools that are not teaching RE are acting unlawfully or are in breach of their funding agreement. Any concerns that a school may not be complying with the requirement to teach RE should in the first instance be raised via the school’s complaints procedure. If a complaint is not resolved, the issue can be escalated via the Department for Education’s school complaints unit.
Members have cited the figure that one in five schools are not teaching RE—I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) made that point. Actually, the Department does not collect data on schools’ level of compliance with the requirement to teach RE, but it does collect data on the hours of RE teaching by teachers. The data cited by my right hon. Friend is drawn from individual schools’ timetabling systems, so it does not really represent a completely accurate picture. For example, it may not pick up instances when RE is taught as part of another subject or under a different title.
I will keep that idea under consideration. We have already issued guidance about the teaching of religious education in schools.
Regardless of whether teachers are following a locally agreed syllabus for RE or one designed by their own school or a multi-academy trust, ensuring that they have access to high-quality teaching resources is important, as it is for every other subject. We intend to support the teaching of RE through the procurement of full curriculum packages by Oak National Academy—that goes to the point made by my right hon. Friend. We want to make sure that what is taught is of high quality, and that applies not just to RE but to other subjects. Oak is playing an important role in providing resources for teachers and, in the second tranche of its procurement process, will be procuring curriculum materials, maps and plans for religious education.
As the hon. Member for Portsmouth South and others said, recruiting and retaining teachers is crucial to every curriculum subject, so the Department is driving an ambitious transformation plan to overhaul the process of teacher training. This includes stimulating initial interest through world-class marketing, providing support for prospective trainees, and using real-time data and insight from our new application process to help to boost recruitment where it is most needed. In the 2020-21 academic year, we exceeded the postgraduate initial teacher training target for religious education teachers, achieving 129% of the target. The equivalent target in the 2021-22 academic year was narrowly missed, as we achieved 99% of the target. We will keep these issues under review.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport raised the issue of initial teacher training bursaries. As the Government do not provide bursaries for every subject, I can understand the disappointment of those who are not eligible, and I do not put all the blame for that on to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. These are difficult decisions that are taken every year as we decide how to allocate the scarce resource of the bursaries. They are allocated to take account of recruitment historically, the forecast economic conditions and the teacher supply needed in each subject. That allows us to focus the bursary expenditure on subjects with the greatest need and ensures that we spend money where it is needed most. My hon. Friend got that decision absolutely right in his period in office.
Specialist teacher training and continuous professional development are important for every subject. In some cases, subject knowledge enhancement courses may be appropriate for those training to become a specialist. This is where a School Direct lead school or an initial teacher training provider can identify applicants who have the potential to become outstanding RE teachers, but who need to increase their subject knowledge. There is an eight-week subject knowledge enhancement course to help them to become specialist teachers.
The Minister is completely correct to say that continuous professional development is so important to being a high-quality teacher, but sadly we are the only country in Europe that does not have enough specified hours for teachers to do teacher training throughout the academic year. This is something I was looking at in the Department while I was there. Does the Minister agree that to enable the eight-week course to be taken up by non-specialists, such as someone like me, we will need to be able to protect time for teachers to get that professional development?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we have clear guidance to schools about mentoring and continuous professional development. The early career framework was implemented to help teachers in the first two years of their career to make sure they have the right mentoring and training so that they can turn into accomplished teachers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes raised the matter of collective worship, which is an important part of school life. It encourages pupils to reflect on the concept of belief and the role it plays in the traditions and values of this country, and equips them with the knowledge they need to interact with other people. It deals with how we live our lives and includes important moral and ethical issues. Any concerns that a school is failing to provide a daily act of collective worship should in the first instance be raised via the school’s complaints unit.
My right hon. Friend will recall that when that decision was taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), Catholic schools were encouraged to use the voluntary aided route to establish a new school. Of course, we will continue to keep all these issues under review.
I reiterate the Government’s commitment that schools in England should continue to teach religious education. It is mandatory now and we have no plans to change that, but there is scope to work on achieving greater consistency in standards. We will seek to improve that through the work of the Oak National Academy.
The Minister may recall that this summer the UK hosted a very successful international conference on freedom of religion or belief, to which 88 Governments sent delegates. Out of that, the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance is working on developing workbooks for primary school pupils to help them to understand the importance of not discriminating against others of different faiths or beliefs, just as pupils in many countries across the world understand not to discriminate against, say, disabled pupils. Will the Minister meet me as we work on that project? We now have 42 countries in our alliance, and our aim is eventually—while respecting those countries’ different cultures—to promote and ideally disseminate that through the Education Departments of our respective countries.
I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to her for the superb work she does in her role as special envoy. I would also be delighted to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes and the RE Policy Unit to discuss these issues further. I think that is a good note to end on, so I will finish my remarks there.
This has been a wide-ranging debate, and I thank all colleagues who have taken part. It shows that there is considerable concern about RE teaching in our schools. The Minister rightly pointed out the procedure for dealing with complaints about schools not meeting their legal obligation, but I hope that he and his ministerial colleagues can be a little more robust in getting that message down through the system so that parents have the confidence and knowledge to challenge what they may perceive as a lack of RE teaching for their children.
This has been an exceptionally good debate. I took note of the fact that there is an annual decision about bursaries, and I urge all colleagues to lobby the Minister so that, when that comes around again next year, RE may be just that bit luckier than it was under my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis).
I share the disappointment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) about the fact that the Minister was not quite there on the renewed guidance. Guidance is important, as no end of agencies and authorities that we deal with tell us, “Our Government guidance says this.” I welcome this debate, and I thank all colleagues who have taken part.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered religious education in modern Britain.
Drug Reclassification: Monkey Dust
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the reclassification of the drug Monkey Dust.
It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Dame Maria, although this is not a pleasurable subject for debate. My aim is to see monkey dust, a new psychoactive substance that is currently a class B drug, reclassified as class A. There are compelling reasons for doing so. I have received considerable local support in my constituency for reclassification, including through the survey and petition that is currently live on my website, which calls for the reclassification of that horrific drug.
If I explain that up to two thirds of all monkey dust-related incidents in the west midlands region are reported to occur in Stoke-on-Trent, the House will understand why local feelings in my home city are running so high. Monkey dust is a class B drug from a set of stimulants known as cathinones, which include the class C drug khat. Unlike khat, which is a reasonably mild, natural stimulant, monkey dust is a powerful synthetic drug. It is a stimulant that can make the user euphoric or hallucinate, lose control of their body, become aggressive and/or fall into a deep depression. It is a fine off-white powder costing £10 to £15 per gram, with only 3 mg needed for a hit. That means that a hit can cost as little as £2 on the street, making it cheaper than alcohol. Its effects usually last a few hours, but they can last for several days.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. He is absolutely right to refer to the cost factor. Does he not agree that the fact that monkey dust can be bought for such a small fee means that our young teenagers can afford to use that toxic substance, which can spiral to using other drugs? Immediate reclassification is needed to send a clear message that any abuse of drugs will not be tolerated, that the consequences will be substantial and that it is simply not worth the risk to sell or buy monkey dust, Spice, or any other new fad that is making the rounds.
I entirely agree with the hon. Member. That is a key factor. It is very sad to see that a lot of the people who are addicted and taking the drug are very young. That is one of the biggest tragedies.
Both the effect of monkey dust and its duration are unpredictable. In Stoke-on-Trent, it is known simply as “dust”, and it comes in sub-categories that include the street names of fluff and tan. Dust can be snorted, injected, piped or bombed. Piped, as it sounds, means smoked in a small pipe, and bombed, also called parachuted, means wrapped in edible paper and swallowed. That can include the use of cigarette paper or toilet tissue, which are not obviously palatable, but such is the strength of the addition that synthetic cathinones can hold, users will endure great indignities to consume it, never mind acquire it, and there is scant dignity in the effects.
Dust can lead to a psychotic state. Because it dulls all pain, it can lead users to harm themselves while feeling nothing short of invincible. Police officers have described tackling those under the influence as like trying to wrestle with the Incredible Hulk. Dust can also cause convulsions and lead users to overheat. Death from hyperthermia is a result of the most extreme cases of overheating.
Sometimes users will combat the feeling of heat by stripping off clothing—which, as they are totally disinhibited by the drug, can mean any and all clothing. There are also the risks of hypoventilation and acute respiratory distress. The collapse of users into a seemingly comatose state is a sight that residents fear is becoming normalised in our city.
I thank my hon. Friend and Stoke-on-Trent buddy for securing this fantastic and important debate. In 2018, it was described as an epidemic in Stoke-on-Trent and, sadly, we are back there again. The drug takes advantage of vulnerable people and creates severe mental health issues. That is why I implore the residents of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke to sign my hon. Friend’s petition. Does he agree with me that what we want is not just a reclassification, but additional support for Staffordshire police to catch the criminals who push such filth on our streets?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we are seeing an epidemic on our streets in Stoke-on-Trent. We do need additional support for many of those services, because what we see on the streets of Stoke-on-Trent is totally unacceptable.
With such unpredictable and severe effects, it is little wonder that this drug is also known in other parts of the world as zombie dust and, most disturbingly, cannibal dust, after reports of face-eating in America. In my constituency, a user actively ate through a glass window of a local shop.
Tragically, Stoke-on-Trent has been hit with an unenviable reputation as the centre for monkey dust abuse. The human cost of this awful drug and the gangs pushing it is a continuing problem for the city and local services, despite considerable efforts from Staffordshire police. The consequences of this illicit drugs trade hit residents, who live in fear of violence from dealers and users.
I can give many examples of those fears and the reality behind them. The responses to my survey fall into roughly five categories of concern. The first focuses on the effects on the users, and includes a response from an ex-user with first-hand experience of what they called “this poison”. Another respondent said:
“You become unrecognisable as a person.”
Secondly, there are concerns about the consequences for neighbours and communities, particularly children and pensioners. Comments include:
“As a hard-working, law-abiding citizen, I don’t feel I should have to walk among zombies.”
“It is frightening walking around with our children seeing people high, shouting at the top of their voices.”
“Monkey dust creates antisocial behaviour and misery that does not belong in any decent society.”
“We saw a man standing on a bus shelter. He was throwing things at people and shouting abuse.”
Thirdly, there are concerns about the strain on the time and financial resources of the emergency service, and other local services in responding to dust-related incidents, or fighting the addiction. A respondent who works for the rough sleepers’ team told me:
“I and many professionals have been of the opinion that monkey dust needs to be correctly classified urgently, in order to reduce the impact it is having.”
Another, from a community church, wrote of feeling
“so helpless in how to care for and support people who have become addicted to monkey dust. I see them ruining or losing their lives.”
There was a suggestion that dust is
“taking up hundreds of hours of emergency services’ time every month.”
Fourthly, there are concerns about the problems caused for local businesses, and the viability of our high streets and town centres. That was a common theme in responses. Comments include:
“Another nail in the coffin for our town centres.”
“I feel unsafe when shopping.”
“A terrible impression of our town. People after taking drugs are stumbling around and begging outside supermarkets.”
“The theft if rife. Everything you work hard for gets taken.”
“It is intimidating to leave the office late at night when there is a gang of six, eight or more drug dealers and/or drug users loitering on a private office car park. The dealers consider themselves to be above the law.”
Fifthly, there is the devastating, tragic situation of family and friends. Those comments are particularly distressing. On respondent wrote simply:
“My son is a drug addict.”
Another said her children’s father turned to the drug when they split up:
“My children now have an absent father. He was a man that worked all the hours God sent until he had a momentary weakness and accepted this drug.”
“My daughter was introduced to this horrendous drug, which was instrumental in causing her death.”
Another wrote that her daughter, aged 37, when on the drug had her three children taken off her:
“I am at my wits’ end how I can help her off this vile poison.”
There was also a case where a couple were raising her sister’s four children because the sister had fallen to this addiction. These are truly tragic cases that are becoming far too frequent.
How would reclassifying monkey dust help? As one respondent to my survey put it:
“Authorities need to come down hard on the dealers. Reclassifying dust at cat A sends a clear message that this won’t be tolerated.”
Several respondents compared monkey dust to heroin in its effects and its addictiveness, and could not understand why dust is not in the same category. In fact, there are examples of users and people around users confirming that monkey dust is in some ways worse than heroin—there is, for example, no equivalent of methadone as a synthetic replacement, because dust itself is a synthetic drug. In a documentary produced by the University of Westminster called “Stoke-on-Dust”, a user said that the psychological effects of dust were, to her, worse than heroin, which she had been addicted to since the age of 14.
That documentary features a campaigner called Baz Bailey. Baz tragically took his own life in July 2020, having struggled with his own mental health. He was a great man who did amazing charitable work, and his efforts to rescue his son from monkey dust became for him, typically, a campaign to rescue everyone’s son and everyone’s daughter. Baz said:
“I 100 per cent believe the drug should be reclassified because it’s something that can take over someone. We want to send a message to these dealers that the community won’t just lie down and take what they’re doing.”
He was right: we won’t—we can’t. That reclassification needs to be part of a wider push that includes much more action on preventative work to reduce the root causes of drug abuse and addiction.
I thank my hon. Friend for paying tribute to my constituent Baz Bailey. Monkey dust is a big problem in Newcastle-under-Lyme, which borders Stoke-on-Trent. We have had a number of deaths associated with monkey dust; we have also had a number of intimidatory behaviours, with people climbing on to buildings or breaking into people’s houses naked at 3 am. We have seen people in Newcastle town centre in the zombie-like state that my hon. Friend referred to. I urge him to continue his campaign to get monkey dust upgraded to category A, and to work with me and my colleague and hon. Friend, the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), to help the police treat this issue with the seriousness it deserves in north Staffordshire.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the need to take a holistic approach to this issue. The local police, local authorities, health services, schools and third-sector organisations should work together to address the wider issues in our communities. It is very positive that earlier this year, Stoke-on-Trent City Council was awarded more than £5 million by the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities to invest over the next three years to develop the substance misuse service locally. We also need a wider conversation about how we divert young people from gang culture in the first place and protect the vulnerable, who are targeted by drug pushers, from being criminally exploited. Reclassification will help to disrupt supply by increasing the risks and consequences associated with being involved in supply; prevention and rehabilitation will help to disrupt demand. We must not neglect either side of the drugs market equation, and we have yet to do enough to tackle monkey dust—demand and supply, which go hand in hand—because we are failing to punish with the sanctions required.
My constituents are regularly aghast at the lenient sentences reported in our local newspaper, The Sentinel. Those include a 12-month sentence, suspended for 18 months, for a user who terrified a pensioner by climbing into her house at 5.30 in the morning, leaving her with ongoing flashbacks, before going on to undertake shoplifting. Another user stabbed her partner in the hand with a kitchen knife before going to Tesco, having twice attacked him with a meat cleaver previously—she got just 12 months. We need to be much, much clearer that the sanctions for supplying and acting under the influence of monkey dust will be severe.
My hon. Friend makes a great point: it is essential that we get the additional support that we urgently need as a city. We are trapped in part between Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, where gangs operate and come into our city—there are also gangs within the city of Stoke-on-Trent. That is why we need additional resources: this cannot just be left to the local authority, which is the second poorest in England when it comes to collection of council tax, to deal with. Does my hon. Friend agree that for that reason, the Minister needs to make sure that the Home Office comes up with a special taskforce, almost, for Stoke-on-Trent to tackle this scourge?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Stoke-on-Trent is fantastically located right at the heart of the UK, but that also means that we are more exposed to those county line drug issues and the trade of drugs that is coming through our country from Liverpool through to other larger cities. It is absolutely vital that we get those resources and support.
To conclude, I again turn to a comment from my survey, because it sums everything up:
“Monkey dust is a scourge, similar to heroin, and should be treated as such.”
I hope the Minister will have time in his diary to visit Stoke-on-Trent. My fellow local MPs, along with Ben Adams, the Commissioner for Police, Fire & Rescue and Crime, Councillor Abi Brown, the leader of the council, and I would all welcome the opportunity to show him some of those issues on the ground in our area.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing this important debate, supported as always with enthusiasm, passion, conviction and ability by his colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon). They are phenomenal advocates for their city and their part of Staffordshire.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has made an extremely moving and compelling case for the terrible effects that monkey dust, and in particular the forms of monkey dust known in Stoke-on-Trent as either fluff or tan, has on his constituents—not just those who are taking it but those affected by their behaviour. I was struck by the eloquent description towards the end of his excellent speech where he described the shocking activities of people under the influence of the drug, and the impact that that has on their partners and innocent members of the public going about their daily business or even asleep at home late at night. It is very clear the drug can have a devastating impact, both on those who use it and on law-abiding members of society.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South set out, monkey dust is the street name for drugs that form part of a family called cathinones, which are central-nervous-system stimulants that act in a similar way to amphetamines. My hon. Friend has raised concerns about that previously, including in a 2018 Westminster Hall debate on synthetic cannabinoids. He has at least a four-year track record of raising the issue in the House.
As he set out, drugs, including monkey dust, are a corrosive and destructive force in society. This Government are very focused on preventing drug misuse through the criminal justice system and policing, as well as through treatment and recovery. The Government have a 10-year drugs strategy. We want to force down drug supply though the criminal justice system. That is one of the reasons why we are recruiting 20,000 extra police officers—a key focus for them will be combating drugs. Of those officers, over 15,000 have already been recruited, I think. As of 30 September this year, 265 extra officers are now policing the streets of Staffordshire, and part of their focus is on the drug problem.
We also need to ensure that people who are suffering from drug addiction are treated. There is a whole programme of expenditure that the Government have set out in our 10-year strategy published last December. In the current three-year period, £780 million has been allocated specifically for treatment and recovery to cure people’s addiction. That is on top of the existing public health grant expenditure. Stoke-on-Trent is in the first wave of authorities receiving that extra money; the funding this year specifically for Stoke-on-Trent is approximately an additional £1 million, over and above the existing public health grant, to try and treat addiction. If we can stop people becoming addicted it removes the market from the people who are supplying those drugs, and it stops members of the public being harassed and intimidated in the way that has been described.
We are, of course, delighted with the 265 brand-new police officers in Staffordshire, which has been welcomed by the commanders of Staffordshire police. Sadly, our former chief constable was an abomination. That meant we had a really poor neighbourhood policing plan, which sadly led to a tough inspectorate report of Staffordshire police by His Majesty’s inspectors. That is why any additional support that can be given to enable our fantastic new chief constable, Chris Noble, and our police and fire commissioner, Ben Adams, to get the technology and to get the officers and police community support officers time in the community to build intelligence on where criminal gangs and county lines are organising would be of great help. Will the Minister ensure that he takes that case of additional funding back to the Home Office?
We will look at police funding in the relatively near future. Next year’s settlement will be published in draft form for consultation in December and then finalised, typically, in late January or early February. I will certainly take on board that representation for Staffordshire.
I am delighted to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North that his new chief constable is taking a good approach to policing, including by focusing on neighbourhood policing, getting police visible on the streets and spending time tackling criminals, rather than anything else. It is that focus on protecting the public and being visible that has worked in the Greater Manchester force, which has just come out of what is sometimes called special measures, because its chief constable took a similar approach to frontline policing and getting the basics of policing right.
My hon. Friend also mentioned time and ensuring that police spend time fighting crime, catching criminals and patrolling the streets, instead of being tied up in what can be counterproductive or wasteful bureaucracy. A report is currently being conducted by Sir Stephen House, a former senior Metropolitan police officer who is now working with the National Police Chiefs Council, to look at ways of reducing and stripping back bureaucracy and burdens on police time, such as administration and reporting of non-crime matters. I will work closely with Sir Stephen on that to try to ensure that police officer time is spent on the streets protecting our constituents, not doing counterproductive administration.
To reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) has just said, there really needs to be a focus on our town centres. In lots of the so-called red wall seats, our town centres have been hollowed out, with people on drugs on the streets. I am very pleased not only with our new chief constable, Chris Noble, but with my new borough commander in Newcastle, John Owen, both of whom are really focusing on antisocial behaviour in the town centre. We have so much money coming into Newcastle from the town deal and the future high streets fund, but it will not go for anything if people do not feel safe in the town centre.
I completely agree about the importance of visible, active town-centre policing. In fact, I have seen it in my own town centre in Croydon. I met our borough commander, or basic command unit commander —the chief superintendent—only last Friday, and he made exactly the same point. The police uplift programme has delivered officers to police Croydon town centre, which does make a difference. We want to see that replicated in towns and cities across the country. The police uplift programme provides the numbers of officers to do exactly that.
I should probably turn to the central ask of the debate—I am not trying to avoid the question or obfuscate in any way—which is the question of how this family of drugs, cathinones, is classified. It may be worth reminding colleagues of the maximum prison sentences available for those convicted of the supply and possession of class A, B and C drugs. These are the maximum sentences, which courts often do not use because sentencing guidelines set out the sentence that should be used in practice, having regard to the circumstances of each case. These are the current maximum sentences that the courts have at their disposal for supply: for class A drugs, it is life in prison; for class B drugs, 14 years; and for class C drugs, a maximum, again, of 14 years. For possession, the maximum sentences are: for class A drugs, a maximum of seven years; for class B drugs, a maximum of five years; and for class C drugs, a maximum of two years.
I stress that those are maximum sentences and a court will very often sentence a long way below the maximum, depending on the circumstances of the case. Increasing the classification obviously increases the maximum, but it will also increase the likely actual sentence, because courts will look at the maximum when they sentence in each individual case. The sentencing guidelines are pegged off the maximum sentence. I thought it was worth setting that out as a little bit of background.
On the classification of drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the Government have a statutory obligation to consult the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs before making any change to the classification. That was last looked at in relation to cathinones in 2010, when the ACMD advised the Government to maintain the class B classification. From what I have heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South, for Stoke-on-Trent North, and for Newcastle-under-Lyme, what has been happening in those places since 2010 represents a significant escalation, or deterioration, in what has been happening on the ground. Indeed, it sounds like a phenomenon that has been happening in the last three, four or five years.
In response to the debate, I intend to commission Home Office officials to advise on whether we should submit the cathinone family of drugs to the ACMD for an updated evaluation to see whether reclassification is needed. We need to make sure that does not displace some other drug from the pipeline, but I will ask for that advice today and I am happy to revert to my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South, for Stoke-on-Trent North, and for Newcastle-under-Lyme once that advice has been received and considered. I hope that that shows that this Westminster Hall debate has prompted action which otherwise would not have taken place. We will start the process of considering whether to submit this to the ACMD, while taking into account whether there is space in the pipeline. That demonstrates the value of these debates. I have only been in this job for three working days, but were it not for this debate the matter would not have come to my attention.
I thank the Minister for his efforts and words. That will make a huge difference. I recognise that there is an independent process, but I hope the decision ultimately results in the reclassification of the drug. I thank the Minister for all his efforts in just three days; I am sure he will continue in that regard.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. There are three steps in the process. First, we need internal Home Office advice on whether we should submit this to the ACMD, which I will commission today. Secondly, having analysed the situation, if the advice concurs with what my hon. Friend said, we will make the submission. However, it depends on what the advice says. Thirdly, after submission, the ACMD will then have to do its work. I should be honest and say that none of those steps are guaranteed, but I will initiate the first step today.
We are almost out of time, so on that note, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South for initiating the debate, my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North and for Newcastle-under-Lyme for their extremely valuable contributions and the passionate eloquence that, as always, they show, and Home Office officials who have been supporting work in this area. I look forward to further debates on topics of importance in this new role.
Question put and agreed to.
Public Sector Pay: Proposed Strike Action
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of proposed strike action in response to public sector pay announcements.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. We are deep in a cost of living emergency 12 years in the making, which is about to be made even worse by this Tory Government. I sought this debate because of the perilous situation resulting from the cost of living crisis. Poverty is already increasing, and current and future decisions by the Government will make it even worse. The number of trade unionists in public sector work being balloted for industrial action over pay now exceeds 1 million. That is because the Tories are holding down their pay and driving industrial action, and would rather suppress industrial action than end the conflicts through a fair pay award.
I want to make three fundamental points. First, public sector pay has been eroded in real terms for 12 years through this Conservative Government’s austerity measures, which have destroyed morale and damaged recruitment and retention. Secondly, the proposed public sector pay settlement in this cost of living crisis is the worst so far and will reduce living standards significantly. Inflation is at over 10%, and the cost of energy, food and fuel is higher. Reports in today’s The Times and The Daily Telegraph suggest that a real pay settlement will be even worse next year and will anger public servants more—rightly so. Finally, there is an alternative to more austerity and the suppression of industrial action, which is to fund a fair, inflation-proofed pay rise through a fairer taxation system.
This summer has been described as the summer of solidarity. There has been major strike action in the postal and telecoms sectors and on the railways, with a great degree of public support despite the impact. We are now seeing a huge escalation of that, with widespread balloting for industrial action in response to meagre public sector pay offers across universities, Departments, hospitals, schools and fire stations.
Last week, 60,000 University and College Union members in higher education met the Trade Union Act 2016 threshold and confirmed that they were ready to defend their pay. Some 150,000 Public and Commercial Services Union members will conclude their ballot at the end of this week. In health, the Royal College of Nursing is now at the end of a historic first UK ballot of 300,000 nurses, and we have seen the start of pay ballots of another 400,000-plus members of Unison, GMB and Unite, which all conclude at the end of this month.
My hon. Friend is making such a powerful speech. Does she agree that, regardless of whether they are railway workers, health workers, BT and Openreach workers, education workers, teachers or support assistants, it is our fight? It is about a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work: genuinely levelling up.
Such a low pay offer will inevitably lead to disillusion. We are already seeing the detrimental impact of low pay on the NHS workforce. Essential public sector services will struggle to recruit and retain staff, and workers will be drawn to the private sector in the hope of higher wages. Does the hon. Lady agree that Ministers must urgently undertake a full impact assessment before finalising any decisions on a full pay offer?
I thank the hon. Lady, and I will come to that later.
Let me return to my speech. In education there is an unprecedented situation: two major education unions, the National Education Union and NASUWT, voting together alongside the National Association of Head Teachers. In the fire service, over 30,000 members of the Fire Brigades Union are doing the same.
Why is that? The latest statistics show average regular pay growth of 6.2% for the private sector and 2.2% for the public sector—both below inflation, but one much further below it than the other. We are now talking about a potential 1.5 million public sector workers being balloted on the Tories’ low pay agenda.
I apologise: I will not be able to stay for the entire debate as I have another commitment in the House. My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for why, in all justice, public sector workers should not be the the most penalised, and they will obviously agree with her. Another consequence is that, as the TUC recently highlighted, there will be labour shortages in vast parts of the public sector, as workers decide they can get more pay in the private sector. Who can blame them? However, in terms of public policy, that will be a real problem.
Yes, and we all welcome the TUC coming to Parliament tomorrow for the day of action.
Early in the new year, there could be significant co-ordinated strike action, and the TUC is planning for such action. It is absolutely right to do so, because the Government are creating public sector poverty to balance their own books. We must understand why people are being forced to strike. Because of the burden of low pay in the context of the worst cost of living crisis in living memory, trade unionists in the public sector have no option but to consider industrial action. They are being forced to take action to survive. The Tories’ plan to suppress industrial action does not ease the financial burden on households.
I will briefly go through my three key points. First, the background to the current situation is the erosion of public sector pay over 12 years. When David Cameron came to power in 2010, his first speech in Downing Street referred to “difficult decisions”, and we heard the Prime Minister use the same line last week. The TUC has called the 10 subsequent years a “decade of lost pay”. Nurses and paramedics will see their pay shrink by £1,100 and £1,500 respectively this year.
It is worth reflecting on the human cost for workers on the ground, because behind all the figures are real people. One PCS member has said:
“To try and survive the cost of living crisis, I keep my lights off at home, live the vast majority of time in just one room and don’t use my central heating. I’ve already taken every conceivable cost-cutting measure I can.”
It is absolutely appalling that, in this day and age, somebody is forced to do that through no fault of their own. It is a damning indictment of the impact of 12 years of austerity that imposed pay freezes on our hard-working public sector staff. Those who sacrificed so much during the covid pandemic to keep our sectors running have been left badly exposed in the cost of living emergency.
Secondly, in this year’s pay review body consultations, unions were unequivocal in demanding an inflation-proof pay rise and stating that the Government’s offer was a significant real-terms pay cut for key workers. On teachers’ pay, the NEU was clear that Government evidence to the pay review body failed to explore the impact of pay cuts on
“teacher recruitment, retention and morale”.
On NHS pay, the RCN said that the pay announcement
“makes it harder, not easier, for them to cope with the rising cost of living.”
Unison’s Christina McAnea said:
“If there is to be a dispute in the NHS, ministers will have no one to blame but themselves.”
In a violation of the pay review body process, the civil service did not consult unions until it met the PCS union a few days before publication. The union said:
“this process was farcical and could not under any circumstances be considered a serious consultation.”
There are lots of questions to be answered.
Finally, local government workers have lost an average of 27.5% from the value of their pay when measured against the retail price index. It is unsurprising, then, that 78% of councils experience recruitment and retention difficulties. I am really pleased that we are joined today by Unison members from Barnet, who have been striking for 12 continuous days in support of a colleague regarding non-payment of sick pay. I know other Members will speak more about that in their contributions. I welcome the Unison members and thank them for joining us today.
I want to address the situation in Wales. Trade unions are balloting for strike action in Wales against the pay awards set by the Welsh pay review bodies, who have offered the same as in England. The offers are insufficient—just as much a pay cut—and need to be revised upwards. There is one significant difference: in Wales we are completely reliant on a funding settlement from the Treasury. When Conservative Ministers inflict pay cuts here, they offer little or no space for Wales to do differently.
I will quote our First Minister, Mark Drakeford, who said at the Labour party conference:
“As a point of principle I absolutely believe public sector workers should be fairly rewarded and that they shouldn’t see take-home pay eroded by inflation…they should at least match inflation.”
Rebecca Evans, the Finance Minister, said:
“we absolutely need the UK Government to undertake to provide a decent pay uplift.”
That fair funding demand has been echoed in my constituency. I undertook a cost of living survey and I delivered a petition to Parliament a couple of weeks ago for fair funding and an inflation-proofed income.
My third and final point is that there is absolutely no justification for public sector pay cuts when an inflation-proofed rise is affordable. When the human cost of more cuts is so great, we must surely explore alternatives to further cuts. If we are to give workers the inflation-proofed pay rise that they deserve and need, we have to fund a pay settlement that can match the 10.1%. That is not an unreasonable expectation. People are saying they do not wish to be poorer this year because they are key workers. We have to identify what that would cost.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies green budget from earlier this month, which the Library directed me to, makes it clear that departmental budgets were predicated on pay awards in the region of 3%. That is far below the current rate of inflation and below the pay awards of roughly 5% announced over the summer. The IFS estimates that offering an inflation-matching pay award to all public sector employees would add more like £17.8 billion. I am under no illusions—that is a significant amount of money—but we are talking about livelihoods, people’s lives, households and families, and the difference between existing and living. We therefore have to look at new ways of raising revenue to pay for it.
I thank my hon. Friend for this critical debate; I notice there are more civil servants in attendance than there are Government Members, which is shameful.
I want to pick up on the human cost that my hon. Friend mentioned. In 2011, on my first day in the job as a young parliamentary candidate, I stood on a picket line with Unison members in the mental health services. They were not just striking for pay, but because they were warning the public about the cuts coming to mental health. We have now had a decade of failure. I look now at GMB ambulance workers who have said that a third of the deaths that they see are because of delays caused by bottlenecks in the NHS—caused by the cuts. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that we cannot let the Government blame strikers, public servants or even climate activists for the deaths that occur because of what they are doing on their watch?
I thank my hon. Friend for that powerful comment. I fully agree.
How will we pay for pay awards? The time has come for the Government to seriously look at establishing the infrastructure and valuation systems to levy taxation on wealth. There has been increasing interest in wealth taxation in recent months and years. The Wealth Tax Commission has given a rigorous academic base to understand how we could levy either a one-off or annual wealth tax. Tax Justice UK argued last week that the Government could raise up to £37 billion a year through a number of taxes on wealth, including equalising capital gains with income tax rates to raise £14 billion a year.
The Institute for Public Policy Research and Common Wealth think-tanks’ latest research on taxing share buyback profit transfers found we could raise £11 billion. The Wealth Tax Commission simulator suggests that around £18 billion could be raised through an annual wealth tax of 2% on wealth over £5 million. It is clear that the resources are there; the Government must examine and use them.
To conclude, this pay settlement is an attack on living standards, on top of a decade-long attack on people. There is an alternative that means we have to look at new revenue streams that tax wealth to increase public key worker pay. If the Government do not act to ensure a proper settlement on public sector pay and a progressive, fair taxation system to pay for it, living standards and livelihoods are going to get worse for the people that we all represent.
We have arrived at this crisis, and are experiencing it acutely and in an unequal way, due to policy choices—choices driven by political decisions and priorities. Society cannot thrive if we do not get our priorities right. My priority is the living standards of my constituents in Cynon Valley and every single person throughout the United Kingdom. I will continue to support all actions to make that happen, and stand shoulder to shoulder proudly with workers. Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) on securing the debate. I want to talk specifically about the industrial action taking place in north-west London.
Industrial action across the country is about weekly and daily pay. In my constituency and elsewhere, there are real issues in north-west London around the payment of sick pay. I also welcome the Barnet Unison members to the Gallery today. They are now on their 11th day of all-out strike action. This is the only dispute of all-out action that Unison has endorsed and supported in the union’s recent history. The workers—the Unison members—are employed by Barnet Homes group, an organisation completely owned and managed by Barnet Council. By the way, it is managed by a CEO on an annual wage of £202,000, with bonuses on top.
The dispute is about a low-paid worker who was injured at work, but Barnet Homes refused to pay the first week of sick pay. That was an outrage. People were furious about the treatment of this worker, so his colleagues decided to seek negotiations to respond, to see whether they could get an appropriate response from the management. Management refused and made offers that were completely unacceptable, some of them nonsensical. The workers consulted, discussed, balloted and came out for industrial action, not just for one day but for all-out action.
Hon. Members here who have been on industrial action will know the consequences of that for individual incomes, particularly for low-paid workers. It is an act of courage. I want to pay tribute to the Unison members here today for the courage they have shown in taking action to protect a vulnerable colleague.
I will say this: the message from here today and across the House is that the council and Barnet Homes need to get back round the negotiating table, with a serious settlement to this dispute. I also want to say to Barnet Homes, “Start respecting your workers. Start respecting what they do.” I express my solidarity with the Unison strikers today. If this debate does nothing else, I hope it shames Barnet Homes and the council, if necessary, into settling this dispute.
The disputes taking place at the moment are about not just pay on a daily basis, but terms and conditions of employment, and issues such as the payment of sick pay. So many working people are on the edge, hit by 10% inflation—or 14%, on foodstuffs. In our area of north-west London, house prices and rents are unaffordable for ordinary working people on an average wage. On that basis, I place my solidarity—the solidarity of the whole Chamber, I hope—on the record in support of the Barnet strikers.
It is a pleasure to follow on from the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I congratulate the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) on securing the debate and bringing this issue to the Chamber. I should also declare my membership of Unite.
In having this debate, we need to think about how we ended up in this mess. When the Minister gets to her feet later and talks about the difficult choices the Government must make, she must do so reflecting on the fact that they have been in power for 12 years. They have been in control of the economy, and the economic chaos that has been unleashed in the UK recently is a result of the Thatcherite economic experiment undertaken by the former Prime Minister and Chancellor. Working people will now have to pay as a result of the botched mini-Budget, which had to be abandoned, with a new fiscal statement coming on 17 November. As we watch the new Chancellor of the Exchequer start to unpick the mini-Budget, it still astonishes me that, through all the turmoil, one thing that has still not been unpicked is the lifting of the cap on bankers’ bonuses. The idea that the Minister will stand up in this Chamber at quarter to 4 and say, “We need to make difficult choices but, by the way, bankers can continue to have excessive bonuses to encourage them to incentivise risk,” should give the Government food for thought.
When approaching this debate, we should always remember that the right to withdraw labour is a fundamental human right, and it is enshrined in section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996—it appears that plenty of Conservative Back Benchers are exercising their right to withdraw their labour by not turning up to this debate, and we extend our solidarity to them in that regard. With this Government, we are beginning to see—we will see this with the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill—that there will be a continued attack on working people and trade unions. This will not necessarily be popular with Labour colleagues here, but the challenge for the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) is not to play these games with the Government, no to get as close as possible to them and not to go for that middle-ground vote. He should be brave, stand up for workers and not just try to be a pale imitation of the Tories. We know that the Government are determined to attack workers’ rights. We heard only recently that the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has talked about ways in which the Government can try to water down rights for those on maternity allowance.
The situation on industrial action in Scotland—this is not to say that we do not have our own problems with industrial action—is that over 70% of Unite’s members voted in a consultative ballot to accept the revised offer made by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. The revised offer will fully consolidate £2,000 for those earning up to £20,500; it is the equivalent of an increase of about 10% to 11% for the lowest paid. It is estimated that the revised offer resulted in a £600 million package being brought forward by COSLA and the SNP Scottish Government.
However, there is an uncomfortable reality for someone such as myself and for my party. Given the fixed fiscal framework—the hon. Member for Cynon Valley talked about some of this in a Welsh context—yes, we have limited tax-varying powers in Scotland, and there is a much broader debate to be had about that. However, the reality is that we cannot have Scandinavian public services with Singapore tax rates, and that is something that people in all parts of the UK will have to confront. The Government cannot talk about their desire to level up while simultaneously saying they want to slash tax for people, and that includes things such as a race to the bottom on corporation tax. Yes, there are challenges, and unfortunately the Scottish Government, as a result of rightly pushing ahead with that increased pay offer, will now have a challenge trying to find savings elsewhere. I happen to have a solution to that: Scotland should take all its own economic decisions, rather than having Tory Ministers in London make those decisions for us, but that is a point for another day.
I will finish by mentioning the comments from the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Roz Foyer, who recently spoke at the SNP conference. She said that the Scottish TUC has robust discussions with the Scottish Government, but that one of the biggest differences is that the Scottish Government will actually listen and work with it, unlike the Government in Westminster, who introduce appalling bits of legislation, such as the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill. When that Bill comes before the House, it can be assured of SNP opposition, and I hope it can also be assured of opposition from Labour and from many people in this Chamber who want to stand up for working people.
It is always a delight to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward.
I should declare that I am a member of the GMB. When I was a priest in the Church of England, no union would take us, because if we did go on strike, it would not be very obvious what had not happened. MSF took us on for a while, and then we became members of Unite, but when Burberry was trying to close its factory in Treorchy, Rhondda, a few years ago, I worked so closely with the GMB that I thought it was right to join. I am a very proud member.
I start with the principle that it is a fundamental human right for people to be able to withdraw their labour, and any attempt to undermine that right is a contradiction of all our human rights. There may be many different reasons why someone needs to withdraw their labour, but it is worth reminding people that no trade unionist, trade union leader or member of a trade union ever takes the decision to go on strike lightly, for the very simple reason that, apart from anything else, it costs them and their family money—goodness gracious, the miners of the Rhondda knew that in spades back in the 1980s. Individual members of trade unions are proud of the work they do, so they do not want to not be in work—they want to be in work.
Many of the people we are talking about have been described as “key workers”. That phrase came into existence during the covid pandemic, when people suddenly discovered that bus drivers, train drivers, bus conductors and people who work in supermarkets or for a local council—many of whom suffered more than anybody during covid, because they were at daily risk—are all key workers because the whole of the rest of the economy simply cannot function without them. Those people know that they are essential to society, and they do not want to let down their customers, clients, passengers and patients or the people with whom they work. They are proud of their work, and they want to be in work, so it takes a lot to get a trade union or an individual member to vote for strike action.
My constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter)—not “Sinon Valley”, as Tony Blair always used to call it—is absolutely right about the cost of living crisis. Energy costs in our constituencies are often even higher because many homes are difficult to insulate and to keep warm and dry, as they are basically made out of stone and rubble. If someone is on very low wages, seeing their energy costs double in a year makes a dramatic difference, whatever the Government may have done this year, and people are anxious about what will happen after April. Inflation for the poorest is even higher than the 10.1% that has been mentioned, not least because poorer people spend more of their money on the essentials in life—food, energy and housing costs—and the cost of cheaper brands has risen the most. The cost of things that fill kids’ bellies more readily, such as pasta, have risen by 45%, 47% or 48%, while bread has gone up by 34%, so inflation is even worse for the poorest.
My constituency may be different from other poorer constituencies, because more than 70% of people in the Rhondda own their homes. Many have small mortgages, but some have substantial ones. They may not have taken a long fixed-rate mortgage, because they were not sure how things would work out and did not want to be in a difficult situation in five years’ time. If someone sees their monthly rate going from £300 to £500, they will be thinking about losing their home. The problems that many pensioners are having are intensified by the fact that, if they had a small pension pot of, say, £35,000 in July, it may now be worth only £25,000 after the mini-Budget, so the annuity they might get if they retire now will be lower.
Then, on top of all that, there is wage suppression, which we have seen for 12 years for nearly every key worker. Apart from anything else, that has been counterproductive. One reason we are not getting people back into work is that there is an enormous backlog in the NHS. I am not making a partisan point here, because we have the same problem in Wales—there is an NHS backlog across the whole UK. If wages are suppressed in the NHS, fewer and fewer people will choose to work in it, more and more people will retire, and more and more people will leave it entirely, which will exacerbate the problem.
I completely support the CWU’s strike at the Royal Mail. It seems utterly preposterous to make such a small offer to the workers when significant amounts have been awarded to senior managers and shareholders. That is completely wrong. In my patch, people are worried about Royal Mail deliveries, but I am not blaming the staff; I am blaming the managers, because quite often they simply have not employed enough people to get the work done. I should add that I also support the CWU in its dispute with Openreach, which suffers from exactly the same problems as the Royal Mail.
My final points are about the Government’s role. First, it is to ensure that the laws in this land are fair to the employer and the employee. I do not think we have laws that are fair to the employee at the moment—I think the law is unbalanced. The former Prime Minister—the one we have just lost—would not have been able to become Prime Minister if the rules that presently exist for a strike ballot had been exercised for her. That is an utter hypocrisy in the Government’s line.
Secondly, where the Government have a direct, indirect or even just tangential interest or role in a dispute, they should do everything in their power to keep both sides at the table. In my experience, trade union members and trade union officials are the best deal makers in the land. The Government should learn from them and not the other way round.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I, too, congratulate my good and hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) on securing this important and timely debate.
It is only right and proper that I refer to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a proud trade unionist. I am a member of Unite and chair of the Unite parliamentary group, I am co-chair of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group and I am a member of several other trade union groups, including the justice unions, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the Public and Commercial Services Union and the Bakers Food & Allied Workers Union.
I have discovered that the UK has the most restrictive trade union laws in the developed world. Indeed, the Conservative Government’s pernicious Trade Union Act 2016 introduced very onerous, rigorous ballot thresholds. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) pointed out, few if any right hon. or hon. Members here today would have been elected if those same conditions had been applied to our parliamentary elections. However, trade unions are meeting those thresholds, with unions reporting record turnouts and record “yes” votes.
In the limited time I have, I want to illustrate the situation facing trade union members in just a few of the public sector unions. After 12 years of Conservative cuts, pay freezes, and attacks on pensions and terms and conditions, workers have been left with no choice. The civil service has rarely faced such a huge number of challenges in such a short period. Indeed, the PCS has launched a national ballot for industrial action, which I think closed yesterday, because its members face an unprecedented cost of living crisis. The Government plan to cut 91,000 civil service jobs; in response the PCS is calling for an end to those cuts, a 10% pay rise, a living wage of at least £15 an hour and an immediate 2% cut in contributions that PCS members have overpaid to pensions since 2018. That seems completely reasonable.
If we look at the railways, far from rewarding rail workers for their Trojan efforts during the pandemic, the Government have exploited the economic disruption that it caused and the restructuring that has been brought about on the privatised railways. Workers employed by Network Rail have been told that there will be an open-ended pay freeze from 2021. RMT members in most train operating companies received no pay rise in 2020, and from January 2021 the Government informed them that there was no budget to increase wages. Cleaners are in an even worse position, along with outsourced staff, who have been pushed to the brink of poverty. The RMT has calculated that rail cleaners on the national minimum wage have seen their annual earnings fall by £844 in real terms in the last year, even allowing for the April uplift.
Prison officers, who do an incredibly difficult job, often in hostile environments, are not allowed to take industrial action. It is important to welcome the fact that, after two years, the Government have finally accepted —the Minister is nodding because she was the Minister who did this—the recommendation of a £3,000 pay rise to staff on a fair and sustainable contract. However, that is not enough to make up for 21 years of cuts, as evidenced by the proliferation of food banks in prisons and the number of prison officers leaving the service.
A similar situation is reported by the National Association of Probation Officers. The Fire Brigades Union is in a similar predicament—staff were initially offered 2%, which has been upped to 5%, but with the caveat that the Government will not fund the additional 3%. The industrial action that we have seen across the public sector is a consequence of failed Government policy.
I must stress the vital importance of protecting the fundamental right to withdraw labour. The Government are threatening to introduce legislation to further undermine basic employment law. The right to strike must be protected at all costs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) on securing this important debate. She is a powerful advocate for her Welsh constituents.
It is important that we recognise that the below-inflation pay rises announced by the Government over the summer, which have prompted a series of strike ballots, have come on top of a brutal decade of pay cuts for key workers in the public sector. Under successive Conservative Governments, nurses, teachers, refuse workers and millions of other public servants have seen their living standards decimated.
Research by the Trades Union Congress released in August 2022 showed that one in five key worker households has children living in poverty and that the number of children growing up in poverty in key worker households has increased by 65,000 over the past two years, to nearly 1 million this year. How can that be right? What a shameful indictment of any Government.
Despite now facing the biggest squeeze on household finances since comparable records began, the Government continue to knowingly drive families, children, pensioners and the most vulnerable in our society into desperate poverty, with real-terms cuts in social security payments made earlier this year. Austerity is and always has been a political choice. The challenges we now face do not come out of the blue. There is a reason why a key component of Labour’s 2019 manifesto was its green new deal, driven by public ownership of the energy sector, and making sure that taxpayers got real value for money.
It is important to be clear that any failure to deliver pay awards in line with inflation means that this Government are choosing—deliberately and knowingly—to allow key workers in the public sectors to face even more hardship, after a brutal decade of pay freezes and cuts. Not only that, but given that our public services are already at breaking point, it would be an act of national vandalism to slash vital services to fund tax cuts for the super-rich.
Since being elected to this House, I have listened to tributes to the tireless work of our public sector workers, who go above and beyond the call of duty. However, they need more than warm words; they need action, so there is extra poignancy to this debate. It is particularly important to have in the forefront of our minds the enormous contributions that workers have made during the pandemic, despite the failures at all levels that contributed to thousands of staff dying all across various workforces.
If there is large-scale public sector strike action in the months ahead, the Government have only themselves to blame. They have chosen to hold down public servants’ pay while giving bankers unlimited bonuses. They have chosen to foster inequality and injustice while serving the super-rich. Public sector pay restraint disproportionately affects women and ethnic minority communities, so I ask the Minister whether a detailed and comprehensive equalities impact assessment of the Government’s plan is available.
I will always stand in solidarity with the trade union movement in Parliament and on the picket lines. It is amazing to see courageous Barnet Unison members in the Public Gallery. I will always oppose the Government’s cynical attacks on working people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) for securing this very timely debate. Like others, I am fully supportive of the strike action, and I think the Government’s proposed actions, especially the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, are entirely unacceptable and counterproductive.
As others have said, no one chooses to go on strike. The tales of strikes on a whim and fancy, whether in the motor industry in the midlands or the shipyards on the Clyde in the 1970s, are simply apocryphal. It is even harder to go on strike now, and the consequences are probably greater, given the cost of living crisis. People do not choose to go on strike on a whim and fancy. The loss of income is significant, and they worry about the danger and damage they do to those in whose interests they serve. There is also the practical fact that returning to work is difficult because they have to catch up on work that has piled up.
I accept that it is difficult for a Government to deal with public sector strikes. They are often responsible and answerable for agencies without having direct control over various departments—I have been there myself—but, as others have said, the right to strike is fundamental.
In a democracy, people cannot simply have the dubious privilege of being able to vote once every four or five years—although that will become even harder if they have to produce identification, which many do not have. They must also have control over the terms and conditions of their work and over their life. That is why the ability to withhold rent is significant, and why those on direct benefits often face difficulties in dealing with landlords. The right to strike is fundamental. It is not simply about pay; it is also about terms and conditions of employment.
Not everybody in our democracy has the right to strike. As a former Justice Secretary, I recall that the police do not have the right to strike. Nobody challenges that, but we probably have to go further to ensure that things such as the Police Negotiating Board are able to enforce positions on the Government and other agencies. There has to be a quid pro quo for the right to strike being taken away.
The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) referred to the POA, which is unable to go on strike. In Scotland, it does have the right to strike; I was offered that dubious denial in Scotland by Jack Straw, but I declined it, and I have to say that the POA has always retained that trust. It came out on strike during my period of office, but it gave us notice. It was out for a limited period, and it conducted itself in a dignified manner, for which I am extremely grateful.
The attempt to withhold the ability for people to come out on strike is fundamentally wrong. The Bill being introduced by the Government also strikes at the heart of devolution. In Scotland, we have CalMac, which is basically the Government carrier, and ScotRail, which is provided and owned by the Scottish Government, yet the powers are being taken here by a Transport Secretary and a Government that are not representative of Scotland.
I have been critical of the Scottish Government on ScotRail, and especially on CalMac Ferries, but at the end of the day the solution is to democratise them so that we get a people’s CalMac that represents not just the Government but those who are served by it and the communities, and so that those who work in it are provided for. What we should not be doing is taking away the right to strike. That fundamentally undermines the position of the Scottish Government and it should not be taking place. It should be possible to replicate the relationship that I built up with the POA between the Scottish Government and the RMT. I think they are in a better place than they are south of the border. The solution is always, and must always be, dialogue and discussion, not an attempt to dragoon people back into work and to take steps to undermine that fundamental democratic right. That is the wrong direction. At the present moment, my sympathies and support go to those on strike, because they need it in this cost of living crisis.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and to my membership of Unite and the GMB.
The right to join a trade union is a basic democratic right, as is someone’s right to withdraw their labour. Trade unions play an invaluable role in ensuring justice is served, defending workplace rights, pay, and terms and conditions for their members. Far too many people experience insecurity, uncertainty and exploitation at work. In-work poverty is on the rise, and years of wage restraint have created the circumstances that we now find ourselves in, where the ever growing gap between wages and the cost of living has become a chasm. The result is that millions of people are now actively considering taking part in the act of last resort: industrial action. What is the Government’s response? To spout anti-trade union rhetoric, to denounce those wishing to take up their rights to withdraw their labour and to introduce yet more anti-trade union laws, which will do nothing to address the underlying issues that those taking action face.
Already this year, we have seen agency worker regulations as the latest attempt to undermine those taking industrial action. So far, it looks like they have not worked, because we know that agency staff are unlikely to choose a role that requires them to cross a picket line against one that does not. We know that inserting third-party agency workers into a dispute is likely to inflame tensions and elongate strikes in the impacted sector. We know that it places agencies supplying those workers in an invidious position, risking their business reputation and financial situation. We also know that many roles that may be on strike require technical skills or training and training agency workers to do those jobs is expensive and time-consuming. Allowing agency workers in during a strike will shift a negative focus on to those workers and it will not address the underlying issues.
It is little wonder, given those factors, that on the face of it the regulations have done nothing to reduce industrial action. They create a nice headline for the Tory supporters in the media and provide useful soundbites for the next set of leadership candidates, but achieve nothing useful. Yet the Government want to go further. It has been suggested that tailored minimum thresholds, including staffing levels, will be determined in each industry in an attempt to delegitimise industrial action and effectively remove the right to strike. That is as impractical as it is immoral. For example, how can a railway be run safely on a skeleton staff? Twenty per cent of signal boxes cannot be operated, and it is far from clear what the consequences will be if unions do not comply with agreements on that. Will their action become unlawful? What is the minimum service? Is it different in different sectors? Who decides? Where is the liability if workers refuse to comply? Are we looking, with these proposals, at fundamentally changing the nature of the employment relationship so that a third party, the trade union, can compel an individual to attend work? So many questions, so little connection with reality.
Then there are the double standards we have seen in recent times, whereby the last Prime Minister but one was elected by an electronic ballot, but trade unions, despite there being a review five years ago, are still not allowed to use electronic voting for industrial action. Such embarrassing double standards cannot be defended.
There are, as we know, about 6.5 million trade union members in the UK. Every one of us present today will have constituents who are members of trade unions—ordinary men and women who want to organise themselves collectively to strive for better working conditions. We should be supporting them and not attempting to thwart them in their efforts to improve those working conditions. A happy workforce is a productive workforce. It is good for employers and it is good for the economy. We should therefore be saddened to hear that research by the TUC has found that one in three workers do not feel comfortable approaching their managers about a problem at work. More than a third of workers do not feel they or their colleagues are treated fairly, and half of all workers say their line manager did not explain their rights at work properly. Trying to attack trade unions and limit the right to strike will address none of those underlying issues.
It is time the Government ditched their ridiculous, outdated and prejudiced view that trade unions are the enemy within. It is time the Government respected the views and rights of those who choose to take strike action. It is time the Government addressed the chronic underfunding of public services, which has led us to the current situation.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) on securing this important debate.
We are seeing an assault on living standards, and their biggest decline in the 70 years since records began. From energy costs to food, and from mortgages to rents, everything is going up—everything except pay. In fact, over the past year, wages have fallen dramatically by almost 3% in real terms. That does not happen in a vacuum, of course; it comes after a decade of austerity slashing public services and the tightest squeeze on wages in 200 years.
Average wages are still below 2008 levels and falling. We are now likely to have had two decades of lost wage growth. One jaw-dropping statistic is that average wages would now be around £10,000 higher if they had carried on rising at pre-financial crisis levels. It is no wonder, then, that workers have had enough. Things have been bad so far but, with real-terms pay set to plummet over coming years, they will get whole lot worse.
That is the context in which so many workers are balloting for strike action and saying, “Enough is enough.” Before I was elected to Parliament, I was a trade union lawyer in Leeds for 10 years, so I know from experience that it is complete rubbish when the right-wing Tories and newspapers say that workers go on strike at the drop of a hat. Workers go on strike as a last resort, when they feel that they have no other option, especially when their pay and terms and conditions are being attacked, and they feel that they are being disrespected by their bosses and by the Government. As we have heard, the term “key workers” quite rightly became popular during the worst of the pandemic, but that term is used less and less by Ministers these days, and we should reflect upon the reasons why.
Inflation of 10% means a real-terms pay cut of 8% for nurses, teachers and many others. Pay cuts will be justified by talk of a need to cut back our services to fill spending holes. We will hear the language of “tough choices” and “difficult decisions”, but any time I hear those phrases being used by Conservative Ministers, I know that the easy choice—sticking the boot into those who can least afford to take it—is on the way. Those real-terms pay cuts, piled on top of a decade of lost pay, mean that we need to consider alternatives. What is the alternative to cuts? What is the alternative to tax hikes on the many? I would argue that there are alternatives.
We do not need cuts or tax hikes on ordinary people. We could tax the very richest instead. Why not end non-domiciled status, which would raise £3 billion? Why not have an annual 1% tax on wealth above £5 million, which would raise £10 billion? Why not have a 45p income tax rate on earnings above £80,000 and a 50p tax rate on earnings above £125,000, which would raise £6 billion? Why not equalise dividend and capital gains tax with income tax rates, which would raise £21 billion? Those four measures would raise a total of £40 billion, which is the so-called gap that needs filling according to Treasury briefings.
Pay cuts are a political choice and the Tories are choosing to push people into poverty. They plan to make working people pay for the cost of the pandemic, just as they made working people pay—through austerity —for the bankers’ crisis. At a time of pay cuts for the many, the wealthy few are having a bonanza. Britain’s billionaires have increased their wealth by £55 billion in the last year alone, City bankers’ bonuses are up 28%, and the average pay of bosses at Britain’s 100 top firms is now £3.6 million a year. It does not have to be this way; there is a better way forward. Let us support our trade unions and working. We call upon the Government to choose the real alternative that is necessary: wealth taxes, rather than further cuts to people’s pay in real terms, and further cuts to our vital public services.
Let me add to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon). Why not make people like me pay national insurance contributions once we have passed the statutory age for retirement? Why not lift the cap on national insurance contributions, which would raise real money for our national health service? That would be a credible way forward. I hope that the Minister has listened intently. It is perhaps unfair that she is nearly on her own, apart from the hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew).
It is true that the internationally recognised right to strike is circumscribed quite badly in this country. However, the real question that Conservative Ministers should address is this: why are so many people, across so many occupations, so angry that they are prepared to take industrial action? We have seen it with Royal Mail, Openreach, the Fire Brigades Union and PCS, and I could go on.
I want to concentrate on a couple of issues. In the end, when people take the opportunity to go on strike, it points to a fundamental malaise in the workplace. They have very few alternatives. One is to look for work elsewhere. That is a real issue when there are around 132,000 vacancies in our national health service, and when a third of teachers are leaving teaching after five years, when they have seen their salaries go down by around 20% since austerity began in 2010. The issue of retention should worry the Government just as much as the summer of solidarity and the woeful winter that we are heading into.
The Government have to get real about this situation. Looking at the national health service, it has been said so many times that it is almost tedious to repeat that we applauded health workers during the pandemic, but now we are saying to health workers across the piece that we do not value their work. It is astonishing that the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives are balloting for industrial action. It is almost beyond belief, and certainly beyond any kind of precedent. The Government should worry about that, because they have broken something that was precious: the commitment of people to their workplace and to those whom they serve, because they now have to look at defending their own families.
It is not that midwives and nurses do not want to be there for the people whom they serve. I have had great experiences with the national health service; I know the dedication that people are prepared to give on a daily basis. We have to ask: what has gone so badly wrong that the Government have forced people into this situation? It is similar with teaching. Healthcare and teaching are two professions that are so fundamental to the quality of our way of life. We can talk about the private sector generating resources, but when someone is ill, they want a nurse, and a child wants a teacher. Those things are so important.
Now that we are in this crisis, the Government have got to look in the mirror and ask themselves what has gone wrong. Of course we can find alternative sources of funding, and we must, because that is the political choice. My challenge to the Minister is not to condemn strikers; I will support those who feel they have to take industrial action. I want them not to strike, but that depends on the Government coming forward and agreeing to make the political choice to not go back into austerity for those people in the public sector. They need to make the political choice to reward them in a way that is adequate. The Minister on her own today may not be able to give us an answer, but I urge her to go back and tell the Prime Minister and the Chancellor that this is what we demand.
You are very kind, Sir Edward; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) for securing this important debate.
Another winter of discontent looms over hard-working public sector workers. We are talking about loyal, hard-working workers who put society above their own needs to see us through the worst of the pandemic. They are dedicated, industrious workers whose pay has declined in real terms, whose benefits have been eroded, whose hours have increased and whose food and energy bills have become unaffordable while they suffer in-work poverty.
Public sector workers are in two or sometimes three jobs, relying on food banks with their heating off. These people are down, yes, but not out. Workers are organising up and down the country. They are balloting and co-ordinating mass strikes to make this Government listen. It is a shame that hospitals in Leicestershire, including the general hospital in my own constituency of Leicester East, have opened food banks to feed dedicated NHS staff. Nurses’ pay is no longer enough to pay for food. They carried us through the pandemic and, in response, this Government sent them to food banks.
Covid-19 proved that the Government can act when they announced billions of pounds of new spending to fight coronavirus, support businesses and protect livelihoods during the crisis. The Bank of England created £200 billion of new money via quantitative easing to buy Government and corporate bonds. It then designed a new covid corporate financing facility to lend directly to big business and started funding the Treasury directly via the ways and means facility, which, in essence, is the Government’s overdraft at the Bank. The Government can spend without borrowing from private markets.
A month ago, the bankers’ Budget presented by the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), caused a financial market crisis that led the Bank of England to bail out the Government to the tune of £65 billion. Any excuse that the Government might use for not raising the pay of public sector workers, who need it the most, has been well and truly shattered. When the Government set a Budget, it does not function like a household budget. The Government cannot run out of money, but they seem reluctant to use it—or refuse to do so—for public sector workers. In-work poverty, like austerity and the cost of living crisis that is heaping misery on families, is a political choice made here. Where have the hundreds of billions of pounds of fresh cash created by the Bank of England gone? They have gone into the pockets of the rich. Total wealth in the UK, skewed heavily at the top, is now an earth-shattering £15 trillion—five times our GDP. The wealth of those in the top 20% has doubled from £5 trillion in 2008 to nearly £10 trillion in 2020.
As we have heard, there are myriad options available to raise funds from the wealthiest. Wealth taxes, taxes on trades in financial markets, inheritance and unearned income taxes are just a few of the ways we could raise billions from wealth. We could fund public sector pay by redistributing the idle wealth from that £15 trillion. We must fund the NHS and bring our essential services back under public ownership. That is how we reduce inequality and how we should go about levelling up, if we really mean to do it.
When public sector workers call for wages to be increased in real terms and the Government respond by saying that they need to balance the budget, they are, to be frank, being disingenuous. The ideology of the free market and of deregulation results in profits and power for the few and misery for the masses. Industrial action is completely justified, and it will always remain a human right to withdraw one’s labour—
I will wind up now. That is despite the Government wanting a return to feudal Britain. Austerity, which has been debunked by many progressive scholars as economically illiterate, needlessly pushed working people into another level of destitution, and contributed to more than 140,000 deaths in the UK. Put simply, whether it is austerity or the cost of living crisis, crisis after crisis has made the UK worker pay with their lives while inequality widens and the wealth trickles up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I thank everyone who has contributed to this debate. Like others, I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, particularly the fact that I chair the PCS parliamentary group and am a member of Glasgow City Unison. I wish my Unison comrades from Barnet all the best, and I am sure that my successor as treasurer of Glasgow City Unison will make a substantial contribution to them.
I will make a few points about why I think it is important that Members of Parliament provide solidarity and support to those taking industrial action, whether they be members of the Communication Workers Union or the RMT or local government workers in Scotland. If our constituents decide to withdraw their labour, that gives us, their elected representatives, an opportunity to meet them and to find out how they feel both about the dispute and about other more general issues. This is about showing that support and listening and engaging.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), I want to voice my solidarity and support for the Government Back Benchers who have taken industrial action by not turning up today. There is a serious point to that. If any public sector workers watching this debate are represented by a Conservative politician—which only adds to the trials and tribulations of life—they will be asking, “Where were they to represent me and speak about my issues?” It is a real shame that there are no Government Back Benchers present.
I will refer in my speech to the excellent PCS briefing and TUC research. First, it has to be acknowledged that wage restraint in the public sector has been a complete and utter failure. It is not wages that have driven inflation—it is prices, particularly energy prices. There is a lack of regulation in the energy market and a real feeling out there that the energy regulators act on behalf of energy companies, not consumers. The Government’s position seems to be, “Well, we clapped the nurses on a Thursday night, but we aren’t going to pay them.” Imagine if the public took that view on energy companies and told them, “Every Thursday night we are going to clap you, but we aren’t going to pay you.” Perhaps they would start to listen then.
The cost of food is also an issue. The PCS briefing gives a litany of evidence of workers in UK Government Departments utilising food banks to help them get through life—including those who work for the Department for Work and Pensions. People who work in the Department that is the so-called safety net for the general public are having to use food banks and other affordable food projects and food aid programmes in order to get by. What is the cost of the benefit payments being made to those working in Government Departments? At one time, 40% of DWP workers were getting tax credits. Could the Minister write to us with the percentage of workers in each Government Department who are being paid benefits by the state to top up their wages?
That is the political choice, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East and others have pointed out. Giving bankers unlimited bonuses while at the same time holding down public servants’ pay is completely the wrong priority, particular for those public sector workers who kept the economic wheels turning during the pandemic. It is an absolutely ludicrous sense of political priorities. It is a disgrace that the UK Government’s response to industrial action is to try to roll back workers’ protections, and to threaten the right to strike.
We have the most aggressive anti-trade union laws in the world and, ludicrously, trade unions are prohibited from being able to ask for their members’ opinion either online or in the workplace. Is it not ironic that it is the Conservative party, which had workplace balloting in here to decide its leader, that decided not to allow trade unions to ballot online to take industrial action? Before anybody says that such action has economic consequences, I say that the leader of the Conservative party certainly had economic consequences and caused more damage than trade unions have for many years.
As the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) pointed out, the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill will impact the settlements with the devolved nations. It suggests that the Secretary of State for Transport will be able to tell the Transport Minister in Scotland what the minimum service levels will be. That is not the Secretary of State’s job. Quite frankly, it is a disgrace.
It has been a long debate, and I have limited time, but I want to touch on the clear economic case for giving public sector workers the money that they deserve. Some 70p in every £1 of public money, whether from grants, public sector contracts or, yes, public sector wages, ends up in the private sector economy. Public sector workers spend their wages; they do not put them in a shoebox and hide them under the bed. They spend that money in the private sector. That is why urgent action is needed to end in-work poverty. In the UK, we see an explosion of affordable food projects to help people get by week to week. That should not be taking place.
I hope that the Government talk about their dialogue and discussion strategy. Trade unions have driven social and political change across these islands. Trade unions exist because the chances of bosses being visited by three ghosts at night are unreasonably slim. That is why the trade union movement—I am a proud trade unionist—seek changes in this country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) on securing such an important debate. It is wonderful to see that so many people, at least on this side of the House, have attended.
It would be helpful if the Minister, whom I welcome to her new position, would answer three questions that were raised in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) talked about the fundamental right to withdraw one’s labour. It would be helpful to hear that the Government absolutely support that right, and to establish that that remains Government policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) asked why the Minister thinks there are so many people in our country who are considering going on strike, which is, as we have heard, an absolute last resort for people. Why does she think we are in that position?
My hon. Friends the Members for Easington (Grahame Morris) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) referred to reports that the Government are looking to restrict the right to strike in certain circumstances. It would be reassuring for hon. Members to hear from the Minister that that is no longer the case. There have been some reports that those plans have been dumped, but some that they have not. Will the Minister tell us?
Many people have raised the dire situation that we find ourselves in after a disastrous mini-Budget and a disastrous 12 years of low wage growth and low economic growth. Communities are fragile, people are fearful, and public services are very vulnerable. As pay stagnates and inflation rises, more and more trade unions are having to come to the difficult decision to ballot on pay deals. The Times reports today that the Treasury is looking at pay rises of 2% across the board. Will the Minister comment on the accuracy of those reports, and on whether the Treasury is considering such a significant real-terms pay cut?
We have talked about public sector workers’ conditions and pay, which are now forcing them out of their jobs. Forgive me for raising this issue, but I was in my constituency this morning. We are supposed to have eight speech and language therapists in Croydon, but we have only two. They cannot recruit to that role, because people find it too hard to do that job on the pay levels they are offered. Labour wants to see a Britain that is fairer, greener and more dynamic, with strong public services that provide security and opportunity. One thing we know for certain is that what does not grow the economy is the fantasy of trickle-down economics. Building the strength of our people is the way to build our economy.
Frances O’Grady at the TUC said recently that the biggest act of solidarity that the Labour party can do for working people is to deliver a Labour Government, and I agree. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said some most peculiar things about my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). It might be helpful to reassure him of the policies that we would introduce in government. We believe in decent pay and conditions, and the new deal of the deputy leader of the Labour party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), will be written into law within the first 100 days of a new Labour Government.
We are here to debate what public sector workers need in terms of pay, not to make slightly cheap points.
Within the first 100 days of a Labour Government, we will outlaw fire and rehire; ban zero-hours contracts; secure rights at work from day one; reform statutory sick pay; reform and strengthen paternity and maternity rights; oversee the roll-out of fair pay agreements to drive up pay and conditions for workers; and introduce an economic policy that will deliver high skilled, well-paid jobs, such as those with Great British energy, which will be a publicly owned energy company to invest in clean UK power.
In this economic climate, and after a decade of stagnating pay, it is understandable that our trade unions have come to the point where they have to strike and ballot their workers. Nobody wants to see a strike. Let us be clear: nobody wants people to be forced into that situation. It is a failure of management and Government that these strikes are now proposed. It is up to the Government to get around the table and avert any strikes.
If they play politics, people will remember. In the case of National Rail, the then Transport Secretary, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), refused, for no good reason, to meet the trade unions to try to secure a deal. I have met my constituency members of the CWU. The Government could intervene in the Royal Mail dispute, because the issues are not just about pay—they are about all of the conditions that go with that work, as well as the universal service obligation. The Government could help in that sector, but they choose not to. We will update trade union legislation to make it fit for a modern economy, and empower working people collectively to secure fair pay, terms and conditions.
I would, if I had time, talk about my brief. The police do not have the right to strike, but they have turned away from the Police Remuneration Review Body because they felt that the process has been so unfair. I do not have time to talk about our fire service, with which I also work. I met the Cornwall branch of the Fire Brigades Union yesterday. The Government have failed to introduce the emergency services network, which has been promised for years and the overspend amounts to millions of pounds. That means that cuts are being sought simply to fund this Government’s mistakes.
In conclusion, I want to leave the Minister with some more questions. I have asked a few already, but it would be helpful to hear her say that she will not use these situations to provoke rather than to solve. It is the Government’s role to get in the mix with these problems and to try to solve them, not to stoke division. We have seen a lot of that from this Government, and it is not helpful. It would also be helpful to hear whether the Minister is committed not just to protecting public sector pay, but to doing all she can to enhance it, so that people can deliver the services they love so much, and on pay that means they can afford to feed their families.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) on securing the debate. I will try to do her the courtesy of sitting down a couple of minutes before the end of the debate so that she can sum up.
I thank all Members for their contributions. I agree with every single contribution that has emphasised how important and valued our public sector workers, such as nurses, police officers, prison officers and teachers, are to our country. They are a source of great pride to us all, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) so eloquently said. I also agree that they deserve to be paid fairly, especially at a time when the cost of living has been rising. We understand the importance of recruiting and retaining the very best people in our public services, but we have to take care to ensure that we are responsible with the finite resource of taxpayers’ money—our money, which we and tens of millions of other people throughout the country pay—and consider the consequences of decisions that are taken in Whitehall.
In his statement in Downing Street, the Prime Minister was clear that economic stability and confidence are at the heart of this Government’s agenda. That is why he is so focused on tackling inflation. We have already heard about the difficult impact that inflation has had on day-to-day essentials, such as the cost of food, heating our homes and getting to and from school and work. They have all become more expensive, which means our wages and our salaries do not go as far as they used to. Sadly, wage inflation, particularly in the tight labour market that we have here in the United Kingdom—by the way, we should be proud that we have such a high employment rate—adds to the cycle of rising prices. That is the conundrum that we face.
On help with the cost of living, I must emphasise, not least because our constituents are listening, that a great deal of help has already been announced, including the energy price guarantee and the energy bill relief scheme. Our most vulnerable households will receive £1,200 of support this year through those measures, the council tax rebate and a one-off payment of £650 in cash for those on means-tested benefits. There are also other measures, but I am conscious of the time and I want to get to the meat of the topic.
In his speech, the hon. Gentleman spoke about the rising cost of food. The pressures of international events, such as the war in Ukraine and its impact on grain supplies, which we know about from the coverage on our televisions, and on pesticides and agricultural tools, including those that farmers in my constituency need to help to feed our country, all play a part in that. The help we have provided, including the measures regarding wages, which I hope to get to in a moment, is vital and we need to keep the situation under constant review.
The hon. Member for Cynon Valley raised many questions about tax. I reassure her that the top 5% of earners are projected to pay half of all income tax in the next financial year. Income tax provides the largest form of income that the Government have. The top 1% of earners are projected to pay more than 28% of that amount, which is right because those with the broadest shoulders should bear the most.
I will make a little progress, if I may.
Pay settlements need to be affordable for our economy and avoid driving the wage-price spiral I have referred to. We know that parts of the private sector are unable to match current rates of consumer price inflation, so there would be an impact if we went down that route with the public sector. We have to protect the economy over the long term by not leaving the next generation—our children and grandchildren—with spiralling debt. We are a country that funds our promises and pays our debt.
I am going to make some progress. I will allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene in a moment.
Members will know that there are different processes for different parts of the public sector. Indeed, the devolved Administrations play a vital role in relation to some of the critical professions that we have just spoken about. In Wales, decisions on pay for teachers, doctors, nurses and other NHS staff are made by the Welsh Government, so I trust that the hon. Member for Cynon Valley will have discussions with the Welsh Administration in relation to those sectors.
In Scotland, decisions on teachers, police, prison officers, local government workers and workers for the devolved Administration are not made by the UK Government. Although health is devolved to Scotland, doctors, dentists and NHS “Agenda for Change” staff are nonetheless covered by the pay review bodies that report in England, which I will deal with in a moment.
We keep all taxes under review. The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a statement coming in two weeks’ time. I am not going to comment on any decisions in relation to taxes, as it would be improper to do so, but I hope that he and the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) will speak to their SNP counterparts in their own Administration to ensure that they do as they have encouraged in this debate in relation to matters that are devolved.
I am going to move on to the independent pay review bodies, because they play a really important role for some sectors and the pay that they receive.
Pay for many local government workers is agreed between the Local Government Association and trade unions, without direct involvement from the Treasury. Departments determine pay awards for many civil servants within the parameters set by the Government, but pay for most frontline public sector workforces, including nurses, teachers, police officers and armed forces, is set through the relevant independent pay review body. It will take evidence from the Government but also, importantly, from trade unions and wider independent research.
When I was prisons Minister, I had a gruelling session in which I was cross-examined by the prisons pay review body. I was delighted to accept the overwhelming majority of its recommendations when they came forth, with the only exception being the recommendation about the most senior prison officers, working on the principle that those with the broadest shoulders will be able to play their part in this endeavour.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), working conditions for the public sector must focus on pay but also, importantly, on how people feel treated and how they feel in their workplace. That was something I tried to engender as prisons Minister, and I hope we will be able to build a real narrative about how our people are valued.
I am conscious of the time, so I shall address one or two of the pay increases that the independent pay review bodies have been able to deal with. Nurses at all NHS pay bands will receive at least a £1,400 increase, and all teachers will receive a minimum 5% increase to their pay, which will help early-career teachers to reach the Government’s commitment on starting salaries of £30,000. There are many other statistics that I could mention.
My final point is that we are disappointed that some public sector unions are considering strike action over pay. We want unions to engage not just with the Government, but with the pay review bodies and the devolved Administrations, in the processes that will run this year. We all know about—indeed, Members have been good enough to talk about it—the impact that strikes have on hard-working families, but I very much hope that we all understand just how vital these workers are. I will finish there to give the hon. Member for Cynon Valley time to sum up.
I thank all Members for their contributions. As others have said, it is woefully inadequate that nobody from the Government Back Benches is present.
In summing up, there are three key points for me. First, it is time for the Government to listen. Given the Minister’s comments just now, I really despair, because it seems she is not listening to the reality for so many people in this country—
Airspace Modernisation Strategy
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the progress of the Airspace Modernisation Strategy.
It is a pleasure to have you chair this debate, Sir Edward. I think it is fair to assume that if I were to say to most of my constituents—and to most people—the words “airspace modernisation strategy”, they would not necessarily immediately assume that it directly affected them or was something they might even get emotional about. But they would be wrong.
For as long as I have been elected, my inbox has been full of reactions from people reaching out to me because of their distress at the constant noise, the lack of sleep and the pollution caused by the local airport, all of which are reasons why it is difficult to overstate the importance of the current airspace modernisation exercise to our communities, to our airports themselves and, of course, to the climate.
The airspace above the UK is, as we know, some of the world’s most complex. It has been variously described as an invisible motorway network or an infrastructure in the sky, and it is at least as crucial to the UK’s domestic and international connectivity as our more tangible ground-based networks. However, its use and air routes were designed in the 1950s for a very different generation of aircraft. Modern planes and their capabilities, and modern navigation technology, make it possible to move towards having more efficiency and environmental protection.
Aircraft can now follow clearer and less complicated structures, fly more directly and reduce emissions. With such changes and modernisation, passengers can be more confident that their holidays, business trips and deliveries will not be affected by costly delays, and that they will be offered quicker, quieter and cleaner flights, which is the aim of NATS, as a founder member of the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s global coalition for sustainable aviation. We are also told that changes will make it possible to achieve the 2050 net zero emissions target that the aviation industry has set itself.
Of course, we all want the modernisation exercise to succeed, but we also have to recognise that since it was launched the circumstances have changed. It will now be more complicated and more expensive. At a time when the aviation sector is recovering from the impact of covid, the additional costs will place an enormous burden on our airports. Along with NATS, they have to follow the Civil Aviation Authority’s seven-stage CAP1616 airspace change process. That is why I felt it was important to raise this issue and its implications, to examine progress, and to ask whether more can be done to support our communities and to put our airports through this exercise more smoothly and effectively.
I have a lot of constituents writing to me about flights coming into Heathrow at 4 o’clock in the morning. Does the hon. Lady share my concern, and the concerns of my constituents, that more and more special dispensations are being given to break the Heathrow airport night-flight quota? Does she agree that as part of this modernisation all airports in urban areas should be beginning to move towards an eight-hour night-flight ban?
I thank the hon. Lady for her important intervention on another aspect that is reflected in communications from my constituents. As the effects of the pandemic on air travel have lessened, so the number of night flights has increased, as have the number of complaints. Not to criticise the airports, but they seem unable to do anything about flights simply arriving late and companies being willing to pay to the levy. This is caused by delays because we have not yet modernised the airspace and flights are taking longer. I completely agree that that is an important effect of the delays that we have to take into account.
The pandemic damaged the profitability of our aviation and travel industries. It has made the cost of this modernisation exercise much more difficult to absorb. Just last year, on the announcement of £5.5 million of Government funding, the chief executive of the Airport Operators Association described airspace modernisation as,
“essential for aviation to build back better, so that a recovery of 2019 passenger levels does not come with 2019 noise impacts and carbon emissions.”
That is very much what the hon. Lady was talking about—the 2019 impacts on night flights and pollution. That is part of the reason why it is so important to the communities throughout the country who live beside or beneath airport flightpaths that we address this issue.
In Edinburgh, the situation is further complicated. The mailbox I mentioned is full of concerns and complaints, because new flightpath plans for Edinburgh airport have been the subject of planning consultation and rejection by the Civil Aviation Authority for more than five years. By the time the modernisation is completed—if it is completed on schedule—it will have been more than a decade since the exercise to modernise the approach and take-off routes was launched. That has had an impact on not just my constituents but those in adjoining constituencies who live under the approach. Their patience has been stretched.
It has been difficult for the airport, too. Please remember that Edinburgh airport is vital to the economy of not just the city but Scotland, in providing employment and connectivity around the globe. The delays have been expensive at a time when it has had to bear the impact of the pandemic, which I mentioned. It now finds itself, like every other airport in the country, competing for the best results it can get from the modernisation. We all want the Civil Aviation Authority to get this right—of course we do—but we want that within a timeframe that is acceptable for those who have lived with the effects of an outdated scheme for 20 years. We do not want them to wait 20 more.
Does the hon. Member agree that although the Civil Aviation Authority should obviously continue to have a primary duty in respect of safety, it should also have greater responsibility than it currently has for the environmental impacts of aviation on not just climate change but noise?
I do. I completely agree with the hon. Lady; she makes a good point. The environmental improvements that we are seeing in aircraft, such as the use of sustainable fuels and vertical take-off aircraft, all need to be taken into account in the modernisation. I am told by various organisations that they have not been, or that after the airport gets the latest instructions from the Civil Aviation Authority, something else is improved and, by the time they go back with the proposals, the goalposts have shifted again. It is vital that the latest technology and improvements are part of the modernisation and that we do not find that when it comes into place it is already out of date.
It is good that the hon. Lady has secured this debate. I represent Winchester; Southampton international airport is next door to me but not in my constituency. No matter how the flightpaths into that airport are changed, it will either please one group or community and displease another, or displease the first and please the second. It is only really moving the pieces around. The hon. Lady’s point about using modern technology for quieter, cleaner and more efficient aircraft has to be part of the airspace modernisation programme; otherwise we will go through a whole world of pain for little change in some regional airports, such as the one next door to my constituency.
I thank the hon. Member for his point, which is absolutely correct. There is a danger that we just shuffle everything around and a different community bears the brunt, whereas there are improvements being made that could improve the situation for everybody.
At this point, let me I thank and pay tribute to those in my constituency and around all our airports: without them, we would not be able to pursue this issue. Because they have been vocal about the impact, we are able to highlight just how important it is to get this right. It is our duty to look after the wellbeing of the people we represent. When I receive as many messages as I do talking about the decline in the mental and physical health of people living under the flightpaths, I believe it is our responsibility to do everything we can to ensure that this exercise is successful.
I have, then, several asks of the Government. Will they assure us that everything possible is being done to take into account the technological changes and overcome the problems and delays caused by the pandemic, when many airspace modernisation programmes—as part of this exercise—had to be paused?
I know that it will cost money, which is my second ask. The Airspace Change Organising Group has the financial backing to support our airports, many of which were devastated by the pandemic. They will not get back to 2019 levels and do not have the financial resources any more; they need more support.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, I ask that we do everything possible to improve communications and ensure that local communities are aware of how the plans are progressing and what the potential benefits are for them. CAP1616 places a greater emphasis on consultation with stakeholders than there was previously, but I know from my own constituents and local airport that that is not enough. I am told by the airport that the communications are not what they should be, and that that is slowing down their progress in getting in successful modernisation proposals and getting them through.
At a time of so much uncertainty, in politics and in our economy, we can surely never have had a stronger reminder that confidence and trust come from communication and listening. We need the clarity, communication and reassurance for our airports, our aviation industry and—most importantly—our communities that this exercise is progressing swiftly and being effectively organised.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) for securing a debate on one of the Department for Transport’s biggest infrastructure programmes in airspace modernisation.
First of all, I will set the scene for the airspace modernisation strategy. As the hon. Member told us, the UK’s airspace is among the most complex in the world, yet there has been little change to its overall structure since the 1950s. Without modernisation, our airspace will struggle to keep up with the growing demand for aviation. Airspace modernisation, as she said, can deliver quicker, quieter and cleaner journeys. It will use new technologies to create more direct routes, faster climbs and less need for holding stacks, so that the aviation industry can grow safely, customers do not experience the delays otherwise predicted, and there are opportunities to reduce noise and carbon emissions. I heard her three asks, and I hope that I can embed responses to them in my speech.
I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) for securing this debate, and I welcome the Minister to his new role. He says that airspace modernisation has a number of advantages, including for growth, but does he recognise that those of us with constituencies near Heathrow, including my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and me, will not see route changes because our constituents live under the locked-in approach paths to the airport? Airspace modernisation could lead to increased pressure for more flights arriving at Heathrow. The cap of 480,000 flights per annum could be at risk. We already experience flight noise for the bulk of every 24 hours; does he share my concern that there is a risk that we could experience more flights, albeit quieter ones?
I thank the hon. Lady for her kindness at the start of her comment, and for the point that she makes. That cap is in place. She is right that, through modernisation, there will be an ability to increase capacity. It might be best if I wrote to her to clarify, because I recognise that her constituents want certainty on this point.
Although a redesign of our airspace might not be as tangible as other major transport projects, it would nevertheless be a vital pillar of future growth of the aviation industry. CAP1616, the Civil Aviation Authority’s guidance document on airspace change, was introduced in 2018 to make the process fairer and more transparent, and to provide the opportunity for adequate engagement with local communities and other stakeholders impacted by airspace changes. I say that in reference to the third point that the hon. Member for Edinburgh West asked me about. The process rightly continues to be kept under review. Given the implications that airspace changes can have for safety, security and the environment, it is necessary for the programme to be subject to robust and transparent procedures.
The airspace modernisation strategy underpins the future development of the UK’s aviation sector. It provides clear direction on how to bring our ageing legacy airspace design up to date, and how to take it into the future, for modern aircraft and technology. On the future airspace strategy implementation, one of the most complex and pressing aspects of airspace modernisation is the need to redesign outdated flightpaths to and from our airports. The future airspace strategy implementation programme is a fundamental component of the airspace modernisation strategy. FASI is a UK-wide upgrade of terminal airspace, involving our 22 airports. The work to co-ordinate a more efficient airspace system is being done in collaboration with the Airspace Change Organising Group and National Air Traffic Services. Earlier this year, the Civil Aviation Authority accepted the second iteration of the Airspace Change Organising Group’s master plan for UK airspace change proposals in the airspace modernisation strategy.
On the hon. Lady’s second point, there is Government funding of £9.2 million to support these proposals and continue this important work. Edinburgh airport, which is in her constituency, received £484,500 of Government funding through the programme. The funding allows airports to remain in the FASI programme, and I am pleased to say that much progress has been made under that initiative.
Fortunately, the aviation industry is recovering. This year, traffic levels returned to 85% of pre-covid traffic, and some airports forecast that growth will exceed 2019 levels in just a few years’ time. It is therefore only right that we return to the “user pays” model, under which airports fund the modernisation of their airspace. Those costs may be passed on to customer airlines, but it will ultimately be the passengers who benefit from the changes through quicker, quieter and cleaner journeys.
I, too, welcome the Minister to his place. Would he agree that the modernisation strategy is an opportunity to acknowledge the damage done to the mental health of residents who live under flightpaths and are woken up at 4.30 am regularly? Does he agree that it is an opportunity to look at a longer night ban, and to consider and reduce the number of exemptions from the rules? Exemptions have been given to so many flights. It would be not just customers who benefited, but residents living under the flightpath near airports such as Heathrow.
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention, but I think it is right that I stick to the airspace modernisation strategy. I know she has concerns about night-time flights. I touched on the fact that the strategy gives us an opportunity to add more capacity, but that should not be seen as altering anything that works with regard to night-time flights. I take the point about the impact on residents, and on their mental health and wellbeing. That is why I welcome the fact that there is so much transparency and consultation. I know that the timescales may be frustrating, but it is important that everyone can have their say, particularly those most impacted.
I will move on to decarbonisation and jet zero, which the hon. Member for Edinburgh West touched on. As she will be aware, the UK has committed to an ambitious target to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The UK was the first major world economy to put such a target in law, and we continue to focus the efforts of our aviation industry on the jet zero strategy. Airspace modernisation will help us to reach that target by reducing delays and allowing aircraft to fly more direct routes. That will mean that aircraft burn less fuel and so reduce their carbon emissions. By moving to best-in-class aircraft and undertaking modernisation, we could deliver carbon dioxide savings of between 12% and 15% by 2050. Additionally, airspace modernisation will allow new technology to be introduced, such as performance-based navigation. That will improve the accuracy of aircraft flight and create opportunities to better avoid noise-sensitive areas and so provide residents with respite.
I turn to the Scottish regional approach and the benefits of airspace modernisation. Another key initiative of the airspace modernisation strategy is the deployment of free route airspace. Rather than crossing the upper airspace through a series of waypoints, aircraft can now fly on a direct flightpath between entry and exit points. That will reduce aircraft fuel burn and CO2 emissions. The first free route airspace in the UK was opened over Scottish airspace this year. Up to 2,000 flights use that crucial part of the UK’s airspace every day, and it supports 80% of transatlantic traffic, so NATS estimates that the change will save 12,000 tonnes of CO2 a year—the equivalent of the CO2 emissions from 3,500 family homes.
To safeguard airspace modernisation and its benefits, the Government have introduced new powers through the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Act 2021. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West for her engagement and support during the passage of that legislation. It allows the Secretary of State for Transport to direct an appropriate entity to progress or co-operate with an airspace change proposal, if doing so would assist in the delivery of the airspace modernisation strategy. Of course, the exercise of those powers will be carefully considered and progressed only when absolutely necessary.
To end, airspace modernisation is vital to unlocking the benefits of a growing UK aviation sector. Without modernising our airspace, we cannot realise benefits for passengers, communities, operators and the economy. The Government remain committed to delivering this key piece of infrastructure, and I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West for raising this important subject.
Question put and agreed to.
Fertility Treatment and Employment Rights
I beg to move,
That this House has considered fertility treatment and employment rights.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. This week we mark National Fertility Awareness Week, so I am incredibly grateful to have secured this important debate. I would like to put on the record my heartfelt thanks to the incredible Fertility Matters at Work, Fertility Network UK, Burgess Mee Family Law and Dr Michelle Weldon-Johns. These organisations and individuals have been instrumental in driving forward positive change in this area, and I would not feel equipped to speak on this issue without their help.
Issues to do with fertility treatment affect hundreds of thousands of people of all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Infertility does not discriminate. Fertility treatment is emotionally draining, costly, risky and often long. People can go through multiple cycles before conceiving. According to the latest figures from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the UK fertility regulator, it takes an average of three cycles of in vitro fertilisation to achieve success. Cycles can be unpredictable, and women have to deal with the symptoms, the risk of complications, and day-to-day practicalities, such as self-injecting with hormones.
Undergoing fertility treatment is difficult at the best of times, but it is particularly difficult to juggle it with a job. Whereas there is employment legislation to do with pregnancy, maternity and paternity leave, there is no enshrined legislation that compels employers to give employees time off work for fertility treatment or an initial consultation. The Equality Act 2010 was well-intentioned and removed some forms of discrimination in the workplace, but unfortunately it does not prevent discrimination against those pursuing fertility treatment as it does not class infertility as a disability.
Despite the World Health Organisation describing infertility as
“a disease of the… reproductive system”,
in practice, there is little recourse to legal, medical, practical and emotional support for both men and women undergoing fertility treatment. For example, most workplace protection policies exclude elective medical procedures, which puts fertility treatment on a par with cosmetic surgery. I am sure you will forgive me, Sir Edward, for saying that we should not equate fertility treatment with cosmetic treatment such as a nose job or, dare I say, a boob job.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend got this debate. I want to back up what she is saying: we should treat fertility as a medical issue, but we do not. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance says that women should be able to access three full cycles. That in itself—saying “three strikes and you’re out”—would be cruel enough, but the reality is that many people would love to get to three cycles; as a result of local decision making, they often do not even get two. Do we not need to level up fertility treatment across our constituencies?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. There is so much pressure on the NHS, and on the provision of proper fertility treatment, that many people have to spend their savings or remortgage their home to pay for private facility treatment. I hope this debate will lift the lid on the lottery that still exists.
Women are, of course, protected from pregnancy-related unfair treatment and discrimination throughout the protected period. However, for those undergoing fertility treatment, this protected period would begin only at implantation, not before. That means employers are unlikely to be liable for pregnancy discrimination in relation to any unfair treatment prior to implantation. That leaves people vulnerable to unfavourable treatment or dismissal during the earlier stages of treatment, and without any legal recourse.
Data from Fertility Matters at Work shows that one third of people going through IVF treatment have considered leaving their job rather than facing workplace discrimination. The organisation’s findings also indicate that many people feel uncomfortable discussing IVF treatment openly with their employer, and struggle through the journey largely unsupported and in silence. Some said that they feared that the fact that they were having fertility treatment would be held against them, and that they would not be considered for the next promotion, or might even face redundancy.
I thank the hon. Lady for making a passionate speech on such an important issue. Given that 3.5 million people in the UK face fertility issues, should not employers look at how they can come up to date and make sure that there is space for their staff to discuss the issue in the workplace?
I completely agree. One in six couples experiences fertility issues. That is a huge number of people, as she says. If we are to retain brilliant people in their jobs, we must do more to support them at such a difficult and emotional time.
The Fertility Matters at Work research found that when people spoke to their employers, many felt that what they said was used against them when it came to future opportunities and progressing in the company. The reality of the issue was brought to light by a constituent of mine. I commend her for her bravery in sharing her story; it led to my campaign. She had been working in finance for 19 years. Everything was going well. She was a senior person in her organisation. Sadly, she found she could not conceive naturally, and realised that she had to go for IVF. She did everything under the radar because she did not feel that her employer would be supportive. Sadly, complications in the treatment led to her being in hospital for two weeks; there was then a further four weeks of recovery. The hospital wrote a sick note for her employer that said, “complications due to IVF.” The cat was out of the bag.
When my constituent went back to work, her employer immediately called her into a meeting and told her that she was being moved abroad; she had no choice. She stuck to her guns and went through the IVF. She was told that if she went for the implantation, she could be sacked. She went for the implantation and then decided that she would have to go off work because of stress.
As the hon. Member said, more than one third of employees undergoing fertility treatment consider leaving their job because of the problems she has described. Does she agree that that is not good for the economy, let alone the personal and financial circumstances of the person concerned? That is why this debate is so important, and I thank her for initiating it.
The hon. Member is absolutely right. We have to ensure that we retain these brilliant people in their jobs. We have 1 million job vacancies, and we know how difficult it is to recruit people to jobs, so why do we make it as hard as possible to keep people in their jobs when they are going through fertility treatment?
My constituent nearly ended up in an employment tribunal, but because she was in early pregnancy and did not want the stress any more, and because she was finding it difficult to pay the lawyers’ fees, she came to an agreement with her employer and signed a non-disclosure agreement. Since then, she has been unable to speak about her case in public. She came to me in confidence, which is why I took up this cause, so I thank her. She is not the only one. Since I started the campaign, I have been contacted by scores of people, but I know that thousands of women are affected every year. Many women have told me that admitting they are undertaking IVF or any form of fertility treatment can be considered career suicide. We should not allow women to feel that they have to put having a baby up against progressing their career. In the 21st century, why can they not do both? It is important that we listen to such stories, act on them, and provide women and their partners—men or same-sex partners—with the respect and the protections that they need. After all, it is 2022, not 1922. That is why I started this campaign.
The first part of my campaign is my private Member’s Bill, the Fertility Treatment (Employment Rights) Bill, which is due to have its Second Reading on 25 November. The Bill would give individuals the right to take time off for fertility treatment, just as they would if they had antenatal appointments. It is supported by leading charities and non-governmental organisations, as well as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. The Bill goes hand in hand with the incredible work that this Government are already doing to support women in work, through policies on the menopause, couples requiring neonatal leave, and those who have experienced baby loss. I hope that the Government will fully support the Bill on Second Reading.
I know how long it can take to get a private Member’s Bill through the House, but there are also other steps that we can take. We must encourage employers now—today—to take proactive steps to support people undergoing fertility treatment. That is why during this week, National Fertility Awareness Week, I am launching my fertility workplace pledge. The pledge calls for employers of all shapes and sizes to lead the way by voluntarily signing up to a clear set of commitments relating to accessible information, awareness in the workplace, staff training and, crucially, flexible working. Tomorrow morning, I will hold an event here in Parliament, to which all hon. Members are invited. It brings experts and academics together with leading businesses that, I am delighted to say, have already signed up to a pre-launch of the fertility workplace pledge, including NatWest, Metro Bank, Zurich, Channel 4, Co-op, Cadent Gas, UKHospitality and a huge array of UK law firms. I am particularly proud that the House of Commons has also agreed to take part.
By signing the fertility workplace pledge, all those organisations will improve their workplace culture and the wellbeing of their staff, which in turn reduces stress and sick leave, and safeguards against employee tension. Importantly, it will put no unnecessary burden on their businesses. That shows that businesses are supportive of the key principles of my Bill. We must remember that the pledge is voluntary. No matter how hard we try, without the necessary legislation and protections, thousands will be left vulnerable to discrimination.
There are so many misconceptions about fertility treatment, especially in the workplace. Many think that it is a lifestyle choice for older career women who have waited too long before trying to start a family. That could not be further from the truth. More than 40% of women who resort to treatment are under 35, and many turn to IVF for medical reasons, such as having gone through early menopause or cancer treatment. It is also a route to having a family for LGBT couples, as well as for those who do not have a partner or are clinically infertile. People should never be penalised because they cannot conceive naturally.
It is time to recognise fertility treatment as a very important part of reproduction. We have a falling birth rate in this country. We cannot put unnecessary hurdles in the way of people who want to start families. After all, our children are our country’s future. We must support everyone who is going through fertility treatment in order to conceive, and give them the employment rights that they need and deserve.
It is always a pleasure to speak in any debate in Westminster Hall under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I commend the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on leading the debate today. Some of my constituents back home told me about the hon. Lady’s debate, and I am very pleased to participate. I thank her for her ongoing interventions and for introducing her private Member’s Bill on fertility treatment and employment rights. I look forward to hearing further contributions from other Members from all parts of the House. It is always a pleasure to see my good friend, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). We seem to be on the same side in these debates, and it is good to see her in her place.
It is an unfortunate and sad reality for many women and couples wanting to have children that natural conception is not always an option. Seeking fertility treatment is the most viable option. Across the UK, some 1.3 million IVF cycles have resulted in the birth of 390,000 babies—that is one in three, which unfortunately means that two in three are not successful. That is the reality. IVF and other fertility treatments are incredibly common nowadays, yet the provision of employment rights for women undertaking this treatment is feeble. I could use stronger words, but it would be inappropriate. We look to the Minister to strengthen what the hon. Lady wants to bring forward. I believe everyone in this Chamber wants that to happen.
In some cases, men require time off for sampling and consultancy appointments. There is a need for clarity on employment rights for that. There are two in this equation: the lady who wants to conceive and the man who wants to be part of that. Employer discretion has played a pivotal role in deciding time off for fertility treatment. There are no specific UK rights, but there should be. Perhaps the Bill of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster will change things.
This is not an issue that applies solely to small businesses—often, large chain stores across the UK have no specific guidelines whatsoever on employment rights for fertility treatment, and really have no desire to even try to address those issues. One constituent of mine who is only 24 made the interesting point that if she were trying to conceive naturally, there would be no expectation to tell her employer that she is trying for a baby. However, given she had to go down the IVF route, she had an obligation to tell her employer because of the additional time off that she would need for appointments. Something does not add up there. In my book it is quite clear, and others will reiterate that.
Another woman contacted me at the tail end of the third lockdown to tell me that her employer stated that if her IVF appointment took over three hours, including travel time, she would be forced to take holiday. If human resources considered that she was attending too many appointments, she would have to make up the time. There is a big lack of compassion and understanding there.
Couples should not be penalised for fertility issues that lie completely out of their control. There is a huge mental strain on both men and women who are seeking fertility treatment. The ladies who have come to see me over the years as an elected representative—as a Member of the Legislative Assembly in my previous job and as an MP—sit there and their faces betray their stress and anxiety. We need to do better. There are 3.5 million people in UK and 5% of people in Northern Ireland who struggle to get pregnant naturally. We must do more to normalise the fact that there is a right to those appointments, as there is a right to a GP or a dental appointment. A woman’s ovulation cannot be pinned to a certain day off or a lunchtime break. There must be flexibility as a norm.
Consideration must be given to the overall cost of the process, too. For employees who are not paid for the time they take for appointments or are made to take statutory sick pay, there are often already extreme financial pressures going on through the cost of IVF treatment. Additional pressure from employers is unnecessary and unfair. NI Direct has stated that employees will be entitled to paid time off for antenatal care only after the fertilised embryo has been implanted. There is not even an understanding in the Department. In many cases, the most important check-ups are before implantation. These are the issues that we must focus our time on.
I have high hopes for the hon. Lady’s private Member’s Bill. As my party’s spokesperson for health, I support it and its intentions fully. I hope for a future for couples where they can get the support from their employers as needed, both before implantation and after. We all want the best for our constituents, so it is crucial that we stand here today and represent those facing difficulties with fertility and managing employment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing this important debate and on her introduction. I am equally delighted to see the Minister in her place and, if I am allowed to say, slightly relieved that we have a Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Minister to talk about fertility and work, because too often in this place I come to talk about the menopause and work and am confronted with a Health Minister.
It would be expected of me to start instantly with a pitch for an employment Bill, because I make that pitch every time I come here. I say, “We need to have an employment Bill; we were promised it in the Queen’s Speech some years ago, but it is still not forthcoming.” I am going to put it in the hands of the Minister for Science and Investment Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) to produce the aforementioned Bill.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster for securing the PMB slot and making progress in that regard. We need to see some legislation around this. Make no mistake, this is a “women in work” issue. I know that is very gendered, and I am going to move away from that in a moment. But it is about securing women’s place in the workplace and ensuring that they keep opportunities. As the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) said, this is a fiscal issue, about the individual fiscal wellbeing of families and the economy as a whole.
There are very few points I want to make and I will be brief. We have heard it explained by other Members that IVF ends in failure for two thirds of parents going through it. It is a gruelling and stressful process, which is why flexibility in employment and adequate time off is so important. It is why we need employers to be understanding. We often talk about mental health in the workplace. I have spent the past 18 months talking about menopause in the workplace, and the importance of having policies in place in the workplace that support individual employees and a culture of openness, so that we do not have the secrecy, shame and fear of coming forward with these issues. People should be supported to take off the time that they need, and that should not be part of their holiday entitlement. We have heard that it can be long and gruelling. Most people’s holiday entitlement would simply not be enough.
I said I had made it a gendered issue, and it is not. The reality is that partners need to be there to support the woman who is going through IVF. We must recognise the need for same-sex couples to have that support, and the need for support to be available when surrogates are used. We may like to think about traditional family units, but families come in all shapes and sizes nowadays. It is crucial that we recognise there is a role for LGBT couples to get this support.
There are some great examples out there. I look at companies such as NatWest and Centrica, which have led the way in fertility policies in the workplace. I was pleased to hear from the Co-op, which employs in the region of 60,000 people in this country. Even in the past few weeks, it has published its policy on paid leave for fertility treatments, making the point that the time off provided is flexible and unrestricted. It makes the point that it cannot assume what individuals going through fertility treatment need. The measures extend to partners accompanying those going for fertility treatments, with paid leave for up to 10 appointments per cycle. That gives a measure of how significant a commitment that is, both from the individual and the employer.
We have a great deal of work to do in this area. It is too little understood and too little spoken about. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster for the great work she is doing in National Fertility Awareness Week to raise this issue.
I thank the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for securing this debate. It is an important issue and one, as a female MP, I get lobbied on regularly. I am sure we all know couples who have gone through the IVF journey. No couple would choose to have to go down that pathway to start a family.
When speaking with many couples, they have told me of the physical, mental and emotional rollercoaster of hope, disappointment, joy and despair. For some, it brings that little bundle of enjoyment, and for others it brings heartache. In the midst of such a journey, to be fully focused on work, in the right frame of mind and physically capable, is undoubtedly too much for some. It is wrong that there is currently no legal entitlement to time off in such circumstances.
Members will know that as the law currently stands, employees undergoing IVF have limited IVF-specific protections prior to embryo transfer. Most of their legal protections stem from standard employment protections to prevent discrimination. In such unique circumstances, a unique legal provision for additional employment rights is needed.
I am conscious that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster has tabled a private Member’s Bill to address the lack of legal provision to give women time off. As a party, we will support that Bill on the basis that IVF treatment should be categorised as antenatal treatment, and thus patients should be given the same work rights. To me, that is a sensible provision and I will fully support the Bill as it progresses though the House.
I will briefly mention one other fact. For many, IVF is a multi-cycle experience. Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland couples are entitled to only one cycle of IVF. That is very distressing for couples and puts more pressure on them. Within the “New Decade, New Approach” document, which restored the devolved Administration, there was a commitment to provide three cycles of IVF. Unfortunately, that has not been fulfilled. Last week, the Government moved to fulfil part of the NDNA agreement with the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill, but that commitment, which brings about new life, has not been fulfilled. I encourage the Minister to take up that issue and run with it, and allow the Government to deliver on that promise within the NDNA agreement.
We want a society that values life; we want a culture where women feel valued. Women go through much in the workplace, including miscarriage, pregnancy, IVF and the menopause. Employers need to support women in the workplace, and therefore this debate is very welcome.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on her wonderful campaign. If I can support it, I will do so.
By coincidence, this morning we were discussing general cultural issues related to getting pregnant. The conclusion was that if a man had a child—if it is clear what I mean—that would be an excuse for the employer to give him a pay rise and to change his job. If a woman gets pregnant, she is just put to one side. We have heard how the whole fertility treatment process is very stressful. In fact, we have only heard about a portion of it. If we read about the number of tests that they need and the details of how they go through it, we can see how very frightening it can be. I think we have to remember the effects of that stress on people’s work.
It is not just women who are involved in this; males can have infertility problems as well. They can be due to lifestyle habits, for example smoking, or hormonal changes, for example low testosterone. That leads me to mention some figures produced by AXA. One of the most important was that 85% of employees undergoing fertility treatment said that it had had a negative impact on their work. A phenomenal number of people involved in this process experience a profoundly negative impact on their work.
We have already heard that a third of those undergoing IVF treatment—in fact the figure that I saw was 38%, so it is a little higher than a third—have either considered or have actually quit their jobs as a result of the impact on particularly their mental health. Although we have tried to separate mental health from other reasons for approaching this subject, we cannot separate them. They are intimately linked, and the mental health applications that take place have to be looked at very carefully and with a great deal of consideration.
I cannot understand why a business would not want to allocate time specifically for fertility treatment. I cannot understand why it is not part of their natural, compassionate approach to dealing with employees. They are compassionate in many other ways, which is to be applauded, but given that this issue directly affects the work that people undertake and the way in which they operate, I cannot understand why businesses do not allocate time for fertility treatment.
I am pleased by the number of companies that my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster has already signed up to her campaign, and I look forward to their involvement and to being able to take it forward. As we have heard, this issue is a major problem not just for this country, but for the western world. Unless we take it seriously, we will end up in even greater trouble than we would otherwise be, and I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she has done to make sure that we are all aware of it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing this incredibly important debate, and on all her work in Parliament on the Fertility Treatment (Employment Rights) Bill. I wish her every success with its Second Reading. I welcome the Minister to her place, and I hope that we will continue to have fruitful discussions on many issues, including my Bill on miscarriage leave, which I will undoubtedly continue to lobby her on.
We have heard from many Members that this is being National Fertility Awareness Week, so I am grateful that we are having the debate. As always, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) passionately conveyed his constituents’ experiences. My right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) spoke of the importance of making changes to workplace cultures to reflect modern families and the different routes to parenthood.
As we have heard, there are currently around 3.5 million people in the UK who experience fertility treatment. They do so for several reasons, but the most common is infertility. However, an increasing number of same-sex couples are undergoing treatment to start their own families, and a growing number of individuals are opting to preserve their fertility. Sadly, although advances in assisted fertility have allowed many more families who are unable to conceive without assistance through donor sperm or egg donation to opt for treatment, such as IVF, intrauterine insemination or surrogacy, this issue continues to be shrouded in secrecy and carries an element of stigma. As we have heard, those who have that lived experience do not appear to have a voice in the process, meaning that millions of UK citizens face the prospect of fertility treatment alone and in silence, and there are no specific rights within UK law to protect those who need time off from work.
No doubt the Minister will give the same response—I hope she will not—to what I have raised on several occasions regarding my Bill, which would introduce paid miscarriage leave for couples experiencing pregnancy loss before 24 weeks, but I will take this opportunity to remind her that the introduction of an employment Bill would have addressed many of the issues relating to guaranteed rights for workers. It is unfair that any employee should have to take annual leave for medical-related appointments, or even to take time off for what is already an arduous process.
Fertility treatment is undoubtedly one of the most challenging experiences that a couple can undertake. It is precarious, unpredictable and uncertain. Trying to plan for hormone cycles, treatment and blood appointments —nothing can prepare someone for what they will go through and the time that they will need from their employer. It can change and be fairly unpredictable, which is why it is essential that we understand the emotional impact that infertility can have. It cannot be underestimated.
Fertility treatment can be both traumatic and emotionally draining. It can be arduous and long, and it can take months or years. For couples who continue to go through that process, it can result in many unsuccessful attempts. Until a person has gone through it themselves, they will never fully appreciate how challenging it is.
I want to end with the testimony from a couple who wrote to me:
“Our plan was to grow our family, we saved and planned for fertility treatment. We didn’t plan for a global pandemic, cancelled treatment cycles, we didn’t anticipate how long our treatment would take, but we knew there was a possibility it may not work.
Thankfully, after several failed embryo transfers, we are now beginning to feel the excitement of being 16 weeks pregnant. While the journey steam rolls ahead it’s hard to stop and reflect on the pains and heartaches along the way…It’s the surrendering control to that little soul when it decides to join us was nothing short of a lesson in patience and gratitude.”
The reality is that nothing can prepare people for fertility treatment. Will the Minister signal to those undergoing fertility treatment that she will commit to introducing statutory rights for workers going through fertility treatment? Will she commit to introducing an employment law Bill, which we have long awaited over successive Parliaments? It is high time that the Government took action to bring employment law up to date in this country, whether by introducing fertility and miscarriage leave or by enacting the Taylor review. I urge the Minister to act now and introduce leave for the many couples who need it.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing this debate and on her excellent speech. She said that there is little legal, medical, practical and emotional support for those seeking fertility treatment. That encapsulates the broad issues facing people in that situation; obviously, we are looking at a very specific issue today. I agree that IVF should not be considered on a par with cosmetic surgery—it is a very different thing altogether.
The hon. Lady really brought it home to me how far we need to go. She gave the example of her constituent who was told that she would be sacked if she undertook IVF treatment. That is the sort of thing that we would expect to have been said in the ’70s to someone who said they were pregnant. Rightly, society and the law have said that that kind of response is unacceptable. The hon. Lady summed it up well when she said that people should not be penalised for being unable to conceive naturally.
There were a lot of good speeches from Back Benchers. As always, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) gave a good contribution. I think everyone was pretty much in agreement about the importance of this issue.
The right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who does an excellent job in all sorts of areas on equality in the workplace, said that we need to create a culture of openness and support for employees, and I hope this debate engenders that. She also asked about an employment Bill. The Minister is standing in today, but she may know that I have asked many previous Ministers when we can expect such a Bill. I am not expecting an answer, so to the right hon. Lady I say that I suspect it will take a Labour Government to introduce the plethora of employment legislation that this country desperately needs.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster for securing this debate. This issue has not traditionally received the attention it deserves because people understandably find it difficult to talk about, but we need to foster a culture of openness.
As we have heard, infertility and fertility treatment are the second most common reason for a woman to visit her GP—the most common is pregnancy. About one in seven couples are affected by infertility, which is about 3.5 million people in the UK. Since 1991, 1.3 million IVF cycles have been undertaken, resulting in 390,000 babies being born. IVF has become commonplace over those three decades: 6,700 IVF cycles took place in 1991, and 69,000 took place in 2019. I doubt that a tenfold increase in employers’ awareness has accompanied the increase in IVF treatment, which is why this debate is so important.
It is interesting to hear those figures. There is a group who are not included in those figures, for whom all these issues around fertility challenge do not exist because they are banned from fertility treatment. Current legislation means that people living with HIV are banned from using such treatment. HIV medication is so effective these days that someone with HIV who is on it cannot pass HIV on, so their babies can be born without HIV. There is therefore no medical reason for this law to still exist. Are the Opposition aware of that situation? Do they think that law is a really brutal bit of discrimination that belongs to another age?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I was not aware of that; obviously it is a matter that comes within the Department of Health’s bailiwick, so I would have to defer to my shadow colleagues in that sector. However, perhaps in a few days he will have a new role that will enable him to put a focus on this issue in a way that we have not seen so far.
We have heard a number of statistics that show why fertility treatment is such an important issue in the workplace. Fertility Network UK says that 56% of those seeking such treatment reported decreased job satisfaction; 63% admitted to reduced engagement; 36% had increased sickness absences; and 38% had seriously considered leaving their job or actually quit their job because they were trying to conceive—a statistic that should shame us all. Similarly, recent research published by Zurich found that 58% of women undergoing IVF treatment withheld that information from their employer and 12% of women left their job completely because their employer was unsupportive. These are statistics that we absolutely have to challenge and change.
It is easy to see why those undergoing fertility treatment report such experiences. Both from what we have heard today and from issues reported in the media, it is easy to see why so many people—particularly women—report feeling vulnerable and distressed about discussing these issues with their employer. I think that almost all in society are sensitive to how emotionally challenging and stigmatising seeking fertility support can be. However, having to physically administer treatment while in the workplace, and possibly while alone in a toilet stall, must be extremely difficult for those who have to do it, and fearing that a line manager might be questioning where they are while they do that can only add to the anxiety that people feel. Then there is the issue of whether someone’s treatment will negatively impact on their career, because they have an unsympathetic line manager. The experience can be very isolating. We have to change the culture to make sure that women feel supported and do not feel alone during these times.
In conclusion, the statistics that I have cited and the testimony today should give us all food for thought about whether we have got the balance right and make us consider whether there is sufficient support for those with fertility issues. The picture that has been presented today overwhelmingly suggests that we have not got that balance right at all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward.
I am standing in today for the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), but I want to put it on the record that we work as a team within BEIS—it is absolutely spot-on that BEIS is responding to this debate today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing this important debate about fertility treatment and employment rights. We have heard so many shocking stories about the impact that this invasive treatment has on women, couples and families. However, I will take a moment to say that we have probably all been a little bit complicit in this situation, have we not? So many of us will know girlfriends, family members or colleagues who wanted to keep this treatment a secret; we have kept it a secret for them, because they were anxious about the behaviour they may experience at work. It is so important to get this issue out into the open. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend: putting together the fertility workplace pledge will be a fantastic contribution during her career in Parliament, which has only just begun. I thank her so much for bringing this matter to the fore.
There have been a lot of discussions about the challenges of infertility treatment and the impact that it has on women and couples, and potentially on their employment as well. We know from the statistics that so many people are going through the treatment, so it is shocking that it is still a secret. In 2019, about 53,000 patients had 69,000 IVF cycles and 5,700 donor insemination cycles at licensed fertility clinics in the UK. Those are huge statistics. The fact that women and couples feel that they cannot talk about their treatment in case they are treated in an inappropriate fashion is shocking.
National Fertility Awareness Week, which is actually this week, is a superb event; it starts off with awareness of fertility fairness, awareness of fertility in the workplace and evolves into awareness of infertility. It is great to have heard some male contributions today. There is also fertility education and taught fertility, as well.
I pay tribute to everyone who has contributed today, including the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes)—who would dare to challenge my right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee? Additionally, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), who has a tremendous record on health issues; I am also a little bit anxious about responding to his point. Of course I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who always speaks so sensibly as well.
I will quickly go through some of the work that the Government are doing and hopefully respond to some of the questions that were put, too. There is no denying that IVF is one of the most invasive fertility treatments. I do not understand why anybody would compare it to a cosmetic procedure; that is just absurd. It is invasive, gruelling and stressful, and it can last for years. We all have girlfriends who have started the process; it takes many years and has a financial impact as well, so there is no denying that it is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Also, injecting is a private matter and many women want that private space to inject themselves as well.
What we are talking about today is the fact that women and couples just cannot come forward and explain that they are going through this treatment, because they are anxious about how they are going to be treated in the workplace. As has been mentioned, that is an absurd anomaly because we are struggling to fill jobs and we want skilled people, who are loyal and who understand the workplace, to remain in work.
Something is not quite right and we know that the situation has to change. The issue is cultural, because we want people to be able to come forward, present what they are going through and have the support that they need within the workplace. We obviously need a cultural change, which is why the pledge is so important. Sometimes it is quicker to get businesses to move than Government, so, once again, congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster for putting that pledge in place.
I want to reflect on some of the work being done by the Government. We have the women’s health strategy, which looks at the system as a whole: educating society at large and looking at the role that the health sector, employers and individuals can play. This summer, the first Government led “Women’s Health Strategy for England” was published, and a woman’s health ambassador was appointed to drive system-level changes to close the gender health gap. The theme of the health and wellbeing fund 2022 to 2025 is women’s reproductive wellbeing in the workplace. The fund supports organisations to expand and develop projects that support women experiencing reproductive health issues to remain in, or return to, the workplace.
The Government also have an active agenda on work and health more widely. We want employers and employees to have better interactions about work and health. That is particularly important in tackling some of the perception issues around women’s health generally, and IVF specifically. The Government’s response to the “Health is Everyone’s Business” consultation was published in July 2021. It sets out some of the measures we will take to reduce health-related job losses; that was spoken about today and is obviously a major issue that needs to be addressed. “Health is Everyone’s Business” did not consult on infertility or any other specific conditions. It looked at system-level measures to support employers and employees to manage any health condition in the workplace.
There has been some conversation around the employment rights Bill, and why it was not in the Queen’s Speech. That was raised by the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North. We are obviously disappointed that the Queen’s Speech did not include an employment Bill for the third Session of this Parliament, but some good things have come out recently that are cross party; I know that my colleague, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), wanted to have a little pop at the Conservative party, but we work with Members across the House.
Numerous private Members’ Bills have been introduced on employment rights as a result of the PMB ballot. In particular, there has been the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill, the Employment (Allocation of Tips) Bill, the Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Bill, the Carer’s Leave Bill and the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill.
Good work is being done through private Members’ Bills, even though we may not have the employment Bill that everybody is asking for in this debate. The private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster will require employers to allow employees to take time off for appointments for fertility treatment, as she said. I know that the Minister responsible will engage with her intensely before the appropriate time is made available for the Bill to return to the House.
I am anxious that we do not put across too much of a negative story on existing rights and entitlements, because there is already some good stuff out there. Even though there is no overarching right to time off for medical appointments, there are a number of ways employees may be able to take time off to attend medical appointments, including for IVF. I do not want anyone listening to feel any more stressed than they already do, if they are considering or going through IVF.
Many employers are willing to agree informal flexible working arrangements on a short-term basis. An individual may be able to take annual leave, or agree general unpaid leave with their employer. Fundamentally, the pledge campaign that my hon. Friend has put in place will really challenge some employers who have an old-fashioned view. It would be a badge of honour for these firms to say, “We have this in place”, because it will not only attract new staff but retain the staff they currently have.
If an individual is unwell, they can take a period of sickness absence and may be entitled to statutory or occupational sick pay. We cannot legislate to make employers act with compassion, but if employers want to employ committed employees one of the things they can do is adopt the fertility workplace pledge. It is a really positive step in taking this agenda forward and, as we have heard, a number of employers have already signed up, so I have no doubt that over a period of time it will grow and grow.
I will reference some of the comments made by colleagues. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester spoke about NICE guidance on three opportunities at IVF. I am speaking outside of my brief, as these issues fall to the Department for Health, but we recognise that NHS-funded access to fertility services has been varied for a long time, and our ambition is to see an end to the postcode lottery. The Government published the health strategy in July this year, which made a commitment to address the geographic variations over the 10-year lifetime of the strategy. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will carry on campaigning for that. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East talked about miscarriage leave. Once again, that is outside of BEIS—it falls to the Department for Health.
I will give a response to that as well, which will hopefully provide some satisfaction.
Miscarriage is obviously a personal experience; there are opportunities to try and request time away from work, and we need to ensure employers understand that. The pledge, for example, is one way of getting employers to understand how important it is to treat their employees with due care if they want to retain people in work. I think I covered the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North; if I have not, I am sure she will pop up and intervene. She has not, so I believe that she is satisfied, which is a wonderful place to be when it comes to that particular Member.
I am not directly responsible for this brief, but I want to confirm with colleagues that I am incredibly passionate about it. So many people have gone through these issues, and here in Parliament we can promote it in particular and stop women being discreet about something that is so difficult and evasive.
I have already set out some of the Government’s activity in supporting health issues, in particular when it comes to those undergoing IVF. We have talked about how difficult it is to employ and retain loyal staff, and what we have been discussing is one way of dealing with that issue. Why would employers not sign up to the fertility workplace pledge? It does not make sense. I encourage my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster to do as much work as she can to promote the companies that sign up and out the companies that do not. I am determined to work with all my colleagues in BEIS to ensure that we are playing a full role in driving this agenda forward.
I thank everyone once again for this helpful and informative debate; it is important that we talk about these issues openly, and I wish my hon. Friend luck with the progress of her private Member’s Bill.
I thank everyone for taking part in such an important debate. When I was first contacted by the constituent I mentioned in my speech, to be honest I was not aware that people undergoing fertility treatment did not receive employment rights and could not take time off on paid leave for treatment. That is wrong.
By raising this issue in Parliament, I hope to give people going through fertility treatment, and those who may go through it in future, the sense that they are supported by Parliament and businesses across the country. We must lift the taboo and ensure that people who want to speak about it—some will want to keep it quiet, and we respect that—and want such support deserve to have that support from their employer. I hope we can get the private Member’s Bill through, or that the Government adopt it eventually, when we have an employment Bill.
I repeat that business leaders who are serious about inclusion and retention must be willing to discuss fertility openly and to create policies to support employees in that phase of their life. I hope the legislation gets through, but in the meantime the fertility workplace pledge will provide accessible information, awareness in the workplace, staff training and flexible working. I hope that more and more businesses, big and small, will take part in the pledge, signing up to it and giving their employees the support that they deserve. I ask all hon. Members available tomorrow to pop into Room R in Portcullis House to support the fertility workplace pledge by having a photograph taken and speaking to the experts who will be there.
This is just the start. I want to ensure that people going through fertility treatment feel heard and supported, and that they get the rights they all deserve. We need more babies in this country, whether naturally or through fertility treatment. The plain fact is that if we are to continue to grow our economy, we need more babies, so let us ensure that people undergoing fertility treatment have the support.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered fertility treatment and employment rights.