Tuesday 22 November 2022
[Sir Robert Syms in the Chair]
UK Canals and Waterways
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the UK’s canals and waterways.
It is a pleasure to be here this morning, particularly under your chairmanship, Sir Robert, or should I say chairship nowadays? I am not sure.
Last Saturday, I had a pleasant day walking with a colleague along the Coventry canal and the Trent and Mersey canal, where they intersect at Fradley junction in my constituency of Lichfield. Nothing can be more glorious than sitting outside the Mucky Duck pub, whose real name is the Swan, which is at that intersection, to look at the swans, the geese, the ducks and the narrowboats manoeuvring through the locks.
Before covid, I had a very different experience on the Chesapeake and Ohio canal when I went on a narrowboat along the 4 miles in Washington DC—in Georgetown, actually—where it is navigable. The rest is derelict. A couple of national park rangers, whose National Park Service administers the canal, told me that they were saving all their cash to hire a narrowboat and have a canal holiday in the UK. As one said to me, and I shall perform in my American accent, if the House will forgive me, “You guys just don’t know how lucky you are having thousands of miles of canals. You just don’t realise how loved something is until it’s gone.”
The number of colleagues in Westminster Hall today is a testament to how important our canal system is to all of us and to our constituencies. Our canal system is not just for narrowboaters; it is for those who enjoy the tranquillity of walking along canal towpaths and watching the wildlife that thrives there. For that reason, I am most grateful to have been granted this important debate on the future of the UK’s canals and waterways. The need to secure their future is, I am afraid, a matter of increasing urgency.
The nation’s extensive network of canals and waterways runs through around half of all constituencies, so I have no doubt that the House appreciates what a wonderful national treasure our waterways network is. I have more than 20 miles of canal in my constituency, as well as an active canal restoration society, the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust, of which I am a proud patron. My right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), who is sitting here, is a member of the trust, and I am also chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the waterways. I would encourage all colleagues here, who are so keen on canals, to join the APPG.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister: in her constituency of Taunton Deane, she has the beautiful Bridgwater and Taunton canal, and I know she is a regular visitor to it, so she has a vested interest.
I pay tribute to the Canal & River Trust, which this year celebrated 10 years of being a charity and whose recent exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall I was honoured to sponsor. The trust is guardian to 2,000 miles of this nation’s canals and waterways across England and Wales, and thousands of significant historic structures, including 71 of our oldest reservoirs, major docks and more than 2,700 listed buildings. The oldest parts of this extraordinary network date back 250 years, when canals served as the arteries of the industrial revolution.
Other navigation authorities play an important role, but because it is by far the largest and the body responsible for the vast majority of the manmade canals in England and Wales, I shall focus my attention on the Canal & River Trust, and on safeguarding the future of the canals and waterways for which it is responsible. I will leave others to discuss the beautiful waterways of Scotland, Northern Ireland and other parts, such as the Norfolk broads.
Since it was formed in 2012 out of British Waterways, with cross-party support, the Canal & River Trust has proven to be an effective steward of our canals and waterways. It has successfully raised their profile and grown the use of the waterways and appreciation of their value to our society, serving as an effective partner to Government in delivering vital economic, social and environmental benefits for this nation.
In my constituency, there is a great group called the Lapal Canal Trust, which is a dedicated project to restore the Dudley No.2 canal from Birmingham, Selly Oak into the Hawne Basin in Halesowen. It is an incredibly dedicated group of volunteers, which is reflected across the whole of the Canal & River Trust. Will my hon. Friend commend their work? I know that the West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, has been heavily involved in that restoration project.
I am more than happy to do so. The work that is being done in my hon. Friend’s constituency—as in my own constituency, with the Lichfield and Hatherton canals—is testament to the hard work and enthusiasm that people have for the wonderful environment created by our canals.
Our canals have seen a remarkable renaissance over the past 70 years, recovered from the dark days of decline and dereliction in the middle of the 20th century. I applaud the role of the Inland Waterways Association in campaigning so tirelessly for their restoration over that time. The Lichfield canal, which I mentioned to my hon. Friend and is currently being restored, was filled in in the 1960s; how unimaginative and short-sighted planners were back then. Now, with more boats on the waterways and use of the towpaths more popular than ever, we are seeing their benefits realised on a grand scale, repurposed for leisure and recreation, health and wellbeing and homes, and still playing a vital economic role for freight and other commercial uses, attracting visitors from across the globe while enriching the lives of so many local communities.
I recall doing a TV programme on the Coventry canal, and as they were interviewing me a narrowboat approached. I decided to ad lib, being a former broadcaster, and as the narrowboat went by I said, “Where are you from?” I thought they might say Dudley; in fact, they said they were from Tel Aviv and were on a canal holiday. The canals affect not just the health and welfare of our people, but bring in commercial dollars to the United Kingdom.
Canals bring blue and green space to the heart of urban areas, connecting town and country and enabling people to connect with nature and enjoy traffic-free routes. Millions of our fellow citizens enjoy the canals, be it boating on the water, canoeing, paddle boarding, rowing—in greater numbers, walking and cycling along towpaths too—angling from the banks or simply enjoying these special, beautiful places on our doorstep, taking time away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. There are now over 800 million visits per year to the Canal & River Trust’s waterways alone, and that figure is rising.
Waterways are on the doorstep for 9 million people, including many of the one in eight UK residents who do not have a private garden, giving them access to nature—often in areas where green and blue space is limited. I suspect that that is very much the case in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris). Around 60% of the trust’s waterways run through the most deprived areas of the country, with higher rates of ill health and economic deprivation. They reach many of those in greater need. As we saw so vividly during the pandemic, canals and waterways make a real difference to people’s lives, with tens of thousands rediscovering them in their neighbourhood, finding them to be a lifeline, and experiencing the wellbeing benefits of regular use of free and accessible waterside space ever since.
My hon. Friend makes some really important points. On his point about urban towns and industrial areas, particularly those that we have in the west midlands, does he agree that, as part of the levelling-up agenda, canals can play a really important part in regenerating industrial heartlands, creating a better environment for families and individuals who want to live in those areas, and creating much better regeneration?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it is interesting that the West Midlands Mayor, who has already been mentioned, is a keen supporter of the Lichfield and Hatherton canals. Why? Lichfield is not in the West Midlands Combined Authority, but it will link to the deprived urban areas of the Black Country to provide additional bucks in the form of tourism. As I mentioned, we need more Israelis and Americans there, and we need more national park rangers.
The trust now partners in programmes to promote green social prescribing pilots and other initiatives, from its “Let’s Fish!” scheme, which has seen hundreds of youngsters connect with nature, to its Active Waterways project in partnership with Sport England, which is designed to overcome inactivity, social isolation, and mental and physical health conditions.
The west midlands, a part of which I am proud to represent, has a special affinity for its canals. They are an integral part of our history and economy, as Metro Mayor Andy Street reflected recently in an article that he wrote for “ConservativeHome”. The recovery of our canals is tied closely to the renewal of the west midlands, contributing to business and culture while providing the spaces that inspire communities. Once neglected, the canal network is now vibrant. It is a driver for levelling up, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, and provides well-connected sites for business and attractive locations for new housing, providing sustainable urban living.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the emphasis he is placing on rivers, waterways and canals in the west midlands, which I too represent through the Ludlow constituency. I commend to him the manifesto published yesterday by the Conservative Environment Network, which is titled “Changing Courses”. It has six measures, all of which are important, to help maintain the health of our waterways. He talked about the health of human beings using them for recreation, but does he agree that when our waterways get polluted, it would be appropriate to consider introducing the ability for the polluter to pay for the problem that they have caused, by diverting the fines currently levied on companies that are found guilty of polluting waterways? Instead of going to the Treasury, they should go to some organisation that would help restore the effects of pollution, regardless of whether it is into a river or canal.
I can say to my right hon. Friend, who is also Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, that not only will I support him, I have actually signed the letter agreeing to that proposal, because it seems an eminent way to ensure that our canals and waterways remain as unpolluted as possible.
We saw how central the canals were to the amazing Commonwealth games in the west midlands, which showcased Britain’s industrial heritage on a world stage. Someone bet me earlier that I was going to say something that I had not planned not to say, but I will now say that there are more canals in Birmingham—in fact, I was photographed alongside a marvellous plaque during the Conservative party conference—than there are in Venice, and some might argue that they are more beautiful. We have to introduce gondoliers into Birmingham—don’t you think that would be an excellent idea, Sir Robert?
I know that colleagues will have equally strong feelings about the central role that our waterways play in their cities, towns and villages. Canals can play a wider role at a time when our water supply has never been more critical. In a changing climate with increasing drought risk, the trust’s canals play an important role in improving the resilience of the nation’s water security. They currently move water around the country to support water supplies for approximately 5 million people, including to Bristol and parts of Cheshire. The trust can support more such waterway transfer schemes.
Only last week, Affinity Water announced its intention to work with the trust to use the centuries-old Grand Union canal to move water from the midlands to households in the south-east. Like Plaid Cymru, it wants to charge more and more for its water, which is what we should do in the west midlands when we supply it to the wealthy south-east.
Canals can also supply heating and cooling for waterside buildings, with enough latent thermal energy to support the needs of around 350,000 homes, as well as providing a cooling effect in urban areas during hot weather, according to research verified by the University of Manchester, and they deliver renewable energy from hydropower. Our canals and waterways form an important part of the United Kingdom’s nature recovery network. They provide a vital corridor for wildlife, with habitats that contribute hugely to biodiversity, supporting the key goals of the UK’s 25-year environment plan and giving people the proximity to nature that inspires them to care about the natural world—what is around us or across the planet.
As a not-for-profit charity, the Canal & River Trust is arguably the largest urban blue space provider in the United Kingdom. The recently released “Valuing Our Waterways” report showed that it delivers £4.6 billion of social welfare value for the nation each year, plus over £1.5 billion per year in economic value, supporting 80,000 jobs. I will repeat that: 80,000 jobs.
Unsurprisingly, my hon. Friend is making a speech of his usual high standard. On the economic benefit that the Canal & River Trust brings, may I highlight my lovely constituent Kay Andrews from Rothwell who runs Kay’s Canal Crafty Arts from her 32-foot narrowboat Pea Green, which is moored at Welford Wharf on the Grand Union canal on the Leicestershire-Northamptonshire border? Kay makes her living by selling hand-painted canal art, and she is a Canal & River Trust licensed roving trader. She trades from the wharf in the summer and then goes round the canals around the country selling her painted crafts. Is that not a wonderful boost to small businesses?
That is a fantastic example from my hon. Friend. Those of us familiar with canals know that type of art, with beautifully, vividly painted flowers on coal scuttles and buckets. An ugly bucket can be transformed into a thing of beauty. I have friends who live some distance from canals who have examples of that work in their own homes. That is a first-rate example of how the canals generate income for others and generate business in the economy as a whole.
I hope that I have left all my colleagues here in no doubt about the importance of and value created by our waterways and those who manage them. They are undoubtedly a national treasure and a critical part of our national infrastructure. At the heart of the trust’s success has been the connections it has forged with so many communities along the length of its waterways. We have just heard a first-rate example of that from my hon. Friend. The trust has inspired many to volunteer, and we have heard about that, too. In the past year, the trust’s volunteers gave 700,000 hours, as well as hundreds of partner groups and canal adoptions. Those amazing individuals contribute so much to making the waterways network safe, clean and attractive places for us all to enjoy.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
In a moment. I will just carry on a little bit, if he will forgive me.
On behalf of everyone here, I want to thank the volunteers. But they can only be a small part of the answer. The sustainable future of our canals depends on a substantial continuing investment in the core infrastructure that underpins our historical waterways network. Caring for waterways is costly.
I am a huge supporter of canals, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I have the Kennet and Avon to the south of my constituency and the Thames and Severn to the north, linked soon, I hope, by the Wilts and Berks canal, so we are right in the middle of the southern canal network. What my hon. Friend says about volunteers is absolutely right. Does he agree that the greatest thing about the canal network is that all the work that has been done across the country is largely funded not by the Government, but by volunteers and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which makes a huge and important financial contribution. The network is not Government funded; it is volunteer funded.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that valuable point. Something like 75% of the Canal & River Trust’s funding is from sources other than the Government.
The problem is that our canal system is ageing and is made up of more than 10,000 individual assets, many of which date back 250 years. Many have a high consequence of failure; they are deteriorating and need regular maintenance and repair. That is exacerbated by the impact of more extreme weather events, which make them even more vulnerable. However, it is their age that gives them their beauty and attraction for so many people. Given the serious potential risks posed to neighbouring homes and businesses by the deterioration of reservoirs, high embankments, aqueducts and culverts—imagine what would happen if any of them burst—it is vital that there is stable and sufficient investment in the network to make these assets more resilient and to reduce the possible threat to lives, homes and businesses.
Here is the important bit. The Canal & River Trust receives about a quarter of its funding from the Government, under an agreement secured when it was formed in 2012, and that has been vital in underpinning its progress. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is undertaking a review of its grant for the period beyond March 2027, when the agreement comes to an end. A decision was due in July, but there have inevitably been delays, owing partly to covid and partly to a little turbulence in the Conservative party.
Although it is right that sufficient time be taken to judge the importance of the waterways properly, I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify the revised timetables for the review decision, as the uncertainty is causing great concern to users of the waterways and will soon start to hinder the trust’s ability to plan for the future. It has many important long-term projects to deliver, which could affect the safety of so many people. When will a funding announcement be made?
It should also be noted that the trust’s grant is declining in real terms and is now worth only a little over half of what British Waterways received prior to 2008. It is also fixed for the six years from 2021 to 2027, so the trust is suffering a significant shortfall at a time when many of its costs are rising by significantly more than the 10% headline inflation rate. Roughly £50 million a year is a very small amount for the Government to contribute for such a huge range of benefits.
At the same time, the trust’s wide range of risks, obligations and legal liabilities is growing, in part due to the impact of climate change. The network is subject to more extreme weather events, to which it is acutely vulnerable. That poses a potential threat to the many neighbouring homes and businesses. The risk has dramatically changed, even in the past 10 years. The level of spend now required was not anticipated when the trust was first established, but it must nevertheless be addressed.
As a neighbour to my hon. Friend and a fellow Staffordshire MP, I congratulate him on his excellent speech, which eloquently covers the points we would all like to make. In my constituency, waterways are the lifeblood of the economy, and I would like to thank people such as Michael Haig for the work they do.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I have forgotten its name, but I have walked along the canal in Stone. It is a beautiful canal, and all the things it generates, such as pubs and the local life, mean that it is very much at the heart of the community.
To go back to funding, about half of the trust’s planned asset spend is now on reservoir safety. It has added about £70 million to its priority expenditure over five years. Despite those pressures, it has been very effective in developing its own income sources to reduce dependency on future Government funding. Its endowment has grown ahead of market benchmarks, and it has found innovative ways to grow commercial and charitable income.
The trust has built strong partnerships with others, such as the People’s Postcode Lottery, which has been a long-term funder, acting as a delivery partner with the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Transport, important public agencies such as Sport England and Natural England, and health service providers, which recognise the tangible benefits the trust can deliver. In 2021-22, the Government grant fell, having made up nearly 40% of the trust’s total income in the British Waterways days before 2010, and it is projected to decline to 20% of the trust’s income by 2027. The trust has therefore not been sitting idly by, just relying on Government funding.
The trust remains fully committed to reducing the share of its funding coming directly from Government over the long term and is continuing to work in partnership. That transition has to happen at a pace that reflects the reality on the ground; securing the investment our waterways need must be the priority. Without that, their future is at risk, the trust’s ability to maintain them is jeopardised, and millions could stand to lose the enjoyment of such a wide-reaching and essential national asset—what I referred to as a national treasure and part of our national heritage.
For those who live on boats, for businesses that depend on waterways, which we have heard about today, and for the services and utilities that need to be carried out on well-maintained towpaths, the effect could be even more devastating. The decline and deterioration of the waterways is an unthinkable outcome for the nation and the communities we represent. I spoke about this the other day on ITV, which also reported from a narrow boat, whose owner painted a bleak picture of what life on the waterways could be like. She said:
“Without that top layer of money coming in, the canals will probably go to rack and ruin; they’ll probably become muddy ditches and then nobody will want to walk along them, anglers won’t be able to fish and boaters will have nowhere to go.”
She compared the prospect of the decline of our canals—so central to our industrial heritage—with letting the Tower of London fall down.
Our canals are no longer simply remnants of our industrial past; they are a significant social, environmental and economic contributor to our modern society and an integral part of our national infrastructure and heritage. The Minister needs to confirm the timeline for these vital decisions, so that the trust is able to plan the vital investment in our waterways for the longer term, and to give reassurance to the millions who care so passionately for them. That the Government remain committed to the future of our national canal network must be made clear. Underfunding our canals would be a false economy; once they begin to decline, their demise may become inevitable and their benefits may be lost, as they enter a vicious circle, falling into ever worse neglect and disrepair. Like the once great Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, only once they are gone forever will a nation mourn their passing.
I would like the winding-up speeches to start from around 10.30 am. If Members could stick to five minutes, that would be great. I call Jim Shannon.
First, I thank the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) for setting the scene so well. In the devolved Administrations, and especially Northern Ireland, we have different rules, laws and responsibilities.
Our canals and waterways have the potential to be areas of real beauty, whether for boats or for people just going for a walk. As the hon. Gentleman said, they deserve to be kept up to a high standard, and I commend the Canal & River Trust for that, although standards may have slipped during covid—indeed, I suspect that they have. The trust has held a number of events in the House, and I try to attend them all. I am aware of the potential of England’s waterways and indeed of all waterways across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Research has shown that spending time by water, whether as part of a lunch break, the daily commute or a weekend stroll, really can make us feel happier and healthier, and I want to focus on the health benefits. With ever-increasing rates of obesity and stress and declining mental health in the United Kingdom, we are uniquely placed when it comes to making a significant contribution to improving the wellbeing of others.
I am no stranger to talking about my constituency—the hon. Member for Lichfield spoke of his constituency; I will speak of mine—and that also relates to my canals and walkways. Northern Ireland has numerous canals. In Newtownards town, where my main office is, we have a fairly large canal. In the past, the office has been inundated with queries about canal maintenance. Responsibility for that falls between different stools—as it often does—including the Department for Infrastructure’s rivers department, local councils and landowners. There is often a to-and-fro correspondence about accountability.
Constituents often refer to the litter and debris and sometimes to the health hazard. The canal is a wonderful walk, and it is also a cycling and running venue. Ards and North Down Borough Council maintains Londonderry Park as one of its main centres for leisure and relaxation, and the canal’s potential is great. Over the years, I have heard about lots of other issues, including public health. We are in close proximity to the Ards shopping centre. For some reason—I don’t know why—some people think that, after they take their groceries home in the trolleys, they can just dump them in the canal instead of taking them back. That is something we are trying to find a resolution to.
There is certainly scope for DFI Rivers to do more in Northern Ireland to fund and maintain waterways. DEFRA has a role to play. What discussions has the Minister held with authorities and the regional Administration in Northern Ireland on how we can work together to produce something unique and wonderful with our waterways and canals?
Our canals are also a brilliant opportunity for young people to learn the basics of how to harness nature, rivers, bridges and the channels. We also encourage an interest in science, technology, engineering and maths, both in education and for later life, and there are lots of things that waterways and canals can offer in that regard.
For families, for mental health and for those wanting to take small boats out on our canals and waterways, we have a responsibility to ensure the safety and cleanliness of these bodies of water. I will be raising the matter with the permanent secretary in the Department back home to ensure that canals in my constituency are given the attention they need, not just in the town of Newtownards but across the whole of Strangford, and that includes the canals near the Braeside in Killyleagh and at the end of the river in Comber.
Canals offer fantastic potential for physical and emotional wellbeing. UK canals and waterways are central to rejuvenating constituencies, with their tourism potential and all the other issues the hon. Member for Lichfield mentioned. We can have all that, and better, for all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As I always say, better together.
Erewash is the only constituency that is named after a river and a canal, so it is quite appropriate that I speak in this debate. I mentioned that in my maiden speech, so it is great to be able to expand on what I started a number of years ago.
I want to highlight the amazing work of two organisations in my constituency: the Erewash Canal Preservation & Development Association—that is quite a mouthful, and is usually shortened to ECP&DA—and the Canal & River Trust, which we have already heard a lot about. Without the ECP&DA, a voluntary organisation, the Erewash canal would not exist today. Back in 1968, the British Waterways board was about to close the canal, but the ECP&DA was formed. It probably never anticipated that, over 50 years later, it would be awarded the Queen’s award for voluntary service, in recognition of the important role that it has played in our community.
The volunteers have restored and maintained the Sandiacre lock cottages and toll house, which now open as a museum on Sundays. Towards Christmas, they have mince pies and various festive activities, which is always good to see. The association has also ensured that navigation along the full length of the canal, from Trent lock to the great northern basin in Langley Mill, is possible. The association also continually patrols the canal and extracts a variety of waste items, which I am sure are found in many other canals, from the bottom.
The association celebrated its 50th anniversary with an amazing boat rally, and next year it will celebrate its 55th anniversary in the same way. The association has many benefits, both for the individuals involved and for Erewash. I take the opportunity to thank the ECP&DA; Erewash would not be the same without it—we would have only a river and not a canal.
Just a few weeks ago, the ECP&DA highlighted the many weeds in the canal, which the association was concerned would impact boats going to the rally next May. That is where collaboration with the Canal & River Trust came in, which shows the real benefits of organisations working together. Understanding the importance of easy navigation along the canal for boats visiting the rally, the Canal & River Trust will clear the weeds from what I call the bottom half of the canal, and the ECP&DA will clear the section nearer its base. I look forward to many visiting boats, and people enjoying the pleasures of the Erewash canal, including the newly restored Bennerley viaduct, next May. Whenever anybody from outside the area comes to the Erewash canal, they are amazed by its beauty and tranquillity.
I now turn to the Canal & River Trust in more detail. I met its director for the east midlands a couple of weeks ago to talk about the canal. That included the role that it will play in walking and cycling projects and the waterfront project in the Long Eaton town fund deal, which is part of the levelling-up project, and the trust’s work to repair the locks at Gallows Inn in January. I look forward to seeing those locks from inside, without the water. In the past, my office team and I have volunteered for a day with the trust—the stretch of fencing at Trent lock is badly painted, but we definitely had fun that day.
That is what waterways provide: fun and recreation. They provide an opportunity for exercise and benefit our health and wellbeing. The work of the Canal & River Trust is invaluable. It is the guardian of our waterways, whether the River Erewash, the Erewash canal or the other 2,000 miles of our water network. It provides employment, recreation and volunteering opportunities. It is a protector of our natural environment and history.
As we have heard, DEFRA is reviewing its long-term grant funding. That is why this debate is so timely: the Minister can hear at first hand about the great and invaluable work carried out by the Canal & River Trust. The Erewash canal is accessible because of the determination of the Erewash Canal Preservation & Development Association, and the Canal & River Trust now plays its part in maintaining it. If our waterways are not invested in through the Canal & River Trust, I fear that too many of them will be lost, in the same way that we nearly lost the Erewash canal.
With the benefits attributed to the Canal & River Trust estimated at over £4 billion each year, we cannot afford not to continue funding it. The Government’s investment in the trust is leveraged many times over, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). The current grant of £50 million per year is money well spent. My plea to the Minister is to give the Canal & River Trust certainty and to renew the agreement without delay.
As we have already heard, canals and inland waterways are an integral part of our life and our landscape. In recent years, it is fair to say that we have seen a remarkable revival. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) referred earlier to covid-19; that is just one of the many factors that has encouraged us all to appreciate what we have on our doorsteps more than ever before.
In Aldridge-Brownhills we have the Wyrley and Essington canal, which has some wonderful walkways along the towpath where people can watch the wildlife, observe nature and enjoy being outdoors. In recent years, we have seen a real revival of the Brownhills canal festival, which is organised by the Lichfield & Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust. It brings visitors to Brownhills and local residents together for what has become an excellent event. We see many community organisations and traders taking part, including the roving traders. If anyone is ever in Brownhills when the canal festival is on, I recommend going to the Jam Butty, because it makes some of the most fantastic jams and marmalades.
I have bought from the Jam Butty. It was at the Huddlesford heritage gathering in my constituency. I believe my right hon. Friend moors her narrow boat there; I think she should declare that.
It is my husband’s boating passion, but I will come to that shortly. In 2016, Aldridge-Brownhills hosted the Inland Waterways Association festival of water in Pelsall. We took that boat from Huddlesford over to Pelsall for the festival, and we had a great time. Alas, we no longer have that boat, but I can assure you that we still have another one. My husband has a real passion for his canal boats.
Those are just some of the significant economic, social and environmental benefits of our canals. It is estimated that more than £4 billion in additional benefits is brought in every year. That is pretty impressive, especially considering how the Canal & River Trust—a charity—was founded only in 2012. Prior to that, the public-funded British Waterways was responsible for canals and rivers in England and Wales. It is a huge task, with over 1,500 locks, 55 tunnels, 281 aqueducts, almost 3,000 bridges and 71 reservoirs to maintain, improve and invest in for the future.
It is fair to describe the CRT as the guardian of around 2,000 miles of waterways and the protector of historic and critical infrastructure. Much of that is more than 200 years old, and is now vulnerable to climate change. As we sadly saw with the Toddbrook reservoir dam a couple of years ago, that has a real potential to threaten neighbouring homes.
What makes the journey and story of the CRT even more remarkable is the way in which it is funded from a diverse range of sources; I would go through those, but I am conscious of the clock. Alongside the various income streams, I want to recognise the role of volunteers in my consistency. Aldridge rotary club is one of the many organisations up and down the country that is involved in maintaining one particular strip. I must declare an interest as a Rotarian.
The CRT is a huge success story, but I cannot stress enough the importance of the £52.6 million grant that it receives from DEFRA. I came to speak today to urge the Minister and her Government to continue to support the CRT. The benefits are massive—there are health-related, economic and wellbeing benefits, as well as benefits for community groups. At a time when so many families are feeling financial pressure, it is an opportunity to explore the outdoors for free. Given that the CRT has not just stepped up to the plate but gone way beyond it, I hope that the Minister and her team will look positively when reviewing the grant and continue to pay, de minimis, the £52.6 million a year—or increase it, because the return on investment is absolutely huge.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) for this important opportunity to speak on this matter. As everybody knows, I represent a beautiful and rural coastal constituency with 52 miles of glorious coastline. But we also have a little secret—one that not many people know of. I have Norfolk’s only locked sailing canal, the North Walsham and Dilham canal. I invite my hon. Friend to come and visit it any time he wants.
I will take that up if I can stay with my hon. Friend.
Certainly, but I had better check with the wife first.
The canal was originally about 9 miles long and was built by private investors under a local Act of Parliament passed in 1812. It was built for carrying goods in Norfolk’s famous wherries, originating from or travelling to as far afield as London and the north-east via Great Yarmouth. It served the local community for over 100 years. But like many canals, it fell into disuse with the new railways and the improvements on our roads that made the transportation of heavy goods easier and faster.
In 2000, enthusiastic volunteers started to restore our waterway into what is now quite simply the most beautiful and magical setting one could ever see. It was in 2008 that the North Walsham & Dilham Canal Trust was formed. The trust volunteers have helped the owner of one of the stretches of canal to completely restore the first mile. From North Walsham, one lock has been completely rebuilt, another pair of gates at a second lock have been replaced, and we are now well into the next section of the canal, which is a mile and a half in length—and that work is royally ongoing.
The question is, why is such work so important? Like this debate, it is about the future. Ultimately, volunteer groups do it to benefit nature and biodiversity, and to preserve the historical structures that in many cases, up and down the land, are not used as they used to be. They also do it to help the welfare of our local populations and for tourism, which we have heard many hon. Members talk about.
In my constituency, the volunteers regularly hold work parties, which have been described as a sort of outdoor gymnasium, for people to come and get involved. That brings great benefits to the community. My stretch of this beautiful canal is now used for wild swimmers, canoeists, paddleboarders and fishermen and women; there is also a small solar-powered vessel operated by the trust and its volunteers. Quite simply, it is also a quiet spot to have a picnic, or to take a few hours out and just relax. The benefits to mental and physical health are clear for all to see.
However, there is always a “but”—and my “but” is about the Environment Agency. My plea to the Minister is that the EA must listen and learn from the volunteers, because if it was not for my volunteers, this piece of disused canal that had fallen into disrepair would not be as established as it is today. The greatest challenge of the trustees is always to prove to the EA the great work that they are doing. That is entirely within the aims and the objectives of the Environment Act 2021.
I end by thanking the volunteers, especially those work party leaders. Without them, and without many of the hon. Members who have contributed today, our beautiful canals would not exist. I thank David Revill, our current chairman, who has done so much work, and Graham Pressman, who humbly describes himself as just the boating officer on my stretch of canal. However, all those back home know that Graham is a fountain of information and enthusiasm who embodies the passion that has restored this fabulous waterway.
I leave hon. Members with the aims of my trust, which I am sure are the aims of every single trust mentioned in this room today: to promote the benefit for the public and the restoration, conservation and protection of the natural environment around the canal. On seeing the work my volunteers have done, I am sure the canal is in safe hands going forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) for bringing this important debate.
I am excited to talk about our canals because I am the vice president of the Cotswold Canals Trust and I take every opportunity to talk about the fabulous men and women who have done so much for our communities. The organisation boasts the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, which I nominated it for and we accepted last year. It has also won engineering awards and so many more accolades.
The trust is winning stuff with so much good reason, because we have hundreds of volunteers, as many hon. Members have said, and they are really skilled. Being in my patch means we have nuclear scientists, engineers and people who have taken time out to come and help us with our vision for our canal network. They also let me dredge part of our canal. If hon. Members look at my Instagram video of that, they will see a massive smile on my face as I saw the dredgers go backwards and forwards. The volunteers are absolutely fantastic. They also work closely with councils; Stroud District Council is a big partner. The stakeholder working group is huge and to their credit. We also have real excellence in the fundraising department, winning £9 million of lottery funding, and I opened the Stonehouse bookshop, which is the second of the fundraising bookshops in our area.
I live near the Saul junction and I can see the River Severn from my house, so waterways are important to me. As some hon. Members have already said, during the devastatingly dark times of lockdown, when we were walking round in circles for the short time we were allowed out of the house, the canal waterway was vital to my mental health and to many other people’s as well.
The main reason why the communities and canal network teams in my constituency are superb is their brilliant and bold ambition for what we are trying to do. In 1975, a team of waterway enthusiasts recognised the importance of our canals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield has so beautifully brought to life today, we have to bear in mind the history of the networks. The Gloucester and Sharpness canal was planned in the late 18th century and it opened in 1827. By 1905 the traffic exceeded 1 million tonnes. In my own little village, we had an important Cadbury’s factory, and we were bringing in goods and using the canal networks to connect to the midlands. We all know how important that business was for our country and for chocolate.
As for that bold ambition, we would like to connect the River Severn to the Thames, with water-transfer opportunities woven in. We have a wet bit of the country and we can bring it to a drier bit of the country. We have made a real commitment to restoring the Cotswold canals to full navigation in the interests of conservation, biodiversity and local quality of life. We have had a few phases of that, with the Gloucester and Sharpness canal phase and the Cotswold Water Park to the River Thames. Phase 3 will link the central section, which includes the now-derelict Sapperton tunnel. Phase 1A was opened by His Majesty the King and we have come up against some serious engineering challenges. I would welcome some visits to the A38 roundabout, because we have put a canal through it, which is pretty impressive.
Will the Minister visit Stroud? I know she knows and loves my patch already. Will she give the Government a bit of a kick on funding and also ensure they understand the importance of that? I say “they” because it is not just DEFRA—it is the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department of Health and Social Care and so many other Government Departments. They need to understand that when we ask for support for our canal and waterway networks, it is about tourism, health, wellbeing and the local economy. I ask the Government to work with organisations such as the Cotswolds Canals Trust because they are stacked full of experts and they are constructive. They do not ask for something unless they genuinely need it, because their first port of call is usually to try to find things and do it themselves. I cannot thank my local teams enough. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Sir Robert. I too thank the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) for bringing forward this debate on the future of the UK’s canals and waterways and congratulate him on what was an excellent speech. I also thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Erewash (Maggie Throup), for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) and the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for their valuable contributions to the debate. It is a pleasure to come here this morning to inform this Chamber of the healthy state of Scotland’s thriving canals and waterways. I am glad the hon. Member for Lichfield is looking forward to hearing so much about them.
Canals have connected Scottish waterways east to west and north to south for more than 200 years, and they continue to play an increasingly vital role in connecting our local communities back to nature and our heritage. Scotland’s inland waterways are treasured historic assets that firmly belong to the people of Scotland. The Forth and Clyde, Union and Monkland canals in the lowlands of Scotland, the Crinan canal in Argyll and the Caledonian canal in the highlands extend to around 137 miles from coast to coast, across our country and through the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness.
Built more than 200 years ago to power and fire the industrial revolution, with coal from the Lanarkshire mines transported along these intricate canal ways, today our inland waterways massively contribute to the Scottish Government’s agenda of developing a greener, healthier, wealthier, smarter, safer and ultimately fairer Scotland by acting as a catalyst for sustainable economic development, regeneration and tourism, contributing to education, biodiversity and our heritage and promoting active living and healthier lifestyles, which we all know to be so important.
Today, Scottish Canals, the body responsible for managing the country’s inland waterways, is utilising these 18th-century assets alongside new and innovative technology to tackle modern-day problems. Working with local and national partners to create pioneering systems, Scottish Canals is helping to combat flooding and driving positive transformation in some of Scotland’s most disadvantaged areas.
The Monkland canal in my constituency was the basis for creating surrounding settlements such as the town of Coatbridge. As I touched on earlier, it was responsible for the transportation of coal from the former mining heartlands of Lanarkshire to fire the industry we are so renowned for in Scotland. As the coal industry has receded and times have changed, the modern-day canal is tended to and taken care of—like so many others, as we have heard this morning—by volunteers. The Friends of Monkland Canal group is a volunteer organisation that is chock full of passionate people who undertake regular activities along our inland waterways, helping to inform local residents of the history of the canal, working collaboratively to keep the area clean and tidy and making it a welcoming environment for locals and those from wider afield to utilise.
The volunteers’ fantastic work has successfully encouraged a major investment from Sustrans, which has provided a grant of £429,000 for upgrades to the pathways surrounding the canal, as well as the installation of new drainage systems. Paving and other remedial works along the canal approaches will open up the canal to so many more residents—those who use wheelchairs, families with prams and buggies, cyclists and so on—making it more accessible to everyone in our community and allowing it to be used by every person every single day of the year. This work will bring Monkland canal right into the 21st century and make it fit for future use. I am sure the Minister will join me in commending the Friends of Monkland Canal organisation for its stellar work and its service to not only the local community but all of Scotland for its care and consideration of our canals and inland waterways.
As we British Waterways move towards a post-covid era, we must understand the positive impact that canals and their environs can have on our mental health and wellbeing and utilise them to overcome the still- felt effects of multiple lockdown periods on our communities. A global study conducted by the University of Glasgow in 2020 found that people who live within 750 yards of a canal have lower risks of heart disease, diabetes and hypertension compared with those who live further away, and that is independent of socioeconomic factors.
The SNP and indeed the Scottish Government fully recognise the benefits that canals offer and are committed to supporting Scottish Canals to deliver on its ambitious objectives. Since 2019, the capital grant for Scottish Canals has increased by 87%, alongside an uplift each year in resource funding, plus additional funding to mitigate the impacts of covid-19. The most recent project by Scottish Canals is the Stockingfield bridge project in north Glasgow, which has won the 2022 Institution of Civil Engineers people’s choice award—well done to all involved. The two-way spanning cable-stayed pedestrian and cycle bridge opened earlier this month. It took 21 months to complete at a cost of £14 million, which is a bargain. It connects the communities of Maryhill, Gilshochill and Ruchill on either side of the Forth and Clyde canal for the first time since 1790.
Finally, I encourage our counterparts from all across these islands to follow the example of Scottish Canals and ensure that our waterways are protected and upgraded, to allow the surrounding communities to embrace the ultimate benefits of the splendid nature around them.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Sir Robert.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing this important debate on the future of Britain’s canals and waterways. He has campaigned tirelessly on this issue over the years, and with good reason. That was evident from his contribution and from the speeches and interventions by many others. It is not often that the Opposition are in full agreement with the hon. Member, but that is the case today. We should all congratulate ourselves on that.
I offer the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), the shadow Minister, for whom I am subbing today. He is away from the parliamentary estate on shadow ministerial business, so I have been drafted in to guide us through the calm waters of this debate.
This country was the first in the world to develop a nationwide canal network that connected towns and cities, brought people together and developed and stimulated so much of the trade, industry and commerce that modern Britain was built on. I have the great pleasure of serving the people of Newport West, and in our neck of the woods we boast a unique flight of 14 locks, the Cefn flight, which rises 160 feet in just half a mile. That must have been an amazing sight in its heyday. Such locks and canals are a legacy of the engineering wonder of the industrial revolution, and they also make up part of the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal network, which is widely recognised as being one of the most beautifully located set of waterways in Britain. I give a shout out to the Monmouthshire, Brecon and Abergavenny Canals Trust for all the work that it does, and in particular to Councillor Yvonne Forsey and the other volunteers in Newport West.
Our canals are no longer the arteries of trade that they were 200 years ago. The car, bike, van and truck have all come through the middle of them—literally. Today, canals and riverways mainly provide other functions—possibly too many to list in the short time I have to speak, which only shows their importance. We have already heard that they offer free and accessible outdoor space and recreation for millions of people. Indeed, Adam Jogee, who works in my office, and his fiancée Alison Lawther, alongside two of their friends, Mark Streather and Allison Katz, took the chance to stay on a canal boat during a recent recess. It was Adam’s first time on a canal, and he said that although it was a little chilly at night they had a great time on the canals around Bosworth, Stoke Golding and Nuneaton. I hope the hon. Member for Lichfield is pleased to know that on this side of the House we do not just praise our canals but use and cherish them, too.
Our canals provide homes for boaters; importantly, they help to prevent floods; and they have given us a network of green corridors steeped in rich industrial history that is unlike anywhere else in the world. Our waterways are also home to tens of thousands of different species, including some of our most precious creatures, such as bats, water voles and dormice, all of which are at risk of extinction. This debate gives us an opportunity to air our concerns and bring attention to the fact that we all need to do more and go further. Given that the United Kingdom sits in the bottom 10% of countries globally when it comes to biodiversity, it seems obvious that we should do everything in our power to protect the unique habitats we have and the plants and wildlife that call them home. That is what His Majesty’s Opposition will do when we win the next election.
We are broadly at one on the issue, but I cannot let the Minister leave before I have raised a number of specific issues. I know she would expect nothing less. She knows that the job of protecting and developing our phenomenal canal and waterway network falls largely to the Canal & River Trust, so why have Ministers postponed the announcement of the trust’s grant, which provides around a quarter of its funding? It was due to be announced on 1 July. The fact that the Government—well, two Prime Ministers ago—were collapsing is no excuse not to ensure a sustainable and long-term programme of support for the trust, so why, as the final leaves fall from the trees, have we still not heard from the Government, despite their assurances that the overdue funding would be allocated in autumn? The delay is threatening the future of our canals and of all those who rely on them. Furthermore, it makes it more difficult for the trust to plan for the future and hampers the progress of a number of large projects that are designed to help to build and shape much-needed resilience to the harsh and increasingly frequent effects of climate change.
Indeed, the Office for Environmental Protection—a body set up by the Government only last year—has received a complaint describing the constant delays as being
“at risk of becoming the default culture within Defra”,
and just weeks ago the Government failed to meet their own legal deadline to introduce targets on clean air, land and water. There have been many more missed deadlines, quietly scrapped funds and delays to important legislation—I am thinking in particular of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill.
As we discuss the future of Britain’s canals and waterways, I am conscious of the fact that, behind the grand environmental claims, Ministers constantly make the wrong choices. The Opposition believe that is unacceptable, and we want Ministers to be active and to speak out much more quickly. It is not hard to wonder whether the delay in the announcement of the grant for the Canal & River Trust is about whether to slash it or scrap it. If that happens, the trust has been clear that it will not be able to maintain its work of protecting our precious waterways.
At a time of ecological and economic crisis, Britain’s canals and waterways are a haven for wildlife and people alike. I ask the Minister to heed our calls, and the calls made by Government Members, and commit herself to protecting our heritage, saving our wildlife and preserving much-needed opportunities for future generations by properly funding Britain’s canals and waterways, and to do that today.
Before I call the Minister, let me remind the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who introduced the debate, that he might get a minute or two to make a winding-up speech.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Robert, for what has been a most delightful start to the morning, kicked off by our effervescent colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). I expected nothing less because my hon. Friend brings real passion to the subject, on which he has spoken many times. This morning, my hon. Friend also brought his acting skills to bear and used his American accent. All that has helped us to bring the subject to light, as has the wonderful array of colleagues present. At one point, there were no fewer than 10 Conservative Members here, although I wonder where our Labour colleagues are. Perhaps they are not as passionate about canals as we are.
We are passionate about canals!
I of course do not include the hon. Gentleman in that comment. He is ever present in Westminster Hall, and he brought to light the canals in his area. I am going to speak about English and Welsh canals, not Scottish and Northern Irish ones, because Scotland and Northern Ireland sort themselves out and run things themselves. However, it was lovely to hear about the canals in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
What a cornucopia of canals we have heard about—canals from across the country—and I have been struck by the stories that Members told, particularly those about the engagement of volunteers. We have also heard many great names, such as the Erewash canal and the Wyrley and Essington canal, as well as a whole lot from the Cotswolds, which I think my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) puts under the Cotswolds hat—the Stroudwater canal, the Gloucester and Sharpness canal, and the Thames and Severn canal, which are all in the area. She is spoilt for choice.
We also heard about the Walsham and Dilham canal, which is small but becoming perfectly formed after all the work. I have had quite an association with the Kennet and Avon canal, which ran right past my school in the centre of Bath. It played quite a big role in my life: we would go out there for art classes and walk along it. I met my first boyfriend on a sponsored walk along the canal from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon, so I have never forgotten it. My husband and his mates always used to do some sort of activity every year, and the very last activity he went on with his group of lads before he died was on the Kennet and Avon canal. It was in November and it was pouring with rain. He was on crutches, but they still had the most magical time. I remember it with great fondness. That is what can be done on a canal.
I now live near the Bridgwater and Taunton canal, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield mentioned. It was a go-to place to walk along during the lockdown, so it was very important. We have heard about all the benefits that our canals bring, including the huge public benefits—enjoyment, leisure, recreation and waterside holidays. My husband went canoeing, and paddleboarding has become incredibly popular; I suppose it is quite good to do on a canal because there are no waves, unless a boat passes.
Canals have all those great benefits, and there is also their history and industrial heritage. There are huge health and wellbeing benefits to walking along a canal. During lockdown, we regularly used to see kingfishers. Even with all those people walking along the path, the kingfishers were not afraid because it was their habitat and home. We have heard about the amazing green corridors that canals can forge through our countryside, and particularly in cities and towns. I take issue with what the shadow Minister said, because the Government are doing a great deal of work on reintroducing biodiversity in nature. We are setting targets for that, and canals form a very important part of it.
The United Kingdom’s largest navigation authority is the Canal & Rivers Trust. As has been said, something like 800 million visits are made to our canals every year, which is pretty phenomenal. That shows just how important they are. Our waterways and navigation authorities have a really important part to play in helping to ensure that this important piece of our infrastructure is resilient to climate change and helps us to meet our net zero targets through sustainable transport, energy generation and the transfer of water.
Water security is becoming an increasingly important issue. I am the Water Minister—I am pleased to say that is one of the hats I wear—and water security is as important as all the other issues that we are tackling, such as water demand. Climate change is triggering changes and extreme weather events. The Government are developing policies to adapt to climate change right throughout the country, and our navigation authorities are exploring ways to adapt the network to climate change.
The infrastructure can also contribute to net zero. That includes examining the feasibility of increasing electrification of the networks and encouraging boaters to switch to electric vessels. Earlier this year, the Broads Authority, with funding from the Department for Transport’s clean maritime demonstration competition, examined the potential for the electrification of the broads hire boat fleet. The Environment Agency has installed a number of electric charging points along the non-tidal River Thames, and the Canal & River Trust has installed electric charging points on a few of its London canals, including a trial eco-mooring zone on the Regent’s canal, part-funded by DEFRA and the London Borough of Islington.
The Minister is setting out some fantastic examples of how we can help our waterways to adapt for the future with electric points and so forth, but one thing that really concerns me is our ageing infrastructure. Looking ahead is fantastic and absolutely the right thing to do, but will she reassure me that the Government will play their part when it comes to the maintenance and restoration of the infrastructure that we have today?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that pertinent point. I will refer to it a bit later in my speech, but it is a really serious point. Of course, infrastructure is affected by climate change and extremes of weather, which are putting more pressure on some assets. As well as the opportunities around electrification, there are similar opportunities with active travel and the cycle networks along our canals, which allow people to get away from roadsides and travel in a much fresher and cleaner environment. If we can get more people to take to their bikes, it will help us reduce carbon emissions and tackle the net zero targets.
Let me go back to water security, which is really important. Our navigation authorities have an important role to play in this endeavour in times of both flooding and drought. They can help by managing water levels, and the long dry spells this summer have highlighted how the canal network could increasingly play a role in water transfer, particularly from west to east. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned taking water from the wet west to the east. All these things obviously have to be carefully worked out, and I have spoken to the Canal & River Trust about how such opportunities would work. I particularly welcome Affinity Water’s plan to work with the Canal & River Trust to transfer water through the Grand Union canal, and I know others are looking at other such opportunities.
As has been touched on, the network has a really important historic value, with much of it being more than 200 years old. It matters a great deal to people and a lot of restoration work is under way. We have heard so much about volunteers and I, too, thank them. So many volunteers have played a key role in restoring sections of our canals, and I particularly want to mention that I had a wonderful trip to the Monty canal in Montgomeryshire, where I met lots of volunteers and saw the work they were doing. They have benefited from a £16 million levelling-up fund grant. Members have mentioned the levelling-up benefits of canals, and that money is being spent well in the community to restore the fantastic canal in the centre of town.
The Minister is talking about funding; when can we expect the funding announcement for the Canal & River Trust that was supposed to be made back in July? Rather than the parliamentary “shortly”, can we have an actual date?
The hon. Lady mentioned that in her speech, as did others, so I will come to it now. Many Members mentioned the annual grant to the Canal & River Trust, so I want to explain a bit about the grant, how it happened and the history around it. The grant stands at £52.6 million until 2027 and currently represents about one quarter of the trust’s annual income, which means that the trust derives three quarters of its annual income from other sources. That distinction is very important, because one of the trust’s objectives when it was created in 2012 with charitable status was that it would be free of the public sector constraints that its predecessor, British Waterways, was subject to. Freedom from public sector constraints meant that the trust would be free to develop other income generation strategies, including by benefiting from charitable donations and legacies, charity tax reliefs, third-party project funding and borrowing on the financial markets.
It is also worth mentioning that in 2012 the trust was endowed by the Government with a significant property and investment portfolio, which is currently valued at around £1.1 billion, and the returns were to be used as income. The clear intent was that the trust would reduce its dependence on the Government grant and foster increasing self-sufficiency by providing access to income streams not available to public corporations and by stimulating new efficiencies.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield that British Waterways received more funding than the Canal & River Trust: indeed, that was the intent behind establishing an independent charity to undertake that function. However, it is important that we compare like with like when looking at the evolution of Government funding. British Waterways, a public corporation, was responsible for the waterways in England, Wales and Scotland, whereas the Canal & River Trust—which is a charity, with access to charitable benefits and tax breaks—is responsible for England and Wales only. Scottish Canals funding represented £10.5 million in 2011-12, and the existing grant increased by £10 million in 2015-16 and has been inflation-adjusted until April 2022. It is then required by the grant agreement to be flat for the final five years of the grant period.
I appreciate the Minister setting out the history behind the finances, but I want to reinforce the point that when we discuss the £52.6 million that the Canal & River Trust is in receipt of, we must not underestimate the huge level of income streams that they are generating, heading towards the target that the Government want them to get to. It is important that the Government do not lose sight of the £4.6 billion-worth of benefits that are coming in in various ways. Also, given that the climate change agenda has changed so much since 2012, does the Minister agree that we are not comparing apples with apples here?
My right hon. Friend makes some sound points. That is why the team in DEFRA is working so closely with the trust to iron out what is required and what would be the right tapering or reduction of rates. That is being carefully calculated, because huge benefits are realised and the pressures of climate change are changing things. Of course, as we have heard, the Canal & River Trust is already attracting grants from other places—the levelling-up fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and so on. Some big grants have come in that way as well.
Will the Minister give way?
It will have to be quick, because I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield a chance to wind up.
The Minister has hit the nail on the head, but without realising that the grant that the Canal & River Trust receives is an enabling grant to ensure it can get grants from other sources. Without that enabling grant from the Government, some of the other grants and support would probably not come through, which shows how important the Government’s support will continue to be.
I do not think anybody denies the importance of the Government’s support, hence why so much care is being taken in working out the future of that support. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield noted, the grant was agreed for a period of 15 years, from 2012 to 2027. That was to give the trust a measure of financial stability while working on its other income streams, which it has done very effectively. That includes maintenance of the canal network, which is a significant part of annual expenditure, and it is the trust’s responsibility to decide on its priorities and consider where it needs to spend its money. We are all aware of the Toddbrook reservoir dam incident three years ago, which highlighted how essential it is to put safety at the forefront as a top priority of waterways. I know that will remain the case.
The grant agreement requires that a review of the trust’s grant be carried out at the 10-year point, which is what my Department is currently completing. We are looking with a laser focus at all the issues that have been raised, scrutinising the trust’s performance to date—has the grant been value for money?—and the case for continued funding into the future. As I have said, we are working closely with the trust on this matter; the review has been concluded, and indeed was due to report by 1 July. A range of extraneous influences, politely referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash, slowed that somewhat, but it is progressing now with speed. I am unable to comment further in detail on the outcomes, but it will be announced forthwith—not shortly but forthwith. The Department and I will continue to work with the new chair, David Orr. I am looking forward to meeting him and going out on more visits.
In closing, I thank my hon. Friend for raising the subject, and all colleagues for giving insights on the joys of canals and getting to the nub of what is concerning people. Funding is obviously of paramount importance. We have to get that right, which is why time is being taken over it. The announcement will be made as soon as possible. In the meantime, I wish the trust all the best with the great work it does. I do not think anybody denies for a minute the enormous benefits we get from our canal network.
I thank everyone who participated in the debate. I did not make a list but the Minister did, so I would like to thank her for making that list of about a dozen people who participated. I thank all the parties involved, especially the Minister.
I was feverishly looking up the meaning of “forthwith”, but I did not get that far, or of “immediately” or “in the near future”. Clearly, that is immensely important, as I think the Minister knows. I will embarrass her by saying she is nodding, I think in agreement with me. Everyone here realises the importance for the Canal & River Trust to have some idea of what its grant will be after March 2027, when it terminates. It needs to plan which canals remain open. We do not want to see any of our canals close like the example I gave of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal. As Joni Mitchell sang:
“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
We do not want to see that happen to our canals and waterways, but we need some certainty. I am a little disappointed, though I understand the reasons why the Minister could not give certainty today. I am sure that “forthwith” means not a year or two years from now. I am sure that “forthwith” does not even mean three months from now. I hope that “forthwith” means that within a few weeks we will learn precisely what grant the Canal & River Trust will be given. Only once it knows that, can it plan ahead. Only by planning ahead will we be able to maintain such an important element of our national heritage.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the UK’s canals and waterways.
Asylum Seekers Contingency Accommodation: Belfast
I will call Claire Hanna to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention with 30-minute debates.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the use of contingency accommodation for asylum seekers in Belfast.
It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Sir Robert I welcome the opportunity to raise this issue and I welcome the presence of the Minister to respond. It is fair to say that the Minister’s party and my own are probably in very different places ideologically in how we approach asylum and humanitarian issues, but I intend to focus my remarks on the implementation and impact of UK Government policy as it manifests in the area that I represent—primarily the use of hotels for long periods due to the catastrophic Home Office failures in processing asylum applications.
The growing backlog in decisions and claims is the core problem in asylum, meaning that more people are left in limbo, unable to move on and live a life. Anyone in direct contact with people in asylum accommodation knows that it is unsuitable for most, especially families and those with specific needs, on anything more than a very short-term basis. By way of context, it is of course a complicated and hard enough and dangerous world out there. Although the necessity to leave one’s home country in order to survive is beyond the lived experience of most of us in this room, we know there are myriad reasons that people are forced to make the decision to flee their home—war, famine, persecution, and increasingly the climate crisis. We are lucky to live in places where we are not faced with those kinds of decisions. Indeed, the UK receives a relatively low number of applications from the global asylum seeker population—considerably below the European average.
The number of people seeking asylum has not changed dramatically over the years, although the routes have changed and the number of arrivals in Belfast has increased. There is a current upward curve, but, overall, arrivals remain below the levels of asylum sought in the early 2000s. What has changed, though, and what has collapsed, is the Home Office’s willingness or ability to process applications properly, and that is creating bottlenecks in the use of contingency hotel accommodation. The system is broken and unfortunately there seems to be no plan to fix it. If the Government spent as much money on resourcing, processing or designing safe routes as they have on cartoonishly cruel proposals such as the Rwanda scheme and wave machines, we would be in a very different position.
I am encouraged by word of positive discussions with France to reduce unsafe channel crossings because, to date, the only success of Government policy has been to increase fear and trauma among asylum seekers and refugees. It is not reducing the number of people coming because they do not, in most cases, have the luxury of choice.
I represent south Belfast, long known as the most diverse and integrated part of Northern Ireland, and proudly home to people from all around the world. As the MP, I am often contacted by people regarding their asylum claims, and the numbers have spiked in the last year for reasons that include a post-covid backlog and being forced to apply retrospectively post arrival.
Figures from the Refugee Council indicate that the UK’s asylum backlog has almost quadrupled in the last five years, from just under 30,000 in December 2017 to 122,000 in June 2022. The comparison over 10 years is even more stark. In December 2011, the number of people awaiting an initial decision was just 12,800. Freedom of information requests reveal that of those awaiting an initial decision, one third have been waiting one to three years, with a proportion waiting more than five years, which is the situation facing specific constituents of mine. That limbo period is a mental torment for people who are unable to participate properly in society, who have little recourse to public funds, and who are unable to work or start a business. Some three quarters of applicants are ultimately accepted as legitimately seeking asylum, but they are held back unnecessarily from beginning a new life.
Selectively leaked Home Office figures urge us all to look instead at those who do not have legitimate claims—a deflection and a demonisation strategy that many of us are used to in terms of the abuse of people who require social security support. The obvious way to address those who do not qualify for asylum is to process and reject their applications, but that is not as politically lucrative as rhetoric about invasion and overwhelm.
Home Office figures, to the extent that they are available by region, indicate that the number of people arriving in Northern Ireland seeking asylum has increased significantly since January 2021, and just over 1,000 people are currently in hotel accommodation. Around 15% of hotels in Belfast are now designated as contingency accommodation for asylum seekers. In Northern Ireland, the accommodation is run by Mears, a private company, for profit.
I commend the hon. Lady for bringing the debate forward, and am glad to be here to support her. Home Office figures for the past year show that 2,010 asylum seekers received local authority support in Belfast—more than double the figure for last year. There have been numerous reports that, throughout Belfast and Northern Ireland, the conditions of some—but not all—of the homes asylum seekers have been given are damp, mouldy, dirty and not fit to live in. Does the hon. Lady agree that we must focus on ensuring that the homes we already have are safe and clean, before we focus our priorities on additional accommodation for asylum seekers, whose applications are, as she says, taking months to process?
There is no doubt that the public housing stock in Northern Ireland is inadequate and has been under-resourced for many decades. The hotels and dispersal accommodation are in many cases far from adequate. The hotel accommodation that we are discussing is far from the luxury that some people would want us to believe it is. I am pleased to say that the hotels of which I am aware in Northern Ireland are themselves in decent physical order, but I understand that that is not always the case elsewhere.
The setting is often compared to prison because of the restrictions placed on residents, the overcrowding of rooms, and the disruption from fellow residents, among whom some mental ill health is inevitable given the circumstances. Children and adults share the same small spaces. In at least one hotel, offices have been converted into bedrooms. The overall atmosphere is described as chaotic and oppressive.
Behind the statistics is one of my constituents, Mustafa, who, since arriving in Northern Ireland in January this year, has been living in one room with his wife, Linda, and their three boys, who are aged five, six and 13. They spend most of their days in their room. They eat at set mealtimes, and are unable to choose what to eat. They are unable to have the simple family pleasure of shared mealtimes. They all have to go to bed at the same time, or lie in silence. Their movements outside the hotel are restricted by time and distance limits. That is as close to imprisonment as is possible without actually being incarcerated.
The experiences of individuals and children in contingency accommodation falls significantly short in key respects, which include the right to education, the right to play, the right to privacy, the right to family life, the right to health, freedom of assembly, effective participation in society, and respect for and opportunity to develop one’s own culture. Families in the hotels do not have access to shared spaces for play, socialising or self-organisation. Many of the hotels lack proper outdoor space, and those in city centre hotels do not have access to play parks or other stimulating environments—Belfast city centre does not do well enough on green space. Children who do not have a place in school are particularly restricted in terms of age-appropriate activities. Many of those in contingency accommodation are from the continent of Africa, and they experience a much more restrictive and less supportive asylum process than new arrivals from Ukraine, for whom the situation is absolutely no picnic.
Mustafa and his family’s situation is reflected hundreds of times over. One of the issues raised regularly with me is the atmosphere of fear and restriction in hotels. Indeed, when I visited a hotel a few weeks ago for a meeting with a constituent to discuss only their asylum application—no comment had been made to me about the accommodation—I was treated to an extremely frosty reception by a member of staff. I was told in no uncertain terms to leave the hotel, despite having been signed in and granted access by very courteous security guards. As we say in Belfast, I am big and ugly enough to look after myself and to deal with people, but I am genuinely concerned about the atmosphere that that creates for people who are fearful of getting on the wrong side of the system that will decide their future. Complaints processes are long and unwieldy, and it feels impossible for asylum seekers to effect positive change from within the system.
Ultimately, processing backlogs mean a lack of control or agency for people, in any area of their lives, for interminable periods of time. They elongate and exacerbate the worst experience of their lives. My caseworkers and I tried to seek updates about the growing backlog of applicants, and were increasingly met with silence or oblique responses from the Home Office. Each new arrival essentially has to reinvent the wheel and chart their own course in terms of accessing information about public services and their basic financial entitlements. Financial restrictions mean that families cannot avail themselves of social or cultural activities and they cannot buy specific toiletries, clothes or other things for their children. The ban on the right to work for asylum seekers drives more people into destitution; it does nothing to help them integrate or to stand on their own feet, as people want. It makes little sense at a time when we know the UK’s economy is being limited by skills and labour shortages.
I fully support campaigning by organisations, such as Participation and the Practice of Rights, for the right to work for asylum seekers who have been waiting for more than six months. I deeply regret that a well-supported and crafted cross-party amendment to the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 did not advance the issue.
A report from the Children’s Law Centre in Northern Ireland earlier this year found that around 135 school-age children placed in accommodation had not been provided with school places. School places, when they are sorted, are temporary because of the temporary nature of accommodation, meaning that the children are unable to settle properly. I must commend a number of local schools that have really stepped up and truly wrapped their arms around those children and their families. Notably, in Belfast, Fane Street Primary School and Holy Rosary Primary have done so in a way that is genuinely inspiring and reassuring about the society we live in.
While the original sin in the asylum system is processing failures, the issues I have outlined also demonstrate fundamental failure by the Northern Ireland Executive, as was until last month, who are inadequately co-ordinating services that asylum seekers are entitled to in Northern Ireland. We are still without a proper refugee integration strategy, and efforts to address the needs of asylum seekers are piecemeal and largely reliant on voluntary and community organisations to lead and step into the breach.
The asylum seekers I speak to have their already restricted opportunities to leave their accommodation hampered by the worry that they might miss a call about their accommodation or another public service. That means they are cut off from the small number of services that are put in place for them. I wrote to the various Departments at different points this year, asking that Ministers—who were very much in post at the time—commit to engaging across Departments. I am afraid that I got fairly vague platitudes about working with the wider public and voluntary sectors. I am yet to see much evidence.
It does not have to be that way. Northern Ireland and the UK have a track record of successful co-ordination in welcoming asylum seekers. In 2015, Northern Ireland welcomed 1,800 Syrians under the Syrian vulnerable person relocation scheme. Through that scheme, families received support from a consortium of voluntary and statutory organisations, along with overwhelming support from the population in Northern Ireland. The scheme treated people with dignity and compassion; it ensured that they had access to the right to work, to public services, to paperwork and to the right to family reunion. That shows that we do have the capacity and compassion to welcome and integrate asylum seekers.
In conclusion, I acknowledge that these are complex and, in many cases, expensive challenges. The Government have many competing priorities, and I reiterate that no one is suggesting that the UK takes all asylum seekers—we absolutely do not do that. While it is obvious that the contingency accommodation that we are contracting is inadequate, the underlying cause of those issues, and where the blame lies, is firmly at the feet of the Home Office. Hotel accommodation, even if it was well appointed and integrated with public services, is restrictive for normal family life. The Home Office has created and perpetuated the crisis through its hostile environment policy, which is penny wise and pound foolish. It has been through sheer, and fairly basic, incompetence.
It would suit the Home Office better to put in place rational, fair and humane ways to deal with backlog of claims, to provide safe and legal routes—including being able to apply from outside the UK—and to resource and expedite the integration of those granted asylum into society. That would allow them to work, fully participate and contribute positively to the economy, as other aspects of inward migration very clearly do.
The Syrian scheme, which the Government have been running for some time, has been an absolute success for us in Newtownards. I know we took only six families, but they integrated quickly and all the local community and church groups came together to make that happen. The families have excelled and are working. They are fully able to use the language and have integrated into society, so does the hon. Lady agree that there are examples of what can be done, and done well?
I thank the hon. Member for pointing that out. We have demonstrated that that is possible under the Northern Executive and a Conservative Government.
We want to see an end to the use of hotels for anything other than short-term stays, certainly for children and pregnant women. We need urgent improvement in living standards and atmosphere in Mears accommodation, and we need effective data sharing, co-ordination and co-operation between the Home Office, the Northern Ireland Departments and Northern Ireland public bodies in order to ensure access to services and support. To the limited extent that the UK is meeting its legal obligations and playing a constructive role in the world, we need to do it properly. We have shown we can do that, I believe the population wants us to do that, and we know the need is there, whether we want to do it or not.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) for securing this debate, which is the first that we have had the pleasure to take part in together. It raises some important issues that I hope I can address over the course of my remarks.
As a country, we face a significant challenge in all parts of the United Kingdom. The confluence of record numbers of migrants crossing the channel in small boats, with the schemes that the hon. Lady set out, such as the Homes for Ukraine scheme, the Syrian resettlement scheme and the Afghan resettlement scheme, has meant that over the course of a two or three-year period a very large number of individuals have arrived in the UK and now need our support in contingency accommodation.
In some cases, those with the right to remain here for a longer period, or indefinitely, also need support in order to have a full and fulfilling life in the United Kingdom. That has put immense pressure on our asylum system and on local government and devolved Administrations throughout the United Kingdom. That is the challenge that the Home Secretary and I are now grappling with.
Northern Ireland is not a full dispersal area for asylum seekers, as the hon. Lady will know. That means that the asylum seekers who are accommodated in Northern Ireland are almost exclusively, if not exclusively, those who have presented themselves and claimed asylum in Northern Ireland. The vast majority of those will have crossed the border from the Republic of Ireland in order to make their asylum application, which makes this a different situation to those found in the rest of the UK. Comparatively, that also means fewer individuals are claiming asylum and being accommodated in Northern Ireland than in some other parts of the UK. That does not mean that the issue is not serious or that the pressures on accommodating them in accordance with our statutory obligations are not significant.
We are taking a broad approach, on many different fronts. First, on the diplomatic front, we are working with partners, such as France and the Republic of Ireland, to try to discourage individuals from crossing the channel or the border, to break up the people smuggling gangs, which are particularly active on the continent and in the channel, and to create a system in which deterrence is a golden thread running through it and diffused throughout it, so that we are significantly less attractive as a destination for asylum seekers, particularly economic migrants, than our EU neighbours.
I appreciate the Minister setting out the context for the pressure on public services, but I draw attention to the years of inadequate investment in those public services and I dispute some of his figures about those arriving in Northern Ireland. Does he understand my point that, notwithstanding the challenges of providing accommodation and food needs, the core failure is in processing? The number of staff to process asylum seekers was higher in the past, and that is primarily where the Home Office is failing.
I do not agree with the hon. Lady. It is not that I disagree with the fact that the backlog of cases has grown too large and now needs to be tackled, which I will come to in a moment, but these are the symptoms of the problem. The cause of the problem is record numbers of people choosing to come into the United Kingdom illegally and the consequence of that is the exact opposite of what the hon. Lady seeks to achieve, which is that those illegal migrants, the economic migrants in particular, are putting immense pressure on our system in all parts of the UK and making it difficult, and in some cases impossible, for us to treat people who are genuinely fleeing persecution, war and human rights abuses in the manner that we would all wish to do as a big-hearted and welcoming country.
The hon. Lady is correct to say that the number of individuals waiting for their asylum cases to be processed is unacceptably high. That has risen over the course of the last three years for a range of reasons, some of which are related to a drop in productivity during the pandemic. We now need to change that. My role and that of the Home Secretary is to ensure we raise productivity in all the Home Office’s offices, including those personnel based in Northern Ireland, and ensure that we return to at least the levels of productivity we had prior to the pandemic.
We have already done a pilot of that approach at our Leeds office, which has seen a significant increase in the speed of processing. We are rolling that out now across the whole of the country. This is not a matter of resources or the number of decision makers. The part of the Home Office that handles this now has greater resources than prior to the pandemic and we have more than 1,000 individuals making the decisions, with that number rapidly rising to a target of 1,500. The issue, I am afraid, is one of leadership and productivity and that is what we are now setting out to address.
Coming to the specific issue of the accommodation that the hon. Lady raises, I want to make a few points that provide background and which I hope are helpful. First, having reviewed the accommodation throughout Northern Ireland in preparation for the debate, it is true to say that it is heavily centred on Belfast and in particular on the hon. Lady’s constituency. Across the UK, one of our objectives is to move to fairer and more equitable distribution so that individual cities or towns are not facing a disproportionate impact. There needs to be an effort to encourage more parts of Northern Ireland to accommodate asylum seekers.
Of course, I will make the point that almost the only way for people to arrive is illegally, due to the absence of safe and legal routes. Can the Home Office publish the data about arrival? Can the Minister also outline the efforts made to engage with other councils and areas in south Belfast and more widely than Belfast? He characterises it as a disproportionate pressure, but the Syrian scheme showed that there is willingness to take on and there is capacity. However, that has to be led by the Home Office, which controls dispersal and the resources that come with it.
I can only speak to the time that I have been in position, which is only around a month. We have engaged with local authorities throughout the United Kingdom to explain the challenges that are being faced and encourage them to play their fair part in the solution. Yesterday, I held a call with the leaders and chief executives of all local authorities throughout the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. In the absence of the Executive, my officials are actively engaging with civil servants and with local leaders and partners to encourage other parts of Northern Ireland to play a greater role.
We have instituted mandatory dispersal, by which we are encouraging children and adults to be accommodated by all local authorities throughout the United Kingdom. We have put in place a financial package to encourage local authorities to do that. That amounts to £3,500 per asylum-seeking adult and a more substantial package for unaccompanied children, with which there is a particular problem. Indeed, we are looking for state and private foster carers and children’s homes to find places for those vulnerable young people so we can get them out of hotels as swiftly as possible. If there is anything the hon. Lady and her colleagues can do to encourage local partners throughout Northern Ireland to step up and find other contingency accommodation—particularly dispersal accommodation, which is the ultimate solution to the hotels—that would be very much appreciated. The Department is understandably hamstrung by the lack of an Executive to deal with directly in the way we would wish.
The medium-term strategy to exit hotels, beyond reducing the backlog and bearing down on the number of individuals coming to the UK illegally, is to move to a model whereby we use hotels judiciously in exceptional circumstances; find a greater pool of dispersal accommodation in all parts of the United Kingdom, working with local authorities and relevant public bodies; and find more sustainable, somewhat larger, sites, such as disused student accommodation, where we can provide suitable accommodation for asylum seekers that is decent but not luxurious and provides good value for money for the taxpayer. We will provide good engagement prior to arrival so that the wraparound services that the hon. Lady mentioned in respect of health and education are constantly improved, as appropriate.
The hon. Lady and several colleagues from both sides of the House and all parts of the United Kingdom have raised engagement with me in my short tenure in the Department. At times, there has been limited engagement by the Home Office prior to choosing hotels and bringing in asylum seekers, and we need to change that. We have now instituted basic performance standards whereby the Home Office and its partners will engage with relevant local bodies at least 24 hours before individuals are sited in that hotel or other contingency accommodation. We will involve all the relevant agencies that are needed to ensure that those individuals’ arrival and stay are as successful as possible.
That is a first step, and we want to progressively improve that in the weeks and months to come to the point where local authorities and relevant public bodies are included in the decision-making process at the earliest opportunity. The Home Office—Whitehall—is clearly not best placed to choose the right contingency accommodation in particular cities and towns across the country, such as Belfast, and I believe we can improve that.
I have also met the suppliers this week, including Mears, to discuss how they can improve their engagement with Members of Parliament and local representatives. They have committed to step up their engagement and ensure that for every building that is occupied, such as a hotel, they provide a named point of contact so that the hon. Lady and her local partners can have proper engagement in an ongoing fashion with the people running the building. That would enable her to raise concerns as swiftly as possible with the relevant people so that, where appropriate, improvements can be made.
I hope that has provided some context to the Home Office’s approach. I appreciate the hon. Lady’s concerns and I take them seriously, even if we have a different attitude to the broader question of asylum. We want to ensure that we meet our statutory obligations to provide decent accommodation to all those who are in our care for as long as they are in the United Kingdom. I am very happy to work with her, her local partners and residents of Belfast to improve the situation.
Question put and agreed to.
NHS Staffing Levels
[Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered NHS staffing levels.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to all the nurses, doctors and other medical professionals—indeed, everybody who works in the NHS—for the work they do to look after patients and keep us all safe.
I have been overwhelmed by the number of organisations that have shown interest in this debate and have shared details of how the NHS staffing crisis is impacting on the people they represent. They are too numerous to mention here, but they include the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of General Practitioners, Versus Arthritis, Cancer Research UK, Unite the union, Parkinson’s UK, the Royal College of Midwives and many others. It is clear that there is insufficient capacity in the NHS in England to meet the needs of patients.
The NHS staffing crisis is a direct result of the failure of Conservative Governments to plan and deliver the workforce that we need. The crisis is not just about the impact of the pandemic; it predates that. In June this year, there were more than 132,000 vacancies in the NHS in England, which is up from around 98,000 the previous year and from around 105,000 in March. When we look specifically at registered nursing staff, as of June there were over 46,000 vacancies. Alarmingly, that is almost 8,000 more than in March. For medical staff, there were over 10,500 vacancies in June, which is around 2,500 more than in March.
By way of comparison, in December 2019 there were around 38,000 nursing vacancies and more than 8,800 medical staff vacancies. What was already an extremely serious situation before the pandemic has become worse. Staffing shortages create stress for NHS workers, and delays and deteriorating quality and safety for patients. As well as vacancies, waiting times for treatment and emergency services have continued to soar. Last month, of the nearly 1.4 million people who visited major A&E departments, more than 550,000 waited more than four hours from arrival to admission, transfer or discharge. That is 45.2% of attendees, which is way short of the target of 95% to be seen in four hours. In December 2019, 31.4% waited for more than four hours. Again, an already serious situation before covid has got worse.
As of last month, a total of 7.1 million people in England were waiting to start routine hospital treatment. More than 400,000 people had been waiting more than 52 weeks, and more than 2,000 longer than two years. Behind those statistics are huge numbers of people waiting in pain and anxiety. Cancer Research UK points out that, in September of this year, only 60.5% of patients started treatment within 62 days of an urgent referral, against a target of 85%. That means that, in September alone, around 6,000 people waited for more than 62 days for their cancer treatment to start. Even before the pandemic, cancer patients were waiting too long for diagnosis and treatment. The 62-day target has not been met since 2015.
On the Conservatives’ watch, millions of patients are being deprived of the timely treatment that they desperately need. Because of the unacceptable delays, some are paying for expensive private healthcare, and many are distressed to do so, because they believe in a publicly owned, universal, comprehensive national health service. They have been failed by Conservative Governments.
The staffing crisis is having a devastating impact on retention. Last month, the Health Service Journal reported that a record number of NHS workers voluntarily resigned from their jobs during the first quarter of this financial year. Almost 35,000 resigned voluntarily, which is up from around 28,000 during the same period in 2021 and around 19,000 in 2020. The most common reason for leaving during quarter 1 of 2021-22 was work-life balance, which almost 7,000 NHS workers cited as their reason for leaving.
A few months ago, I met with members of the Royal College of Nursing. They told me about the incredible amount of pressure that they are under because of staff shortages. They also told me of nurses suffering financial hardship. Some are going to food banks, some are unable to afford to drive to work, and some are leaving the profession to work in chain stores for better pay. However, it is not just about pay. The nurses told me that they often simply do not have enough colleagues to work alongside them. That is extremely stressful for them, and dangerous and deeply unfair for patients.
I turn now to industrial action. NHS staff care deeply about their patients, but they can also see that the NHS is at breaking point. Earlier this month, the Royal College of Nursing voted to take strike action in its fight for fair pay and safe staffing. That is unprecedented and has not been done lightly. The RCN has been clear: its members have voted for fair pay for nursing, safe patient care and to protect patients.
Numerous other organisations, representing thousands of workers, are also balloting for industrial action, including Unite the Union, Unison, the Royal College of Midwives and the GMB union. The Conservative Government’s failure to address the NHS staffing crisis is putting those working in the service under immense pressure and, in some instances, putting patients at risk. It is notable that, in a poll of 6,000 adults, carried out on behalf of Unite, 73% of respondents supported NHS and careworkers receiving pay rises that keep up with the cost of living. The Government should take note.
We cannot discuss the NHS staffing crisis without highlighting the Conservatives’ privatisation agenda, because it does impact on people working in the service. The Health and Care Act 2022 split the NHS in England into 42 statutory integrated care systems, each comprising an integrated care board and integrated care partnership.
I thank the hon. Lady for making such a poignant and important speech, and for securing this debate, because we are all grappling with the issue. Does she agree that the staff in the NHS do their very best, but the future planning of the workforce is also an issue? We do not have enough staff for the future workforce plan. That is particularly the case in mental health and learning disabilities. I read that 215 young people took their lives in 2021, the highest figure since records began. Is that a concern to her, because I think it is for most of us in the House? I am sure that, in the excellent speech is making, she will want to highlight that.
The hon. Lady makes an incredibly important point. There can be no more poignant and devastating example of what this crisis is leading to.
The Health and Care Act is a privatising piece of legislation that opens the door to private companies having a greater say in the delivery of health care. Guidance by NHS England, while the Act was going through Parliament, stated that it would enable integrated care boards to delegate functions to providers, including devolving budgets to provider collaboratives. Provider collaboratives are partnership arrangements involving at least two trusts, and they can include representation from the private or independent sector.
As we now know, the delegation of commissioning from ICBs to provider collaboratives will definitely go ahead. That represents not only the opportunity for the privatisation of the NHS, but clearly has implications for NHS staff. I am concerned that a situation may well arise where a provider collaborative decides to commission services from the private sector, instead of from the NHS provider that is currently delivering the service. In that instance, NHS staff may well find that their jobs are lost from the NHS, and that equivalent work is available only in the private sector, on poorer pay and conditions of service.
The Health and Care Act, which was passed by the Conservative Government earlier this year, has the potential to undermine national collective bargaining, and the pay and terms and conditions of NHS staff. It also undermines the concept of the NHS as a publicly owned organisation that has served us so well since 1948. The Act prohibits the chair of an ICB from approving or appointing someone as a member of any committee or sub-committee that exercises commissioning functions, if the chair considers that the appointment could reasonably be regarded as undermining the independence of the health service, because of the candidate’s involvement with the private healthcare sector or otherwise. However, that is clearly open to interpretation. It by no means rules out people with interests in private healthcare from sitting on those sub-committees.
If we are serious about providing governance that rules out the possibility of the private sector influencing the expenditure of public money, an organisation carrying out the functions of an ICB on its behalf should be a statutory NHS body. It is a great pity that the Government did not legislate for that, despite an amendment in my name calling for it, which had cross-party support.
Private companies can also have influence through integrated care partnerships, which are required to prepare a strategy setting out how the assessed needs of its area are to be met. ICBs must have regard to a strategy drawn up by an ICP, which I am concerned might be influenced by private companies. Of course, the responsibility of a private company is to make money for shareholders; it is not to support a publicly owned, publicly run national health service.
Other provisions in the Act also have serious implications for staff. The Act allows for a profession that is currently regulated to be removed from statutory regulation. That is deeply concerning. Once a profession is deregulated, we can expect the level of expertise in that field to decline over time, alongside the status and pay of those carrying out those important roles. Deregulation also brings with it serious long-term implications for the health and safety of patients.
The Act also provides for the revoking of the national tariff and its replacement with a new NHS payment scheme. Engagement on the NHS payment scheme is still under way, with a statutory consultation due to begin shortly. I have long been concerned that, given the requirement in the Act for NHS England to consult with each relevant provider before publishing the NHS payment scheme, including private providers, this may well be a mechanism through which the Government will give private health companies the opportunity to undercut the NHS. If that happens, I believe that one of the inevitable outcomes would be an erosion of the scope of “Agenda for Change”, as healthcare that should be provided by the NHS is increasingly delivered by the private sector.
In that event, NHS staff may then find themselves forced out of jobs that are currently on “Agenda for Change” rates of pay, pensions and other terms and conditions, with only private-sector jobs with potentially lesser pay and conditions available for them to apply for if they wish to continue working in the health service. Just like the provision around provider collaboratives, that would appear to hold risk for NHS staff and their pay and conditions. As such, I would be grateful if the Minister will guarantee that the pay rates of “Agenda for Change”, pensions, and other terms and conditions of all eligible current NHS staff will not be undermined as a result of the adoption of the NHS payment scheme. Can he also confirm that trade unions, staff representative bodies and all the royal colleges will be consulted before the NHS payment scheme is published, as Ministers in the other place assured us during the passage of the Act?
I understand that the Government are to publish a comprehensive NHS workforce plan next year, including independently verified workforce forecasts of the number of doctors, nurses and other professionals we will need in five, 10 and 15 years’ time. Such a plan is long overdue, so can the Minister provide some further details about when we will see it? Will that plan also include details of the numbers of staff we will need in the social care sector, where there is also a workforce crisis that is intricately linked to that in the NHS? Will the Minister set out what measures he is taking to address the staffing crisis this winter?
The reality is that today, we are training NHS professionals in the same professional silos as we did 100 years ago. Medicine has moved on massively, so in light of the fact that a new workforce plan is being drawn up, is it not right that those professions are revisited to ensure we have a workforce fit for the future, as opposed to doing things just because we have done them for so many years?
As ever, my hon. Friend makes an interesting and detailed point born of her experience. The Minister should take note.
To conclude, since 2010, Conservative Governments have let the crisis in NHS staffing develop. Instead of doing the important business of Government and bringing forward a timely workforce plan and a properly funded training regime, they have focused their energy on not one, but two, major reorganisations of the national health service designed to open it up to privatisation. Instead of tending to the needs of the workforce and the needs of patients, they have been priming the pump for shareholders. The NHS must remain a comprehensive universal service, publicly owned, paid for through direct taxation and free at the point of use for all who need it. That very concept is under threat: it has been reported this week that NHS leaders in Scotland have discussed abandoning the founding principles of the NHS by having the wealthy pay for treatment, thus creating a two-tier system. Not only would that be a betrayal of its founding principles, but it would also bring in costly administrative processes that are not currently needed, as patients would need to be means-tested.
The NHS is also under threat from this Conservative Government’s failure to get a grip on the staffing crisis, and from their privatisation agenda. This attack on the fundamental principles of a comprehensive, universal, publicly owned national health service, free to all who need it and paid for through direct taxation, has left patients neglected and staff overworked and underpaid. Patients, the NHS, and all who work in the service deserve better. The Government must come forward as a matter of urgency with a credible plan to put things right for NHS staff and set out how they are going to deal with the crisis this winter, and Ministers must give NHS workers a fair pay rise, protect NHS services, and ensure staff safety.
Order. The debate can last until 4 o’clock. I am obliged to call Front Benchers no later than 3.27 pm. The guideline limits are 10 minutes for the Scottish National party, 10 minutes for His Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. Margaret Greenwood will have three minutes to sum up the debate at the end. Nine speakers are seeking to take part so we have a time limit of four and a half minutes. I will be grateful if hon. Members stick to that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for this important debate on a subject that is close to my heart. I have many friends and family who work in the NHS and I speak to them regularly about the severe pressures they are under. I doubt there is a single Member of Parliament whose inbox is not full of casework, both from patients whose treatment has been delayed because of staff shortages and from overstretched NHS workers who are frustrated that, with the best will in the world, they simply cannot meet the demands they face each and every day.
I want to mention a couple of the emails I have received in recent weeks. Eamon works in the NHS and told me:
“After over 10 years of underfunding, I see my colleagues and staff within the hospitals I visit every day look more and more dejected, run down, insulted and demoralised. Where once was pride, a smile, laughter and camaraderie, there is now worry, depression and a feeling of hopelessness.”
Tracy expressed the feelings of many long-serving health workers when she told me:
“Some of us cannot cope on the wages we earn and are considering leaving the NHS. We cannot afford to lose any more staff—we are struggling to staff wards as it is. I work six days a week to get a decent wage. I’m 60 years old and I have worked all my life. This can’t be right.”
Eamon and Tracy are hard-working professionals, dedicated to helping the patients in their care. That people like them should be so worn down and unhappy at work that they are considering leaving should be a wake-up call to the Government. Yet all we hear from the Prime Minister down is that decent wages for nurses and other healthcare workers are unaffordable. Is it any wonder that people look elsewhere in the economy and see employers doing what the Government should be doing in the NHS? That is, offering higher wages and better working conditions to help recruit and retain the staff they need.
In my constituency of Batley and Spen, Amazon is seeking to build a huge new warehouse development. I am opposing the plan for a number of reasons, not least the damage it would do to the health and wellbeing of local residents and the impact on the already-overloaded transport network. However, I also have serious reservations about the number and type of jobs such a development would create and I worry that our exhausted NHS workforce may be tempted by such developments, whatever the reality. We cannot afford for our nurses, porters, drivers and other workers who keep the NHS going to be lured away by the promise of higher wages in other sectors. We need them.
The impact of staff shortages has already led to vital services in my constituency being significantly reduced, leaving patients having to travel long distances to access care that, until recently, was available in their own communities. Such local care is really important. To take just one example, the Bronte Birth Centre was a lifeline for expectant mums, but it was forced to close—hopefully, temporarily. However, some fear it could become permanent, because the centre simply cannot get the maternity staff it needs. A recent advert for midwives did not lead to a single application.
NHS management is doing its best, looking to support recent graduates, attract back retired staff and recruit internationally. However, it is clear that the fundamental problem remains the same across the health service: low morale, wages that fail to keep up with prices and working conditions that are getting progressively worse, month after month and year after year. We remain incredibly proud of the NHS, especially on this side of the House, but I accept in other parties too. After 12 years of under-investment, it is now stretched to breaking point. Unless we take urgent action to strengthen the workforce, restore the pride that NHS staff have in their ability to do their jobs and properly reward them for their work, we are putting the future of our NHS at serious risk. I hope we can all agree that that is something we must avoid at all costs.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Hollobone. It is a great pleasure to be part of this important debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for securing it and for setting the dire scene in the NHS.
I will use my speech to talk about when I was a practice manager before I became an MP, and I want to speak about the way in which racism and discrimination affects the wellbeing of black and minority ethnic staff. Some 22.4% of NHS staff in England are from BME backgrounds, so they are disproportionately represented in the NHS but are under-represented in senior leadership. If we want an acceptable level of NHS staffing, it is crucial that racism and discrimination against staff from BME backgrounds is properly challenged.
Earlier this year, the BME Leadership Network published the “Shattered Hopes” report, which was based on surveys and roundtables of staff, revealing results that were shocking to read. It found that more than half of BME NHS leaders have considered leaving the NHS in the last three years because of their experiences of racism, and that colleagues, leaders and managers were a more common source of racist treatment than members of the public, which is truly shocking.
I want to provide the Minister with some recommendations, which I hope he will be able to address in his summing up. First, it goes without saying that the Government must give a pay rise to doctors, nurses and all staff in the NHS that is at least above the current rate of inflation, to protect their standards of living and to ensure the retention of staff. Secondly, we must ensure that bursaries for nursing students are restored so that more people—particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds—can access training. Lastly, the Government need to provide a renewed commitment to ensure that the NHS delivers on its commitment to combat institutional racism alongside tackling health inequalities.
We need an expanded training programme to truly tackle discrimination within the NHS. Without that commitment, countless staff will have no choice but to quit working for the NHS.
It is a pleasure to serve under your guidance again, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for securing a really important debate.
I want to say a massive thank you to NHS and care staff. Undoubtedly, every year is a tough one for those working in this area, but the last few years have been incredibly demanding. The pandemic has taken its toll on people’s mental and physical health, and has led to real attrition within the various clinical and non-clinical services. It is worth bearing in mind how much worse it would have been had we not collectively taken the right decision to try to tackle the pandemic early on. Nevertheless, it has been incredibly hard.
I will focus on a few areas that are significant for NHS staffing, starting with dentistry. It is worth bearing in mind that we all pay our taxes, so 100% of my tax-paying constituents have paid for NHS dentistry, but only about a third of them are getting it, including roughly half of the children. At the moment—I have checked—there is not a single NHS dental place anywhere in the entire county of Cumbria, which is a disgrace. That could be solved in no small part if the Government were to address the issue of the treadmill of units of dental activity. If it were done differently, it would not necessarily cost the Government any more money to make sure that they do not push dentists into a position where they feel that they have no alternative professionally than to leave the NHS, that we bring back the people who have left, and that we value the ones we have working within it.
Secondly, I want to talk about GPs. The simple reality is that we have far fewer GPs entering the service than we need. Many rural communities in Britain, such as mine, have a smaller surgery population-wise because of the vast area that they cover. We are currently dealing with the potential closure of the Ambleside and Hawkshead medical practices—the Central Lakes Medical Group. It is out to tender at the moment, because the Government removed what was called the minimum practice income guarantee, a sum of money that made small rural surgeries financially sustainable. Their removal has led to three closures that I can think of in Cumbria—one in Eden and two in South Lakeland. A relatively small amount of money would keep those surgeries sustainable and make sure that we kept people working at them. Otherwise, we have NHS staff who are determined to work and serve those communities who simply find that they cannot.
Nothing is more important to solving the NHS staffing crisis than tackling care—we have talked about that a lot—and it is outrageous that the Government have chosen to kick dealing with that issue into the long grass for another two years. We have 32% bed-blocking in the hospitals of south Cumbria at the moment. The reason why is obvious: there are not enough care packages to help people when they leave hospital, because there are not enough carers. The impact on hospital capacity, on the capacity of A&E, on ambulances that take so much longer to drop off their patients and therefore take longer to respond to calls, and the lives put at risk, is blindingly obvious. For the Government to delay dealing with care, and to think it is delayable for two years is not a tough decision for them. It is a tough decision for the millions of people who will be affected and for the tens of thousands of people working in our care sector.
The lack of availability of affordable homes for care workers and NHS workers in communities like mine is also worth bearing in mind; that is a major reason why there are not enough staff working in health and social care. We now understand that the Government will kick the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill into the grass on the other side of Christmas. That was an opportunity for the Government to decide that they would change the law to protect homes for local occupancy.
My final comment is on the cancer staffing situation. We currently have an outrageous situation where, in the south of Cumbria, 43% of people diagnosed with cancer are not getting their first treatment for two months, and 62% in north Cumbria are not getting their treatment for two months. That is an outrage. It is costing lives. Undoubtedly, staffing is a major part of that. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for radiotherapy, and we are to meet the Minister or his colleagues soon. Can I press him for a date?
In the meantime, I will share one important statistic with him. Radiotherapy UK surveyed 622 radiotherapy professionals—10% of the entire workforce nationwide—and 94% of them felt that the Government did not understand the impact of the current situation on their service; 72% felt that NHS senior managers did not either. As a consequence, we are losing people from the industry. We need a workforce plan specifically for cancer.
I hope the Minister will agree to meet with me and the APPG soon so that we can give him the all-party manifesto on radiotherapy, which will solve some of the problems and give those working in the NHS, particularly in cancer, some hope for the future.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for leading the debate. Like her, I acknowledge and appreciate the incredible work of all our NHS healthcare professionals in all areas of our health system over the last number of decades, especially throughout the pandemic, when we appreciated them even more than normal. I place on the record my genuine thanks to them for their commitment and their efforts through the covid crisis, which will continue to have impacts on the efficiency of our NHS for some time.
Our national health service is one of a kind and we must do everything in our power to protect it and ensure that it is given what it needs to ensure its success. Just yesterday in the main Chamber, I asked the Chief Secretary to the Treasury about retaining our nurses. How we do that is quite simple: we pay them the wages that they need. There is something drastically wrong if someone can become agency staff and get better wages for doing the same job. I am always respectful to the Minister, and I do not say that to chasten or to be aggressive, but we really do need to pay our nurses what they deserve. Perhaps the Minister can get back to us on that point.
It is very challenging to cover all the issues about NHS staffing. The NHS is one of the largest employers in the world, with more than 1.3 million staff, with 13,000 of them working back home. There is no secret that there are staffing issues for many different reasons. I have heard before from younger people that the educational process to becoming a nurse is purely based on exam results. I understand the need for training. Nursing, mental health nursing, medicine and dentistry require degrees from universities. Many universities refuse to take students who do not achieve high grades in their entry requirements. Perhaps it is time to look at whether, if the grades are not achievable for them but they have an interest in the subject matter, they should be given training to deliver that. We do not always have to aim for the gold star ones. There are people who might not achieve all of the grades that they should, but could still be darn good nurses and do well. I ask the Minister if he could give us his thoughts on that.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) mentioned GPs. Back home, GPs are really important. If one or two fall away from the local health clinics and surgeries, we automatically have a crisis among our GPs. So, let us encourage more GPs to come in. To do that, we will probably have to pay them better too, so that they do not wish to go anywhere else—overseas or wherever. We have all heard about the horror stories that illustrate their reasons for doing that.
I heard from a constituent just last week who was in a car accident. Her car was written off, but, luckily, there were no life-threatening injuries. However, the ambulance came and she waited in the ambulance queue for eight hours. She was not allowed to move from the stretcher, was not able to use the toilet, and had no water to drink. That is just an example of some of the crises we have. That is not the Minister’s fault—it is a devolved matter and I understand that—but it is just an illustration, and I suspect that other Members will have their own examples.
I would make a plea on behalf of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which has stated that, over the past year, the number of full-time-equivalent consultant child and adolescent psychiatrists in the NHS has declined, while referrals to child and adolescent mental health services have increased by 24%. We have countless debates in this place relating to better provisions for children’s and teenagers’ mental health, and the RCP tells us that there are simply not enough psychiatrists. Again, I am throwing this at the Minister at very short notice, but I know that his responses are always very helpful. I ask for some help in raising that.
I am also aware of the challenges that the staff face. I thank each and every one of them—I thank them and I praise them. They go home after their shifts, tired and disheartened. The hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) mentioned that earlier on. It is the truth. With that in mind, we must do more.
I very much welcome the additional money allocated in the autumn Budget, and the Barnett consequentials mean that we will get £650 million. That is a massive help, and I understand that. I certainly hope that that will shield the NHS from inflammatory staffing pressures, but I hope that the Minister can undertake discussions with the devolved Administrations on this issue, and on how we can do it better together. I am always very conscious that the Minister is a gentleman and responds well; I very much look forward to his reply.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) on bringing forward this important and timely debate. In all areas of healthcare, it is incredibly important that our NHS is able to cope with the growing demand for its services.
Across the board, staffing shortages in the health service, let down by 12 years of Tory chaos, are endemic. In nursing, 40,000 registered nurses in England have left the NHS in the past year. We have lost 4,700 GPs in the last decade, and hundreds of practices have closed since the last election. That has resulted in GP surgeries being massively overstretched, such as the one in my constituency that has 3,200 people on its books.
The cuts are not just numbers; they have a real impact on people’s lives. One of my constituents is a PE teacher with a chronic knee injury. She was unable to book a GP appointment and could not get an MRI scan. So that she could continue to work safely, she felt that she had no option but to book it privately, costing her £300.
In mental health services, local trusts are seriously struggling with a lack of capacity. Last year, around 2.8 million people had contact with NHS mental health, learning disability and autism services in England. That is around 5% of the population, and my city of Birmingham had the third highest percentage of adults in contact with those services. Despite the obvious problems in this area, the Royal College of Physicians has reported that, nationally, we can expect an increase of just 4,000 more mental health nurses by 2024, when more than 12,000 are required to meet demand. We know that the pressures that hospitals face lead them to rely on NHS staff banks and agency workers to cover for the lack of capacity. This year, 83% of nursing staff said that staffing levels on their last shift were not sufficient to meet patient needs safely and effectively.
The new Chancellor of the Exchequer said in 2015:
“For too long staffing agencies have been able to rip off the NHS by charging extortionate hourly rates which cost billions of pounds a year and undermine staff working hard to deliver high-quality care.”
However, this autumn’s Budget pledge to increase NHS spending by £3.3 billion next year is not enough to plug the £7 billion shortfall that the NHS could experience.
I was a nurse for 25 years. I understand how important it is for the NHS to have sufficient levels of staff, and the disastrous effect that staffing shortages have. Nurses work long hours day in, day out, to support people all across the UK. They often do this on very low pay, and we know that many hospitals across the country have opened food banks specifically to feed their staff. After 12 years of mismanagement by the Tory Government, it is no wonder that our nurses have been driven to take industrial action for the first time. As I said earlier, nurses are leaving the profession in droves; some 40,000 quit last year. I for one do not blame them. I cannot say, hand on heart and with 25 years of nursing experience, that I could do the job now. The blame for the mess lies squarely with the Conservatives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for securing this important debate.
As the newly elected chair of the all-party parliamentary pharmacy group, I want to take this opportunity to outline some of the main concerns facing staff in that sector. Before being elected to this House, I worked in the NHS as a senior cancer pharmacist, and I still regularly volunteer at my local hospital, Coventry and Warwickshire hospital, in cancer care. The opportunity to serve on the frontline of our health service was and continues to be a privilege that I feel every time I set foot in the hospital. There are very few more rewarding things in life than being able to help those in need and provide care for patients at what are often very difficult moments of their lives.
Because of that, I know first hand how important pharmacists are to the provision of healthcare across the country, yet the Government continue to fail those key workers. A recent study published by the Pharmacists’ Defence Association revealed that almost a quarter of pharmacists want to leave their current sector and move to another part of pharmacy and, of those, almost a third are considering leaving pharmacy altogether. As with most healthcare professionals, low and stagnating pay and working conditions are the main reason for seeking a change. With just one in 10 pharmacists feeling that they get adequate breaks, it is no wonder that so many are looking to leave. The longer the Government ignore the exodus of pharmacists to other industries, the more money it will cost to recruit and train new staff.
As a member of the Health and Social Care Committee, I was part of a team who put together earlier this year a workforce report that recommended that the Government better utilise the pharmacy workforce and, in doing so, optimise workload across primary care, reduce pressures on general practice and hospitals, and support integrated care systems. Community pharmacists are willing and eager to take on more responsibilities in order to become the first port of call for patients and take the pressure off overburdened GP surgeries. The Government talk the talk about investing in our NHS, but if they are unwilling to take the necessary steps, waiting times and patient dissatisfaction will continue to grow.
As part of our report, the Select Committee recommended that pharmacists must have clear structures for professional career development into advanced practice. The Government have completely ignored that call; and I know, from my own experience, that far too many in the industry feel that those opportunities are sparse at the best of times. Like everyone else, pharmacists need to know that there are chances for growth and the acquisition of new skills in different areas. If the Government are serious about supporting pharmacists, as they have said repeatedly, that must be a priority.
Retaining pharmacists is also vital to the long-term health of the NHS as a whole. Until the Government tackle the issues of low pay, poor working conditions and a lack of opportunities for career progression, I fear that we will see a weaker and weaker pharmacy sector, which none of us can afford. Sadly, the issue that I have outlined is not specific to pharmacists but applies to all healthcare professionals.
I turn to cancer waiting times in my constituency of Coventry North West. In August, only 57% of patients at University Hospital Coventry, where I volunteer, began their treatment within two months of being referred by their GP, but the NHS target is that the trust should aim to see 85% of patients within 62 days. That simply is not good enough. Cancer patients in Coventry were put on the backburner during the pandemic, and as a result we see more and more cases of late-stage cancer. Those patients need to be seen urgently, and simply cannot wait. Many pancreatic cancer patients in Coventry have been in touch to let me know of their anger at being forced to wait so long. They are being let down.
I know how hard NHS staff work. Despite their efforts, cancer waiting time targets continue to be missed. Unless the Government invest in our beloved institution, we will continue to see more of the same. We need to strengthen our NHS workforce. We need to be able to invest in retaining the staff that we currently have. We also need to pay our nurses, and all healthcare professionals, adequately and appropriately for their hard work and dedication.
I thank all the NHS staff in Coventry, and across the country, for their dedication and hard work, and for all that they do to look after our loved ones. Lastly, I ask the Minister to meet me to discuss the future of pharmacies and the workforce.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for bringing forward this important and timely debate.
The reality is that the national health service that we clapped for, that we care so deeply for and that is the last line of defence for our families and loved ones is literally at breaking point. There may well be some dividing lines between voters, but when it comes to the NHS, whether someone votes red, green, blue or yellow, the NHS matters to them. Yet 12 years of Conservative Government has managed to bring the NHS to its knees.
Right now, in Bradford and across Britain, patients find it impossible to get a GP appointment. People suffering from heart attacks or strokes are waiting longer than one hour for an ambulance. Some 401,537 patients have been waiting for more than a year for an operation, and “24 Hours in A&E” is no longer just a TV programme: it is the patients’ everyday experience. That brings great shame on us all.
Just today, Labour’s shadow Health Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), highlighted the case of a 16-year-old who has been given a hospital appointment in 2025—in three years’ time. Will that 16-year-old put their health and life on hold for three years? Similarly, an elderly lady in my constituency of Bradford West had an operation this year that was three years on from when it was originally planned. The pain and suffering that she endured while she waited was unbelievable.
One of the key reasons for all that is, of course, staff shortages in the NHS, which all Members have highlighted. Twelve years of Conservative Government have left the NHS understaffed and unable to deliver timely care. Under the Conservatives, medical school places fell by 30% this summer—thousands more straight-A students turned away from training and becoming doctors when we need them more than ever. The latest NHS Digital vacancy statistics show 132,139 vacancies across England on 30 June 2022. For registered nursing staff alone, there was a vacancy rate of 11.8%, or more than 46,000. That is an increase from March 2022, when the rate was 10.3%, or over 38,000. In my local hospital in Bradford, that rate increases to more than 15%. One senior clinician told me today that if she had a magic wand, she would scrap university fees so that she could open up the profession for people who cannot afford to go into nursing.
Last year’s NHS staff survey showed the level of concern about the impact of NHS staff shortages in Bradford. When asked to respond to the statement:
“There are enough staff at this organisation for me to do my job properly”,
only 15.3% of respondents at Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said they agreed or strongly agreed—down from 32.2% in 2020. The responsibility for that lies firmly at the feet of this Government. The NHS is now approaching winter with the longest waiting times in its history and record shortages of staff. NHS staff are slogging their guts out, but there are simply not enough of them.
Labour has a plan to combat the crisis in the NHS. The next Labour Government will double the number of district nurses qualifying every year, train more than 5,000 new health visitors, create an additional 10,000 nursing and midwifery places every year and double the number of medical school places that so we have the doctors we need in our NHS. It is time we had a party in government that is serious about protecting the NHS, not just clapping for it.
Finally, I put on the record my thanks to local NHS staff in my constituency—from those working in GP practices to staff nurses and doctors, and from health visitors to those providing care at home, including all the key workers we clapped for who provided home care and gave people dignity in their own homes, even during the covid pandemic. As my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) rightly pointed out, doctors and nurses have burnt out. They have told me that they have not recuperated from the impact of covid, let alone prepared for the coming winter. The mental health stress put on our nurses and doctors is not okay. The Government need to step up and do something about that.
It is a pleasure to speak under your stewardship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for initiating the debate.
Where do I begin on this subject? It is difficult to know because Members have brought forward a plethora of information, but I will start with the House of Commons Library briefing, which is always a good source of information, and its research is based on independent sources. It says that the Health and Social Care Committee has said:
“The National Health Service and the social care sector are facing the greatest workforce crisis in their history.”
The NHS, which is the best part of 80 years old, is facing the worst crisis in its history, with a vacancy rate of 9.7%, which is 132,139 members of staff.
There is significant shortfall in staff across the piece. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) talked about vacancies in pharmacy, dentistry, radiology, podiatry, ambulance staff, back-office staff—as those people who are at the heart of the service and keep it going are disparagingly called—cleaners and porters. Everybody says the whole NHS is under huge stress.
I want to highlight the neuroradiology profession and the reality that staff shortages have an impact on clinical outcomes. Hardly any of our NHS trusts have neuroradiologists, but they could save 9,000 lives lost to strokes by being able to advance new techniques. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to look at the clinical outcomes that health professionals could bring?
My hon. Friend is right: it is crucial that we do that. A whole range of issues are beginning to affect staffing. For example, there is a £9 billion maintenance backlog in the NHS. Patients are being treated in hospitals that are not, in certain situations, fit for purpose and, importantly, staff have to work in those environments. In many cases, radiology equipment is not up to date, so staff and patients are either working or being treated in an environment in which the conditions and the equipment are not good. That goes to the heart of the staffing crisis as well.
There are lots of suggestions about how the Government could get to grips with the situation. Community Pharmacy England has plans to “resolve the funding squeeze”, which seems pretty straightforward, to
“tackle regulatory and other burdens”
that are affecting staffing, to
“help pharmacies to expand their role in primary care”
“commission a Pharmacy First service”.
All those things go to the heart of enabling staff to feel wanted and that they are working in an environment where they are treated properly.
Of course, we then get people leaving in droves because of pay. I looked at some of the figures in relation to the pay restraint that we have had for the past few years: since the Government came to power in 2010, for all intents and purposes there has been either no pay increase or an increase of 1% here and 2% there.
I thank my hon. Friend for making such an excellent speech. Will he comment on the fact that at the University of East Anglia medical school we saw a fifth of new nurses, or training nurses, drop out of the course after the Government cut the nursing bursary? With the low pay, crisis of staffing and pressure that is going on, we expect those nurses to work in the NHS as they are training and rack up debt at the same time. If we are going to get the numbers back up, we must surely reintroduce the bursary.
Yes, we must. When these professionals come into the NHS and work their socks off, for all the hours that God sends, they do not even get a decent pay rise. They have had to pay to do the job, then they pay to do the job again because we are not giving them enough money. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The amount of funding the NHS gets falls well short of our international competitors in terms of revenue and current and capital expenditure. We spend about £3,055 per person on health; in our competitor countries, which are similar economies with similarly sized populations—such as France and Germany—the figure is £3,600. That difference, of the best part of £600 per person, is absolutely significant. We are falling further behind as the years go by.
The Government say, “Well, this year we have accepted the independent NHS pay review body’s recommendation.” I suspect that this is the first time in many years that they have accepted, championed and blown the bugle for it. Let us look at the detail and analyse it. The terms of reference include
“the need to recruit, retain and motivate suitably able and qualified staff”.
That is not happening, is it? That is nowhere to be seen. They also mention
“regional/local variations in labour markets and their effects on the recruitment and retention of staff”.
That is not working either, is it?
The terms of reference mention:
“The funds available to the Health Departments, as set out in the Government’s Departmental Expenditure Limits”.
In effect, the Government tell the pay review body what it can do, because of the amount the Department has, and then, when the body agrees with what the Government say, they say it has been an independent assessment. It is not as simple as that.
Here is another one: “the Government’s inflation target” is a factor. We all know where that is—whose fault is that? It is not the Government’s fault; it is the Bank of England’s fault.
The terms of reference mention:
“The principle of equal pay for work of equal value in the NHS”—
which was referred to earlier and is not happening. They talk about:
“The overall strategy that the NHS should place patients at the heart of all it does”—
but it is far from putting them at the heart of the service. In conclusion, staff need a pay rise and better working conditions; the only way they will get that is with a Labour Government in two years’ time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for securing this incredibly important debate.
As we have heard in previous contributions, we are proud of our NHS—and rightly so—but it is clear that our NHS is in crisis. Understaffing piles pressure on the existing workforce, tipping them to breaking point. The national NHS vacancy rate sits at 9.7%—that is one in 17 vacancies unfulfilled for doctors and one in 10 for nurses. The pandemic was an unprecedented strain that created an employment backlog, but staff shortages were critical well before covid. These are not just statistics: vacancies are all too often the difference between life and death. The autumn statement pledged £3.3 billion to the NHS, which is of course welcome, but funding and wages are still below 2010 levels in real terms, with sky-rocketing inflation further exacerbating an already dire financial situation. We know that it takes years to recruit and train healthcare professionals.
I have been contacted by many constituents who are facing unacceptable waiting times for GP and dentistry appointments. As we have heard in the debate, this problem extends across the whole NHS, whether it be in respect of pharmacies, cancer or ambulance wait times. When we see delays with GPs and dentistry, that sometimes leads to further pressure on other NHS services that could have been prevented had problems been identified earlier.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) outlined some of the issues with dentistry, which were reflected in the constituency-wide survey that I did in Barnsley East, in response to which many of my constituents said they really struggled to get a dentist appointment. That is concerning when we consider that Barnsley has the fourth highest rate of tooth decay in the country. In Yorkshire and the Humber as a whole, 98% of dental practices cannot take new patients.
One constituent contacted me just last night about their very concerning and upsetting experience in hospital. They have been waiting almost a year for a neurology appointment after an initial injury in March 2021. They are in constant, excruciating pain due to a herniated disk and now have sustained a secondary injury. They are unable to work so have lost their job. Because of the current cost of living crisis, they are having to choose between heating and eating, as many across the country are. This constituent is unable to enjoy the things they once used to and is experiencing great distress and financial difficulty. They are unable to walk for more than 15 minutes at a time and cannot sit for sustained periods. They feel they have nowhere to turn, with no sign of an appointment any time soon, to find a solution to this pain. This is obviously a heart-breaking situation and one that people should not have to endure due to pressure and staff shortages.
There is not much more that NHS staff can do to give every patient the time they deserve. GPs are frequently seeing three times the safe number of patients, often taking up to 90 appointments a day. Some are reported as having taken 200 appointments a day. This results in warning signs for conditions such as dementia being missed. In South Yorkshire specifically, sickness absence is at 7.1%. NHS staff are becoming exhausted and getting sick themselves. How can they be expected to carry on in such pressurised working environments and meet the high standards that we are used to?
Almost 10,000 doctors left the NHS last year, with many citing conditions as their reason for leaving. Some 20,000 more are expected to leave in the next year. The NHS urgently needs more Government investment and not empty words. After 12 years of a Conservative Government, our NHS needs a Labour one. As has been outlined today, Labour’s fully costed plan would double the number of university medicine places available per year, provide 10,000 more nursing and midwifery clinical places each year, provide 5,000 more health visitors a year and double the number of district nurses qualifying each year.
In closing, I put on record my thanks to NHS staff. My mum worked in the NHS for 40 years as a midwife and a nurse. I know how hard she worked and I know, from talking to NHS professionals across Barnsley, how hard they work. I know that we all thank them for their service. The reality is that the NHS and this country simply cannot afford this Conservative Government any longer.
It is nice to see you in the chair this afternoon, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) on securing and leading this vital debate on NHS staffing levels. I also thank all Members who have made valuable contributions. I place on the record my thanks and admiration, and that of my party, for all those who work in our NHS in Scotland and in all social care settings.
We live in unprecedented times. We have endured the worst pandemic in living memory; we have witnessed the worst Prime Minister and Chancellor in living memory; we have an energy and cost of living crisis thanks to the invasion of Ukraine by the egomaniac Vladimir Putin and persistent public spending cuts that have crippled our economy; and we have the small matter, which very few dare to mention in this place, of the most horrific act of self-harm in living memory—Brexit. We in this place can dance around any fact we like, but the real reason for the staff shortages and real pressures in our NHS is Brexit. Because of all those combined factors, our greatest asset, the national health service, is under the greatest strain in its 74-year history across all the nations of the United Kingdom.
Consistently poor and, frankly, dumb economic choices undertaken by the Government have led to unprecedented inflation, limiting the Scottish Government’s ability to act in the areas in which they are required to do so due to the significant cuts to the Scottish budget. The previous Prime Minister’s catastrophic mini-Budget wiped £1.7 billion from the Scottish Government’s forthcoming budget in a matter of just a few days, dwarfing any increase announced recently by the newest Chancellor’s autumn statement. Scotland has been left with an additional £200 million shortfall and Scottish health spending power has been reduced by £650 million. Is that what we have to be thankful for? It is most certainly not our Union dividend or our Brexit bonus.
Together with the Welsh Health Minister, the Scottish Health Secretary Humza Yousaf recently wrote to the UK Government calling for the Chancellor to announce additional funding for this year in the NHS budget so that health boards and the devolved Governments can afford to pay the wages that our NHS staff so rightly deserve. Covid costs continue to eat into funding, despite the UK Government stopping covid funding altogether. The UK Government are pulling their usual stunt of giving with one hand while taking away with the other. Unless the Government take urgent action to immediately increase their budgetary spend, the NHS as we know will be in extreme peril.
A hard Tory Brexit—and one backed and endorsed by the Labour party, as the people of Scotland are fully aware—means that Scotland has endured the greatest depopulation of any of these island nations. As a result, we have a shortage in available workforce, as reported on page 3 of today’s Financial Times so illuminatingly. Scotland needs people to come in and bring their skills with them. We need a migration system that works for all of us and is fit for purpose. There is no other option if we are to fill the national labour shortages in our NHS and social care settings, as well as in other sectors that are in dire need of an eligible workforce—hospitality, transport, agriculture, fishing and many more. Again, Brexit is causing problems throughout every sector. The SNP’s position is that immigration powers must be devolved to Scotland and the Scottish Parliament. If the UK Government do not want to solve the problems effectively, if indeed at all, it is time to get out of the way and allow us to do so.
The Royal College of General Practitioners has found that more than 40% of GP trainees are international graduates. Forty-nine per cent. of that number have reported issues with the visa process and 17% are considering leaving the United Kingdom altogether and, as a result, taking their much-required skills elsewhere. That is talent that we should be nurturing and harnessing, but we are instead pushing it away and rejecting it. The UK Government have consistently hamstrung the NHS with their privatisation and red tape agendas, and now an immigration mess is adding to the chaos. Now we have different NHSs across the nations of the UK competing internally with one another to attract and retain staff in our healthcare settings. It is one sorry mess, and the architects of Brexit must shoulder the responsibility.
GP numbers were touched upon earlier, and there have been concerns about GP numbers in Scotland, as well as elsewhere across the United Kingdom. It is worth noting that Scotland has a record number of general practitioners working across our nation, with more GPs per head of population in Scotland than across the rest of the UK’s nations. The Scottish Government are committed to further increasing the number of GPs practising in Scotland by 800 by the end of 2027, investing £170 million each year for that purpose. We are making good progress on that commitment, with Scotland’s GP headcount increasing by 277 to 5,195 between 2017 and 2021.
The Scottish Government continue to look for ways to encourage staff into working for our world-renowned NHS service and will continue to work co-operatively with the UK Government wherever possible to encourage sufficient inbound migration to plug the labour shortages and support the full staffing of our national health service. Last week, the Chancellor announced that more than 600,000 people on universal credit will be asked to have a meeting with a work coach so that they can get the support they need to increase their hours or their earnings. Instead of sanctioning the poorest people in our communities and attacking workers’ rights by restricting trade unions, the UK Government must get real and focus on creating a fair and tailored immigration system that works for the people of Scotland and, indeed, the rest of the United Kingdom. However, it cannot be any clearer—other than to those who choose not to see—that the ramifications of Brexit are now beginning to bite in the very areas we knew they would, and we see nothing at all from this Government to suggest anything other than that the best future for Scotland’s NHS and for Scotland as a whole is one in which the representatives of the Scottish people directly decide on how best to safeguard all that we hold dear. That only comes with our country’s independence.
As I have a few wee minutes left, I will say to any hon. Members who represent English constituencies that the groundbreaking Pharmacy First service is excellent. It is working so well in Scotland, and I am glad that it will be rolled out across the rest of the UK. In Scotland, anybody under the age of 26 is now eligible for free NHS dental treatment. We have free annual eye tests for everybody in Scotland, and biannual tests for those over 65, free prescriptions for all, and free hormone replacement therapy and sanitary products. We are not getting it all right, but there is an ambition to get better, and we need the support of the UK Government to do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for securing this important debate, and praise all the Members who have spoken this afternoon for their brilliant contributions.
The NHS is a cornerstone of communities up and down our country. It is the biggest employer in Europe and one of the biggest in the world, supporting the livelihoods of millions of British families. A publicly funded healthcare service that is free at the point of need is a lifeline for so many, and the people of this country are overwhelmingly proud of it. The pride and respect we have for the NHS means that it will always have people to stand up and defend it when things are going wrong.
However, the reality is that patients are finding it impossible to get a GP appointment due to chronic shortages of doctors, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton). Stroke and heart attack victims are waiting an hour for an ambulance, and over 400,000 patients have been waiting more than a year for an operation. We have gone from an NHS that treated people well and on time to not just a winter crisis, but a year-round crisis, and an NHS that is understaffed and unable to deliver timely care.
The NHS is facing the greatest workforce crisis in its history. Right now, there are 132,000 vacancies across the NHS, and 165,000 in social care. We are short of 40,000 nurses, and we are losing midwives faster than we can recruit them. We are short of 12,000 hospital doctors, yet this summer, medical school places were cut by 30%, turning away thousands of straight-A students from training to become doctors when we need them more than ever. As we have heard again and again this afternoon, the consistent failure to train and retain the nurses and doctors our NHS needs has left staff overworked, overstretched and struggling to cope.
The Royal College of Physicians produced a short, medium and long-term plan for the NHS, specifically in relation to staffing. I was shocked to read that the measures to increase satisfaction and retention of current staff—getting the basics right—included access to hot food and drink, and rest facilities, at all hours of the day. The Royal College of Physicians putting that into a document shows how poor the situation is. Would my hon. Friend agree that the Government have to listen to that?
I wholehearted agree with my hon. Friend. With nurses already doing an average of £2,000 a year in overtime to make up shortages, the Government cannot rely on good will to get us through this crisis. They cannot afford to play politics and refuse to get around the negotiating table to avoid strike action.
It would be far too simplistic to suggest that pay is the sole cause of this crisis, as we have heard in this debate. Members who have spoken with NHS staff in their communities will know that the problems run far deeper than that. In this debate we have heard how staff are demoralised, burnt out and undervalued, and are working in poor conditions. Staff members are working harder than ever, but are unable to deliver the level of service they want for patients.
When I speak to NHS staff in my constituency of Enfield North, their passion and dedication is in no doubt whatsoever. One of the clear themes that came through in a local healthcare survey run over the summer was an appreciation in our community for the efforts of NHS staff. On a recent visit to Chase Farm urgent care centre, I saw at first hand the pride that staff had for the work they did, and their desire to deliver the best for patients, despite chronic shortages of staff and the most trying of circumstances. They are going above and beyond the call of duty.
We cannot keep relying on the good will of staff. We need to see their attitude matched by action from the Government. Staff need to know that they will not be hung out to dry and that help is there for them. What reassurance can the Minister give to staff, at places such as Chase Farm, that their cries for help will be heard? If the Minister believes that what we heard from the Chancellor is sufficient, then he is very much mistaken. I am pleased that, after long calls from the Back Benchers, the Chancellor has dragged his party into agreeing to an independent assessment of our NHS workforce needs, but does the Minister really expect that assessment to say that the NHS has the people it needs to deliver a safe standard of care for patients?
Talking will not cut it for NHS staff. We need a plan of action. I was pleased to hear from my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), who set out Labour’s plan so well. Labour’s plan will deliver the biggest expansion of medical school places in history, doubling the number to give the NHS the doctors it needs to get patients seen on time. It will also include an extra 10,000 nursing and midwifery places, helping to close the gap caused by the loss of 800 midwives in the NHS since the last election. Labour would double the number of district nurses qualifying each year and train 5,000 more health visitors. That would be funded by abolishing non-dom status, a move that brings in double the £1.6 billion investment that our NHS workforce needs. The Chancellor has described our plan as something that
“I very much hope the government adopts on the basis that smart governments always nick the best ideas of their opponents.”
Given that statement, I look forward the Minister bringing the plan forward as the Government’s own, sooner rather than later.
We know that getting more staff into the system will not, on its own, solve the problem. Our NHS has brilliant staff working in it already, and we must do more to give them the confidence to stay. The Government are simply not doing enough, and unless we improve retention, extra recruitment will not deliver the numbers we need. As we have heard, staff are leaving faster than we are recruiting. The scale of the crisis means that we cannot simply wait things out and hope it blows over. We need a plan and some action from the Government now. I look forward to the Minister telling us how they will deliver that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for raising this important issue. I join her in thanking all NHS staff for everything they do for us. The workforce are the beating heart of everything our NHS does and stands for. I hugely value the work of everyone who works in health and care, from consultants to care workers, nurses to neurosurgeons, and porters to physios. I thank all hon. Members from across the House who have taken part in this important debate. In the time available to me, I will try to respond to as many of the themes raised as possible—I have been franticly scribbling throughout the contributions.
I have only been in post for a handful of weeks, and in that time I have seen the very best and the future of our NHS with cutting-edge technologies and innovation. For example, it was only earlier this week when I saw genuinely world-leading world genome sequencing. Innovation and technological advancement is only as good as the highly trained and qualified clinicians who operate it or, importantly, who interpret the data. Health is a human business. I know this from my own family’s experience of the NHS, and I am sure hon. Members know that too. Only caring NHS staff can provide the patient-centred and compassionate care that we all hope and expect when we interact with our NHS. That is why I am personally passionate about supporting our health and care staff, particularly when we are in challenging times. Last week, the Chancellor announced an additional £3.3 billion a year in the autumn statement to assist in this endeavour.
I turn first to workforce pressures, which were raised by the hon. Members for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater), for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton)—I am particularly grateful to her for sharing her 25 years of nursing experience. I am acutely aware that the workforce remain under sustained pressure. Staff worked tirelessly through the pandemic and they have my huge thanks and gratitude for doing so.
I know that every day hundreds of thousands of NHS staff provide high-quality care under considerable challenges. As well as the pressures we see every winter, in the summer, which is usually—I am told in the NHS you cannot use the Q-word, which stands for quiet—less busy, we had covid waves where we would not ordinarily. There is also the recovery of elective care and the 7 million people on waiting lists, including the 400,000 who have been waiting over a year, as the hon. Member for Wirral West rightly pointed out. There is the rising number of covid and flu cases—I take this opportunity to make a public health announcement encouraging people to check their eligibility and get their covid and flu jabs if they have not already done so.
Of course, it is vital that we support the workforce, not just now but for the future. The NHS workforce have grown since last year, with an extra 3,700 doctors and 9,100 nurses, but I understand that—this point was made eloquently and articulately by hon. Members—demand is growing significantly, too.
In the light of workforce planning, somebody seems to have taken their eye off the ball. We have doctors who decide they want to be locums and get three times the shift rate. We have nurses who leave the NHS and sign up with the agency, costing three times more. When will we grasp the nettle of workforce planning and deal with it?
The hon. Gentleman is right that that is happening and I will come on to that matter in more detail. I would be happy to meet him, because it is an issue that I know needs gripping not just at the national level but by local integrated care boards too.
As hon. Members have pointed out, training the doctors, nurses and allied health professionals of the future takes time. We have to plan for the next decade now, as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) said. Despite the challenges, we have a growing NHS workforce. We have record numbers of staff working in our NHS. There are record numbers of doctors and nurses. The NHS now has over 1.2 million full-time equivalent staff. In the last year alone, there were over 15,800 more professionally qualified clinical staff in trusts, and 129,800 more hospital and community health service staff than in 2019. Nursing numbers are 29,000 higher than in 2019, which means that we are on track to meet the 50,000 extra nurses manifesto commitment.
However, as the hon. Member for Wirral West pointed out, we face challenges. There are over 132,000 vacancies, including, as she rightly said, 40,000 nursing and midwifery vacancies, and vacancies for around 10,000 doctors. As the hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) rightly pointed out, that means an over-reliance on bank and agency staff. They have their place, but they come at a significant cost, of which we have to be mindful.
We have a long-term workforce plan, which is an NHS England-commissioned project that will set out what workforce we need across the next five, 10 and 15 years. As the Chancellor said in the autumn statement, it will be independently verified. It will look at recruitment, retention and productivity. It will look at where the challenges and the gaps are. As the hon. Member for York Central, who is no longer in her place, rightly asked, what do we need the NHS to look like? Do we need specialists? Do we need more generalists? Do we need a mixture of skills, where people are specialists but also retain generalist skills so that they can do other work? The plan is for the project to report back by the end of this year—very soon—and that independent verification process will then take place. Integrated care boards will need to do the same, or a similar, piece of work at local level.
I am also aware that there are specific challenges. The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale rightly raised mental health services. An extra £2.3 billion is going in, and our plan is to recruit an extra 27,000 staff, but it is a challenge, which is why we have the advanced bursary in that area. We have increased staff in the area by an extra 5.4%. I know that is not enough, and I know the challenges on local mental health services, so we have to do more.
There is a similar challenge in rural and coastal communities, which the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has raised with me many a time. We have to look to expand the apprenticeship route and blended learning programmes so that people do not have to travel to big towns and cities to undertake their training. That work is being done, and there is an extra £55 million for additional placement capacity.
Investment in training is also important. We funded an extra 1,500 medical school places—a 25% increase—last year and this year. That was an investment in five new medical schools. The £5,000 non-repayable grant for nursing, midwifery and allied health professionals has been in place since 2020. There is also additional funding for certain courses, and for things such as support for childcare, dual accommodation, and costs and travel.
Will the Minister comment on what the Royal College of Psychiatrists has said about staffing shortages?
Mental health does not fall specifically within my brief—it falls within that of the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield)—but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman on that point.
Let me turn to staff wellbeing, which is an important point that the hon. Member for Wirral West rightly laboured. It is not just about pay; it is about many other issues. Recruitment is important, as the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) pointed out, but retention is equally important. We have to ensure that we keep the highly qualified, highly experienced people we have in our NHS. I am determined to ensure that staff are supported and that the NHS works to ensure that staff feel valued, not just by us at the national level, but locally.
The NHS people plan and the people promise set out a comprehensive range of actions that we are taking, such as expanding flexible working. That is important. For example, if somebody does not feel that they can do a full shift but they can work two or three hours, we should be saying, “Yes, of course we want you to work in our NHS and give us what you can.” Flexible working is important, as are improving leadership and ensuring that there is high-quality line management. People often say, “We leave the line manager; we do not leave the organisation.” We must support staff wellbeing and mental health. We also have the NHS retention programme, and we are growing occupational health and wellbeing.
I am conscious that time is short, but I want to turn to the issue of pay, which was mentioned by many hon. Members. I cannot touch on pharmacies today, but that is a hugely important issue and I would be happy to meet the hon. Member for Coventry North West to discuss it. I completely understand that pay is a hugely important factor in looking after staff, and we hugely value the hard work and dedication of NHS staff. I deeply regret that some union members have voted for industrial action, but I understand that these are challenging times for many, largely as a result of global economic pressures, and we are working hard to support NHS workers.
As hon. Members have rightly pointed out, we accepted the recommendations of the independent NHS pay review body in full. That means a pay rise of at least £1,400, or the equivalent of 4% to 5%, for most nurses, which is broadly in line with the private sector. It is important to point out that that is on top of a 3% award last year, when wider public sector pay was frozen, and the Government’s cost of living support with energy.
Through the programme of current work and long-term planning, we are building the robust and resilient workforce that our NHS needs for the future. We are working to ensure that we have the right people with the right skills in the right places, and to ensure that they are well supported and well looked after, so that they can look after those who need our great NHS services and keep delivering the world-class standard of care that people need now and in the future.
This has been such an important debate, and I thank every Member who contributed to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) spoke of the dejected and run-down state of mind of many NHS staff. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) spoke powerfully about how racism affects black and ethnic minority staff and how they are under-represented at senior management level—an issue that needs desperate attention.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton) spoke about her experience as a nurse for 25 years and the disastrous impact that staffing shortages have on her colleagues. We also had contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and for Bootle (Peter Dowd), and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). I thank them all for their contributions.
We have heard powerful testimonies about the impact of the NHS staffing crisis on both staff and patients. We need the Government to come forward with a credible plan to show how they will address the crisis with a fair pay rise for NHS staff, and an urgent plan to deliver the colleagues that those staff so desperately need working alongside them. We also need the Government to call a halt to their privatisation agenda and to reinstate the service as a publicly owned, universal and comprehensive national health service that is free to all when they need it and paid for through direct taxation.
The NHS is one of this country’s proudest achievements, but it is clearly in crisis. NHS workers should not be pushed into industrial action through Government negligence. They deserve our support, and they deserve a pay rise.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered NHS staffing levels.
Domestic Abuse and Public Life
I beg to move,
That this House has considered domestic abuse and public life.
I am delighted to have secured this debate ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women this Friday. Domestic abuse can affect people from all social classes and in all forms of employment, including public life. That is why I am working with MPs from all parties to call for a duty of care to be placed on employers and political parties to ensure that survivors of domestic abuse are not exposed to further harassment. There must be recognition that post-separation control and harassment is a form of domestic abuse itself and can occur long after a relationship or marriage has ended, with different tactics of abuse being used.
I would like to draw attention to the work of the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence and abuse, which I am honoured to chair, in examining several key issues and policy areas where change is needed to support survivors. I am particularly pleased to see the hon. Member for Burton (Kate Kniveton) here today. I pay tribute to her for her bravery and courage in speaking out about her experiences, and I thank her for the support and solidarity she has shown me.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate, which means so much to us both. Does she agree that those of us in public life who have a platform and feel able to should help to eradicate the stigma and shame that many victims of domestic abuse feel by speaking out and raising awareness of the fact that domestic abuse can happen to anybody? By raising awareness, we can encourage those who do not have a platform to speak out and to speak without shame, so that perpetrators of this awful crime, which is so often committed behind closed doors, can no longer be so sure that their crime will go unnoticed.
I completely agree with the hon. Member; she is absolutely correct. It is so important to be able to give others the hope and courage to come forward. Those of us in public life, I am sure, feel a duty to encourage others to come forward, and feel quite lucky to be in a position to do so.
I want to make it clear that I do not view myself as a victim as such, nor am I seeking to play the “victim card”. In fact, I would argue that such accusations reflect not my weakness, but the weakness of those who make them. The truth is that it is extremely difficult for survivors to come forward. The stigma and the structural and systemic bias is always against us. The use of the courts and the law to threaten and silence us, never mind the trauma of the abuse itself, all too often seems insurmountable.
When I put myself forward to represent my local area, it was with hope for the future. Perhaps stupidly, I thought I could move on. Little did I know then that, a few years later, I would be in court facing a possible jail sentence and, just this June, I would have to present myself to A&E and subsequently be signed off sick. Just as I manage to survive one onslaught, another is coming up ahead—it goes on and on. The wall of institutional gaslighting is chilling.
I have a choice: to submit, to be crushed and then to be swept under the carpet as an unsightly problem, or to speak out. But I know this is not just about me. My experiences have shown that, despite steps forward, including the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, there is still insufficient understanding and awareness. I am very conscious of how survivors struggle against a system that fails them. Today is for them, and I am moved to see campaigners and local women watching this debate.
When I was studying at university, I lived at home, helping care for my father through an extended period of dementia up to his death. I got to know an older man, who had already been married twice, and ended up marrying him and moving in with him. As the relationship progressed, it became more and more volatile and abusive. By the end, I was sleeping in the living room with the sofa pushed up against the door so that he could not get in. I had to wait until he had an appointment in another city before I could plan my escape.
It is commonly assumed that a woman should just leave and her problems will be over, but that is far from the reality for so many. At its core, post-separation abuse is about power: attempting to control and punish in almost any way possible, whether through physical means such as violence, intimidation, threats or stalking, or via remote monitoring, emotional abuse and manipulation. I raised my ex-husband’s behaviour, including the abuse, stalking, harassment and intimidation, with the police on several occasions. Police records regarding him include his being issued with a warning for harassment.
Gradually, I began to rebuild my life, which involved becoming engaged in politics locally, but he continued to make things difficult, including by behaving threateningly and aggressively towards me in public. As soon as I started to indicate that I was going to put myself forward to become Labour’s parliamentary candidate in the general election, it all intensified even further, because of course I was just meant to stay in my lane and be little Apsana Begum. He told people that he was angry that I had not asked his permission to stand for selection.
Smears and rumours were spread about me, and there were threats that he would expose me for who I “really was” in front of the community. I was aware that he had pictures of me without my hijab on; if someone threatens to use something like that against someone now in this country, it is considered an act of intimate image abuse. He was privy to private information: my medical records, my previous mental ill health, and the fact that I had a secret abortion during the early stages of our relationship, which at the time was unknown to anyone, including my family.
This honour-based harassment was about maliciously destroying me in front of elder members of my community. He called campaign team members, making threats that he had been contacted by the media, who had offered to buy stories about me, and telling people that they should make me stand down or else. It all got even worse after I was elected to Parliament. How dare I not listen? How dare I not do what I was told? There were calls to local people who supported me when he was drunk, saying that evidence was being collected for the council to take me to court. He was a sitting councillor at that time.
As such, just two years after being elected as the UK’s first hijab-wearing MP, I had to endure an eight-day trial, which brutally forced me to talk about painful private experiences. While I was found innocent of all charges, I fear that the ordeal of that trial, which cost the council significantly more than the amount I was accused of defrauding it of in the first place, will haunt me for the rest of my life.
The practice of abusers misusing the court system to maintain power and control over their former or current partners, a method sometimes called vexatious or abusive litigation—in other words, stalking by way of the court—is recognised by experts as a form of domestic abuse. I want to explain why I believe this case to have been vexatious and why I want something like it never to happen again.
I first heard of the complaint that led to the case through threats, rumours and the press a month before even being informed officially that an investigation was under way. An article published in The Sun newspaper during the general election even showed a picture of the building where I lived, which was extremely frightening given the risk that this placed me under. I have since found out that the complaint that led to the investigation was made by my ex-husband’s brother-in-law, Syed Nahid Uddin, to coincide with the deadline for final nomination papers to be submitted.
During the trial, my barrister, Helen Law, brought out, through cross-examination of the fraud investigator from the council’s fraud team, a series of conflicts of interest, including that my ex-husband was a member of the council’s audit committee in the same year of the fraud investigation. That committee had governance and oversight over the work of the fraud team. The matter of domestic abuse was actually used against me by the prosecution. It was argued that the abuse was a motive for the alleged crimes. Raj Chada, the criminal defence partner at Hodge Jones & Allen who represented me, argues:
“Prosecutors and investigators need to better understand and consider how victims of coercive control and domestic abuse behave and how they are treated by the criminal justice system.”
At around the same time that I was going through the ordeal of the court case, a group of people who were close to my ex-husband took over the local Labour party, and despite my being vindicated the smears have continued and accountability has been thwarted. Motions in support of me were passed by the local party, but only after they were blocked from even being discussed for months on end. Meanwhile, people who supported me or spoke up for me continued to be targeted, including some who were contacted by my ex-husband himself. I believe that to be an example of what is often called indirect abuse, whereby threats are made against third parties or they are intimidated or manipulated into engaging in behaviours desired by the perpetrator. Those behaviours involve the use of proxies to humiliate and discipline, and ultimately to maintain power and control.
Most recently, while I was unwell, a trigger process —a process that my party uses to decide whether a sitting MP will remain the candidate at future elections— was conducted. Again, I am aware of my ex-husband’s involvement: there are even witnesses who saw him among the reportedly 50 men who stood outside one meeting in a way that many felt was intimidating. In my mind, it is no coincidence that the process was overseen by his associates. To explain and provide further evidence of that conflict of interest, I will give some examples. The procedure secretary who oversees the whole trigger process is close to my ex-husband, and has publicly credited him as one of the reasons why they were elected to their role. One of the local executive observers for two out of the four in-person meetings, who was secretary for another meeting, is a close friend of my ex-husband and has been pictured with him only recently on social media. Another has been the subject of a complaint after he sent an email to all branch members containing a copy of a letter repeating allegations of which I had been cleared and revealing my home address, putting me at risk.
Another close associate of my ex-husband was the secretary overseeing one of the meetings. He had previously been warned by the police to stop harassing me after I reported him for continuing to contact me; I had to ask him to stop unwanted contact after he posted a letter to me through my family member’s letterbox. The chair of one of the meetings was a long-time associate of my ex-husband, who had even approached me in 2018 and asked me to meet him, advocating on my ex-husband’s behalf that I should go back into a relationship with him. I also understand that comments were made in meetings about the fact that I speak too much about domestic abuse, and that the process was about teaching me a lesson. Even the delegated national executive observer has connections to my ex-husband.
Of course, it is up to individuals who they wish to associate with. My point is that such people cannot also oversee a process about my future, because not only can domestic abuse be indirect, but it can involve the use of public status and societal power. That is before one even considers that the trigger process was conducted while I was unwell, and that a litany of complaints have been submitted containing allegations of harassment and misogyny, particularly from local women. I am still in a situation where I have to risk-assess local events, and am unable to participate if the risk is too high or cannot be mitigated. I believe that there must be a duty to ensure inclusive, democratic and safe environments and it deeply saddens me that I continue to be placed in a position where, for safeguarding reasons, I am being prevented from participating fully in public life.
As I have said, my experiences are far from unique. I have been contacted by women and survivors from all over the country and I feel a tremendous duty towards them. Domestic abuse has been hidden for far too long, despite it having serious health consequences for individuals and our society, but after everything I have been through and whatever the future holds, I am determined to raise awareness and campaign for a society where individuals experiencing domestic abuse feel confident that they will be believed, listened to, and given the support they need. Ultimately, I want the UK to be a country where survivors are not thwarted by ongoing harassment and abuse.
The debate can last until 4.30 pm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I take stock of and am impressed by the courage of all victims of domestic abuse, from whichever walk of life, who have to deal with misogynistic physically and mentally abusive behaviour. It is a pleasure to address this Chamber. I would like to thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) for requesting the debate and for speaking so openly and candidly about her terrible experiences. I thank everyone else for attending, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Kate Kniveton) for her contribution.
We can all agree that domestic abuse has no place in our society. It is a terrible crime with devastating consequences. It is high volume, affecting 2.3 million adults a year. It is also high harm and high cost. The social and economic costs of domestic abuse are estimated to be in the region of £77 billion. Our Parliament and our institutions must play a role in addressing it and making sure victims are supported and feel supported. No one should have to experience the abuse we have heard about today and the Government are determined to tackle violence against women and girls, including domestic abuse.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned domestic abuse and I want to come on to that. Domestic abuse is the all-too-common form of violence against women and girls, but it is emotional abuse too. In July last year, as a Government we published our tackling violence against women and girls strategy to help ensure that women and girls are safe everywhere—at home, online, at work and on the streets. In March, we published our tackling domestic abuse plan, our blueprint for delivering the change that is so badly needed. Our violence against women and girls strategy and domestic abuse plan aim to transform the whole of society’s response to those crimes to prevent abuse, support victims, pursue perpetrators and strengthen the systems in place to respond. The tackling domestic abuse plan committed more than £230 million of investment to that purpose, including £140 million for supporting claims and more than £81 million for tackling issues regarding perpetrators.
We are making good progress with implementing our commitments in the tackling violence against women and girls strategy and the tackling domestic abuse plan. To give a few examples, we have launched a highly successful communications campaign called “Enough”, which has reached millions and surpassed all expectations. It is a wonderful initiative that focuses on the range of safe ways in which bystanders can intervene and help women who are suffering such incidents. The fourth round of funding from the safer streets fund was announced in July, an initiative that has been taken out across the whole nation. Through the fund, the sum of £125 million has been awarded. We have also supported the appointment of the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for violence against women and girls to drive better policing of such crimes. We have doubled our funding for the national domestic abuse helpline and increased our funding for other helplines too. We have also increased funding to support children—it is worth noting that this not only affects individuals who are adults, but children too. Millions of pounds a year will support seven bespoke projects related to children, who are also victims. I know the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse does not like the term “victim”, but we need to protect and empower those who are victims in equal measure.
We introduced the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which the hon. Lady has mentioned. It includes the first general purpose definition of domestic abuse, emphasising that it is not just physical, but can be emotional, controlling or coercive and can relate to economic abuse. Through the Act, we have also introduced new offences and it was salient that not everybody in the Chamber voted for that. The Act created the new offences of threatening to disclose intimate images and non-fatal strangulation and also prohibited perpetrators from cross-examining their victims in family courts and civil proceedings. That is huge progress and was probably unthinkable when I first qualified at the Bar in 1988. We have made progress, but there is more to do.
I was particularly moved by the hon. Lady’s explanations about abuse extending post-separation. That is something that the Government know much about and there is academic research on the subject. That is why the work on the landmark Domestic Abuse Act is so important, delivering new support and protection for victims as well as the new offences I have mentioned. The Act also recognised for the first time—something that the Government are very proud of—that controlling or coercive behaviour does not stop at the point of separation.
I am grateful for the private information that has been publicly shared in this Chamber. I was very moved by what has been said. There is a huge amount I wish to say, but I have been trying to focus particularly on what has been said. I want to mention the courage of the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse in calling this debate and coming back into public life, as well as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Burton. It takes a huge amount of effort to come back to work and carry on after this sort of incident.
Nobody should have to bear stigma or shame. We are a modern country and it is not good enough. I will do my best in my ministerial position to support victims. I am pleased to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Burton that she feels strong enough to speak out and encourage those who do not have a platform to speak for themselves. The debate is part of that journey, and I commend all involved for being here today.
I note the general concerns on so-called honour-based harassment, vexatious issues of litigation and the use of proxies or third parties to spread maliciousness and lies. All those issues need to and will be considered carefully. It is a tricky balance in looking at what can be considered as clear, provable abuse and what happens behind the scenes. That is part of the reason why the police have an onus through their new training to look at the whole picture. They must and should look at the whole picture, not just one incident that happened at a certain time on a certain date. They need to look at the overall picture and history.
The Government are funding extra work on risk assessments for cases with a history of domestic violence and abuse. I urge the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse to seek police advice where necessary. If there is a physical risk to her being that prevents her from being not only an ordinary citizen, but the extraordinary citizen that she is as an elected MP, she must seek advice. Wherever I can, I will seek to help her.
Let me move on to standards in public life and the working culture in Parliament and other organisations, which are issues close to all our hearts. The crime survey for England and Wales, which reaches thousands of people annually, shows that women and people from minoritised groups are disproportionately affected by domestic abuse. We have a responsibility to tackle these issues and ensure that we listen to and support victims.
The Government work very closely with organisations that seek to improve employers’ responses to domestic abuse, including the employers’ initiative on domestic abuse and the employers domestic abuse covenant. It is vital that employers, including police forces and other frontline services, as well as Parliament, can effectively respond to domestic abuse. Developing robust policies to ensure that all employees feel supported and empowered in their workplace is critical to that.
In Parliament, the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme was set up in 2018 to improve the working culture of Parliament. The House of Commons also agreed to establish an independent expert panel to determine sanctions against MPs should a case of bullying or harassment be upheld. Although these steps are welcome, there is clearly more to do in all walks of life. The Government have made it clear that there is no place for bullying, harassment or sexual harassment in Parliament—or elsewhere. We will continue to work on a cross-party basis to ensure that everyone working in Parliament is treated with dignity and respect.
On internal political issues, I do not think it would be right for me, as an observer, to make any major value judgments, save to say that I have heard about a very worrying picture. I hope and wish that transparency will come forward and we will hear the true facts. If things are as dreadful as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse has said, I wish her the best of luck in clarifying her future. It does not matter what area a victim works in, where they live, or what sex, colour or religion they are—domestic abuse is not acceptable. The Government will work wherever we can to try to stamp out domestic abuse and uphold proper standards in this place.
Question put and agreed to.
Supporting UK Artists and Culture
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of supporting UK artists and culture.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. The UK is an international cultural powerhouse. Our arts and creative industries have the capacity to regenerate communities and to drive global exports, and to put a boot up the backside of our stagnant economy, but it feels like we have not always supported or nurtured our world-leading creative talent as we should as a country, or understood our arts and culture as the golden economic goose that it is.
Just look at what the sector currently contributes to the UK. Our creative industries employ 2.1 million people and contribute £116 billion to our economy each year. UK exports were worth more than £37.9 billion in 2019—12% of total UK service exports. The creative industries also help shape the UK’s image around the world. British musicians, artists, writers and actors command a global audience, while many of our cultural beacons draw millions of visitors into the UK. As soft power goes, there is simply nothing like it. That is why we must never underestimate the potential of our arts and culture, and the vital role of its people, the creators and performers, who underpin this success story.
Globally, some modern emerging economies really get this. South Korea’s creative industries have taken the world by storm, with K-pop and drama, from “Parasite” to “Squid Game”, at the forefront. What makes that even more remarkable is the fact that the language is barely spoken outside of Korea. Just as South Korea implemented industrial policy for the export of electronics, cars and chemicals, it applied a policy approach to develop its creative industries. In less than a generation, South Korea transformed from being effectively a third-world country to an industrial powerhouse and the world’s seventh largest cultural player, with its creative cultural sector making nearly $11 billion in exports and supporting 700,000 jobs last year.
Meanwhile, dedicated music or creative industry export hubs have been springing up in countries across Europe, funded by Governments and industry keen to ride the wave of this growing market. At a time when worldwide recorded music trade revenues are set to double by 2030, British music exports could increase to more than £1 billion by the end of the decade. That will require a supportive policy environment that maximises UK export potential against a backdrop of intensifying global competition.
Funds such as the music export growth scheme will be crucial, but we also need a hardcore strategy to underpin this. What do the Government have in mind? Could they look again at the idea of dedicated British music or creative industry export hubs to drive this forward, because at the moment the support is simply not good enough? A creative industries trade and investment board website has had only three posts in the past 12 months, and the Creative Industries Council has just one upcoming event over the next 12 months advertised on its website.
By its very definition, this is an innovative and agile sector. That was demonstrated during the pandemic in how some organisations swiftly pivoted to using digital to ensure that the band played on. One example is the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, which responded to the first national lockdown in 2020 with an exclusive series of live concerts streamed online. During the first six months of this series, it increased its audience by almost 30%, with 65,000 views by audiences around the world. We have digital innovation to thank for that.
Digital has completely transformed how people consume culture and driven appetites for cultural works. A recent survey showed that 81% of people think that accessing cultural works through a digital device is important to their daily lives. Despite this shift, there has not been a corresponding benefit to artists, many of whom operate as creative freelancers. That is why more than three quarters of survey respondents support the Government considering new ideas and initiatives to sustain the UK’s creative industries.
The public understand and value our culture and our creative talent. They also see the huge difference that culture can make in their local neighbourhoods. Funding the arts delivers investment in left-behind communities and aids economic regeneration. There are no two ways about it. There is evidence right across the country. For example, in Margate, thanks to the legacy of local artists such as Tracey Emin, the Turner Contemporary opened in 2011 and has contributed more than £70 million to the local economy in the last decade. This week, I will be really pleased to attend the reopening of Gosport Gallery, part of Hampshire Cultural Trust. That was a massive regeneration project funded by high street heritage action zones. We thank the Government so much for that investment, because it is breathing new life into our beleaguered high streets.
There is no doubt that the Government recognise how arts and culture can be a significant driver of levelling up, and I welcome the recognition that redistributing some of the national Arts Council spend away from London to the regions is a way to achieve that. However, I am going to urge a little bit of caution on the Minister: it needs to be done in a way that supports investments in projects and organisations that can genuinely start a snowball of growth, not as a tick-box exercise and certainly not as tokenism.
Much as I would love to see English National Opera relocate to Gosport, under the current proposals the out-of-London version will receive significantly less funding than its current form, so it will have to stop funding projects like ENO Breathe, its game-changing response to long covid. That has been operating in 85 NHS trusts across the country, including my own. The current proposal risks the work that the ENO has been doing with schools across the country, and it could stop it being able to offer free or discounted tickets to a younger audience. That work means that one in seven of its attendees is now under the age of 35. In fact, it risks the organisation becoming the opposite of what we want and the opposite of what it is—it risks it becoming an elite organisation for those who can afford to pay £300 for a ticket, albeit one outside London.
I am very pleased to rise under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) on having secured this debate. I should declare an interest, in that I chair Theatre Royal Stratford East, in London. I wanted to come in on the issue of English National Opera and the cut that will mean the closure of an absolutely unique facility in London. Does the hon. Lady agree that one cannot level up by destroying excellence? We have to embrace excellence and ensure that it is enjoyed throughout the country.
Will the hon. Lady also join me in congratulating the ENO on partnering with Theatre Royal Stratford East to put on a production of “Noye’s Fludde” by Britten? We engaged a lot of young children from east London, who need as much levelling up as those elsewhere in the country, and we managed to secure out of that an Olivier award.
The right hon. Lady makes an excellent point. The ENO has been groundbreaking in the way it has appealed to younger audiences and reached out in partnerships. It has done TikTok videos seen by hundreds of thousands of people. It has even done beatboxing in a car park. It has done virtually more than anybody to bring opera, which is often regarded as a bit of an elitist art form, to the masses and to a newer, younger audience. It will be a disaster if such organisations —not just the ENO—lose that unique identifying factor in the move. I have nothing against driving investment outside London, but we have to do that in a careful way and not as some form of crazy tokenism. I therefore ask the Minister to look again at giving the ENO more time and more resources to deliver the appropriate change and to continue its excellent work.
We also have to face the fact that we cannot rely exclusively on public funds to support the creative industries; we need new ideas. Funding and income streams across the UK remain a massively pressing issue—the Minister will know this—with most creators and performers earning less than the minimum wage. A strong copyright framework is a key element. Freelance creators and performers rely on royalties from the use of their copyright-protected works in order to earn a living, but they are currently not receiving fair remuneration when their works are copied, stored and shared digitally. I therefore ask the Minister to look at the Smart fund proposal to address that. It is suggested that in the UK it could raise up to £300 million a year for creators, performers and communities. Similar schemes already operate in 45 other countries, generating almost £1 billion a year globally. They do so by diverting a small percentage of the sales of electronic devices, which copy, store and share creative content, into a fund that is paid out to creators and local community projects, with a focus on digital creativity and skills.
The benefit of such a scheme is huge for creators. In France alone, it raised over £250 million in 2021, supporting artists and funding almost 12,000 cultural activities a year. Most importantly, there is simply no evidence that when tariffs change, device prices change, too. The potential for something similar for communities in this country is huge, and I ask the Minister to look at it. It is also supported by the Design and Artists Copyright Society, the British Equity Collecting Society, Directors UK, and the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, which represent over 330,000 creative workers between them. Will the Minister meet representatives of the creative organisations that support the Smart fund to discuss this issue?
Our artists and creatives have a unique power. They can lift spirits and boost wellbeing, and they can regenerate communities and promote levelling up. They can drive economic prosperity and turbocharge global trade. No other sector can do all those things. No other sector has such a strong track record of delivering for the UK economy or so much future potential, so I urge the Minister to leave no stone unturned in efforts to harness that potential.
The debate can last until 5.30 pm. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespersons at no later than 5.7 pm, and the guideline limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for His Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. Dame Caroline will then have three minutes to sum up at the end.
Six Members are seeking to contribute. To get everybody in, we will have to have a time limit of four minutes. I gently remind right hon. and hon. Members that if you wish to speak in Westminster Hall, you are meant to write to Mr Speaker in advance, but I will endeavour to get everybody in. The first speaker will be the House’s most distinguished musician, Kevin Brennan.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I was not expecting that and I am not sure that it is true, either, but I am a member of the Musicians’ Union, as you know. I declare that as an interest, as well as my membership of PRS for Music, Phonographic Performance Ltd and various other bodies. I occasionally receive some payment for that work.
I thank the hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) for securing the debate. The Minister should listen to what she said, because she knows what she is talking about. She was a distinguished Minister until she was cast aside brutally, as happens in this place as soon as somebody shows some gumption and knowledge of a subject. Her expertise should therefore be of great value to the Minister, who should listen to everything she said. I agree with pretty much everything she said—I hope she is not too worried by that.
Obviously, I am the Member of Parliament for Cardiff West, and the creative industries and arts are extremely important to the city of Cardiff’s culture, but also to its economy. I want to briefly mention five things in the four minutes that I have. First, the “Let the Music Move” report was issued earlier this year by the all-party parliamentary group on music. I sent a copy to the Secretary of State and asked for her response, and I also asked my office to contact her private office. I have still not received a response, but I hope that she has read the report and that the Minister will read it—I am happy to give him a copy. It sets out how we can try to solve the issue of musicians touring in Europe, accepting that we have gone through Brexit, which is not the issue here. This is not about immigration, but about ensuring that our great creative industries can flourish. I hope that the Minister will read the report, and that the Secretary of State has read it and will write back to me soon with her response to my letter. If it has not been received, her office can let my office know and I will send another copy.
Secondly, I wish to address the recent announcement made by Arts Council England, which was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Gosport. It is perfectly legitimate to seek to spread our cultural wealth around the country; in fact, it is an essential part of any effective arts policy. However, to announce, as Arts Council England did, savage and sudden cuts to some of our great cultural organisations is no way to do business. I hope that the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, of which I am a member, will talk to Arts Council England about that in the very near future. I also remind Members that Welsh National Opera will be affected by these cuts because it receives Arts Council England funding for touring around England, meaning that it is not necessary to have another opera company in places such as Liverpool, Birmingham, Oxford and Southampton, which is closer to the hon. Lady’s constituency.
Thirdly, I want to address the Government’s recent decision on artificial intelligence. It was taken against all advice and, as far as I know, nobody asked them to do it. It is partly the Minister’s responsibility, but it also sits with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Tech companies already pay artists a pittance, but the Government are proposing that they should now be given unrestricted access to the work of musicians, artists and others to use AI to produce facsimiles of their work and not pay them a single penny. It is a shocking decision, coming out of a report by the Intellectual Property Office, and I hope that the Minister will tell us that the Government will look at it again, because it has caused absolute outrage among those who are already trying to scrape a living out of intellectual property from their artistic and creative endeavours.
I have two quick last points. We also need to fix streaming and get artists paid better. Finally, UK Music is issuing its diversity report this evening. I hope that the Minister will also take note of that and read it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) on securing this debate. I agree with and endorse absolutely everything that she has said. I will concentrate on English National Opera. I declare my interest as chair of the APPG on opera.
Make no mistake: what the Arts Council is proposing is not the relocation of English National Opera, but the killing of English National Opera. It is, effectively, closure. It has acted in a peremptory manner, with no consultation and a most questionable evidence base. The extraordinary suggestion by its director of music, of all people, that there was no growth in grand opera in the UK has been flatly contradicted by people such as David Buchler, a former member of the ENO board, who set out why that is a false analysis in Opera Now magazine. The chairman of the Arts Council praised the leadership of the ENO—under its chair, Dr Harry Brünjes, and its chief executive officer, Stuart Murphy, who is here today—as being outstanding. But their reward is to be kicked in the proverbial, because, at the end of the day, it was proposed on very short notice, with no consultation whatever, that the company should be required, having lost a third of its income, to move to an unspecified venue. Manchester was floated as a venue, but nobody in Manchester was consulted. The venue in Manchester was never looked at. In fact, it is not suitable for unamplified performance, so opera simply cannot be done there. The Mayor of Manchester knew nothing of it; Opera North, which already operates in Manchester, knew nothing of it. It is wholly unfeasible.
It is impossible to relocate an opera company over three years. When Birmingham Royal Ballet was moved from London to Birmingham, it took five years. It is impossible to anything in less. In any event, moving English National Opera out of London would mean the chorus, orchestra and technicians being made redundant. Three hundred skilled, world-admired people would lose their jobs in London, with no hope of replacing them in the provinces.
I hope that the Minister will take this away. It is all very well to say that the Arts Council operates at arm’s length—yes, but when it goes rogue and gets something seriously wrong, the Minister is entitled to use his influence, as best he can, to make it change its mind. Can we have this done outside the context of a one-off peremptory decision, based on no evidence? Let us have a proper strategic review of opera provision. Let us ensure that the ENO receives a realistic level of funding over the next four years or so, to keep the company in being, because if it folds it will be lost forever.
The ENO is more than willing to look at doing more work outside of London. That ought to be part of the discussion, but it cannot do it on this basis. We ought to be looking at this on the basis that it keeps a London base. It is able, and has already taken steps, to rent out the London Coliseum to other companies to produce musicals—“My Fair Lady” was a great success—and to bring in income to cross-subsidise. It is doing the right thing and has never had a more commercial or business-like approach. No doubt it could negotiate with the Arts Council ways to take more productions out into the provinces, which would be a good thing, but that can be done only if the company is strong to start with. This proposal would destroy the strong company and the provinces would not be gainers, so I hope very much that the Arts Council will think again. There is a sensible way forward, but it requires the ENO and the Arts Council to sit down and talk.
The English National Opera has been the ground seed for British operatic talent: virtually every notable leading British opera singer and musician has started or had part of their early career at the ENO. International stars still return to the ENO. It is the only company that operates in English, it is accessible in the vernacular and its audiences are more ethnically diverse than those of any other company. Some 50% of the audience are first-timers and one in seven is under 35.
If we want to grow opera, the English National Opera is the company doing that. To kill it off, which is what the Arts Council is doing, is an utter dereliction and complete contradiction of what the Arts Council asserts it is trying to do. Even within the arm’s length rules, it is time for the Government to put pressure on the Arts Council to reflect and think again.
I apologise for not giving you advance notice that I wanted to speak, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) for securing the debate and I join my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) in paying warm tribute to the work she did as arts Minister. She is on the Back Benches at the moment, but I am sure she will be on the Front Benches again. In the meantime, she is doing very good work, so I pay warm tribute to her.
With everybody incredibly anxious about what is going to happen to energy bills, with food prices soaring and with the NHS and public services struggling, it might seem an odd time to be raising the issue of funding for the arts, but it is absolutely right for us to do so. As well as helping drive our economy, as the hon. Member for Gosport said, our culture and arts are central to how we define ourselves individually and as a nation.
We must not allow public policy to drive the cultural impoverishment of this country, but unless the Government step in to stop that or the Arts Council can be persuaded to think again, that is exactly what is going to happen with the closure of the English National Opera at the Coliseum. We cannot stand by while the ENO, which is artistically excellent, economically vital and culturally important, is closed and, with that, see the end of the social engagement and widening access that is central to the ENO’s mission.
The Arts Council has removed all funding from the ENO at the Coliseum, meaning that, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) rightly said, 300 skilled artists, dedicated professionals and other employees will be thrown out of work. The Arts Council spin was that the ENO was to be relocated as part of levelling up. The Guardian said that the ENO
“is to relocate outside London”
and the BBC said:
“English National Opera to leave London as arts funding gets levelled up”.
The briefing was that the ENO was going to Manchester—not only was that a bolt out of the blue to the ENO, but it was the first time Manchester had heard of it, and it was not what they wanted. The Arts Council is closing the ENO with a tremendous cultural loss and nothing to show for it up north.
What the Arts Council proposes to do is completely wrong, but the way it has gone about it—with no consultation and, frankly, misleading spin—is shameful. It should think again. Yes, times have changed and times are hard, but difficult decisions should be made carefully, not with a wrecking ball. I am backing the ENO’s call for three things: a strategic review of opera as a whole; that the Arts Council should agree realistic funds for the ENO for a period of four years; and that the Arts Council should agree a period of five years to consult on a new model, based on the ENO retaining its Coliseum base but increasing still further its fundraising and work outside London.
As has been said, the ENO has effective leadership; I pay tribute to that and it is also fully acknowledged by the Arts Council. It has a dedicated company of employees who deserve better than to be thrown out of work in April next year. The ENO means a great deal to many, as emails from my constituents can attest. I thank all those who have contacted me and assure them that the ENO will have my full support.
Surely Sir Nicholas Serota does not want his legacy to be the closure of the ENO; if he goes ahead with the closure, that will be the only thing everybody will remember about him and his tenure at the Arts Council. The decision to close the ENO is wrong, and the best thing to do with a wrong decision is to change it. The Government have been quite active on that front in the past, with U-turns here and there—this would be one U-turn that would be universally welcomed. I welcome the Minister to his role and I hope to hear in public, or even in private—whatever is necessary—that he will step in, and that the ENO will not be closed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) for securing this important and timely debate.
I am incredibly proud of the vibrant arts and culture offer of my constituency, from the west end’s theatreland to iconic live music venues such as Ronnie Scott’s, the 100 Club or Heaven, as well as the Barbican centre, the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Opera House and the London Coliseum. According to the Office for National Statistics, 8% of arts and culture businesses are based in the Cities of London and Westminster—over 2,500 businesses. In the time I have, I will pay particular attention to how we can support arts and culture through an incredibly difficult time.
When we look at how we can best support the future of the sector, forward planning is key, especially post covid. Its importance has been made clear to me throughout covid and more recently, during the ongoing decisions on the future of the English National Opera, which is based in my constituency. It is good to see the ENO’s chief executive, Stuart Murphy, in the Public Gallery.
Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a real misunderstanding about how much money is invested in the arts in London? That investment is brilliant, but there is a misunderstanding about it. First, it includes national institutions such as the British Museum, which should not be included. Secondly, the audience for London entertainment comes from the south-east, and the south-east gets hardly any money from Arts Council England. If one were to incorporate the two, one would see that the funding per capita in London is equivalent to the funding per capita in the rest of the country.
I thank the right hon. Member for her very salient point. Given the funding, or lack of it, from Arts Council England, the future of the ENO is dependent on two factors. The key driver is to move out from its current location at the London Coliseum. The debate on cuts to funding could be a standalone issue, so I will not stray into its complexities right now. I will take that up when I discuss ENO funding with Arts Council England this week.
Right now, what I hear is that one of the major issues the ENO faces is not necessarily a prospective move, but the tightening of timescales and a lack of due consultation. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) mentioned the lack of consultation with the ENO. In fact, Arts Council England expects 20 weeks, between now and April, to be enough for the ENO to start making decisions about its future.
Although I appreciate that a funding decision must be made, moving the ENO in its entirety is a big misstep. As we have heard, it will take five years at least. Is Manchester the right place? I personally want consideration to be given to the model used by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has a base in the Barbican centre and in Stratford-upon-Avon. That works well: it keeps the London offer, but goes out into the provinces. I cannot see why Arts Council England should not work with the ENO to discuss that type of move, which would keep the London Coliseum alive while perhaps not moving the ENO up north. We have a brilliant Opera North organisation. What about the west country? What about Bristol, Exeter or Plymouth? Those areas need levelling up. Why cannot Arts Council England work with Stuart Murphy and his team to give proper consideration to that?
Will the hon. Lady give way?
Order. I have to protect the time for the two remaining speakers who are seeking to contribute. The hon. Gentleman can seek an intervention if he wishes, but doing so would reduce the time for the last two speakers.
I was just pointing out that the Welsh National Opera does Bristol.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for pointing that out—maybe Exeter and Plymouth, then.
Let me move on to another very important point: the economic drivers that culture brings to areas such as central London. Central London is the powerhouse of the economy and that is because of the hospitality, leisure and culture sectors working together. For every £1 spent in theatres, £5 is spent in the wider local economy. That is tens of thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of jobs. That is not just in London, but across every major city that has theatres. We have the pantomime season coming up now—oh yes we have! I used to go to the pantomime in Cardiff with my grandparents every year; the local economy really does depend on families going to the theatre and having a meal before or afterwards.
In the very short time I have left, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport for securing this debate but also for her outstanding work as a Minister. During covid, the arts and culture sector was on its knees; there were worries. I had calls every day during lockdown from really major players in the culture sector who were worried about whether they would ever open their doors again. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for working with me to secure the £1.5 billion culture recovery fund. I know that she played a huge part in that; it made a difference not just to my arts and culture sector in central London, but across the country.
I end by saying that we face a very difficult economic time, but we cannot lose sight of the contribution that artists, the arts and culture play in our country—from not just an economic, but a health and wellbeing point of view. I hope we can keep securing all that and that we can save the ENO.
Apologies that I did not notify your office that I wanted to speak, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to follow my constituency neighbour and to praise the hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) for raising this important and timely debate.
I declare an interest: I was a member of Arts Council England for the London region for seven years. While on the Arts Council, one of the things I tried to push was ensuring that it funded some of the smaller organisations, which were not well known but had a massive reach in bringing great art and culture to a really diverse audience. There is still a notion that arts, culture, opera and music are for a select few, but we know that the power of arts and culture—in transforming lives, in bringing new people into a new role, in tapping into the creativity that a number of our young people have—is so important.
I am proud to represent Vauxhall, which is home to some of the most iconic arts organisations in the world, such as the Old Vic, the Young Vic, the Southbank Centre, the National Theatre, the BFI, Waterloo East theatre, Omnibus theatre and Rambert, to name just a few. They are fantastic institutions that reach not only across London, but right across the country. That is the power of publicly funded arts organisations.
The Arts Council England announcement last week shows a real-terms cut to London’s cultural sector. That is a shame because—on the back of the covid pandemic and so many other issues—we know the power of arts and culture in helping to address the issues we face, such as the challenges of mental health.
The joy of seeing a group of young people from Lambeth stand on stage at the Southbank Centre at the annual Lambeth Sounds music festival—a number of parents never having seen their children perform, a number never having even been to the Southbank Centre: that is the power of arts and culture, but it can happen only if we continue to fund these great organisations. They do fantastic work in reaching out.
I have just one question for the Minister on this: does he agree that we cannot level up the rest of the country by levelling down London’s renowned cultural sector? I hope that he will work with Arts Council England in terms of looking at this decision and supporting great organisations, including the ENO, to ensure we continue to have great arts for everybody instead of feeling that arts and culture is for people who can afford it.
We have the power to succeed in making sure this works and to create new, emerging talent. We have the BFI London film festival in my constituency, which taps into some of the new talent that we did not even know existed. We could lose all that if we do not nurture it. I want to see art being taught in our schools. Schools funding has been cut in this sector; we do not speak about that enough. Why is it that only parents who can afford extra music lessons get their children to play instruments? It is so important. Not every child will be academic, but a number of them can be creative if we support those subjects. I want the Minister to talk about that.
I finish with some of the other costs and measures that the arts sector is facing. Energy costs have increased. A number of buildings are crumbling. There is no discussion about capital; that is another area that is often left out. I hope that the Minister will come back to those issues. I reiterate the need to ensure that we support London’s heartbeat: its cultural sector.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) for bringing forward this important debate. Believe it or not, creative arts run through the very veins of Cornwall, just as much as fishing, farming or mining. In fact, in a village called Playing Place between Truro and Falmouth, plays were performed in the round in medieval times. And if anyone was in Truro on 27 June 1970, they might have gone to see the first gig of a small, little-known band named Queen. We now have a global reputation in visual arts and theatre; a university dedicated to the creative industries; a growing appeal for international TV and film productions, musicians and music producers; and world-class digital connectivity.
Cornwall’s creative achievements are the result of planning and hard work in recent times by a lot of local people and organisations, who have worked together to help Cornwall’s creative rural economy grow. As such, Cornwall has more creative jobs than any other rural part of the United Kingdom. A brilliant local example is Falmouth University, which used to be Falmouth College of Arts. It is now leading the charge to change the way in which creative education is delivered. It is central to Falmouth’s role as a major creative innovation hub, and its teaching facilities are second to none.
We must also continue to support our local and home-grown assets in Cornwall, such as the Hall for Cornwall in Truro. This social enterprise and charity brings great shows to Cornwall, bolsters schools and communities with local projects, and supports artists and practitioners who create original work. The herculean efforts, led by Julien Boast, were completed throughout covid and under very difficult circumstances. I am pleased that Arts Council England has recently announced an over £1 million investment between 2023 and 2026 for the Hall for Cornwall Trust, which will bring growth and creative opportunities for local people. That investment will help to solidify Truro’s status as a cultural hub for the arts and the creative sector. I urge the Government to continue to support the venue in the years to come.
There is more. There is also the Old Bakery Studios in Truro, which offers more than 50 studios and workspaces to artists of all types. RouteNote, a company in Newham, offers a way for musicians around the world to stream their tracks on Spotify and the like. Cornwall County Council is also supporting the arts and creative industries with its creative manifesto, which is an ambitious plan for the next few years to maintain and enhance Cornwall’s position in the sector. The plan includes ambitions to boost culture in communities, promote collaborative working, get more people into creative jobs and ensure the sustainability of this important industry.
The Government are right to have supported the creative industries throughout the pandemic, providing nearly £2 billion for the sector. I am also grateful to them for announcing a £50 million investment package for creative businesses across the UK earlier this year. However, we must recognise the challenges that the industry continues to face, some of which we have heard about this afternoon.
Despite everything that we have going for us in Cornwall, our social and economic context remains a challenge, and we are behind the majority of the UK on a lot of key economic measurements. A low-wage seasonal economy, a lack of affordable housing and a skills shortage among young people are holding the creative industries back. If we can tackle those challenges, celebrate our creatives and artists, and target investment into our region, Cornwall can continue to play a central role in helping the UK become a world leader in these sectors.
Let me be clear: creative arts are key to levelling up Cornwall. I look forward to continuing work with the Government to support this cause, and I would be delighted to welcome the Minister to Cornwall to see at first hand the exciting work that is going on.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) on securing this debate. I was particularly interested in her references to Korea; I recently came back from Korea with other members of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. We have a great deal to learn from them. I reference the comments from the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) about Stratford and regeneration. Last night, we visited “Abba Voyage”, which was specifically chosen to help regenerate. I would like to associate myself with the comments about the English National Opera, which many Members made. I am a great fan of the ENO and wish to see it thrive.
We all appreciate the vital role of culture and art in our lives. Art offers consolation, empowerment to communities, and culture benefits for participants and performers and helps people to realise their own value. We in Scotland cannot mitigate entirely the impacts of covid or the rise in costs but, as so much of culture is devolved, the Scottish Government have acted. We delivered an addition £125 million in funding for culture and heritage before covid, and a further £2.2 million directed at grassroots venues to make sure that once the worst of the pandemic had passed, we would still have stages to fill.
Scotland needs the borrowing powers that would allow us to meet critical issues with emergency funding when required. Instead, we have to rely on the UK Government. At a time when we need all the help practicable to secure an industry that has done so much with so little money, we instead have disastrous cuts to the budgets. We know the impacts: a 7.1% drop in disposable income over the next two years. This is a time when the cultural sector needs more audience numbers and more tickets sold.
The UK Government are hellbent on pursuing Brexit to the rock bottom, regardless of casualties. The hard Brexit has cut off revenue streams, making it harder for cultural actors from Scotland to travel to the EU to earn money from audiences there. Lord Frost rather casually said of his failure to secure a deal on touring artists, that it was a “shame”. The man failed to deliver a specific deal on the issue. Twenty four out of 27 EU countries have agreed access for touring musicians, but they are not uniform. It is so much more difficult to tour—for some players, it has become impossible.
Brexit is an irredeemable failure. However, the specific damage to the cultural sector can be mitigated with effort at the negotiating table. We need the UK Government to accept their failings and the sharp need for Scotland’s cultural sector to frictionless access to the EU, along with our friends south of the border. The Scottish Government are engaged constantly in a dialogue with stakeholders in the cultural sector to seek pathways through these crises. We have suggestions: a cut in VAT would help struggling venues; renegotiating with a homogeneous simple touring visa within the UK would enormously; and the devolution of borrowing powers to Holyrood could support those most in need.
A future without our vibrant arts and cultural sector is surely unthinkable. On the Scottish National party Benches here at Westminster and at Scottish Government level we will do all we can to shield Scotland and its cultural sector from many of the calamities imposed upon us by Brexit and the UK Government.
I declare that I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on classical music. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) for securing this debate, and all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed.
Our leading arts and culture organisations have been enriching our lives, enhancing our reputation on the world stage and contributing to our GDP for many years. Yet, having weathered the challenges from the covid pandemic and a decade of funding cuts to the arts, they now face a perfect storm of increased energy and operating costs, and a cost of living squeeze on audiences. Financial security has rarely been more important. Given the scale of the current pressures on arts organisations, I hope the Government will consider measures widely called for across the sector, such as the extension of the current higher rates of theatre tax relief and orchestra tax relief beyond next spring.
I want to speak mostly about the funding allocations for Arts Council England’s investment programme 2023 to 2026. While some excellent organisations are being given national portfolio organisation status, overall the recent announcement showed poor planning, short-sightedness and too much political direction. First, the chaos in Government led to a last-minute delay in the funding announcement. Then, what actually emerged were proposals that imperilled the arts sector through cuts to institutions, which as we have heard, have their roots in the core of the sector.
Cuts have been imposed on theatres and opera companies, which contribute significantly to the arts talent pipeline and are vital to the health of our regional theatres through their touring. Glyndebourne production has had its funding halved, despite its production of “La bohème” filling out theatres in Norwich and Liverpool this month. Welsh National Opera is another touring company that has had its funding cut by a third, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). These organisations are being cut despite doing everything that was asked of them. English National Opera delivers education and outreach programmes that reach 165,000 people every year. It has worked hard to increase access to opera from free tickets for under-21s to relaxed performances, and it has the most diverse full-time chorus in the country. Yet the ENO has been entirely cut from the national portfolio organisations programme and will receive nothing from next October if it does not move from London to Manchester, affecting the job security of 300 full-time employees and over 600 freelancers.
We have heard about the total lack of consultation around this suggested move. It is one of the clearest indicators of a top-down approach from Arts Council England and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I have to say to the Minister that this seems to be more about political gimmickry around levelling up than a true rebalancing of power to regions outside of London. As we have heard, not one of the key organisations affected by the suggested ENO move to Manchester was consulted before the public announcement, including Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, Manchester City Council, Opera North and the Factory.
The funding allocated for the move is just £17 million—a fraction of what would be needed for ENO to operate from Manchester. After splashing £120 million on the Unboxed festival, which only reached a quarter of its audience target, Ministers should think again about these cuts. Donmar Warehouse is another example of a world-class producing theatre that has lost all its NPO funding. It told me that
“this self-defeating decision will undo much of the work that...has been done over the past few years and prevent us from implementing our plans to further expand our footprint outside of London.”
What we have seen is an attempt to address regional disparity by shifting some funding to the regions, but doing so out of a funding pot that has been shrinking since 2010, and 70% of the organisations being entirely cut from the programme are based outside London, including the Oldham Coliseum, the Britten Sinfonia and the Watermill theatre.
Levelling up should not be about pitting the arts against each other. Arbitrarily cutting and directing arts organisations without planning or consultation risks their very existence and makes it more difficult to improve regional parity in arts provision. Arts Council England has admitted that the unpopular choices made in this latest funding round are a direct result of instruction from Ministers. I urge the Minister to recognise in future the value of an independent Arts Council England setting its own agenda and being flexible to the needs of the organisations it serves.
It is clear from today’s debate that we need a proper plan to fund ENO, rather than expecting it to undertake a move to another city and exist on a third of the funding. I support the calls made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for a strategic review of opera provision, the reinstatement of a realistic level of funding, and time to consult and conduct any feasibility assessment for moving out of London.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am glad to be here to discuss the Government’s support for the arts and culture sector. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) for securing the debate and I thank everyone for their contributions. My hon. Friend is a passionate supporter of arts and the creative industries, and I share everyone’s view that her steadfast support for the cultural sector during the covid pandemic as the Arts Minister meant that she was instrumental in securing the unparalleled cultural recovery fund, the film and TV production restart scheme and covid reinsurance schemes, all delivered by DCMS over those two years.
Frankly, without my hon. Friend’s instrumental work in securing and delivering that fund, this debate would be telling a different story—one of how to rebuild a decimated industry. Instead, our support for the sector has been unprecedented. Around 5,000 organisations were supported through the cultural recovery fund, alongside additional support through pan-economic measures, such as the self-employment income support scheme and the furlough scheme.
The 2021 Budget also increased tax reliefs for theatres, orchestras, museums and galleries until 2024. Those additional tax reliefs are worth almost a quarter of a billion pounds and are a fantastic boost for the cultural sector to keep producing the content for which we are world famous. Taken together, the interventions supported the cultural sector through the challenges of covid and steered it into recovery.
The Government’s investment in culture is at the heart of our levelling up approach, with a strong belief that the enrichment that culture brings to people’s lives needs to be more equitably spread.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Very quickly, because I have eight minutes to get through a lot.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. On the point about the ENO and levelling up, do we not need a better definition of what we mean by levelling up when it comes to opera? It is not just about where things are located, but about how young people learn about opera, how it is perceived in schools and so on. Do we not need a better definition of what we mean by levelling up—not just distributing money?
I take on board my hon. Friend’s points and will come on to some of them later on. The economic growth that creativity can catalyse should be seen in all our towns and cities, and the pride of place that culture and heritage can bring to communities should be felt across the entire country. That is why we asked Arts Council England to invest more in its levelling up for culture places. That is why we are investing across England through the cultural investment fund. That is why DCMS and its arms-length bodies have been supporting the assessment process of the levelling-up fund which, importantly, has culture and heritage as one of its three priority investment themes.
As hon. Members will know, central to all that support is our delivery partner Arts Council England. It has recently announced the outcome of its 2023 to 2026 investment programme, which will be investing £446 million each year in arts and culture in England. That will support 990 organisations across the whole of England—more than ever before and in more places than ever before—with 276 organisations set to join the portfolio, 215 of which are outside London. That, for example, includes £500,000 for the Hampshire Cultural Trust on an annual basis. Its application was focused on expanding the organisation’s work in three of Arts Council England’s priority places, including the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport, along with Rushmoor and the New Forest. The trust described the decision as “a landmark day”.
Will the Minister give way?
I am afraid I am running out of time. I have been asked a lot of questions, and I need to get through them all.
In short, I am unapologetic that the Arts Council is providing support to more organisations in more places than ever before for the following reasons. First, it is providing more opportunities for children and young people. There will be a 20% increase in organisations that are funded to deliver work for children and young people in the new portfolio and 79% of the new portfolio will deliver activity specifically for children and young people.
Secondly, it is supporting more libraries and museums than ever before. Funding for libraries will increase nearly three-fold and 223 accredited museums will receive a total investment of more than £113 million over three years, representing an increase of 21%.
Thirdly, we will see an increased investment in 78 previously underserved places, totalling £43 million each year and representing an increase of 95%. Places such as Blackburn, which never got a penny before, will now have four projects supported. That is something I certainly support.
I understand that some hon. Members may disagree with the decisions taken by the Arts Council in recent funding announcements. The individual decisions were taken by the Arts Council, which assessed an unprecedented number of applications. The decisions are therefore for the Arts Council to comment on. However, I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport will agree with me that, stepping back and looking at the whole picture, it is exciting to see a portfolio that gives people right across the country more opportunities to access culture on their doorstop. The new portfolio supports both new and more established organisations to develop and thrive.
I turn to the English National Opera. There were a record number of applications, and it was a competitive fund. I recognise that leaving the portfolio can be a difficult process for organisations, their employees and their audiences. While I cannot comment on the specifics of individual funding decisions that were taken independently by the Arts Council, ACE has proposed a package of support to the English National Opera. The Department is very keen that Arts Council England and the English National Opera work together on the possibilities for the future of the organisation. My noble friend Lord Parkinson, the Arts Minister, has been very keen to hear the views of Members in the debate today. I will ensure that he will be aware of the points raised.
A number of other specific points were raised. The Creative Industries Council has been a key partner in supporting the creative industries. It has provided a forum for us to engage directly with the industry on the challenges and opportunities they face, and we worked together to deliver the 2018 sector deal. It has been our partner in developing the creative industries sector vision, which will be published in the new year. I welcome the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport.
On creative exports, UK creative industries were identified in the Government’s export strategy as a priority sector to contribute to the Government’s target of £1 trillion of UK exports by 2035. The Government are not currently pursuing an export office, but continue to support creatives exporting to Europe and the world with a range of export support programmes, including the successful music export growth scheme and the international showcase funds. We will continue to work with the Department for International Trade on these important issues.
I am conscious of the time, so I will have to write to hon. Members about several issues. On the Smart fund, the Minister of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), has already met with industry bodies to learn about the proposals. I will make her aware of the comments made in the debate today.
Finally, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) asked me to read the APPG report, which I am more than happy to do; again, I will raise the issue with the appropriate Minister.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport again for bringing this debate forward. I am grateful for the opportunity to listen to Member, and I will make my colleagues in the Department aware of the points raised strongly today. I am aware of the impact of the pandemic on the arts and culture workforce and how many left the sector as a result. The best way we can bring those people back and attract new people in is to help drive growth. Ultimately, we want to drive that growth across the entire country.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part today. This has been a really great debate. I thank the Minister—apologies for the fact that he has had a bit of an ear-bashing. I welcome him to his role; I know that he will carry it out as he has all the others, with an enormous amount of dedication and ability.
The Minister kicked off by talking about the immense work that happened in DCMS over the pandemic. He is absolutely right—an enormous amount of blood, sweat, tears and money came out of the incredible team at DCMS over that period, and there are a number of cultural institutions that simply would not be around today had there not been that amount of work. I guess what I am saying today is that we must not lose that momentum. We must build on that.
Our arts and culture make us feel good and are good for our health and wellbeing, but they also define us—they are who we are as a nation. Even if we talk about the issue in cold hard pounds, shillings and pence, they are the cornerstone of our UK economy. As I said before, the sector makes up 12% of our service exports. The sector means business.
At the heart of the sector are the artists and creative talent who make it possible. It does not happen by magic; it happens when we support them, nurture them and encourage them. We cannot take our eye off the ball on that. Knowing that money is tight, I urge the Minister to look at some of the investment I spoke about today, such as the Smart fund—innovative ways of generating money to support our creatives—and to look again, if he can, at some of the decisions made by the Arts Council. Although I completely agree with the idea of devolving money to other parts of the UK, we do not do it by destroying cultural institutions that have already done so much to support our culture and arts.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).