Tuesday 29 November 2022
[Martin Vickers in the Chair]
Devolution of Justice: Wales
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the potential merits of the devolution of justice to Wales.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Cadeirydd—thank you very much, Mr Vickers; it is an honour to serve with you in the Chair. I am pleased to have secured this debate on the potential merits of the devolution of justice to Wales.
Wales, of course, has its own distinct legal history dating back to the laws of Hywel Dda, prior to the Acts of Union in the 16th century. In spite of the fact that many of us enjoy talking about Welsh history immensely, I am not here to make the case for devolution by looking into the past. I am here today because of the potential for a better future and because the case for devolution of justice is self-evident for those who care to look. It is a permanent question seeking an answer in the constitutional landscape of the United Kingdom, and I believe this to be irrefutable, whether the matter is approached from a Welsh viewpoint or from a Westminster viewpoint: that is an important point to make.
It has been more than eight years since the Silk commission recommended devolving police and youth justice to Wales, although those powers were not incorporated into the Wales Act 2017. It has been three years since the Thomas commission on justice in Wales published its report in October 2019, setting out a long-term vision for the future of justice in Wales. The Thomas commission produced 78 different recommendations on how Wales can have a justice system fit for the 21st century, the central one being the devolution of justice and policing and the creation of a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction. To quote the report directly,
“the people of Wales are being let down by the system in its current state. Major reform is needed to the justice system and to the current scheme of devolution.”
The weight of evidence is behind devolution. There is a growing consensus across civil society, academia, the Welsh legal profession and justice workers in the system that this needs to move ahead. That consensus is also to be found at the political level. All of Wales’s police and crime commissioners have said that the devolution of justice and policing is the next logical step. All the representatives of the justice unions who speak here and who also speak with the Senedd are engaged with how matters could be dealt with better if justice were devolved—that is the point of devolution: how the outcomes could be better. A majority of Members of the Senedd support the devolution of justice, as outlined in the Welsh Labour Government’s co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru, which is a year old this week.
Despite having a Parliament and a Government, a legislature and an Executive, Wales is a nation without its own legal system and courts. For a nation with 22 years of policy making characterised by the values of social justice, equality and community strength, Wales can only stand by and watch the Westminster Government impose fundamentally different values through the arc of the criminal justice policy. Imagine if Wales had policy control over that arc, from crime to arrest—namely, policing—and prosecution, and then from sentencing to imprisonment and probation. Imagine that the Government of Wales had even the powers equivalent to those held—wait for it—by the Mayors of Greater London and Manchester. This is in stark contrast to Scotland and Northern Ireland, and it is unheard of internationally. When the Minister responds, could he tell us of any other examples of nations that have their own Executive and legislature but no judiciary? Does he honestly believe that this is the best way to structure an effective justice system?
The response by the UK Government to the Thomas commission was characterised by a combination of “Westminster knows best” and funding scaremongering. Here we had a former Lord Chief Justice in Lord John Thomas of Cwmgiedd, heading up an expert commission whose work across two years included a vast amount of evidence from across Wales. That extensive overview and analysis of justice in Wales was dismissed out of hand by the UK Government, who did not even bother to formally respond.
Not content with being told no by Westminster, we in Wales have instead been doing what we have had to do all along: building the institutional frameworks and capacity, piece by piece, so that we are ready for proper control and responsibility over justice. The unification of the Welsh tribunals, which put them on a proper footing, is in effect creating a nascent justice institution, which could in turn be the basis for the transfer of the courts to Wales. We are developing our capacity properly to scrutinise the operation of justice in Wales. At present, the Senedd’s Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee—the clue is in the name—undertakes the work of three committees in one. We are also addressing that capacity through the expansion of the Senedd, which again is thanks to Plaid Cymru’s co-operation agreement with Welsh Labour.
On my right hon. Friend’s earlier point about tribunals, the seven administrative tribunals that operate in Wales are in a sense Welsh bodies, but control from Westminster—from Whitehall, actually—is very strong. That point was made when the tribunals were set up: Whitehall runs them and has the final responsibility.
We will look at areas where there has been a little moving ahead on other aspects of the courts that have been proposed in Wales.
In that respect, I refer to a groundbreaking new book by Dr Robert Jones and Professor Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University, entitled “The Welsh Criminal Justice System: On the Jagged Edge”. It is a rigorous and thoughtful analysis of criminal justice in Wales. Indeed, it is the first of its kind, because the evidence is only now beginning to become available, and at present we have only a snapshot. I think that all will agree that, if we are looking for an evidence-based system, we do not want a snapshot: we must be able to track trends and developments over time. That is one of my key asks of the Minister, to which I hope he will be able to respond anon. The book presents a thorough overview of how justice operates in Wales, and shows why devolution is a vital step for aligning policy, values and legislative powers. As I have already said, that is the case for Northern Ireland and Scotland, and also to a degree for Greater Manchester and London. It is not possible to over-emphasise that inconsistency.
Justice in Wales is currently controlled at Westminster, but the Senedd controls key devolved services that are just as important for the delivery of justice. That has created what Lord Thomas originally called the “jagged edge”—a jagged edge of intersecting competences and responsibilities. That results in serious disadvantages, which include financial and opportunity costs; a lack of coherent, joined-up policy making; and an overly complex system that leads to a lack of understanding of how justice operates in Wales.
The Cardiff University book lays out how outcomes in Wales are particularly poor. When English and Welsh data are disaggregated, we see that Wales performs even worse than England, which is one of the worst performers in Europe. The figure that we will keep coming back to is imprisonment. England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rates in Europe. Because of the disaggregated data, we now know that Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe. That fuels a cycle of poverty, as well as health and mental health problems. Wales has higher violent crime and conviction rates than England. Black people are six times more likely to be in prison than their white counterparts. Nearly half of Welsh children who are imprisoned are detained in England, far from their homes and family support, and court closures have restricted access to justice across whole swathes of rural Wales. The lack of coherent policy making is one of the key features of the jagged edge, and it is the people in the system—and the communities from which they come and to which they return—who lose out.
First, let us take the case of women in the justice system in Wales. Welsh Women’s Aid notes that the women in the prisoner population, and those in contact with the police and other related services, are far more likely than men to have additional support needs such as mental health diagnoses, a history of drug and alcohol abuse, and homelessness, or to have experienced violence, domestic abuse and/or sexual violence. Importantly, the Welsh Government, with the backing of the Senedd, have a specific policy to reduce the number of women entering custody, given their vulnerability. That is a piece of policy extant in Wales from our Senedd and our Government. However, the aim comes crashing down against the reality of how the criminal justice system operates in Wales and the differing Westminster policy in relation to putting more people into prison.
There are no women’s prisons in Wales. Welsh women are sent most often to either His Majesty’s Prison Eastwood Park in Gloucestershire or HMP Styal in east Cheshire, which are tens or hundreds of miles away from their support networks, and getting to these prisons, particularly by public transport, is extremely difficult. Given that roughly 50% of women prisoners are also mothers, the effect of such distance on the mental health of those women and their children, and on the outcomes for the children, must not be underestimated.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing the debate. She makes important points about the detention of women, and I know that the Ministry of Justice has sought to discuss the issue, negotiate and open facilities in various local authorities. My constituency was a consideration at one time, but no suitable accommodation could be found. Is that not an example of the Ministry of Justice seeking to answer the issues that have been raised? Local authorities themselves are rejecting it.
I will return to that later, but because the right hon. Gentleman has raised the point, I will engage with it now as well. There is a residential unit in planning for one area of Wales, but we really need to know exactly which services will be there. Will it effectively be a small-scale prison, or will it actually offer the services that women need? We also need to know what the interface will be between the devolved service and the reserved provision. That is a very timely point, because it has just become apparent at the private prison near Bridgend, HMP Parc, that the local authority has had to step in to take over social services there. Again, this ad hoc arrangement, the lack of clarity and the lack of scrutiny over who is providing what is resulting in bad outcomes, which is why the debate is so timely.
It is evident that there are not many of us in this room. That is actually part of the issue, because Westminster will concentrate on where the loudest majority issues are. However, there is a phenomenon in Wales: the disconnect. Frankly, if this is the best we can do in relation to the disconnect with the highest imprisonment rates in western Europe, we must consider looking at the issue in an alternative way.
My right hon. Friend is being very generous and I will pipe down after this, as I hope to speak in the debate. Another small example is when we were campaigning for a prison for north Wales some years ago. We almost got a prison, which would have been a community facility, for the 600 or so men from north Wales who are imprisoned. We also campaigned for units for women and for young people who are held, contrary to the regulations, further than 50 miles away from their homes. What we actually got from Westminster was a 2,000-man super-prison in Wrexham, which does not serve the needs of local people.
Again, I will return to that. This is not just a matter of serving the needs of Wales. Sending thousands of prisoners miles away from home—men or women—does not serve the vast majority of those prisoners well either. If we want a joined-up magic connection with housing, work and maintaining kinship, family and friendship connections, which we know are the routes to successful rehabilitation, we should not send prisoners hundreds of miles away from where they will return, because those links will not be made, be they back home in Wales or in communities in England.
I am encouraged by what the right hon. Lady said. When we look across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, there are two examples of where it has happened: Northern Ireland and Scotland. Surely those are examples of what has worked, and Wales should have the same opportunity as Northern Ireland and Scotland for the benefit of those in Wales.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I am honoured that Members from across parties are pointing out the inconsistency that we are experiencing in Wales.
The UK Government’s prison population projections from 2021 to 2026 anticipate that prisoner numbers in the England and Wales conglomeration will rise to 98,500 by March 2026. Those are extraordinary figures. As part of that increase, the Ministry of Justice anticipates that the number of adult female prisoners in England and Wales will increase by over a third—36%. Disaggregated data from Wales shows that the number of Welsh women in prison will likely increase from 227 to 308. Therefore, the provision that is being planned now for south-west Wales, although welcome—even to those of us who disagree that that number should be arriving in the system—is highly unlikely to deal with the numbers we are anticipating to arrive in the system.
Under the plans that took effect in May, the maximum prison sentence that can be handed out by magistrates has increased from six months to a year, which is also expected to contribute to a rise in prisoner numbers. Disaggregated sentencing data shows that the average custodial sentence length for women sentenced in Wales already increased from seven months in 2017 to 13.6 months in 2021. Although 23% of the Welsh female prison population was serving sentences of four years or more in 2019, that has increased to 29% in 2021. How does that align with the Welsh Government’s stated aim to reduce the number of Welsh women in prison? The answer, of course, is that it simply does not because there is no direct link between the very worthy policy, which most of us support, and the means to bring it about.
I am pleased that the UK Government are working with the Welsh Government to establish a pilot women’s residential centre in Wales as an alternative to custody, and my probation service in north Wales is doing very good work to the best of its ability on the ground, but the policy and structure that we have in place hinder it. In truth, the number of women supported will be small and focused in very specific areas of Wales. Therefore, my second question to the Minister is: given that overall incarceration of women from Wales will increase, does he honestly believe that to be coherent policy making for women in the criminal justice system in Wales? Particularly since the autumn statement, it looks likely that Departments such as the Ministry of Justice will have less capital money to spend in the long term. I wonder where that leaves the development of multiple women’s residential centres across Wales.
Another issue that shines the cold light of reality on the jagged edge is housing. Housing and the responsibility for preventing homelessness lie, as we all know, with the Welsh Government, and have done so for 22 years, but the policy aim is not properly aligned with the Westminster-controlled criminal justice system at present. The removal of priority need for prison leavers in the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 was driven by several factors, including low levels of housing stock and pressures on hard-working local authority staff in finding accommodation for prison leavers. It was, however, in part due to the inability of the Welsh Government to control or even influence the upstream factors that affect the rate and timing of demand for housing prison leavers. Even though prison leavers still get let out of prison on Fridays, they get no support at the weekend. The outcomes of that need proper scrutiny.
Those factors include the rapid rise in prison leavers from an ever-expanding prison population, the long distances from home addresses, which reduce the likelihood of prison leavers being able to receive support services, and the fact that Welsh prisoners are widely dispersed across England, making it hard to know when and where the demand will arise when they return to Wales. The same facts apply equally to English-address prisoners held in Welsh prisons. This is not looking at the justice experience just from a Welsh perspective but as a totality.
The right hon. Lady is looking at this from a purely nationalistic point of view, and I understand the motive behind that. Does she not accept that a prison in England could be closer to a prisoner in my constituency, and more appropriate than what she envisions in her purist approach, which is that the prison must be in Wales? If it were in north Wales, it would be four and half hours away.
With respect, there are a number of prisons close to the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I was emphasising that women are at present going to prisons in Gloucestershire or Cheshire. If we sent prisoners from south-east England to Parc or Berwyn, they too would be very distant from their homes. That is not an effective way to ensure rehabilitation.
That is a challenge that we need to address sensibly, but simply saying that a Welsh prisoner needs to stay in Wales is not sensible. If a Welsh prisoner needs to stay in Wales, must they travel four and half hours from north Wales to a prison in south Wales? We need to recognise the interconnectivity between Wales and England; 50% of the Welsh population live within 25 miles of the border.
With respect, the right hon. Gentleman is looking at the convenient location of prisons, rather than at justice outcomes, which is what I hope we look for in our scrutiny. It is not a matter of where people go; it is a matter of their coming back to the communities where they have committed crimes. I am looking at this not just from the point of view of those individuals and their families, although I hope the children of prisoners would certainly be our consideration, but from the point of view of the communities to which they return.
I hope we all aspire to effective rehabilitation. Yes, we penalise people by taking away their liberty, but when they return to the community, we hope that they are healthier than when they went to prison, have the opportunity for more education, are housed, can find work and have a stable family environment. That is all down to services, and there is a jagged edge where there is no interconnectivity between reserved and devolved powers.
To return to housing, since the removal in 2014 of priority need in Wales, there has been an increase in the number of prison leavers presenting as homeless. As we have mentioned, housing is a factor in the success or otherwise of rehabilitation. In the year 2019-20, fewer than half of those released from prison custody who were managed by probation services in Wales went into settled accommodation. However, simply reintroducing priority need for prison leavers is meaningless unless we have proper joined-up working between criminal justice and social services providers, as the local authority in Bridgend does.
I have emphasised the two issues of housing and women in the criminal justice system to highlight the illogical nature of the misaligned mishmash of powers and responsibilities, which leads to problems in the operation of justice in Wales. There are countless other examples I could have chosen from across the justice system: policing, probation, courts, education, health services, access to justice and the experience of victims in Wales.
The portrait of justice in Wales is so ill drawn that it can only be presumed that the Ministry of Justice assumes that no one is looking. We are at least looking today, but there is the important question: what is to be done? The Thomas commission proposed the devolution of justice responsibilities to
“enable the proper alignment of justice policy and spending with social, health, education and economic development policies in Wales, to underpin practical, long-term solutions; place justice at the heart of Government; enable clearer and improved accountability.”
Devolution of justice is not simply a nice thing to have, a policy toy to play with. It is essential if we want to build a better and fairer society. It is the only way truly to end the jagged edge and create a system that genuinely serves the people of Wales. It would also offer some protection against the attack on human rights and civil liberties that the UK Government have been undertaking, such as their curbing of protest rights through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.
It is hard to see how the Welsh Government can develop any plans for a Welsh Bill of Rights without having full control over justice in Wales. I have tried to think from the opposing point of view, and there are three points that critics of what we propose might throw back at us. The first is the cost of devolution. When I spoke in the debate on the Thomas commission report three years ago, the Minister at the time claimed that the additional running costs would amount to £100 million per annum, but that is not even consistent with the evidence provided by the UK Government to the Thomas commission. Rather, the UK Government’s 2018 estimate was that the initial set-up costs associated with devolving justice—all right, at the time; fair enough—would amount to £101.5 million, with subsequent additional costs of some £37.5 million per annum.
Focusing on the additional financial costs involved for devolved Government, the Welsh Government estimated set-up costs of £13 million, with £10 million per annum of additional costs to follow. In other words, excluding set-up costs, the extra incremental cost of devolving justice would come to less than half the amount claimed by the justice Minister three years ago. That is in the context of an annual spend on justice functions in Wales of some £1.2 billion.
Moreover, while there would clearly be some additional costs involved in devolving justice, there are estimates that Wales would benefit financially if justice were devolved. Per capita spend on justice is lower in Wales than in England, but if justice were devolved, the operation of the Barnett formula would, over time, ensure that the amount in the Welsh budget derived from UK spending on justice in England equalised at the English per capita level—that is, it would be more.
While it would ultimately be up to the Senedd to decide how to allocate the extra resource, those funds would be available for spending on justice-related functions, such as crime prevention, tackling substance misuse and reducing homelessness. As it is, the Welsh Government are already putting money into funding extra police community support officers. There is an argument that people in Wales pay more for policing than people in England. This change would ensure better scrutiny, and that the money spent for Wales would be accounted for in Wales.
The potential to reduce homelessness gives an example of the real savings that could be made as a result of our reducing the negative outcomes of the justice system. The charity Crisis has estimated that
“people who experience homelessness for three months or longer cost on average £4,298 per person to NHS services, £2,099 per person for mental health services and £11,991 per person in contact with the criminal justice system.”
It is a matter of whose budget we look at to see the savings. They are not all siloed in one place.
As Lord Thomas himself noted in evidence to the Senedd last year, devolution presents a great opportunity for Wales; we could
“take advantage of Wales’s relatively small size and its lack of a vast metropolis to see if you can mould the workings of the bodies together to produce a coherent policy that is designed for the needs of Wales, rather than the needs of a much bigger country with very different potential problems.”
When it comes to the operation of justice in Wales, small really is beautiful, flexible and community focused.
Let me move to the second point I anticipate being used to counter what we propose. Advocates for the status quo might say, “We need better funding for the system.” That does not account for the structural issues at play here. Yes, fair and proper funding for Wales is vital for the operation of justice, but as I have highlighted, different policy decisions in Wales and Westminster are creating unavoidable tensions and failures, which money alone cannot solve.
There are two structures in play, and they are pulling in different directions. For example, even in the years of austerity in the 2010s, under a devolved system, the Welsh Government might well have chosen not to close so many courts or pursue the absurd privatisation of probation. We could have made different policy choices, even in the context of reduced funding.
The last Labour general election manifesto sadly rolled back from implementing the Thomas report, citing that it was a case for only reversing austerity rather than pursuing devolution to Wales. Therefore, cautiously, I ask the shadow Front Bench to recommit fully to implementing the Thomas commission report, just as they committed to doing so in their previous manifesto in 2017. If they will not, the question is whether the Labour party is intent on undermining its Labour colleagues in the Senedd.
Thirdly, other advocates of the status quo point out that it is not further devolution that we need, but better joined-up working between the Ministry of Justice and Welsh Government officials. However, even experienced MOJ officials in Wales are often overridden by their superiors in London, through policy decisions that often have no thought about Wales. There are agreements in place between the MOJ and Welsh Government, such as the concordat published in 2018 to establish a framework for co-operation between the MOJ and Welsh Government. However, in practice, such agreements do not work properly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) showed when he questioned Ministers about the memorandum in the context of the development of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, it was unclear whether the UK Government followed the concordat and consulted properly with the Welsh Government on the Act, in spite of the impact that so many of the changes to policing and justice would have on devolved policies and competences.
Where UK and Welsh Government are aligned on justice matters, progress is slow. For instance, the Thomas commission recommended that problem-solving courts be established across Wales to promote alternatives to custody and tackle root causes of offending. The UK Government are piloting problem-solving courts, but not one is in Wales. It is in the Welsh Government’s justice work plan to pursue the establishment of a court. Can the Minister tell us what recent engagement he has had with the Welsh Government on establishing problem-solving courts in Wales?
The Welsh element of justice will always be an afterthought. My hon. Friends the Members for Arfon, and for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), run after Ministers saying, “Have you thought of this? Have you consulted on that?” The answer almost invariably is a bland no. Then, we find that we have to catch up.
On accountability, the mechanisms and institutions of the English and Wales system do not properly engage with the Welsh part. Let us take the Lammy report—a landmark report on racial disparities in justice. There is no real engagement on how devolved services interact with the justice system in Wales, or exploration of the Welsh content. The specific needs of Wales are drowned out on the Justice Committee. The Welsh Affairs Committee has sought to scrutinise the effect of the interface between reserved and devolved matters.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for making some points about racial injustice. Does she share my frustration that the Welsh Government chose not to be part of the race equality audit established by the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), to provide a baseline of evidence? There were active invitations and efforts made to encourage the Welsh Government to participate, so that we could establish whether the same problems existed in Wales, and they chose not to. That runs contrary to the right hon. Lady’s statement that Wales is an afterthought.
Order. I remind hon. Members that interventions limit the time available for other Members to speak.
Thank you, Mr Vickers. I am drawing to a close. We have data for Wales. Black imprisonment rates are shocking. The Welsh Affairs Committee undertook a 2019 inquiry on the prison system in Wales, but it is not a specialist Committee, and its inquiries cannot and should not take the place of a full holistic overview of justice and the intersecting devolved services under the remit of the Senedd.
That leads us to the disaggregation of data—the teasing apart of the English-centric statistics that is necessary if we are to observe what is happening in Wales. Outcomes are particularly poor in Wales, and we know that the jagged edge exists, but we cannot properly explain trends in the justice system if the right data is not in place. Cardiff University has revealed disparities in imprisonment rates between England’s most and least deprived areas. Meanwhile, disaggregated data has shown that Wales recorded a higher rate of imprisonment. The link between poverty and imprisonment is clear, yet we do not know the degree to which that is true in Wales due to the lack of trends in Wales-specific data. This raises the question of how the MOJ can claim to make evidence-based policy for Wales. I raised that point in a Westminster Hall debate two years ago, yet we are in exactly the same position today, with no regular reporting of Wales-specific justice data. My major ask to the Minister, therefore, is to finally begin regularly publishing disaggregated criminal justice data for Wales, so that we have a proper overview.
To close, there are those who will argue for a piecemeal approach to devolution, but that, to me, will simply exacerbate the jagged edge by creating an even more complex, byzantine palimpsest of a system. If we—I include the Welsh Labour Government in this—want a transformational approach to justice in Wales, piecemeal reform will be tokenistic and on track to fail. Policing and justice, I propose, should be devolved in their entirety to Wales.
Order. Members should note that I intend to call the SNP spokesman at 10.28 am, which limits contributions to three to four minutes each, if I am to get everyone in.
Thank you for calling me to contribute, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on securing the debate. It is unfortunate that we have such limited time, but I will try to canter through some of the key points that I want to make.
I approach this debate as an advocate for devolution and as the former Secretary of State who took the Wales Act 2017 through Parliament. It is hard to believe that in 2010 our inheritance from the last Labour Government was the legislative competence order system, whereby the Welsh Assembly had to ask permission to pass legislation in any particular area. It is worth remembering how far we have moved from the system between 2010 and today, when we have a full law-making Parliament in Cardiff Bay. I hope that sets out the context for my remarks.
During the development of the Wales Act 2017, it was clear that some were determined to devolve justice, irrespective of the evidence from within the profession that did not support that devolution. We agreed to disagree with the Welsh Government in the end, with the First Minister specifically saying that he would revisit the matter. The only conclusion I could draw was that the political elite wish to see the devolution of justice, rather than the issue being raised on the doorstep, or forming part of a campaign from those in the profession or our constituents, who really wish for genuine improvement in this area. That is not to say that improvements do not need to be made—they do—but there have not been calls for devolution of the issue, other than from the political elite.
I also note that the Commission on Justice in Wales was established by a devolved institution on a reserved policy matter. Imagine if the UK Government decided to have a commission on health or education in Wales—devolved policy areas—without there being equal and active engagement with the other party. That demonstrates that the political elite are driving this agenda, rather than this being something that is demanded.
The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd based her claim around genuine problems that need addressing. I am not denying that there are challenges in the system. We all remember the challenges in Wales—it could be said that they are even greater partly as a result of the intervention by the Welsh Government, who closed down the courts during covid when they were still functioning in England. That is an example where the Welsh Government have sought to influence justice in a negative way.
The right hon. Lady said that devolution of justice is a chance for Wales to have better outcomes. If I wanted to be flippant, I would point to the outcomes in health and education; sadly, our waiting times are longer, and our education outcomes certainly have not improved, as they have across England and Scotland in the past decade or more.
The key point I want to make in the limited time I have is about the importance of the industry that is the legal system operating between Wales and England. Extremely profitable large law firms based in Cardiff form part of an ecosystem that develops businesses, often from the City of London or other parts of the United Kingdom. Functions and professional legal expertise are provided in Cardiff, creating some of the most highly paid jobs in a desired legal profession, creating career opportunities and allowing people to move inside and outside Wales to develop their business model. Some of those firms have office spaces in the City of London and attract the business of the City, and the functions are then conducted in Cardiff. Devolving justice to the Welsh Government and to Wales would really undermine those business models. Those are the businesses that the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd should talk to.
The right hon. Gentleman made the claim earlier that this is a matter of the elite calling for change, and then he makes an argument for elite lawyers in Cardiff.
I would like to see more elite lawyers in Cardiff, because raises gross value added and creates career opportunities for Welsh people, wherever they come from.
During the negotiations on the Bill that became the Wales Act 2017, I received representations from some of the most senior lawyers in England and Wales, who were very concerned about the agenda of devolving justice and the damage that would cause to the sector.
Where does the right hon. Gentleman think our priorities should lie—the business models of law firms or justice for people living in the communities of Wales?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for the question, but I do not think they are mutually exclusive. We can address the injustices that the right hon. Lady has raised—those genuine challenges need to be addressed, and I look forward to the Minister’s response—but that should not undermine the large employment numbers, the well-paid positions and the career progression that is provided for people, certainly from my constituency, who work in law firms in Cardiff and south Wales. Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd called for the development of that cluster, but the right hon. Lady’s proposals would do nothing but undermine it.
I call Hywel Williams. Four minutes if you could, Mr Williams.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) has made a forceful and detailed argument. I support her questions, and I hope we get some answers.
Justice sticks out like a sore thumb as one of Westminster’s biggest devolution failures. Despite later devolution, and the change to a Scottish-style system, London has hung on to justice. Our Senedd now passes laws but it does not control the justice system, the courts or the prisons. Nor does it control the police, although between them local authorities and the Welsh Government provide about 60% of the funding for the police. Again, they have responsibility without power. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, our Senedd is a legislature without its own jurisdiction—the only one I know of in the world.
A lot of public services that make the justice system work are the responsibility of our Government in Cardiff— again, responsibility without power. Even if our public policy changes because of the decisions of our democratically elected Government in Cardiff, that need not follow through to justice. Health, mental health, education, housing, social services, the economy and employment might all improve in one direction, but justice need not change. Those are just some of the services we need to get the criminal justice system to work properly and to ensure that as few people as possible break the law and end up in prison. If they do offend, such services are crucial in getting them back on the straight and narrow. There is a huge hole in the middle of our justice system, which might be one reason why the system in Wales is clearly worse than anywhere else in Great Britain.
My right hon. Friend referred to “The Welsh Criminal Justice System: On the Jagged Edge” by Jones and Wyn Jones, which is an excellent publication that I would recommend to Conservative Back Benchers. Eastwood Park has prisoners from Wales and from England. According to Jones and Wyn Jones, the rate of recidivism—further offending—by the English prisoners is one in 10, but for the Welsh prisoners it is nine in 10. That hugely stark fact points to the problem. I visited Eastwood Park and talked to a prisoner from Aberystwyth who told me she was not going to have any visits, because the hike from Aberystwyth down to Eastwood Park was too much for her young family. That is the sort of system that we have.
I want briefly to note an historical example of the discontinuity between what Wales wants and what is public policy in Wales, and what we actually get. I hope Members will forgive me for going back as far as 2007, when I tried—as I did later under a Tory Government—to introduce a small but significant reform to the jury system in Wales, to fit in with how things really are in terms of the Welsh language and to allow for bilingual juries.
The Juries Act 1974 is clear that juries should understand the evidence as directly as possible. If members of the jury do not understand English, the judge will bar them. There is no such qualification for Welsh. A matter of principle is at stake. The principle of a language qualification for juries is already conceded for English. However, in Wales, if a young person or a child is giving evidence in Welsh, there is no guarantee that the jury will understand the evidence as directly as possible, as would be the case if the child was speaking English. A wrongdoer might get off or an innocent person might be found guilty, not on the evidence but on how it was heard. My private Member’s Bill would have brought some sense to that system, and I recommend it to the Minister.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on securing the debate. I listened intently to what she said because the issues that drive the debate are vital.
I will be quick because of the limited time I have, and I hope colleagues will forgive me if I do not take many interventions. On behalf of residents and communities in Aberconwy, I thank our policemen and women for all they do each day to keep our communities safe. In April, I highlighted the astonishing work of the North Wales Police intercept team, which was set up to clamp down on organised crime and drug dens throughout north Wales. The team uses innovative technology to intercept and disrupt criminals, making north Wales a hostile environment for crime groups to operate in. In the last fortnight alone, the team has helped to secure the hugely significant conviction of the leader of a county lines network operating between Merseyside and north Wales and to seize considerable amounts of cash and class A drugs. I also thank the new chief constable, Amanda Blakeman, for her work with me in recent weeks on responding to community concerns about the opening of a hotel for asylum seekers in a rural village in the south of my constituency.
I will not miss an opportunity to thank and pay tribute to the police when they do that kind of good work, but that is not my sole motive for highlighting their work and successes today. County lines and the wider trade in controlled substances across north Wales are a cross-border issue that operates on an east-west axis. The point has been made well by others that one danger of the argument being made in this debate is that it focuses on a Wales only, built in Wales, made for Wales and by Wales approach. We have seen the weakness of such an approach in transport, where Wales is deeply integrated east to west with England. There is no economic driver for a north-south rail link, for example, but there is plenty of demand for east-west rail links.
We see such parallels time and again. Wales cannot consider that it sits in isolation, so my first point is about integration. The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd says there is no legal system in Wales, but there is. [Interruption.] Despite Members’ protestations from a sedentary position, the UK’s legal system applies in Wales, as it properly should, given that Wales is part of the United Kingdom.
One highlight of my job—perhaps the greatest—is being back in my constituency each week speaking with residents, but I do not recall the issue of devolving justice once being raised with me. I do not recall a single email, phone call or letter raising the issue. In fact, I suspect that, once we excluded conversations with fellow politicians and political activists, most hon. Members present would recognise that the prominence this issue has with their constituents is very low indeed. The fact that there are only a few Members here suggests that this is more of a conversation among academics and politicians than a pressing concern to residents.
I would also mention the question of money, because, quite simply, this debate is an answer to a question that is not being asked by residents, and an expensive answer. It is important to mention money, although I do not think money is the only rationale. If this issue has value and importance, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd rightly suggests, it is important that we pay the money necessary. However, my point is about value. If these eye-watering sums—£100 million was the estimate of the Silk Commission—are to be paid out, we must see the impact of that and value for it. We might ask the same question about the Welsh Government’s fascination with paying out £100 million to have additional Senedd Members. Again, that is an answer to a question that is not being asked.
If I had time, I would draw attention to some of the problems that Wales has in other areas of its public services. However, I will conclude by saying that, while the right hon. Member highlights that Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe, the reasons are complex. To suggest that the devolution of justice is the solution is to prioritise managing a symptom over addressing the cause. That cannot be right and, for that reason, I resist, at present, these arguments for the devolution of justice to Wales.
If the remaining three speakers could limit themselves to three minutes, we can just about get them in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I would not normally speak on Welsh affairs, but having been asked to contribute—indeed with some consent—and taking into account the fact that I contributed to the previous commission and have met trade unions and federations about this issue, I would make the point that it does not relate to the constitution as such; it relates to the administration of justice. That is the perspective from which I am coming, and I support it. It is for Wales’s to decide its constitutional future, but if it wants the best justice system it can have, it does have to take this step.
I have been listening to some of the discussion regarding prisons. One of first things the SNP did on justice when we came in in 2007 was to implement a whole-systems approach. We recognise—it will be the same thing, but with a different name and a different vocabulary, in England and Wales—that behind every troubled child there is invariably a troubled family. If we are going to sort out that child, that cannot be done simply by the justice system. It requires the involvement of education, health and employment. As it was, we made significant reductions in child offending and child imprisonment in Scotland—changes I am very proud of. That is because there was synergy and integration.
That comes to the question of prisons. We had significant problems with prisoners being released on a Friday. Very few prisoners are a bus ride from their home. By the time they got home, the GP was shut, so they were not able to get a prescription. They appeared in court the following Monday having committed another offence, and on the Monday evening they were back in the prison they had left. We have to break that. Of course, we give discretion to prison governors to release people early, but we need to bring together health, employment and education. Ultimate responsibility for keeping people secure until they are released has to be with the Prison Service, but all those agencies need to work together. That is why we need that synergy.
Equally, I understand that laws remain reserved to Westminster, but devolved jurisdictions can still make significant changes, and we did that too in Scotland, which is something I am proud of. We changed and brought in legislation against air weapons and we reduced the drink-driving limit. Air weapons were a significant problem in Scotland. People has been not only shooting animals but killing children. People wanted action. The UK did not wish to act, but the powers were given to us, and we now ensure that people have a licence for an air weapon. Not one political party would roll that back in Scotland. That would be for Wales and the rest of the UK to decide, but nobody in Scotland would support that.
Similarly, we are coming to the festive period, and we have reduced the drink-driving limit in Scotland. I was told that, on the border, it would be a disaster; people would not know which jurisdiction they were in. Well, I spoke to the chief constables, who simply said, “We’ll put up a big sign: ‘Welcome to Scotland. This is the side of the road you drive on, and this is the drink-driving limit.’” No political party in Scotland will go into any election with a manifesto arguing that we should increase the drink-driving limit. Indeed, I think the pressure has to be about giving us the powers.
Even though the laws may remain at Westminster, we can make significant changes. It might not be on those two issues, but there will be issues that matter in Wales on which a significant change can be made, albeit without changing the fundamental structure, with power retained here and the law, as such, across the UK.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Vickers. I thank the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for leading today’s debate.
As a politician representing Northern Ireland, I clearly appreciate the importance of devolution and its contribution to this great United Kingdom, and that is why I am present in today’s debate, despite it relating to Wales. I want to speak about Northern Ireland and to tell Members what we have done and how it has worked for us. Devolution is all about locality and co-operation between our local Parliaments and Westminster, so it is great to be here to reinforce that importance and explain why the right hon. Lady’s contribution is significant and cannot be ignored.
When the Welsh Parliament was established in 1999, it was not intended to be a Government body, hence the lack of devolution relating to justice. Since then, we have seen the devolution of some matters to the Welsh Senedd, but justice remains solely under Westminster control. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, justice is very much devolved, and I will give some examples from Northern Ireland of how devolved justice can be and has been successful. It has been successful for us and, as the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) said, for Scotland, so I think it can be equally successful for Wales.
We have our own Department of Justice in Northern Ireland, with the ability to pass and amend laws, and we have our own Minister of Justice and a policing board, which integrates members of all communities in Northern Ireland. It is possible to do that, and we have done it and done it well. The Department covers all aspects of the justice system—most notably policing and community justice.
Community safety is critical for any country, and I believe that that heightens the calls to devolve justice to Wales, which is what the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd requested, and others backed her in that. While police officers answer to the Home Office in England, the division of powers perhaps makes it difficult to align the justice system in its totality with matters that Wales does have a say over, such as health and education.
Since 2009-10, the UK Government’s day-to-day spending on public services has decreased significantly in real terms, with UK Ministry of Justice spending falling by 40%, and the Home Office’s by around 25%, which puts further pressure on the Welsh Administration. For the safety of the people of Wales, which is absolutely key, it is important that they have more of a say in the funding of their own justice system, giving them the scope to allocate their own budget to their own justice system.
On justice matters such as drug abuse or mental health, there should be collaboration with the Welsh health system, but I imagine that that can become increasingly difficult. There are potentially large benefits to devolving justice to Wales, which the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd tried to illustrate. If we look at the success of the justice Departments of Northern Ireland and Scotland, we can see that a local, joint understanding of tackling crime is indeed the way forward.
To conclude—I am working within the timescale that you suggest, Mr Vickers—I understand the right hon. Lady’s frustrations about why justice has not been devolved yet—but it should be. Perhaps the Government will consider looking at that in the future. Perhaps today’s debate will start that discussion. As mentioned earlier, the devolution of justice certainly makes the running of the criminal and judicial systems in Northern Ireland much smoother. There is also a greater understanding of how the system works when the people running the system were brought up in that environment. We already have that in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and we also need it for Wales.
I look forward to keeping up with developments on this issue. It is great that we can all represent different regions within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and at the same time understand the importance and success of devolution. We all want devolution—the Government are committed to it—so let us see it in action in the justice system for Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) not just on securing this important debate, but on finding a topic that manages to unite not just Plaid Cymru and the SNP, but also the SNP, the Alba party and the Democratic Unionist party—
And the Labour party, indeed. That is quite a set of Venn diagrams to pull together.
Before I get to my in-depth remarks, I will address the commonality of the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) and the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar). We heard that the debate was on a rarefied topic—the preserve of politicians, academics and the political elite—and that it was all airy-fairy, fey and far removed from the doorsteps of the communities they represent. Obviously, I do not spend a huge amount of time canvassing in either of their constituencies, but I would venture to say that, just like my constituents, theirs are probably very concerned with justice matters and with outcomes.
If this debate is about anything, it is surely about how the best outcomes can be achieved and how the current set-ups, boundaries and the jagged edge, of which we have heard so much, militates against that. This morning, we have heard from a former Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), about the benefits that come not just from the separate and distinct nature of the Scottish justice system, but from how the powers of devolution have been used to adapt to particular demands in order to achieve those outcomes, whether those were improved road safety through reducing the drink-drive limit or tackling the menace of air weapons before they were licensed. I could even speak about how the problem of endemic knife crime in west-central Scotland was tackled by adopting a public health approach, which is now being followed in certain measures by the authorities in London. That would not have been possible were it not for the integration not just between the healthcare system and the social services ecosystem, but between the justice system and the policing system.
I commend the hon. Member on his point. I had the privilege of speaking with John Carnochan at the time about that policy switch in Glasgow to treating knife crime as a public health matter. That speaks exactly to the point I made in my contribution. Does he not think that attention should be focused on the underlying causes, which is where people’s interest lies, rather than on constitutional jiggery-pokery?
Of course the underlying problems ought to be tackled, but I suggest the point at issue is how to tackle them and how best to bring to bear the various agencies of the state and the third sector to change that behaviour, rather than sticking a flag on top and saying that this is not something that people in devolved institutions should worry their pretty little heads about.
The devolution of justice has been supported by the Welsh Labour Government through the co-operation agreement signed with colleagues in Plaid Cymru. It follows the central recommendation of the 2019 Commission on Justice in Wales.
My point here is quite a simple one: even in a devolved settlement, there are some powers that naturally sit together. We would not dream of trying to set policies for economic development without looking at education, training and investment in people. We could all hopefully see through the pandemic, even if it was not glaringly apparent before, that the NHS and social care sectors must be considered side by side to ensure we live fulfilled lives and that people are always treated in the most appropriate care settings for their needs. Therefore, I find it somewhat baffling—albeit from the context of being a Scottish politician, as there has always been a distinct and separate Scottish legal system—that we would not consider there to be a disconnect in governance when powers over social aspects are held in devolved Wales and the justice elements are controlled at the other end of the M4.
To take up that point about the disconnect in governance, a sideswipe was taken at proposals to increase the number of Members of the Senedd. I think that needs to be seen in the context of the current boundary commission proposals and the obligation placed on the Boundary Commission for Wales to reduce the number of Welsh seats at Westminster from 40 to 32. At a time when Westminster interest in Welsh affairs is going to diminish significantly, surely it is right to bolster the ability to scrutinise the justice system in the round in Wales.
That lack of control over, and scrutiny of, policing and the justice system from Wales is precisely the issue. Not only is having an executive and legislature without a judiciary anomalous when compared with other countries; as we have heard, it has led to that jagged edge of intersecting competencies and responsibilities between the reserved justice system and key devolved services and institutions. That results in serious disadvantages, including a lack of coherent and accountable policymaking across the jurisdictions, an inability to allocate spending in a co-ordinated manner, and needless complexity that leads to a waste of resources and a lack of understanding of how the system operates.
We can see those disadvantages in the outcomes that I mentioned earlier. It is fair to say that in Wales, those outcomes are particularly suboptimal. Wales has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in western Europe. That fuels a cycle of poverty, as well as mental and physical health problems. Nearly half of Welsh children who are placed in custody are detained in England, far from their homes and family support. There is a chronic lack of community provision for women, which also severs family connections.
It is over three years since the Commission on Justice in Wales published its report. Surely it is past time to take forward its central conclusion that justice should be devolved to Wales. Policies and political sentiment matter. The voice of the electorate matters here. With an increasingly populist and draconian UK Government making decisions on justice matters in Wales, attempts to build a more rehabilitative system—if that is what people want, and quite clearly that is what they are voting for at the ballot box—are always likely to be thwarted.
In conclusion, there is little doubt that, as it stands, the justice system as a whole in Wales—for all the best intent of the committed professionals who are working day in, day out to get the best outcomes that they can—is simply not achieving the outcomes that it should and could. This debate should not be about sticking a great big flag on top and saying, “This is not about the priorities of my constituents,” because constituents will be concerned with the outcomes. They will be less concerned with the structures, but they will certainly be concerned that the structures work and are in their best interests, not just for them but for their communities. This should very much be about what works. We can see what works in legislative and governance terms both in Northern Ireland and in Scotland. Surely it is time for us to consider how best Wales could follow in that direction.
Thank you, Mr Vickers, for the chance to respond to this debate. I pay tribute to all who have contributed. It is not lost on me that the debate is happening today of all days, as we face England in the football. Yma o hyd. Pob lwc, Cymru. I am sure we are all behind the Wales football team this evening.
A fair and effective system is fundamental to any country, and 12 long years of this Tory Government have completely broken the justice system across England and Wales. When the Commission on Justice in Wales undertook that unprecedented examination of justice, its conclusion was unequivocal:
“the people of Wales are being let down”
by the justice system. Crime is high, charges are low, criminals are getting off and victims are being let down. With record court closures, a decade or more of cuts and crippling court backlogs, the UK Government’s inability to adapt to current pressures and to lead through a victim’s focus is letting every one of us down.
A survey by the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales revealed that less than half of victims would report to the police again due to their traumatic experiences. The former Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, said in her resignation letter that the
“downgrading of victims’ interests in the government’s priorities”
is appalling, and she criticised the UK Government.
That is not just our view; it is the view of victims too. My constituent Sarah, who reported being sexually abused by her doctor, had her truth misbelieved and mistrusted in court. She was stripped of her dignity in the witness box, and was subjected to vicious public humiliation and personal attacks in the so-called pursuit of justice. She told me:
“I felt like I was being publicly beaten and humiliated. I wouldn’t advise anyone to go through it”.
In Wales, many of the services are the responsibility of the Welsh Labour Government, yet the overarching justice system is at the mercy of this Tory Government. We must recognise the scale of the challenge we face. It is clear that the UK Government’s current approach is not working. They must work with the Welsh Labour Government to see how things can be managed in the future, and above all ensure that victims come first. We must focus not on where but on how justice is delivered.
The probation system in Wales was brought to its knees by a failed privatisation, based on the untested and untried payment by results system. The Tories were repeatedly warned that it would not work, but they persisted anyway. The Welsh Labour Government have done their best to mitigate the worst of the impact across the justice system, but the only solution is to have a UK Labour Government in Westminster working with a Welsh Labour Government in Wales.
The hon. Lady is making important points that obviously would need to be debated if there were time, but do the Labour Opposition in Westminster support the Welsh Government’s call for the devolution of justice? At the time of the development of the Wales Act 2017, they were opposed to it.
The right hon. Gentleman is getting ahead of himself, although I absolutely hope that there will be a UK Labour Government shortly. We in UK Labour are working closely in partnership, as we would in government, to ensure that the best justice system is focused not on where justice is delivered, but on how it is delivered. That is done in partnership, and the details must be worked out.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
That is absolutely not being delivered by this UK Government, who have systematically broken the criminal justice system. It is appalling. Day in, day out, I speak to victims who are suffering and traumatised, and who have been retraumatised by the justice system that this UK Tory Government are presiding over. Only one in 100 rapes recorded by the Welsh police resulted in a charge last year, let alone a conviction.
What is Labour’s position?
The right hon. Gentleman should listen, rather than chuntering away on the sidelines.
One victim, Rachel, told me:
“They didn’t treat me as a human being”,
as she relived her traumatic experiences in the justice system. She felt that the system was worse than the rape itself.
On International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the crime survey for England and Wales released its latest figures, showing that 1.7 women experienced domestic abuse in the past year alone, but everyone knows that the true number is much, much higher. According to figures reported by the BBC, about 60% of women in custody across the UK have experienced domestic abuse.
In May, the then Justice Minister, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins)—I have lost count of how many Justice Ministers we have had since—finally announced the pilot for the women’s residential centre in Swansea. That came four years after the Government originally announced it in their female offender strategy, even though they labelled it a priority, and the centre will not actually open until 2024. Across Wales, there are a total of zero female estates, and recent Cardiff University research shows that last year 218 Welsh women were sent to prisons in England.
This Conservative Government’s priorities have never been on the side of victims, and they continue to treat vulnerable women as an afterthought. Labour has long argued for facilities for vulnerable women with complex needs who would otherwise be sentenced to custody. They need a safe and secure facility that is fit for purpose, and that allows them to maintain contact with their families, especially their children. Shockingly, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) pointed out, Wales has more people in prison than almost anywhere in western Europe. All the evidence shows that a sentencing policy that is based heavily on punishment, deterrence and imprisonment is counterproductive.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I do not think there is time, sorry. Despite the Tories’ mishandling of justice, the Welsh Labour Government continue to pursue existing programmes of partnership working—for example the women’s justice and youth justice blueprints—to ensure that delivery is as good as it can be. Those arrangements require proper collaboration to achieve outcomes for the people of Wales.
Next spring, it will be eight years—and nine Secretaries of State—since the Conservatives promised to bring forward a victims’ Bill to strengthen rights and protections and deliver urgent change. As usual, this UK Government have been on the side of dither and delay, yet the issue could not be more urgent. Every day, more and more victims are failed by this Tory Government. Words are not good enough. They fall woefully short of the step change needed to ensure that there are better outcomes for victims of crime, which is what the people of Wales deserve.
A UK Labour Government, working in Westminster with a Welsh Labour Government in Wales, will repair the damage that the Conservatives have wreaked across our criminal justice system and beyond. We owe it to the people of Wales to do so much better.
I call the Minister, Mike Freer, and remind him to give the mover of the motion two minutes to wind up.
It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Vickers; I think this is your first outing in the Chair. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on securing the debate, and am grateful for her significant contribution on justice in Wales over the past several years. I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions.
The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd secured a previous Westminster Hall debate, which took place on 22 January 2020, on the report by the Commission on Justice in Wales, otherwise known as the Thomas commission, which was published in October 2019. It is inevitable that we have touched on many of the same issues today. In the intervening period, work on considering and, where appropriate, implementing the Thomas commission recommendations was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, but the right hon. Member has ensured that it remains a live issue for this House.
It will not come as a surprise that the Government’s position on the devolution settlement has not changed. We disagree with Lord Thomas and with the Welsh Government, and do not think that justice should be devolved. Indeed, the many challenges brought by the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated in a number of areas that the settlement is working well.
The Minister has provided a clear response, and we understand that the Government’s view is that we should not devolve justice. Does he understand Labour’s point of view on the issue? It seems to me that two different messages are coming from Cardiff Bay and from the Opposition in Westminster.
My right hon. Friend asked a very pertinent question and did not get a clear answer from the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin). My understanding is that the official Opposition do not support the devolution of justice—that is what I took from her speech.
Let me go back to what happened during the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic served to demonstrate that in a number of areas the settlement is working well. In fact, the justice system performed better in Wales than it did in England in several respects, and I will say more on that later. Among the key arguments made by those who support devolving justice to Wales is what they see as the principle that a holistic approach is required to ensure that policy objectives can be delivered effectively. Of course, we agree that policies on substance misuse, education, mental health and social welfare need to be aligned with measures to reduce reoffending and protect the public, which is the responsibility of Westminster, but the notion that justice must be devolved to achieve that is misplaced. The Ministry of Justice works closely with the Welsh Government to ensure that justice policies are aligned and that we take account of distinct Welsh needs.
On the specific point about the alignment between the UK Government, the Ministry of Justice and the Welsh Government, does the Minister accept that it is frustrating, as a Member representing a rural constituency, to have witnessed so many court closures in the past decade? The court closures were made without any clear consideration of the fact that there are no direct transport links, so people have quite literally lost access to justice. Does he understand my constituents’ frustration that, contrary to what some Members have said today, the system is not working in lockstep, is not co-ordinated and is not in alignment to ensure the right access to justice?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. For every community that is affected by a court closure, the judiciary and the MOJ have to take into account access to justice. My understanding is that the senior judiciary take that very seriously, but I understand the frustration that he vocalises.
The joint MOJ and Welsh Government blueprints on youth justice and female offenders are successful examples of the co-development of strategies across the devolution boundary. The women’s justice blueprint seeks to transform services for women in Wales, to help keep women and their communities safe and free from crime. A key aim is to reduce the number of women coming into the criminal justice system, while doing a better job of meeting the needs of those already in the system. Services are in place to support women in Wales at all stages of the criminal justice system, avoiding fragmented delivery and enabling greater consistency in the support that women receive. More than 2,075 women across Wales were referred to diversion support in the two and a half years from January 2020 to September 2022, and 2,700 women were referred to the women’s pathfinder whole system approach, which services south Wales and Gwent, over the same period. The service remained operational throughout the covid pandemic, providing support to women with complex needs at a time of increased vulnerability.
Improving family ties is an important part of the blue- print. Through joint HMPPS Wales and Welsh Government funding, a Visiting Mum service is being re-established in HMP Eastwood Park and HMP Styal to help ensure that Welsh mothers are able to maintain positive relationships with their children throughout their prison sentence. Collaboration between the Ministry of Justice and the Welsh Government has led to the procurement of a site for a new residential women’s centre in Swansea. That is a particularly important development for Wales, given that there is no women’s prison in Wales—a position that the Welsh Government support. The new centre will offer vulnerable women an opportunity to stabilise their lives, with a range of support and interventions designed to tackle the causes of their offending.
We worked closely with partners, including the Welsh Government, police and crime commissioners and local authorities, to identify a suitable location for the RWC. We are grateful for the support that we have received from Julie James, the Member of the Senedd for Swansea West, and others at a local level, but it is disappointing that after so much collaborative work, the application for planning permission was turned down last month, and we will now have to consider the next steps with our Welsh colleagues. However, there are other examples of where the justice devolution settlement is delivering for Wales.
I mentioned earlier that Welsh justice services performed well during the pandemic, often exceeding the performance seen outside Wales. A good example of that is the performance of the Welsh courts, where the MOJ, His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and HMPPS worked together to keep the courts operating as effectively as possible. As a result, the magistrates courts in Wales were the first to recover to pre-pandemic levels in England and Wales.
During the passage of the Wales Act 2017, it was argued that it was necessary to devolve justice for Wales to operate properly as a legislature in its own right. In fact, we noted in the debate here in January 2020 that the 2017 Act ensures that the Senedd can make law on devolved matters, including the setting of criminal offences and other measures that enable the proper enforcement of its legislation. We have seen examples of where the Senedd has set its own legislative direction and introduced measures to enforce its policies. I again refer to the action taken by the Welsh Government during the pandemic.
Devolving justice would not simplify the system in a divergent landscape. It would simply shift the so-called jagged edge, to use Lord Thomas’s term, so that the devolved justice system has to manage challenges posed by reserved matters, which I would argue would be more complex than the current position.
There are also strong economic arguments in favour of maintaining the current justice settlement for Wales. A fully devolved justice system, akin to the Scottish and Northern Ireland models, would require Wales to be self- sufficient, including with regard to offender management and a prison estate that met the needs of the full range of prisoners. There are no category A prisons or, as I have already noted, women’s prisons in Wales. Wales benefits from the economies of scale that flow from being part of a larger offender management system, including the allocation of prisoners based on need and the risk they pose.
Even under other models, such as making use of the current prison estate but putting in place agreements between the Welsh and Westminster Governments on criminal justice and offender management, there would still be a need for the Welsh Government to have a justice function to manage policy across the board. They would have to develop and implement policy on criminal, civil, family and administrative law, and on matters such as legal aid. They would have to recruit staff sufficiently experienced and knowledgeable in those matters. The result of all that activity would be a significant interface between a devolved justice system and a larger body of reserved law; a much more complicated jagged edge. We are talking about a huge expense for the Welsh Government and, ultimately, the taxpayer.
I am conscious of time, but I will address one particular point raised by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd. That is the call for greater transparency of data. That is not an unreasonable request, and I am pursuing it vigorously as a new Minister to the Department. I am happy to give the commitment to work with her and others to ensure that the data is more accessible and transparent in the interests of justice.
Will the Minister undertake to ensure that that is a reciprocal agreement, and that data is made available from the Welsh Government to facilitate that free exchange of data between the two Governments?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Only half a picture is no picture at all. There must be transparency both ways.
The UK Government remain firmly opposed to devolution of justice to Wales. We believe that the current devolution settlement is working well and should be retained.
I am grateful that the Minister has committed to work with me and others on the disaggregation of data, because I firmly believe that we should all operate on an evidence base, and we need to see trends over time.
When trying to foresee objections to the debate, I did not foresee the one that it would be solely about politicians. The idea that somehow as politicians we are not trying to improve the lives and conditions of our constituents frankly leaves me in despair. At the moment, that is evident. With the exception of the disaggregation of data, the need for that recognises that many of us are possibly working based on opinions rather than facts. We should all, therefore, be working with the facts.
It is striking that only one Welsh Labour MP of 22 is present and actually spoke. The standpoint between what is said by Welsh Labour and by UK Labour is striking in its inconsistency. It is important to note the consistency and experience in the voices from Northern Ireland and Scotland, in that knife crime is a health issue, the familiarity of community needs is important and, frankly, the argument that the border is an insurmountable problem can be blown out of the water. People do understand the difference.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the potential merits of the devolution of justice to Wales.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Ministerial Code.
It is a delight to see you in your place, Mr Vickers. I am speaking in my own capacity, and not as Chair of the Standards Committee. The ministerial code is bust; it does not work. Civil servants find it confusing, Ministers do not care about it and Prime Ministers find it irritating. Central to it is the adviser on the ministerial code, but it is now 167 days since Lord Geidt resigned, and I gather the new Prime Minister has offered the post to three people, all of whom have said, “Not on your nelly”. At least two investigations are already pending, but they cannot be investigated because there is no adviser. There cannot be a publication of the ministerial list of interests because there is no adviser. Frankly, the system is broken.
Most importantly, the code does not do what it says. It says that Ministers are expected to observe the seven principles of public life—the Nolan principles. Let us just go through a couple of them. First, transparency. One would think that transparency requires that the public know all interests held by Ministers: what business interests they have, if any; who had invited them to expensive social occasions, such as movie premieres; what clubs give them free membership; who had paid for trips abroad; what charities they were trustees of; and what meetings they had with lobbyists, trade associations or press barons—anything that might affect their decisions as Ministers. One might also expect the interests of Ministers’ spouses and family members to be publicly available, and that all that information would be available within a week or so of any Minister taking up office or acquiring a new financial or personal interest.
That could not be further from the truth. The most recent register of Minister’s interests was published on 31 May this year. It is not an accurate list of Ministers now. It is not even an accurate list of ex-Ministers, or of Ministers who have been Ministers in the intervening period. In case we think that this year they should be forgiven for being in a bit of a mess, because of the terpsichorean dance that has been played in Downing Street—let us face it, many of us do not know who is the Minister for what at the moment, including some Ministers, who do not quite know their areas of responsibility—the list itself is very out of date.
At the best of times, the list is published only once every six months. By contrast, the Commons Register of Members’ Financial Interests is updated every fortnight when the House is sitting. The situation is often even worse with the ministerial register. The new Government appointed in December 2019 did not produce a list of its Ministers’ interests until July 2020. There was then a 10-month gap before a new list was produced, during which lots of new Ministers had arrived in post.
As for the supposedly annual report by the adviser on ministerial interests, there was no annual report in 2020 because there was no adviser. Ministers are meant to advise their Department of any relevant interests whenever they take up a new ministerial post. However, because that is published at best only twice a year, the public is nearly always in the dark about what financial interests a Minister might or might not have.
Bizarrely, because the report appears so infrequently, some financial interests are reckoned to be more than six-months old by the time they are reported, and are therefore never published at all. That is not transparency. As things stand, we have no idea what ministerial interests the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Transport Secretary, the Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions or the Minister for Security might have, because they simply have not been published.
The system leads to glaring anomalies—the following instances prove my point. None of the Members concerned have done anything wrong. To my knowledge, they have fully declared everything they are required to declare, but the way the Government operate ministerial registrations means that discrepancies abound. I have told all Members to whom I am about to refer exactly what I am going to say.
For instance, the latest version of the register, dated 31 May, states that the right hon. Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden), who is Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has as his only interest his role as patron of Watford Peace Hospice, yet according to Companies House he is the director of C&UCO Services Ltd, C&UCO Management Ltd and C&UCO Properties Ltd of 4 Matthew Parker Street, London. I do not know whether that is still true—I presume those are the Conservative and Unionist party’s official management companies—but there is a discrepancy. I am told that he declared that to his Department, but it was decided that it was not a relevant interest. I do not understand why.
Likewise, the entry for the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) states:
“Trustee of discretionary family trusts”
without specifying what the trusts are, unlike the entry for Lord Benyon, which specifies all the trusteeships he holds. The entry for the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North does not include the following shareholdings, which are in the Commons register, however: Arnold Estates Ltd, Arnold Estates LLC and MSA Properties Ltd. I do not understand why those are not in both registers.
Similarly, the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith), who is Economic Secretary to the Treasury, has registered in the Commons that he has been a member of Wilton Park Advisory Council from 1 July 2020—that is, he assures me, an unremunerated ex officio role that he quite properly disclosed to the permanent secretary to the Treasury—yet that does not appear in his list of ministerial interests, presumably because the Department or the adviser—
Order. May I clarify whether the Member has advised any relevant Members that he will refer to them?
Yes, I have said so already, Mr Vickers.
I wanted to place that on record.
I have sent Members copies of precisely what I am going say.
However, that role does not appear in the list of ministerial interests for the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, presumably because either the Department or the adviser, for some reason best known to themselves, thought it irrelevant.
The ministerial entry for the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire, says that he is
“a director of Millgap Ltd, an investment holding company personally owned by him.”
The Commons register, however, lists the following:
“Shareholdings: over 15%... Pluto Capital Management LLP… Millgap Ltd… Pluto Partners LLP… Pluto Silverstone Co Invest LLP… Pluto Monza Co Invest LLP… Pluto Development Partners LLP”,
although it does not include his directorship of Millgap Ltd.
I do not think that any Member I have mentioned has sought to hide anything. Indeed, I think in each case the Member has made a full declaration to their Department, but the Department, or the adviser, has published only what it thinks fit. Different Departments clearly treat matters such as trusteeships differently, and the rules differ as between the ministerial code and the House of Commons code of conduct, which leads to ludicrous anomalies and undermines transparency.
Moreover, the Government continue to insist that Ministers acting in their ministerial capacity should be exempted from the requirement placed on all other MPs to register within 28 days hospitality they receive that is worth more than £300. The Government say that ministerial transparency returns cover that, but those returns carry far fewer details than the Commons register, and they are published at least three months late, and sometimes up to a year late. Unlike the Commons, which produces a single document, each Department does that separately, so anyone who wants to see the full picture of ministerial interests across a year has to look at more than 300 online forms every year.
This is about as transparent as a hippopotamus’s bathwater. It would make far more sense for all financial and other interests of a Member, whether a Minister or not, to be available in one place, published as close as possible to real time, and certainly no less than every month.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point. Does he agree that it is simply wrong that there is a difference between what we register as MPs and what Ministers register, particularly given that the point of registration is to ensure transparency over how decisions are made? That is even more important for Ministers, arguably, than it is for MPs.
It seems to me utterly bizarre that we have a lower level of transparency for Ministers, who make decisions in their personal capacity, than we do for ordinary Back-Bench Members of Parliament. The best decisions we get to make are about our own diaries, and sometimes not even that.
It seems we have entered into a preposterous set of arrangements. The Standards Committee has made proposals for a new code of conduct that would no longer exempt Ministers from the requirement placed on all other hon. Members. I very much hope that the Minister, when he gets up later, will say that when we have the debate on the new code of conduct on 12 December, as I understand it, the Government will support the measures advocated by the Committee.
Let us try another Nolan principle: accountability. It might be thought that a code of conduct should be enforceable and if someone breaks the rules, they should face disciplinary action. Yet the Government constantly assert that ministerial appointments and discipline are solely a matter for the Prime Minister. I understand the argument—sort of—but only to a degree. If a Minister makes a minor error of judgment, it should ultimately be up to the Prime Minister to decide whether they should stay in post. However, we do not have a separation of powers in the United Kingdom, despite what several Ministers continue to assert. I am sure the Minister who is about to speak, and who is a better historian than some others, will agree that the amendment that would have removed Ministers from Parliament and inserted a separation of powers in the UK was lost in 1713 by the Whigs.
By common law, all Ministers are Members of one or other House of Parliament. That is just a fact. It therefore undermines the whole of Parliament when a Minister is seen to get away with behaviour in their Department as a Minister that, if committed on the parliamentary estate and within the parliamentary community, would see them suspended from the House and possibly expelled. How can it be right that we have a stricter and more independent system for disciplining sexual harassment and bullying in Parliament than in Government? How can we change the culture across Parliament or in any Government organisation if Ministers are exempted?
I understand that people draw the line differently when it comes to bullying. I have a very low threshold and see behaviour as intimidatory when others might think it is acceptable. Others think they are just being forceful, exacting or demanding. I would draw a distinction between assertive, which is okay, and aggressive, which is not. I would say that an MP should always remember the imbalance of power when assessing their personal behaviour. Veering between exorbitant praise and sharp public criticism can completely undermine staff, and I would worry if a single member of my staff were ever reduced to tears by my behaviour.
More importantly, all MPs are in this together. We need to change the culture of the whole of British political and parliamentary life, and we will never succeed in doing that if we have a separate rule for Ministers. Some, including the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, have argued that the independent adviser should be put on a statutory basis, that he or she should be allowed to initiate and conclude investigations into alleged breaches of the ministerial code without the say-so of the Prime Minister, and that he or she should be allowed to recommend or impose suitable sanctions. I have argued that myself, but I no longer think that is enough—for four reasons.
First, the spider’s web of our standards system is now far too complex. In addition to the law of the land, MPs are subject to 12 different sets of rules. It is difficult for us to understand all the rules that apply to us and even the system that applies to us, let alone for the public to do so. That undermines parliamentary democracy.
Secondly, since the last general election 177 Conservative MPs have been Ministers. Some have not lasted long, of course. The Minister himself has been in and out of Government. He had 292 days at the Department for Education, then 76 days out of office and 37 days at the Department for Work and Pensions before starting his present job. MPs’ financial and other interests, including his, have remained the same throughout that period, but he has been governed by different systems at each of those moments. It is manifestly bonkers that MPs have to switch in and out of different regimes, and that the public do not get to know about it, in many cases until many months afterwards.
Thirdly, the Owen Paterson debacle showed that Ministers and their offices do not understand the Commons rules. Rory Stewart, formerly of this parish, argued that his meetings with Mr Paterson were fine because his private office would have advised him if they were a problem, but that office did not spot that Paterson was clearly engaged in paid lobbying and peddling influence on behalf of his paying clients, because, frankly, interpreting the Commons code of conduct is not its job.
Fourthly, it is simply no longer good enough for Prime Ministers to say, “As long as I enjoy a majority in the Commons, I and I alone get to choose who is a Minister.” That is the winner-takes-all approach to politics. We have very few checks and balances in the British system as it is, but when Ministers’ behaviour brings Parliament into disrepute, it is a matter for Parliament, not just the Executive.
It is time to amalgamate or at least align the ministerial code with the code of conduct of the House of Commons. The ministerial exemption for registering interests in the House within 28 days should come to an end, as should the ministerial exemption from the rules on bullying and sexual harassment in their Department. Either the House should appoint the independent adviser on the ministerial code directly, which I know some have advocated, or the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards should be given that responsibility.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers, and to respond to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) in whatever capacity and with whichever hat he is wearing today. He, like me, has a second job—mine is currently as a Minister in the Cabinet Office. It was very good of him to enunciate how many days I was in my previous post; now I have a record in Hansard that I can refer back to when I want to check it.
Although my response today will be relatively brief, I want the hon. Gentleman to know that, as a new Minister, I am genuinely interested in the points he has raised and I will certainly consider them with colleagues. He has previously raised these important points in the House on a number of occasions, including 7 September, I think—it is my birthday; I remember it well—and again on 18 October. He is right to say that in the coming weeks we will have an opportunity to debate these matters again.
The hon. Gentleman raises substantial issues concerning transparency, timeliness and the independent adviser. As the Leader of the House said a few weeks ago of the recommendations proposed by the Committee on Standards, which the hon. Gentleman chairs, we are
“very conscious that there is further progress to be made and the House should have the opportunity to consider the additional recommendations”.
We are looking to identify solutions that command cross-party support on outstanding issues, including to improve the transparency and timeliness of ministerial declarations. The Government are very clear in our views that, as the Leader of the House said,
“the rules regulating Members’ interests and ministerial interests”—[Official Report, 18 October 2022; Vol. 720, c. 636.]
are distinct. However, the hon. Gentleman has raised important points about consistency that bear further cogitation.
I can confirm that we are talking to officials about proposals we are considering to bring forward and improve the system, and that revised guidance on ministerial transparency data will be published in the coming weeks, first on gov.uk. The guidance will be updated to more closely reflect modern working practices and Ministers’ obligations under the ministerial code. As the Leader of the House has said, we are mindful of the BAFTA challenge that has been set by the hon. Gentleman. As I said, there are important points on consistency.
The Minister entices me on the BAFTA point—and it is not just the BAFTA point, but the Bond point. If I were invited to a Bond premiere, with tickets worth something like £2,000 or £2,500, I would have to declare that within 28 days, detailing the cost and who had paid for it. All that would then be published within two weeks. However, several Home Secretaries and Foreign Secretaries ago, when the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), and the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), went, they decided that they had gone in their ministerial capacities. A colleague of the Minister said that they had gone in a ministerial capacity because the Home Secretary has responsibility for MI6, which is incorrect.
Can the Minister see that the whole concept of going to a Bond premiere in a ministerial capacity brings the whole system into disrepute? Would it not be simpler for everything to be in a single place, so that members of the public could openly and transparently see the full range of a Minister’s interests?
The hon. Gentleman has made his point very clearly once again.
On timeliness, in autumn this year the Government reaffirmed their commitment to transparency, and said they would publish transparency data within 90 days of the end of each quarter. The Cabinet Office has strengthened advice to Departments on open access data, which will ensure that ministerial transparency is easily accessible to all. I appreciate what the hon. Member for Rhondda says about the importance of members of the public being able to see what is happening as promptly as possible. I can see that he is anxious to intervene again.
It is just that 90 days is not prompt; it is 28 days in this House. After 90 days, people have forgotten what they went to. I do not understand why it could not be within a fortnight, especially given the fact that Ministers might move on or make different decisions in the intervening time.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Ministers will not have forgotten what they went to. As he is aware, there is a very clear process, which involves permanent secretaries and good internal recording systems. He is right that the last account was published in May. It is ordinarily published every six months, so although we have been without an independent adviser, we would only be coming up for the next publication now. Because the new independent adviser is yet to be appointed, that will probably be delayed, but the Government expect it to be a very high priority for the new adviser, when he or she is appointed.
The obvious questions are, when will the adviser be appointed, and can the Minister confirm that at least three people have already been offered the post and turned it down?
The hon. Gentleman appears to have information, if it indeed is true, that is not available to me. I have not been made aware that anyone has turned the job down. I reiterate that the Prime Minister has said that the appointment of an independent adviser is a priority for him. He is pursuing it with urgency, and we very much hope and expect that an independent adviser will be in place soon. That will kick-start a number of processes that have fallen into abeyance.
I am sorry to impose on the Minister in this way, but I just offer a piece of—I hope—helpful advice. My guess is that people might be refusing the job because they are worried that their position, credibility and reputation will be at risk unless the Prime Minister agrees that a new adviser can initiate investigations, including into the Prime Minister if necessary, without the say-so of the Prime Minister, and can recommend sanctions. Unless the Government make that change, I cannot see how anybody worth having in the role will accept it.
Obviously, in May the Government said that the independent adviser would have the power to initiate investigations. The then independent adviser Lord Geidt said that that was a workable solution. As I say, there will be a new independent adviser soon. That is the desire of the Prime Minister. He is keen to ensure that our process is fit for purpose, and he is keen, as the hon. Member for Rhondda is, to ensure that we have transparency, accountability and timeliness. I am very confident that this Administration, under this Prime Minister, with a new independent adviser, can deliver that.
Question put and agreed to.
Covid-19: Economic Impact of Lockdowns
[Mrs Sheryll Murray in the Chair]
The debate may continue until 4.9 pm.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the economic impact of covid-19 lockdowns.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and to be able to debate the economic impact of covid-19 lockdowns, because so often during the pandemic we did not have the opportunity to question key decisions that were taken. In those early days of covid, much was done in a rush. Although it was understandable then, with the passing of time analysis needs to be done of the measures and decisions taken. No matter how painful and difficult the conversations will be, we need to have them. Open and frank conversations are made more difficult by the fact that the vast majority of MPs voted for continued lockdowns and most of the media was reluctant to question them.
Although everyone supported the first lockdown—March to June 2020—no one knew what we were confronting. As knowledge of covid and medical treatments grew, so should the debate have grown, particularly about subsequent lockdowns, but that was not the case. Prior to March 2020, how many of us had heard of the concept of lockdown? Blanket, stay-at-home policies were an unknown and unevidenced method of trying to control the virus.
Although lockdowns will have saved lives from the virus, many experts predicted from the start that they would also cost lives, through the unintended collateral damage they inflict. A Government report in July 2020 found that more than 200,000 lives could be lost due to lockdown. Well-rehearsed pandemic protocols, including those endorsed by the World Health Organisation and the Department of Health and Social Care had not previously recommended lockdowns because, quite simply, they are a blunt instrument.
In addition, it was felt that such drastic restrictions would not be tolerated by western democracies. As Professor Neil Ferguson infamously put it, after observing entire communities in China in lockdown,
“We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought. And then Italy did it. And we realised we could.”
That poses a question. If people assumed that the UK population would not tolerate lockdowns, was messaging hardened and questions against lockdown not tolerated, in order to force compliance? We might never know the answer. Ongoing lockdowns were achieved, but at what price? Interestingly, only the other week, Andrew Gilligan, a former No. 10 adviser said on GB News that, looking back, the ongoing lockdowns were wrong, but politically we could not have got away with not doing them.
Why was that? How was an environment created in which even asking questions and providing alternative suggestions could get someone demonised? And those people were. I wrote an article for The Daily Telegraph in November 2020 saying, regretfully, that politicians had been guilty of a dereliction of duty. Instead of just listening to the one-dimensional approach of Public Health England and the scientists, they should have factored in all competing consequences. They did not and ploughed on, without questioning those other factors.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that, during the pandemic and lockdowns, Parliament was not given the opportunity during certain phases to debate the impact lockdown was having on our constituents, and that we should never lockdown Parliament again?
My hon. Friend and near neighbour raises an important point. This House is about debate and questioning things, and I am afraid that that did not happen. As he rightly says, we should ensure that Parliament never closes down again, as it did under the pandemic. Even back then, the figures from the Office for National Statistics pointed out that lockdowns and anti-covid measures would lead to the deaths of 200,000 in the medium to long term, due to missed treatments, under-diagnosis, loss of jobs and tax revenue, with disadvantaged people suffering the most. Bristol University in 2020 put that figure much higher, at 560,000 deaths.
Debates are now occurring on the unintended consequences of lockdown, from the mental health issues suffered by our children, to increased deaths of dementia patients, and the lack of visiting rights in care centres and hospitals still happening, even now. A big thank you has to go to the academics and scientists who initially raised concerns in those areas, including Professor Townsend, Professor Carl Heneghan and Professor Robert Dingwall, who asked those all-important questions.
Today, however, our focus is on the economic consequences of lockdown: rising financial hardship; increased poverty levels in the UK; the hundreds of thousands of people since lockdown now classed as economically inactive; the impact on them, their families and local communities; and the economic impact on the next generation’s wealth and earning capacity. It is estimated that school closures and lockdowns will lead to £40,000 being lost from lifetime earnings for each individual. A report by UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank finds that students now risk
“losing $17 trillion in lifetime earnings, or the equivalent of 14 percent of today’s global GDP, as a result of COVID-19 pandemic-related school closures”
and economic shocks.
Let us look back at some of the economic shocks of lockdown. The House of Commons Library notes explain that
“The magnitude of the recession caused by the pandemic is unprecedented in modern times.”
GDP declined by 11% in 2020, the steepest drop since consistent records began in 1948 and, based on less precise estimates of GDP going back further, the contraction in 2020 was the largest since 1709. During the first lockdown, UK GDP was 26% lower in April than only two months earlier in February. More than 8 million workers were furloughed during April and May 2020, peaking at 8.9 million—roughly a third of all employees—in May 2020. Overall, 11.7 million jobs were furloughed.
In response, the Bank of England cut interest rates to 0.1% and more than doubled its quantitative easing programme by £450 billion, taking the total value of assets it owned to a peak of £895 billion by December 2021. The total amount of public money calculated to have been spent on tackling the pandemic ranges from £376 billion by the National Audit Office in June 2022 to £407 billion by the International Monetary Fund in September 2021. In 2020-21, Government had income of £794 billion in tax receipts and other revenues, which is £79 billion less than forecast, and spent more than £1,107 billion. The budget deficit was £312 billion, or 15% of GDP, which is a peacetime record. The financial cost for every man, woman and child in this country has been estimated at £5,500.
Former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption, writing in The Daily Telegraph on 18 November, said:
“Compare the modest financial hit experienced by Sweden, the only European country to see through the hype by which other governments sought to justify their measures. Sweden operated a largely voluntary system and refused to lock down. Pandemic-related measures cost 60 billion kronor in 2020 and 2021, according to government figures. This works about at about £460 a head, less than a tenth of the UK figure. Yet their results in terms of both cases and deaths were a lot better than ours.
We are paying the price of panic, populism and poorly thought-out knee-jerk decision-making. At least the current Prime Minister can point to his warnings as chancellor that lockdowns were unaffordable if extended over any significant period of time. Boris Johnson’s indifference to mere money ensured that the cost was not even considered. All that can be said in his favour is that, if the Labour Party had had its way, the lockdowns would have been even longer and more costly.”
Let us look at the inflationary pressures we are now suffering from. As the country and world opened up after lockdown, there were sharp increases in the cost of essential goods and energy as the world emerged unprepared for such rapid demand, putting prices up, from the fuel pumps to the goods on supermarket shelves.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her speech. Although I do not necessarily subscribe to all her views about lockdown, she is right to say that the hospitality sector in particular is suffering dreadfully from energy price increases. I bring to her attention a particular case in my constituency, where we have many pubs and restaurants that are suffering. The energy bills of a large country house, which is open to the public, have gone from £16,000 a week to £60,000 a week. That is entirely and totally unsustainable. Does the right hon. Lady agree with me that the Government have to do something now to ease the pressure on the hospitality sector?
I welcome my hon. Friend to this debate today. He might be one of those who voted for continuous lockdowns, but it is important that we are all together in a sense of open debate and conversation. The point he raised is correct. If subsequently, after the Government had intervened to close things down, there were effects on otherwise viable businesses, the Government had to step in and support them. Indeed, the Government have given unprecedented support, but I wish we could have had discussions beforehand so that when people voted for lockdown, they knew what would befall them. At the time, too many colleagues did not want to do that.
May I ask the hon. Lady a question about a comment she made a few moments ago? She talked about populism and said that was a factor in deciding to implement lockdowns. I am confused by that because lockdowns were, at best, tolerated; they could never be described as appealing to populism.
I was quoting Lord Sumption, the former Supreme Court judge, who was talking about the way governments were led at that time—those were his words. What we need to take from them is the question of why those decisions were not questioned or challenged by Members of Parliament. Why were those decisions not challenged? If we look at the record of the House, the decision appears popular because MPs voted for it pretty much unanimously, when there should have been greater debate.
Does the right hon. Lady accept that Lord Sumption was right, although maybe not according to the common use of the term “populism”? First, the use of fear encouraged people to think, “There is no alternative. I have got to do this.” Secondly, the lack of any examination of the measures by the media ensured that there was not any contrary point of view, so listening politicians heard people saying out of fear, “You’ve got to do something”, and the media, when questioning that, saying, “This is the right thing to do.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. That is why I quoted Neil Ferguson at the start of the debate, who said that he never thought a western democracy would lock down, and why I posed the question about whether a campaign of fear was then brought forward, creating an atmosphere in which no one could dissent or ask questions. Going back to the question raised by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), there appeared to be a giant consensus across all political parties, leading to that word “popular” at the time.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the point made about fear? When people look at Parliament or much of British life, it appears that we have returned to normal, but not all British life has returned to normal yet, which is having a continuing impact on our economy.
My hon. Friend makes the point eloquently; I hope he will make a speech later, fleshing out his comments.
By February 2022, inflation had already surged, with the consumer price index hitting 6.2% in February, after which, without doubt, the war in Ukraine added to the problem. As it stands today, we have unprecedented inflation and costs of living.
None of that should come as a surprise. In fact, the Imperial College report of March 2020 that recommended lockdowns specifically said that the
“economic effects of the measures which are needed to achieve this policy goal will be profound.”
While many people talk about the cost of covid, it is actually the cost of lockdown and lockdown rules that need to be questioned.
The Government have spent in the region of £400 billion on the covid-19 response, which has taken the national debt to over £2.1 trillion. To make matters worse, we know vast sums of money were wasted. For example, seven Nightingale hospitals were built in England, which was an impressive achievement completed in record time. However, most of them were hardly used in the way intended and they cost more than £530 million. The Yorkshire Nightingale closed before ever seeing a patient. Elsewhere, an eye-watering £673 million was spent on unusable personal protective equipment items.
The £70 billion spent on furlough and £84 billion on business support schemes softened the blow for a while. However, the Federation of Small Businesses still warned of a ticking time-bomb, with 500,000 owners of small businesses—the backbone of our economy—at risk of going bust within weeks.
In my city of Coventry, many small businesses were hit considerably by covid and are still being hit because of the cost of living crisis. Does the right hon. Lady agree that in order to continue to support our small businesses given the turbulent year that they have had, we need to reform business rates and invest in our high streets, and we also need to ensure that our small businesses are given the support needed for them to be able to compete effectively with online giants that have been able to make hay during the covid-19 pandemic?
I am a massive fan of small businesses, enterprise and those people creating wealth in their communities, and we will have to support them. Also, I will pause for a moment to reflect on all those small businesses that did not get support during the pandemic, which are known as Forgotten Ltd, and they also need support going forward. We again have to create a dynamic world and a dynamic UK for these private enterprises.
Vacancies are now at a record high as people elect to resign from the labour market, which is known as “the great resignation”, and because there are those other people who are now classed as being economically inactive. This is something that we could not have foreseen as we furloughed and closed the country down, but again it is a consequence of the lack of debate, probing and questioning at the time.
It is finally time to publish the much talked-about but still missing cost-benefit analysis that led to the nation being locked down, and to have full disclosure about the facts that were available. Let us review the list of experts on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or SAGE, and on other advisory committees. Going forward, let us ensure that there is transparency about the members of these groups, as we have for MPs, such as their political affiliation and the financial support they receive.
All eyes are on the covid-19 inquiry for impartiality and a diverse range of experts to give evidence. We need integrity and clarity, and the policy of lockdown needs to be assessed honestly and fully. However, today I call on the Minister—the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith)—to release the much-awaited cost-benefit analysis of lockdown.
Before I call the next speaker, may I just apologise for the background hum? I understand that staff are trying to resolve it. In the meantime, however, if Members could speak very clearly, I think we can continue with the debate.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), both on her speech—the vast majority of which, if not all, I agree with—and on bringing this matter before the House. It was not only during the time of covid that we did not debate covid enough; since the end of lockdown, we have not debated the consequences of the policy decisions taken during covid.
I will just go back to what the Government said at the start of covid; it is always better to go back and examine whether those things actually happened or were honoured. The first thing the Government said at the start of the crisis was that they would follow the science. They did not follow the science. I can give a large number of examples where they did not follow the science, but I will just concentrate on two or three important examples.
One of them has already been mentioned: children losing their education. It was clear from the very beginning of this disease that it was primarily a disease of the elderly and of people with other co-morbidities. It was clear early on that there was essentially no danger to children or anybody else from opening schools, but they were not opened quickly enough. Anyone who goes into schools and knows young children can still see the damage that was done to them both emotionally and educationally because the science was not followed.
The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) will remember that Greater Manchester, which had a two-tier system of lockdown, was put into lockdown before Merseyside. The Government’s statistics on infection rates and the R number were higher for Merseyside than they were for Greater Manchester, but the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), who is better occupied in the antipodes than he was in this House as the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, decided that he liked the Mayor of Merseyside rather more than Andy Burnham, so Greater Manchester went into lockdown and Merseyside did not, even though the statistics suggested otherwise.
More trivially but importantly for those who like a drink was the decision to close pubs at 10 pm. When we questioned the Government’s chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer on the Science and Technology Committee, they openly admitted that this was a ministerial decision with no science behind it whatever. So the Government did not follow the science, and I do not think they ever had any intention of doing so.
One concern I had from the very beginning of the pandemic was that we had the Prime Minister, professors, doctors and Ministers saying, “This is the scientific evidence. This compels you to do as we are saying. We have the weight of evidence behind us.” However, not long afterwards—in fact, within days or weeks—it was clear that there was no scientific basis for the 10 pm curfew. That undermines people’s confidence when the scientific and medical establishment tells us to take the necessary precautions.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Most politicians are not scientists—there are very few; I do not think we even have an epidemiologist in the House—or scientifically trained.
Dominic Cummings came to the Science and Technology Committee and made an extremely good point: members of the Government are not experts, so when scientific evidence was being given to them, it should have been challenged, and other scientists should have been brought in to challenge it—so-called red teams. That challenge would have helped the Government to see that there was a debate. Many scientists were frustrated because they had a different view of the evidence presented—sometimes they even had different evidence—and it should have been considered. However, that internal debate did not happen in Government, and the debate in the House of Commons, as the right hon. Member for Tatton said, also did not happen as it should have done.
What did happen was that the Government decided on lockdown. My view is that once Italy, China and a number of countries in south-east Asia had locked down, the Government believed that lockdown was the politically safe thing to do. It was not scientifically the right thing to do; it was not the most effective way of dealing with the covid epidemic.
There are two reasons for locking down. The first is to eliminate the disease very early on to stop it spreading at all. That position had passed a long time before the Government locked down. After that, the reason is to stop the NHS being overwhelmed by too many infections at once. The Government’s other slogan—apart from that they were following the science—was that they were going to protect the NHS. They did that in a very simple sense, because it was not overwhelmed by covid. However, since the start of 2020, there has been effectively no NHS for many people. During covid, hospitals were empty and GPs could not be seen. The fact that deaths are now about 10% higher than normal shows the impact of people not being able to access GPs or get cancer care and of elderly people suffering from dementia not getting any support or human contact.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the Government’s approach appeared to be to use the precautionary principle to protect the Government rather than to protect people, and to say, “If we lock down and do the restrictions, no one can blame us for what comes out from it”? In contrast, the Swedish approach was to give people good advice and take only the necessary measures.
The hon. Gentleman puts it in an interesting way, although there is another interpretation of the precautionary principle. Some people interpret it as meaning that we should be as cautious we can be, but it actually means that we should not take action until we are certain of the facts. It does not mean that we should not do anything, which is how the Government interpreted it.
The right hon. Member for Tatton made a good point about the Government’s position on lockdown. Gavin Morgan, who was a member of SPI-B, the sub-committee of SAGE, said that behavioural psychology was weaponised and that there was an exaggerated threat. We got into a vicious feedback loop: the Government frightened people, so people demanded more lockdown from the Government. That was bad for health and the economy.
That is the health side of it, and we are suffering from it now, with 6 million-plus people on the waiting lists for elective surgery. However, this debate is primarily about the economy. The Government say that the war in Ukraine is the prime reason why the economy and the Government’s finances are in difficulty.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the IMF’s estimate that £407 billion was spent on covid. Some of that money was spent really well. Some of it was spent on developing the vaccines and on the vaccine taskforce, and that work was brilliant and very effective—I congratulate the vaccine taskforce—but much of it was wasted. The National Audit Office estimated that the bulk of the £37.5 billion spent on Test and Trace was wasted because there was no communication between the centre and the public health teams. That is a huge amount to waste, and that was just the budget.
Money on personal protective equipment was wasted not only because it went to friends of the Government in pretty dodgy contracts, but because it went on pretty dodgy personal protective equipment that did not work. All that has had a disastrous effect on the Government’s finances, and therefore the economy, because it is preventing the Government from spending money where they should.
I will finish on two points. I could go on for much longer, but other Members want to speak. There was no proper debate inside or outside the Government about the science. Just before Parliament went to sleep, it passed the Coronavirus Act 2020. One would have expected that Act to be used, but it was not. The Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 was the Act under which the Government mainly enacted the decisions that they had made. That Act allows less scrutiny in Parliament, and we lost many of our civil liberties for no good reason at all. I am still shocked that, when I left the House to go back to Manchester after the House had started sitting again, and I was going into Euston station, a police officer asked me where I was going. This is not Nazi Germany in the late 1930s; this is the United Kingdom of free people. I am not going to tell police officers where I am going. We need to look at that issue.
Finally, there is a great deal of hope that Baroness Hallett’s inquiry will get to the bottom of many of the issues we are discussing all too briefly today. Like other colleagues who have spoken, I have written to Baroness Hallett setting out my worry that she is disproportionately asking for evidence from people who naturally supported lockdown and not from businesses that have gone to the wall because of lockdown or from people who cannot access health services because we are still suffering the impacts of lockdown. I am worried about the way that that inquiry is structured.
I will finish on a figure from Professor Thomas of Bristol University, who has pointed out one of the issues I raised in the debates that took place when I was asking for an economic as opposed to a health analysis: poverty kills—not just covid. Professor Thomas thinks that 2.5 million life years have been lost because of the loss of GDP so far. It is a statistical factor, but it gives an indication of the economic damage and the impact that lockdown has had on people’s lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and to follow the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), who brings his scientific background to bear on the Science and Technology Committee. I congratulate my near neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), on securing this timely debate on the economic impact of lockdown.
We went through a very difficult period during covid. It was unnerving and nerve-racking to see the broadcasts coming from China and what happened in Italy. There are so many lessons to be learned from understanding and interpreting a little better what goes on in other countries and from reflecting on what we should do in the United Kingdom.
I have always put the concerns I had over covid and the lockdowns in four categories. Following on from the point about civil liberties, it was extraordinary to see drones following people across the Derbyshire dales and hikers being told, “If you’re carrying a coffee, that counts as a picnic, and therefore the police will intervene.” There was a whole series of different things in the civil liberties area that constrained people’s activity.
One thing we know now, and which we had a good sense of fairly early on, is that good health is immensely important when we come up against any disease. Vitamin D and exercise are important, and obesity is one of the greatest problems when facing covid. Someone who is obese is more likely to be hospitalised or suffer a serious condition. Despite that, what the Government did on civil liberties was to restrict people’s access to normal healthy activities, such as walking—even if they were socially distanced because they were on top of a mountain or they were being sensible and following the guidance—or sunbathing in a park. Civil liberties are very important, and educational exclusion is also immensely important.
There is also the wider health impact of denying the routinely expected service of being able to see a GP. Shortly before the second lockdown, I flagged to the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), my concern that there were about 20,000 fewer GP-to-hospital referrals just in Bolton borough over the lockdown period—a relatively short period of time. If that is in Bolton alone, just think of the millions of people that that means over the whole of the country. I do not know what that means in terms of life and death, but if a GP thinks something is serious enough for someone to need screening, more diagnostics and then treatment—perhaps serious and urgent treatment—then how many people right across the country with a life-threatening or life-changing condition could not see a hospital consultant or someone else to get what, in so many circumstances, was basic medical treatment?
In many ways, we can understand and appreciate the decisions we made—we did have to change our approach to healthcare and to have more controls in place—but my concern was about getting the right balance. When I wrote to the then Prime Minister about that before the second lockdown, I was expecting that he would actually explain it, perhaps with a cost-benefit analysis or an impact statement. In my letter, I asked, “Is the impact of the cure worse than the disease itself? Are the measures we are taking to protect us from covid worse than the impact it is having on our society in terms of civil liberties, education, healthcare and”—the focus of this debate—“the economy?”
When people talked about the economy early on—a good distance into covid and lockdowns—they were shouted down for that. We were shouted down for talking about money. When we have those conversations today and talk about the money, how expensive covid was and the disruption to businesses—whether large businesses or small businesses, which, as was rightly pointed out, have borne more of the brunt of this—we can see the dramatic economic impact. Who would now say, “Don’t talk about it. It’s not relevant. We have to focus only on the disease itself”? We are talking about these things all the time now.
I appreciate that the situation with Europe’s biggest energy producer invading Europe’s biggest food supplier has had a dramatic impact—we cannot get away from that—but we know, and we knew very early on, that the impact of lockdown on the economy would be enormous if we went much beyond three weeks. No one actually said, “It should be for three weeks”—there was no direct expectation—but the words of the Prime Minister at the time, suggesting a three-week period, did give people reasonable cause to think at the beginning, when Members of Parliament were voting on the first lockdown and the Coronavirus Act, “Three weeks? That would be great. If it is a little bit longer, it will be bad, but that gives us a framework for the timescales.” The longer a lockdown goes on, the worse the impact on the economy, the more demands there are for furlough and other economic support, and the greater the impact on healthcare access.
However, my particular interest is education. The schools that I visit now are actually quite grateful that we got out earlier than we might have done, because a fourth lockdown was being lined up. They are looking at the impact on children, especially from poorer backgrounds, and it is far more profound than anyone was talking about at the beginning. No one was talking about the impact on those children, but the outcomes will be devastating. Even after they have gone back to school and we have pumped a few billion pounds into the education system, they will never get back the experiences they missed or the exams they would have taken. The rest of their school career will be held back. Their results will be worse, and their opportunities for further education—for higher qualifications and the jobs that go with them—will be taken away.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton rightly mentioned the £40,000 of lost earning opportunities. However, some people will not get that job—they will not get the step up that would have led to horizon-broadening educational experiences and the work that goes with it. That has been taken away from so many children, and it has reverberated right across the system. We have been through a bit of political turmoil recently, but a recent Prime Minister and an Education Secretary have both said that we should never have locked down the schools. It would have been nice if that argument had been presented—or at least if the consensus had been challenged—right at the beginning. The people least affected by covid were the most affected by the lockdown. Many of the impacts on children can never be changed or redeemed.
I have an interest in medical research. I used to work in the mass spectrometry industry in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton for nearly 20 years before becoming a Member of Parliament, and I think about the medical research side of things.
Order. The hon. Gentleman might want to keep within the confines of the motion that we are debating. This is about the economic impact of covid-19 lockdowns.
Absolutely, and the place I worked at, AstraZeneca, is a huge contributor to the British economy, not just through its manufacture of drugs, but through its research and development effort. The pharmaceutical sector is a vital part of the British economy. This goes broader than the big pharmaceutical companies, however. Smaller organisations, especially medical research charities, are an important part of the British life science sector. What did the disruption to their research effort mean? There are many rare medical conditions that need treatment. That research contributes to the economy, and the landscape in which the sector operates is a significant factor in our economy. If a lockdown disrupts medical research at an early stage, when the charity is raising money for research—perhaps recruiting a researcher and getting people on to clinical trials—it takes a long time for that medical research charity to regain those funds. Perhaps funds were raised through sporting events and other activities; that money has to be got back. They then have to recruit a researcher, or even a team of researchers, to look into getting the clinical trial started. There are many other aspects to it, too. The process takes a very long time.
The life expectancy lost due to the economic disruption has been mentioned. We should also think of the pharmaceutical and other products that would have been produced in that time. People’s life chances have been hindered because the medical progress that we would have made during that period was not achieved. If we look at all the different parts of our society, including the high streets and medical research, the disruption has been profound. This is partly about jobs when people leave school, but also about jobs in businesses and industries. We should also consider the life opportunities for people receiving medical treatment, and their ability to maintain their position in the workplace, which might be taken away if they do not get medical support.
At the beginning of covid and the lockdown, people did not realise or appreciate their impact. I think of what happened as a pulling on the thread of society, and the breaking of the bonds that bind us. Knitting them back together is challenging and difficult. It is expensive and takes a long time. In the meantime, the problems are difficult. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reflect on that. In future such situations, whether the issue is covid or something else that has come along, I hope the Government will do a cost-benefit analysis, and will ask: if we need restrictions, what will that mean for all sectors of society?
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) on securing the debate, and I thank her for her sterling work in leading the all-party parliamentary group on pandemic response and recovery. The APPG has delved into many issues that those who made or supported decisions that led to this situation would love to forget. There is a desire to put all this behind us, and to ignore the fact that there was controversy about the decisions made at the time. That controversy was submerged by a deluge of fear tactics and an unwillingness to debate the issue. The media played a big part in that. I did a number of interviews back home in Northern Ireland, and people who questioned decisions were regarded as almost not caring whether people lived or died. That was the atmosphere in which the debate was carried on. There was, in part, a deliberate attempt to squeeze people into doing and accepting things that naturally, in an open and democratic society, they would never dream of doing or accepting.
Everybody who has spoken was probably in the group of those in the House of Commons who were prepared to challenge. However, this debate is not about saying, “We told you so.” The debate is important because it ensures that the inquiry into the covid response, which is being carried out, will look at the side of the argument that was ignored, and of which full cognisance was not taken, when decisions were made. The inquiry is independent, but I hope that the Minister accepts that it is important to feed back to the inquiry the point that it must not simply reinforce all the decisions that were made. It must examine whether, when those decisions were made, decision makers sought full knowledge of the consequences that would flow from them.
We are here to look at the economic consequences. Of course, they were felt at the time, but they are still being felt today, as speakers have outlined, and will be felt for a long time. As the economy was locked down and we could not leave people without some kind of support, an immediate consequence was a huge amount of borrowing. The figures have been given today: £376 billion or £407 billion. Those are mind-boggling figures. Some of that went on support for healthy people who could have gone to work safely, and without any consequences for the health service or their families. Even people who worked outside—builders or farm workers—were unable to go to work, because they might be infected by those they worked with. There was the cost of paying healthy people not to work, when they could have worked.
Then there was the splurging on many national health issues, including the rush to buy personal protective equipment, hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of which we have never used. It is still being stored by the countries that were supplying it to us; we are paying them to do that.
There should have been a more focused debate about what was needed and the nature of what we were facing, as well as a willingness to listen to the other side of the argument. On many of the discussion programmes that I took part in, all the people brought in were on one side of the debate, even though the arguments on that side were well known. The media companies had researchers who could have dug out someone on the other side of the debate—the Government were certainly in a position to do that—yet they decided not to.
There was the immediate spending, and the impact on businesses. I can think of many people in my constituency who lost their dream of having their own business. The girl who used to cut my hair had a small hairdressers and employed three people. She obeyed all the rules. She spent what little capital she had on putting up screens and buying different instruments that could all be sterilised after use. She survived the first lockdown, but when it came to the second, she said, “I’ve no more money to keep the business going,” and she lost it. We all know of hundreds of stories like that in our constituencies.
One Monday, I had parliamentary business, and I chose to come in rather than do it by Zoom, because I believed that Parliament should be sitting. As I came through Leicester Square on a Sunday evening at half-past 8—I remember, because I took a photograph of it—I went into Burger King to get a burger; I was not allowed to sit in the place, but I could sit outside, and throughout the time it took me to eat the burger, I was the only person sitting in Leicester Square. How could hospitality businesses ever survive that kind of situation? It was not necessary.
The Government argued, “You’ve got to do these things to save the health service, save older people from death, and stop disease spreading.” Other countries chose different routes and had better outcomes. They did not do the damage that was done here, because rather than spread fear, they gave information that people could choose to act on. Most people, being sensible, would act on sensible advice. I would never have dreamed of going to see my mum and dad when they were alive if I had a bad cold, because they were vulnerable. If that meant I did not see them for a week or two, I did not see them for a week or two, and yet we felt we had to tell people, “You cannot do this because we can’t rely on your common sense.”
There were short-term consequences: businesses went under and huge amounts of debt were built up. The Government were left with a huge amount of debt, which has curtailed their ability to help with the current economic crisis. Then there are the consequences still felt today. If supply chains close down, firms go out of business. If the people supplying the goods that we rely on are no longer there, or cannot get the parts that they need because other parts of the supply chain have been affected, then of course there will be inflationary pressures. People who lived through the pandemic and saved money came out of it immediately wanting to spend, but the goods were not there to spend money on, so we started the inflationary spiral. I will not fall into the trap of blaming the Government for inflation, all the economic difficulties and the fuel crisis, but they have to accept some responsibility for the consequences of the choices they made.
There are other consequences. We had questions to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy today. There were questions about the difficulties that companies have recruiting. Why do they have those difficulties? Because the economically active workforce has declined. In some cases, having lived through furlough, people found that they could live on less. They decided to change their lifestyle abd just not work. They took early retirement or decided to work part-time, and there has been an impact on the labour market.
Hundreds of thousands of people are not able to work because the health service cannot cope—the warnings were given—with all those who were not diagnosed during the lockdown. People were afraid to go to hospital; they were told not to go, and that their doctor would not see them. Now they find themselves unable to work because of sickness. We talk about long covid; we are suffering from long covid—the long-term economic effects of the covid decisions that we made. It is important to have debates such as this, in which we highlight the impact of those decisions. We must ensure proper examination of the decision-making process at the time, and learn lessons from the actions that we took.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that in Northern Ireland, the impact has been even greater? In a population of less than 1.9 million people, about 400,000 people are on waiting lists. The cancer waiting list and undiagnosed cancers are at an all-time high. The ambulance service is in disarray, and people in our wonderful nursing profession are being left high and dry, despite their expectations. They will not be rewarded, after being told that they were the most valuable people in society.
The other aspect to this is the excess deaths that we now have. At the time, I did not support the daily death toll being announced on the news. I thought it was wrong to do that. It is strange; there are now excess deaths due to lockdown and its implications on the health service, but we do not publish those numbers. It is a daily reminder of what happened, however. Families across the country are sadly being reminded daily of the impact on the health service of the decision that lockdown was the way to go, even though in many cases the hospitals that closed down, and were not open for normal service, were not dealing with covid patients. I mention that because it reminds me of the fear that was engendered even among health professionals. Many health professionals would phone me and say, “I don’t dare speak out, because if you do, you can get struck off.” Such was the atmosphere of fear.
An issue that I have not yet mentioned is education and the long-term impact of the unnecessary lockdown of schools. Children could not easily become infected or pass on the infection. Even if they did get covid, it had very little impact on them, but they have not escaped the long-term educational impact of being taken away from school.
It has been mentioned briefly, but not enough, that the most severe impact has been felt by the least well-off in our society. I remember going into people’s homes—I probably should not have visited them during lockdown, but I did, because they were my constituents. Those living in blocks of flats did not have a garden to put their youngsters out into, and they were worried that they were not geared up to help their youngsters with their educational needs. They were worried about the long-term impact on their education, and on their social lives. I think we have forgotten that the people hardest hit were the most vulnerable and most needy. I hope that this debate helps to remind us that we should not go down that path again, and that all these issues should be considered.
I am pleased to participate in this debate, and I thank the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) for bringing it forward. We have heard much today about the economic consequences of lockdown and the magnitude of the recession it caused, which was unprecedented in modern times. GDP declined by 9.7% in 2020—the steepest drop since consistent records began in 1948 and equal to the decline in 1921, according to unofficial estimates. The Scottish economy contracted by 19.4% between April and June 2020; that is the biggest fall in quarterly GDP on record.
We understood—how could we not?—that lockdown would of course bring significant economic cost. How could anybody not have anticipated that consequence? I have heard some Members talk about following the science; I am about as far from being a scientist as it is possible to be, but studies have shown that about 20,000 lives could have been saved if the first lockdown had been implemented a week earlier, according to research published by Imperial College London. I do not have the scientific expertise to challenge that, but when experts speak it is incumbent on us to listen. The research, incidentally, was published in the Science Translational Medicine journal, and also found that national lockdown was the only effective measure that consistently brought down the R number.
We must remember that we are speaking from the comfort of having emerged from covid, for the most part, despite the damage that it has caused on a number of levels. A Government’s first duty must be to ensure the safety of those they seek to serve. Surely we cannot forget the uncertainty during those dark days, and the need to do all we could to reduce our social contact, save lives and restrict the potential for infection. Of course there was a cost to that—nobody would pretend otherwise. How could we imagine that there would not be?
Will the hon. Member give way?
In a moment.
These were difficult decisions that were not made lightly. I thank the lord every day that I did not have to take the responsibility to make those decisions, which were so far reaching in their consequences. They had to be made at pace and err on the side of caution, because public safety had to come first. It is easy now to sit, with some distance behind us from those days, and commentate and look at things that could have been done better. Of course mistakes would have been made, and of course things may have been done differently, but in that context and acting at speed, we—I say “we” in a societal sense—had to put public safety first.
Consider for a moment the leaders across the UK who were responsible for making those decisions, relying on public health experts as they were. As the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said, politicians are not often particularly scientific or trained in scientific methods. The leaders were relying on public health experts and understanding the weight of their responsibility—that, when it comes to public health, the buck stops with them. We can make criticisms about the decisions that were taken, and talk about possible wrong turns and the damage done; all those things are true, but the reality is that the priority had to be to keep the infection rate down and save lives.
I agree with elements of what the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said. Every single day that I was required to be in Parliament—Monday to Thursday, which is the norm—I came down here during lockdown. The reason I came was not because I felt invulnerable to infection. I came down here—it is quite a long journey, as Members can imagine—because postal workers, nurses and cleaners in my constituency had to go to their jobs. In that context, I felt unable and unwilling not to go and do my job. That is really important.
I also speak as someone whose mother-in-law was in a home with dementia. Again, I am not a scientist or doctor, but it is pretty clear that although dementia was cited as the cause of death on her death certificate, lockdown reduced her to a catatonic state because of the lack of stimulation. That does not mean that I think lockdown should not have happened, because the reality is that we cannot look at individual relatives or individual circumstances. We have to look at society in the round and make the best public health decisions, based on the scientific advice given across the UK and Europe, in order to protect the people we seek to represent.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful argument. One of the points that has been raised, which is part of the broader debate, is that we saw what was happening in China and Italy. People in Britain were already voluntarily choosing to restrict their activities and restrict going into work—
Order. I gently remind both speakers that we are talking about the economic impact of covid lockdowns. I also remind the hon. Lady that the shadow Minister and Minister have yet to speak, and I would like to allow at least a couple of minutes for the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) to sum up. Please bear that in mind.
Thank you, Mrs Murray; I will curtail my comments. The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) has made his point, but we need to move on in the light of the comments from the Chair.
I do not think the hon. Gentleman used the name of the country, but Sweden took a different approach to lockdown. However, the House of Commons Library has done some work on the issue and has pointed out that, although there was reduced economic activity as a result of lockdown, as we would all expect, it is likely that had lockdown not been implemented—a number of Members have been critical of lockdown—people would probably have reduced their social contacts voluntarily anyway, as they did in Sweden.
We will never to what extent that may or may not have happened, and we cannot know how the virus would have evolved had we not had lockdown. We could have found ourselves in a different situation all together. People can say, “At the time, I knew this and I knew that,” but the reality is that we do not know what the outcome would have been if the Governments across the UK had taken an entirely different approach. The impact could have been even greater than that which we suffered.
Everybody understands the effect of lockdown on education, on social contact and—it has not been mentioned—on mental health, but we were faced with an unprecedented situation in which we had to act at speed and try to take the pressure off the NHS. The right hon. Member for East Antrim said that people who supported lockdown want to forget it and act like it did not happen, but we cannot forget the context in which we were living. It was a time of great uncertainty, great fear and lots of unknowables, and we had to respond. I know that a number of Members are attacking the Government, and it is not often that I defend them, but this is not about the Government. This is about public safety and public health.
Businesses have struggled through lockdown, which was considered necessary at the time, and many have managed to survive and cling on to their livelihoods. They are now going through another wave of unprecedented difficulties. If the Government do not offer additional long-term support to businesses on energy costs, the initial money they invested to keep businesses afloat will have been wasted, because the very idea of that investment was to save businesses and jobs—that is what the investment was for. If the energy support is not sufficient, those jobs will disappear anyway, so the initial funding during covid will have been to no purpose. I want the Minister to think about that and comment on it when summing up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) on securing the debate, and thank hon. Members for their contributions. I am glad we have the opportunity to discuss this issue; I agree with the right hon. Lady that we need to have these frank and difficult discussions. The pandemic had a deep financial, economic impact. It is important to think about the future, and how we can grow our economy and improve living standards.
I was elected in December 2019, before the pandemic hit. I then saw at close hand the impact on people’s livelihoods and wellbeing, and I know that people are still struggling. A lot has happened since covid-19 first reached the UK: not one, but two toppled Governments; two Prime Ministers; the scandal of Downing Street Christmas parties; and more than 50 people issued with fixed penalty notices, including the current Prime Minister.
I want to take us back to 2020. On 23 January, the Foreign Office advised against all but essential travel to Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the outbreak. The first case of covid-19 in the UK was confirmed on 30 January, with cases steadily rising over the following weeks. On 6 March, the then Prime Minister said, during a visit to a lab in Bedfordshire,
“It looks to me as though there will be a substantial period of disruption when we have to deal with this outbreak.”
It was not until 23 March that the Prime Minister announced a lockdown—the introduction of new restrictions on everyday life and travel. We know that the delay in taking that decision risked many lives, harmed our economy and prolonged the pain. For the next 16 months, the Government yo-yoed in and out of lockdowns and new restrictions, with much dither and delay.
Some members of the Government thought it might be best to let the virus rip. The result was unclear messaging, decisions taken too late, and a death rate that was too high. The Government were too slow to lock down in March 2020, too slow to protect our care homes, too slow to save jobs and businesses, and too slow to get protective equipment to the frontline.
In the summer of 2020, the Government ignored warnings about the second wave. In September, a circuit breaker was introduced, against scientific advice, followed by a longer lockdown a month later. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) mentioned, in December, when the scientific advice was that national lockdown was necessary, the Government dithered for nearly two weeks and ended up cancelling Christmas at the last minute.
The current Prime Minister, who was then Chancellor, was not even in the country at that point. The Government shut down the economy at the height of the festive period, and was nowhere to be seen. He had to fly back from his California home after business leaders demanded that he plan a financial support package, following the mixed messages from Government. That indecision cost lives and livelihoods.
I pay tribute to our fantastic NHS and social care workers, without whom we would have really struggled. Many put themselves in harm’s way to slow the speed of the virus. I also pay tribute to the British people, who rose to the challenge and came together as communities to protect the most vulnerable. It was a time of national solidarity—a shared effort to face a challenge that most of us had never experienced before.
The right hon. Member for Tatton referred to the Labour party. Throughout that period, the Labour party called for quicker decision making and measures to protect jobs and businesses. The Government could have been provided targeted support for the hardest-hit sectors, fixed sick pay and eased the burden of business rates, whether that was on high street businesses, arts venues, café or hairdressers. So many businesses suffered from the lack of clear communication and decisive action.
We know that we were not all in it together. When much of the country was struggling, No. 10 was hosting parties. Sue Gray’s independent report said that senior leadership in No. 10
“must bear responsibility for this culture.”
“At least some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart”—
Order. I gently remind the shadow Minister that we are supposed to be debating the economic impact of the covid-19 lockdowns.
Thank you, Mrs Murray, but I do think this is important because, while we were going through the economic crisis, this is what was happening. This is what we need to look into when we learn lessons for the future.
Order. We are debating the economic impact of the covid-19 lockdowns.
I will take your comments on board, Mrs Murray.
We know that the impacts of covid-19—particularly the economic impacts—run deeper. Just this month, new information has been revealed detailing how some people, including a Tory peer, sought to use covid-19 and lockdowns for their own benefit. PPE Medpro was given £230 million in Government contracts after a referral to the VIP fast lane by a Tory peer. The extent of her involvement in PPE Medpro has now come to light, and tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money ended up in offshore accounts. The protective equipment produced by PPE Medpro was substandard: 25 million surgical gowns, which cost the taxpayer £122 million, were rejected by the Department of Health and Social Care after technical inspection because they were completely unusable. We also know that £6.7 billion was wasted on covid payments to businesses and individuals fraudulently or by mistake.
The economic impact of covid-19 lockdowns was immense, and was exacerbated by dither and delay in Downing Street, and hard-working businesses, families and individuals suffered as a result. It has left us with an economy that lags behind the pack. Wages are lower in 2022 in real terms than when the Tories came to power in 2010, and business investment is 8% below its pre-pandemic peak. The mini Budget from the short-lived Prime Minister and Chancellor crashed our economy.
The economic facts speak for themselves. We are now the only G7 economy that is smaller than it was before the pandemic. Other countries are still dealing with the economic impacts of covid-19, but we are doing worse. We are at the back of the pack, lagging far behind. The Chancellor said he wants to address the impacts, but again the economic facts speak for themselves.
Perhaps I am being a bit unfair to the current Chancellor and Government. They have quite a task on their hands. After all, for the 12 years in which their party has been in Government, low growth and low ambition have held our country back. What would Labour do fix the mess and grow our economy in the aftermath of covid? Back in January, we proposed a windfall tax on oil and gas giants—on the profits of rising prices and war. The Government ignored our calls and instead pressed ahead with their own windfall tax, which amounts to a huge giveaway of public money to the very oil and gas companies that are making record profits. Under the scheme, some oil and gas companies will pay zero tax this year, despite record global profits.
I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady. Some of us who turned up to Parliament during that terrible time voted against the Government’s proposals. I think I voted against every single Government restriction except one. The hon. Lady and her party, I think, voted for them all. There is a bit of complicity here: if somebody’s hands are on the steering wheel and they keep driving in one direction, it is hard for them to say in hindsight, “Something different should have been done.” This grates on me just a little because there were opportunities all along the road to say, “There’s a different course of action that can be taken here.”
I want to be clear that the Labour party did raise concerns throughout the pandemic that the Government were not looking at the scientific advice, and they took late action to address and deal with it.
To conclude, as we look to recover from the pandemic, we need an ambitious plan for growth. That is what Labour has presented and that is what we will champion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and it is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare).
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) on securing this debate and on her ongoing work in this domain. We have had a wide-ranging debate. I will not respond to every point as many of them are for the inquiry chairman, Baroness Hallett, to answer. Members should be reassured that, within scope, she will look at the points they raised about the scientific and public health advice and the impact on health outcomes, education and civil liberties.
My right hon. Friend was quite right to lament the fact that we in Parliament did not have the opportunity to ask questions at the time. It is to her credit that she continues to bring back this issue so we can learn the lessons of lockdown, which she rightly referred to as a blunt instrument. I am sure that no Member would wish it to be repeated. She was also right to remind us that under Labour lockdowns would have been longer and more costly.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not, because I would like to respond to as many points as possible. We have had a long debate about a wide-ranging set of consequences. We heard the hon. Lady’s perspective and, indeed, to the extent that it had a critique and a narrative it was that we did not lock down deeper, harder and for longer.
Will the Minister give way on that point?
No, I have made it clear that I will not be giving way.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) mentioned the impact on the hospitality sector. I represent a constituency with a significant hospitality sector, and we know that the sector was affected disproportionately during the lockdown. He and other Members understandably raised the ongoing impact of covid. One or two Members, although perhaps not enough, also mentioned the impact of the war in Ukraine, and I thank those who did for putting it in the right context. My hon. Friend raised the issue of one hospitality business in his constituency the energy bills of which have gone from £16,000 to £60,000 per month. Clearly, he is looking at the issues that people are facing, and we hear that.
The economic priority during the pandemic was to stave off an economic depression, mass unemployment and the potential for rapidly deteriorating living standards. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton talked about GDP falling to its lowest level since 1709. We are fortunate that the economy is now growing, thanks not only to the productive and entrepreneurial nature of the British people but to the unprecedented level of support provided. Ours was one of the fastest growing economies in recent years and that continues to be the case, and we came out of lockdown earlier than many other countries.
As all Members recognise, the attempt to limit the spread of the virus did mean the implementation of restrictions. Alongside those restrictions, the Government provided support for individuals, families and businesses throughout the country that were impacted by the virus. The two things went hand in hand. The Government could not manage that unprecedented situation. It is easy with hindsight—we have talked a lot about hindsight —and many Members have empathised with that.
I am grateful for the support from the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who made some fair points about the uncertainty that was faced and the difficultly of the decisions. It is my belief that they were made in good faith and tried to do the best to protect people and the economy. We cannot know, but there is at least the possibility, which the hon. Lady raised, that the impacts could have been worse if it was not for the financial support in particular that was provided, along with the other measures.
For all too short a time I served alongside the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) on the Science and Technology Committee. He was a ferocious interrogator and—if I may say so—very wise in the early, almost contemporaneous analysis of the scientific advice. His contribution was largely about the scientific advice, so I hope he will forgive me if I do not respond more fully to him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) reiterated how vital it is that we do not lock down Parliament again, and I support him in that. Lessons will be learned and must have been learned. We here all have a voice. The reason why we are here today is because we have a voice to protect our constituents and to protect the economy from the ravages of things such as the pandemic.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West also talked about the compounding effect, not just of the pandemic. I am the first to acknowledge that the pandemic has an ongoing impact on the economy. The right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) talked about “economic long covid”, which is certainly part of the context in which we sit today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West reminded us that at that time nobody anticipated—as I think he put it—Europe’s biggest oil producer invading Europe’s biggest food producer. That is one reason why the Government have once again come forward with an unprecedented level of support to get people through the winter and the energy crisis that we now face, with the same objectives as the generous support that was provided during the pandemic.
Along with other major economies, the UK is in the midst of a cost of living challenge that has been caused by global inflation as a result of the disruption of supply chains, as well as the increase in energy prices. This is a global challenge and we still see higher inflation in Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. We are acutely aware of the pressures that households and businesses face. Several Members said that having been so successful in protecting the economy, jobs and businesses, it is clearly vital—this is a shared objective of Government—that we continue to do so again this winter.
Going forward, we will continue to place our people and our businesses at the heart of our policies. We are happy to make interventions, and as we debate the economic consequences of covid that is something we can all take forward.
I call Esther McVey, with one minute to wind up.
I thank everybody for such a constructive debate, which was the start of our being able to look at the cost of lockdown in an open-minded way—being able to take challenge, being able to take rebuttals and answering things as honestly as possible—because when £400 billion is spent, we know that cannot be done without having long-term impacts.
We see the impact in the vulnerability of our country now—in the cost of living, the cost of jobs, the cost of inflation and the cost of poverty. We heard about the cost in terms of our health and our mental health. We should think before we ever introduce such profound policies again, particularly when the World Health Organisation and the Department of Health and Social Care have conceded that we should not use lockdowns because they are such a blunt instrument. We can never live in an atmosphere where just to ask questions is condemned. I thank everybody for participating in the debate.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Blackpool: Levelling Up
I call Scott Benton to move the motion. I will then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention with 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Blackpool and levelling up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and to open this debate on levelling up in Blackpool. What is levelling up? Ask the vast majority of British people and, although everybody will have heard of the term, very few will be able to articulate exactly what it is. I suspect that if we asked Conservative MPs, who were elected on a manifesto pledge to level up, we would get 350 different answers on what exactly the term means.
For me, levelling up means a child growing up in Blackpool having exactly the same life chances as a child growing up in Bracknell, Bournemouth, Brighton or anywhere else in the country. There is also a second element to levelling up. It is not just an intergenerational challenge, which takes time; there is also the fact that people love and value their communities and want to see them change, which, of course, requires an instant big bang. The Government’s capital investment programme, levelling-up funds and so on have been so important to address that challenge.
Regional disparities, including those in the north-west and Blackpool particularly, have persisted for far too long. It is fair to say that towns, disproportionately in the north and midlands, have been forgotten by Governments going back a number of decades—but no more. It makes me proud to be a Government Member: this Government are probably the first in history to take levelling up seriously and invest to such an extent in communities such as mine in Blackpool. Sadly, we are top of the list of the communities most in need of levelling up, according to most metrics. That is clearly a place that Blackpool does not want to be. It is something that all stakeholders in the town are trying desperately to address.
Blackpool’s tourism board, Visit Blackpool, probably will not thank me for doing this, but let me illustrate the context of the challenges we face in Blackpool and why we require Government support to try to turn our resort around. According to the multiple deprivation index, we are the most deprived local authority in England. Eight of the top 10 most deprived communities in the whole of England are in Blackpool, including six in my constituency. We have the worst life expectancy in the UK, with life expectancy three years lower on average; however, in the most deprived parts of my constituency and that of my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), it is 12 years lower on average than the national average.
We have the highest rate of drug-related deaths in the whole of England and we are among the top five most dangerous towns. We have the largest child learning gap, the third highest proportion of obesity among adults and the sixth highest teenage pregnancy rate in England. That is quite a list—I hope it illustrates the need for Government support in Blackpool going forward. However, we have very strong communities and a brilliant, thriving voluntary sector, all of whom work with stakeholders—not least Blackpool Council—to try to turn the situation around.
My hon. Friend is setting out a compelling picture of the challenges in Blackpool. Will he join me in praising Business in the Community for the work it has done through Pride of Place to pull together a coherent plan to address the issues he has raised? Will he also join me in urging the Government to reinstate the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Blackpool, which brought together Ministers to address each specific challenge in our town? We need that back now that we have a new Government.
I agree with both points—not just the Business in the Community aspect but the wider policy ask. Following my hon. Friend’s intervention, it would be remiss of me not to highlight the contributions of not just local groups but big businesses in Blackpool, which employ thousands of people and really do put their money where their mouth is when it comes to regeneration. I particularly want to mention people such as Kate Shane and Amanda Thompson, who need a special thanks in that regard.
Although the challenges are stark in Blackpool, it would be remiss of me not to point out the tremendous support received not only from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities but from the Government as a whole since I was elected in 2019. With your indulgence, Mrs Murray, I will read out a compelling but lengthy list of the investment that we have received in Blackpool since 2019.
We have one of the largest town deals in the country, worth 39.5 million, which has been spent on a plethora of different projects, from upgrading the illuminations to the new multiversity, with investment and jobs created at the enterprise zone and a new Revoe sports village. Only two weeks ago the Department gave Blackpool £40 million to relocate the court complex, which will allow a £300 million private sector-led development to go ahead. That creates 1,000 new jobs and pumps £75 million into the economy every single year.
Within weeks of my being elected, we received £8.6 million for the future high streets fund, which is being spent on Abingdon Street market and upgrades at the Houndshill centre. The Government are relocating 3,000 civil service jobs to Blackpool, and that will inject an ongoing £1 million into our local town centre. We have also seen £2.9 million to upgrade the winter gardens and £1 million for the high street action zone, which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys and I saw at first hand only on Friday, and we have received £650,000 for a homes-led regeneration study of housing projects in Blackpool—a point I will touch on later.
In education spending, £10 million has been spent on the opportunity area, and there is £8.7 million of other educational investment over and above the revenue from the direct grant to schools coming into Blackpool. The Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has had £67 million of its debt written off, which means that money can now be spent on servicing patients rather than servicing a debt, and we have a brand-new £25 million upgrade to A&E occurring at the moment.
On transport, we have £20 million for electric buses, £9 million for bus and light rail projects, and £500,000 for the active travel grant. Project ADDER will receive a £1.9 million investment to tackle antisocial behaviour and serious drug crime in Blackpool, £1.1 million for the youth offending team to help get troubled youngsters off our streets, £550,000 for the safer streets fund, and £400,000 to help to address violence against women and girls—a horrific crime in our community. The Minister will be pleased to hear I am nearly at the end of the list, but I hope he can indulge me slightly longer.
The culture recovery fund saw £4.8 million spent on our brilliant Blackpool Grand Theatre and upgrades to the Blackpool Tower Ballroom, where we saw “Strictly” only last week. There was a bid for £12 million for flood defences on our sea walls. We had £80,000 for the changing places fund, £800,000 for the rough sleeping initiative and £1.7 million for the hardship fund.
There has been £237 million of extra investment in Blackpool since I was elected at the 2019 general election. If we include the support throughout the pandemic, that rises to £409 million of extra Government investment, over and above what we give to the local authority and spend on health and education, since 2019. Yet some people in the community question the Government’s commitment to levelling up and question the funding we have had. I hope those figures illustrate the tremendous support that the Government have given to Blackpool over the past few years.
Of course, Blackpool being Blackpool, as much as we have valued that £237 million investment there is always more that we can do, given the extent of the challenges. I know I have been speaking for a while, but I have two or three quick asks of the Government.
The biggest challenge that Blackpool faces, and the reason we are at the level we are in terms of social characteristics and demography, is the housing issue in Blackpool. The Secretary of State has been a bit of a trailblazer in recognising that. If we can tackle some of the grot-spots and the awful conditions in the private sector rental market, it will invariably improve people’s life chances. That is why the £30 million ask for housing-led regeneration in Blackpool is so important. It would be spent on upgrading Bond Street, Waterloo Road, Revoe and the Claremont area. The Government have already committed to a £600,000 feasibility study on that. Improving people’s housing conditions in those areas would be transformative, not just for the next few years but for generations ahead in Blackpool. I know that the Minister is very much aware of that—I spoke to her about it several days ago—and I look forward to meeting her and the Secretary of State once the feasibility process has been considered and concluded in January.
The Minister will not be surprised to hear that my second ask is Blackpool’s £63 million levelling-up fund. Of the £63 million, £40 million would go to the multiversity, which will invariably and conclusively improve people’s life chances, skills and opportunities to face the challenges of the future in Blackpool; £8 million would go to converting the former post office building on Abingdon Street into a brand new five-star hotel, which would completely regenerate that part of the town centre; and £15 million would go on a town centre access scheme.
Those are the two things on which I and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys are looking for support. In the last few seconds, it would be remiss of me not to mention two non-Departmental asks. One is upgrading and implementing a passing loop on the South Fylde line, which would double the number of trains that come into Blackpool every single hour. That train line services a pleasure beach—the UK’s second most visited tourist attraction—and the upgrade would improve its ability to get visitors in on busy summer days. The second is returning commercial passenger flights to Blackpool airport, which has been my main campaign since 2019. The Government have a brilliant record to sell on regional aviation. We have halved air passenger duty, we are looking to subsidise public service obligation routes, and we have the Union connectivity review. All of that has changed the landscape of regional aviation in this country, but we need support from Blackpool Council to get Blackpool flying once again. The council owns the airport and has the ability to take commercial passenger flights seriously.
The Minister and Members have indulged me long enough. I thank the Department for the superb support it has provided to our town so far. There is always more we can do—hence the distinct asks of the Minister and the Department—but I look forward to continuing to work with the Minister over the coming weeks to address some of the challenges.
May I start by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Murray? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) both on securing the debate and, more importantly, on giving such an impassioned speech. It is clear that he is a tremendous representative for Blackpool, as is our hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard)—what a team! I reflect on the numbers that were mentioned: £237 million in additional funding for Blackpool and, including the support under covid, an additional £409 million. That is a record of which both Members of Parliament should be very proud. I must say that I am rather envious.
We are here today to talk about very important matters: the significant challenges and opportunities that Blackpool faces. I am grateful to speak on the Government’s levelling-up agenda, which is our ambition to spread investment, growth and opportunity across the UK to those towns, cities and areas that have been overlooked by successive Governments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South rightly points out, Blackpool is a town with significant strengths and potential. There are almost 19 million visitors to Blackpool a year, and the tourism economy is worth more than £1.4 billion. Despite these strengths, we know that for too long Blackpool has been held back by deeply entrenched problems, and my hon. Friend listed many statistics showing the level of deprivation and the issues in health, local housing and living standards.
That is why the Government have been working in partnership with both Members of Parliament for Blackpool on the transformational regeneration of the town, supporting their vision for Blackpool to become a leading UK tourism destination and a good place to live and work, with improved jobs, housing and skills. Today, I am delighted to be able to talk about some of the successes we have seen and what we have achieved, and I will look to address the particular points that my hon. Friends raised.
To that end, I was delighted that earlier this month the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), announced £40 million in funding for the relocation of the magistrates and county courts. Anyone familiar with Blackpool knows that the aging, outdated courts complex has persisted for decades. It was not only blighting the town but occupying land that had been earmarked for major commercial redevelopment. I am pleased that, working together with the Ministry of Justice, £40 million of funding is being used to create a new state-of-the-art court elsewhere in the town.
That means the Ministry of Justice can finally leave the outdated courts complex, freeing up the land to be redeveloped and enabling the growth-spurring regeneration scheme to go ahead as planned. That will create up to 1,000 new local jobs, while attracting an estimated 600,000 more visitors to the seaside town each year. What is more, the judicial system and its employees will be much better served by a modern, efficient new courts building.
That is not the only way that the Government are working with Blackpool to bring fresh investment and new job opportunities to the town. As part of our ambition to bring policy makers closer to the communities they serve, the Department for Work and Pensions and Blackpool Council will be constructing a new service hub in the centre of Blackpool. It will be home to up to 3,000 civil servants and only a short walk from Blackpool North station, in an area that is seeing a cluster of new developments, which promise to be transformative for the town.
It is also worth noting, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South did, that Blackpool is benefiting from just shy of £40 million of investment from our towns fund, which is being spent on a host of job-creating, tourism-boosting projects. As my hon. Friend will know, that includes rejuvenating the illuminations in order to attract more visitors to the town in the autumn and winter period, and support for a youth hub, giving more young people in the town vital access to jobs and training. To cater for businesses that are adopting hybrid models of working in the post-covid economy, the funding will also support the development of flexible managed workspace in Blackpool town centre.
My hon. Friend stressed the importance of housing. As Minister for housing and homelessness, I completely concur with him. I want the same level of ambition for Blackpool’s economy to be mirrored in improving the housing provision. At the moment, too many homes in Blackpool do not provide the safe and secure accommodation that residents expect or deserve. If we are truly to tackle deprivation and unlock Blackpool’s economic potential, we need to provide a wide range of quality homes across the public and private sectors—homes that cater for people at different stages of their lives. That is why, in March, we announced that Homes England, the Government’s housing accelerator, would work closely with the council to develop a transformative plan for reshaping the town, backed by £650,000 of new funding. I am pleased that that work is coming on in leaps and bounds, and my Department looks forward to examining the proposals when they are finished in the new year. Once we have seen them, we will sit down with my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool South and for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, and I look forward to that conversation; it is clear that there is work to be done on housing in Blackpool.
To ensure that everyone has somewhere safe that they can call a home, we need to tackle rogue landlords both in Blackpool and elsewhere. We plan to do that with our reform of the private rented sector. I know that the Housing Secretary is very committed to that, and I am glad that my Department is already working with our partners to toughen enforcement on the minority of landlords who consistently break the rules.
Alongside our work with Homes England, in Blackpool we have announced £1.26 million of funding for an expanded local enforcement team, which will continue to take tough action against those who are not meeting existing standards, while proactively measuring landlords against the proposed future national standards. This enhanced inspection regime will tackle exploitation in the local private rented sector, driving up housing quality while protecting the most vulnerable. It will sit alongside a series of further pilots in other locations announced last week by the Secretary of State, to test ways of improving enforcement in the sector.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South talked about education and skills, which are clearly critical in Blackpool. The Government are exploring innovative ways of helping people get into work and build their skills through three pathfinder places, one of which is Blackpool. The idea behind the pathfinders is to bring together local delivery partners in skills and education to look at what skills local employers are looking for and how we most effectively build that skills base locally. This will ensure that the support available to people is more targeted and more relevant.
My hon. Friend asked about the levelling-up fund. I am sure he will appreciate that bids are currently being reviewed and I cannot comment on specific bids, but we will have clarity before the end of the year. I wish him and Blackpool every success with the bid. He talks passionately about it, and I am sure it is a good bid.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys asked about the Cabinet Sub-Committee. I want to reassure him that Blackpool will continue to benefit from cross-ministerial deep dive and working together. Blackpool is a big priority of Government.
I finish by thanking everyone for their contributions today, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South for securing the debate. It is a powerful reminder of how individual MPs can make such a difference to their constituencies, and Blackpool is fortunate to have these two MPs. I keep on coming back to the amount of Government investment that they have secured in their town. While I recognise that there are significant challenges in Blackpool, I believe that if local MPs and central Government work together with key local stakeholders, businesses and the council, we really can make a difference in Blackpool, leverage its unique strengths and restore pride to the town, so we can truly say that Blackpool is being levelled up and that people are proud and happy to work and live there. I commend both my hon. Friends.
Question put and agreed to.
Disposable Vapes: Environmental Impact
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the environmental impact of disposable vapes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Murray, and I am pleased to bring the debate to this chamber. I am here because of a conversation with a young woman called Laura Young. She is a former constituent who recently moved away to study, but I am glad I have kept in touch with her on environmental matters, including this one. Laura is what I would describe as a climate influencer. I am not sure whether that is how she would describe herself, but to me that is a good explanation of what she does. She is a very well informed, influential young woman who is making a measurable difference to our environment. I am glad to work with her on this issue and I am interested in what she is doing more broadly.
Laura explained to me that she had increasingly been finding cast-off disposable vapes when she was out and about. That could be in town centres, when she was walking her dog in Rouken Glen park or wherever she was. As she mentioned this to other people, they reported that they could not believe how many of these cast-off disposable vapes were in their areas, whether urban, rural or coastal. The issue is everywhere and has arrived at speed.
These vaping products can last in the environment for many years, so it is important that we ensure that they are disposed of correctly, rather than thinking that it is fine to leave them on our pavements, in our parks or on our seafronts. The products are made from three key parts: the battery, the pod and the coil. In theory, consumers should dispose of them at household recycling centres or at the shop where they bought the device. That is simply not what happens, and it is not realistic. Who expects people to arrive at their local recycling centre with their finished vapes? Many people are simply unaware of what is meant to happen. It is clear that there is a significant issue that we should deal with. A recent study suggests that more than half are just thrown in the bin.
Because of the conversations that I have had with Laura, I am one of those people who spots these vapes. Wherever I go, I see them lying around on the ground. It is clear that a big chunk of those that do not end up in the bin are just thrown away on the ground. I have spoken to others who agree that once they have become aware of vapes, it is impossible not to see them. I see them in my constituency, in London and everywhere else. The proliferation of this new kind of waste is quickly becoming a reality and a concern.
This is a new thing. To illustrate the changing profile, I understand that Keep Scotland Beautiful and the Marine Conservation Society have this year added the category of disposable vapes to the list of litter that people collect from beaches when they do beach cleans. I have heard of a waste display, which is part of an installation at the V&A in Dundee. It involves waste from beaches, including Carnoustie beach. I basically grew up on that beach, so it feels quite close to home for me. The big display of waste that has been collected by local children shows the sheer number of disposable vapes that are now being found on the seafront, as well as in the other places I have spoken about.
The situation is developing and moving apace. Figures suggest that the number of people vaping in Britain has reached 4.3 million—a record level. It seems that 8.3% of adults in England, Wales and Scotland vape, up from 1.7% a decade ago. According to research by Material Focus, at least 1.3 million disposable vapes are thrown away every week. That is two every second—a huge number. An estimated 13.6 million disposable vapes are bought in Scotland annually.
Given those really big numbers, it matters on a whole host of fronts that we stop to have a serious think about this and a serious discussion about what it means. First, on health—I want to get this issue out of the way right at the beginning—I absolutely support any and all efforts that people are making to stop smoking. It is really important that they are supported and are able to sustain a move away from smoking. I realise that vapes are not part of NHS-supported smoking cessation programmes, but many people use them as part of that journey, and I wish them all the best in their endeavours to stop smoking.
I know it is very hard to stop smoking. I am not an expert on that, but ASH—Action on Smoking and Health—is, and it has been clear about several issues in this area. It has pointed towards a range of things that we should be thinking about, including the reality that the production of disposable vapes is a commercial endeavour and that promoting novel products is one clear way that the tobacco industry is reaching out to future generations of potential consumers. It also points out that young people who try vapes are at a much higher risk of nicotine addiction and of later using tobacco. That is a prospect that we all want our children to avoid, knowing that smoking is the direct cause of 16% of all deaths in Scotland. ASH also notes that the World Health Organisation has expressed concern that children who use these products are up to three times more likely to use tobacco products in the future.
Understandably, ASH welcomes the recent publication of the Scottish Government’s consultation on tightening rules on advertising and promoting vaping products as an important step towards protecting the health of children, young people and non-smoking adults in Scotland, and it notes the importance of further action on restricting advertising. That is important, because a survey by YouGov and ASH found that the percentage of children who had tried vaping had risen to 16% by 2022. In August, “STV News” revealed that hundreds of vapes have been confiscated from high school pupils in recent years.
The vaping market as a whole in the UK is worth more than £1 billion a year, and more than half of children who vape say that disposables are their preferred product. The most popular brand is the Chinese product Elf Bar. In July, an investigation by The Observer found Elf Bar flouting rules to promote its products to young people in Britain—for instance, via TikTok influencers. Despite the fact that legally a person has to be over 18 to purchase these products, the reality is that they are easy to get hold of, attractive and brightly coloured, and they have fruity flavours. They are designed to be attractive in a way that young people will be interested in.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. There is no doubt that this is an issue, but vaping has saved thousands of lives in this country. The more we can encourage smokers to move from tobacco on to vaping, the more lives will be saved. I would like to impress on the hon. Lady how important it is in a debate such as this that we do not tarnish the reputation of vaping to the point where we put off smokers from switching over to it, which has to be a positive thing.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because it reinforces one of my earlier points. I absolutely support any and all attempts to stop smoking, and all supports that assist people. That is really important. We all know the harm that tobacco does, but I point the hon. Gentleman to the comments I have cited from bodies such as the World Health Organisation, which has concerns about the road to tobacco.
We need a nuanced approach. For instance, I would be interested in having a further conversation and seeing more research on vapes that are not disposable. I think that is a conversation worth having. I am not here to say that no one should ever use vapes; that is absolutely not my aim. My aim is to look specifically at disposable vapes and ask whether we are travelling down the right path.
We have heard about the number of young people who are vaping and the concerns about the move to tobacco, which the hon. Gentleman and I are both very concerned about because of the health implications. Are we really expecting the same young people to have a disposable vape, use it and then get themselves to a recycling centre, so that they can properly dispose of them? To me, that seems somewhat unlikely, to say the least. It is really important that we try to separate the two issues, because they are both really important, and all discussions about smoking cessation should be serious and taken seriously.
In addition to the disposal of such vapes, which I will come to a little later, we should obviously be concerned by their acquisition and use in the first place. I am really concerned and perplexed—this is perhaps a sign of my age—by reports of younger people who have never smoked but are now vaping. I just do not understand that, because I am not a young person, but I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I would agree that this is not the direction of travel that we want to see. We want people to stop smoking, to be supported to do that, and not to move in a different direction.
As I said, I am not here today to take issue with vaping per se. I would like to see more research into the topic as a whole, but I am suggesting that having far fewer disposable vapes is going to be an immediate necessity, because of the damaging waste that is being created by the use of these devices. Reusable vapes might fill some of the gaps, should that be necessary, but I am really concerned about the environmental impact of the disposable vape industry, and there is a bit of a vacuum where there should be scrutiny on that topic. Regardless of our various views on the issue, we would probably all accept that having a bit of scrutiny would be sensible.
I recently used a written parliamentary question to ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what assessment had been made of the environmental impact of vaping products. The answer was none—no environmental assessment at all. Nobody who has seen the sheer quantity of cast-off disposable vapes will think that is acceptable. I do not think that is okay, and we need to up our game quickly. Disposable vapes are fundamentally electrical items, and they contain precious metals such as lithium. We should know in this day and age that lithium is a critical material for our green transition, but it is simply going to waste in devices that are not being disposed of properly.
Disposable vapes are also another unnecessary single use of plastic, which is a material that, along with the batteries and the nicotine that disposable vapes contain, is hazardous to the environment and wildlife when littered. I have heard numerous reports of pets and wildlife in marine areas being affected by this new type of plastic waste. According to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, if a battery is disposed of incorrectly—remember that almost all of them are disposed of incorrectly—heavy metals might leak into the ground when the battery casing corrodes. That can cause soil and water pollution, and it can endanger wildlife and human health. Again, most of the vapes are disposed of incorrectly, so this is not a theoretical issue.
I am grateful to the UK Vaping Industry Association for getting in touch with me when it learned that I had secured this debate, and it made some valid points about how some people successfully stop smoking via vaping, as we have heard, and I do not take away from that in any way. However, I was a bit disappointed by the argument that under-age concerns are not exclusive to vapes. I agree with that—it is absolutely true—but I do not think that is really the point, and it cannot be the case that we cannot look for urgent action because it could put people off stopping smoking. It cannot be beyond us both to support smoking cessation in a practical and meaningful way, and to stop making such a colossal mess of the planet.
In all of this, there must be a really important role for manufacturers, and the industry as a whole, in pushing forward better ways to operate. They do not need to wait for someone to make them do the right thing; they could do the right thing and do better right now, and I am sure we would all be very grateful. I was surprised to hear comments from the vape manufacturer Riot on a recent BBC Radio 5 Live show. When pressed about the actual rate of recycling of its products, its representative said that it was in fractions of 1%. I absolutely respect the company for taking the time to engage with this discussion, which is really important, but that tiny wee recycling rate is the reality.
That is the crux of the problem, why we are having the debate and why we are seeing all these things lying around. People are simply not recycling them because it is too hard, because they do not know how, and because the things are not ideally set up to be recycled. We have to be realistic about that. We just about need a degree in vape decommissioning to work out what to do, where to go and how to go about it. Dealing properly with what are meant to be disposable items of convenience—that is their unique selling point—is actually a monumental inconvenience to their users. Manufacturers know that, but they seem much more interested in making sales than stopping the obvious waste issues that arise from them.
To get an idea of what we are talking about, at the moment the discarded disposables mean that 10 tonnes of lithium are sent to landfill every year. We must remember that this is a growing market and that those are only the bits that are being sent to landfill, not the bits that are being thrown around the place. That is already at a level equivalent to the lithium batteries inside 1,200 electric vehicles.
Concerns are also growing about what that means more broadly. Some people suggest that the material is likely to contribute to fires at landfill sites, so a range of investigations needs to take place. Indeed, it is no wonder that 18 groups that advocate on environmental and health issues recently wrote an open letter to the UK Government, published by Green Alliance, looking for a ban on disposable vapes. I am grateful to all the organisations, which include Surfers Against Sewage, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Wildlife and Countryside Link and others. It is really important that we look at the matter. We need to very seriously take on board the points those organisations make about the importance of not squandering our precious resources, such as lithium, in such a cavalier and unthinking way.
The organisations are also correct that there is “a huge waste issue” associated with disposable vapes. In Scotland, we are moving towards a circular economy and a waste-free society. We have ambitious targets for recycling, but as part of that, specific guidance on how to recycle vapes is increasingly vital. What will the UK Government do to make the whole process easier? I know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that the UK Government will set out plans for reforming the existing waste electrical and electronic equipment regulations “in due course”. “In due course” needs to come now, because there is a clear and significant environmental impact, there is uncertainty and confusion, and that allows concerted inaction on the issue to take root. What are the UK Government doing to help be part of and drive forward the conversation on how vaping markets are targeting our young people? How are we going to act on plastic waste and pollution and on the failure of any proper recycling strategy for lithium batteries?
Failure to act means we are knowingly causing damage to our environment. It means that precious resources, such as lithium, which are finite and dangerous when disposed of improperly are not being properly managed. The situation has arrived at pace; it has all come upon us quite quickly. However, we need to deal with it in the same way. We need to get a move on and try and work out the best way forward for the planet and the people who use vapes. We either sort the situation out so disposable vapes are really disposable, with proper recycling not only theoretically possible but practically happening, or we get rid of them altogether. None of us can afford for things to carry on as they are.
I did not intend to speak so I apologise, Mrs Murray, for catching you unawares and for not informing the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) that I was going to speak. I found her speech fascinating, so I did not want to continuously interrupt it with endless interventions. I do not agree with all her points, but she highlights a general issue with littering and plastic wastage, with everything from pens to phones and so on getting irresponsibly dumped, that then ends up causing pollution. I accept that there is an additional issue with the lithium batteries in vapes and how we deal with that.
Although I do not claim to be an expert in vaping, I argue it is a positive thing to move people away from smoking tobacco and over to vaping. The organisations the hon. Lady mentioned, such as ASH, the British Heart Foundation and Asthma + Lung UK, have all said that it is 95% risk free. That has to be a good thing. Moving people away from tobacco and giving them the option of vaping is a really positive thing that the Government could embrace more than it has previously. We are not bad in this country at promoting vaping, compared with many other countries where, ridiculously, it has been banned. I was slightly concerned by the comment, which the hon. Lady made at the end of her speech, that we should perhaps get rid of some disposable vaping devices. I would wholeheartedly oppose that because, although there is an issue with the disposal of these disposable vaping devices, to put people off vaping and maybe encourage them to go back to smoking would be a retrograde step.
I remember that when I was at school there were children who opted for tobacco, and cigarettes were common when I was growing up in the 1980s. I was one of the smokers behind the bike sheds myself. Although we do not want any children under the age of 18 vaping and we do not want non-smokers vaping, there will always be a forbidden fruit, unfortunately, when it comes to children. If you could have tobacco or vaping as that forbidden fruit, which would you prefer? You would prefer to have neither and I accept that, but vaping is 95% risk free. That is far better than when I was a child in the 1980s and so many children chose to smoke.
Thinking back to the 1980s—the hon. Gentleman and I must be of a similar vintage—I absolutely recognise what he is saying but I would point him back to what I said earlier about the WHO’s concerns about vaping being a gateway to tobacco for young people. I am taking this from a briefing from ASH so, to reiterate, I absolutely support any and all means of supporting people to stop smoking, but it cannot be that it is only one or the other thing with all the personal and environmental issues that this causes.
I take her point. I do not have the statistics in front of me, but what I have seen suggests that there is not a great deal of evidence that people go from vaping on to smoking, whereas there is substantial evidence that people go from smoking on to vaping. Vaping is a far more successful way of giving up smoking that the likes of patches and chewing gum. Therefore, from a health perspective, the Government should be encouraging and promoting smokers to move on to vaping because there is far less risk associated with it.
I will draw my comments to a conclusion there. I was not intending to speak at all, but what I do not want to come out of this debate is some kind of demonisation of vaping. I know that is not the hon. Lady’s intention, but I feel that we should be recognising that vaping has its place—a very valuable place—in ensuring that we reduce the number of people dying around the world from tobacco consumption, which we all know is ridiculously dangerous for your health. Vaping has a substantially reduced risk for individuals and therefore we should embrace it. Although there certainly are improvements to be made and I am grateful that the hon. Lady has highlighted those, we should see vaping as a positive thing to help people give up smoking tobacco.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing the debate and on raising the issue of the impact of disposable vapes on the environment, which I want to speak about today. As the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) mentioned, there are other issues and concerns with vapes, such as those on smoking, but I want to address their environmental impact.
Vapes are cheap and accessible to young people and they cause significant waste problems in the environment. Coloured vapes have now become a fashion accessory for many of our youth. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for ethics and sustainability in fashion—believe it or not—I have heard at first hand that people are now matching their clothes with their vapes. We may not have considered such issues, but it means vapes are just left lying about everywhere.
First, I want to repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire said. I know that the Scottish Government are aiming to reach a zero-waste society. With the circular economy, we have a target of recycling 70% of waste by 2025, exceeding EU targets, and matching EU targets for all plastic packaging to be economically recyclable or reusable by 2030. Scotland is also a signatory to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy global commitment.
Cheap and easy-to-use disposable vapes are booming in popularity and creating a mass waste issue similar to the nurdles we all encountered and now have to deal with. Those vape waste products have now added even more to the national embarrassment of litter on our streets and cycle and canal path networks. They are even being found on mountain paths and forest trails, so people who walk in those places will start to see those things lying about in areas where they would go for their natural weekend away. If they go somewhere to relax, and come across those things, they will get more and more anxious about seeing them lying about.
All of this, in my opinion is, pitiful. Dropping litter is avoidable. In particular, it costs needless amounts of money to collect and clear up the debris from these vape pens and many other single-use products that we just discard. In fact, I might add—I put my right hand up to God and say this with all truthfulness—that when crossing a car park at night I can find my way in the dark now by following the path of the blue lights coming from the vapes. That is a stark reality. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire mentioned earlier, they are becoming visible everywhere. It is worth reiterating the stark figures that my hon. Friend mentioned: 1.3 disposable vapes are thrown away every week, equating to two vapes per second, and, as she has just said, an estimated 13.6 million disposable vapes are bought in Scotland annually. Those are scary statistics to hear.
I ask the Minister to speak with, or, indeed, whether she has spoken with, some of the relevant authorities—the devolved Parliaments, local authorities, regional Mayors, courts, judges and police—to ask if they could agree on a more meaningful deterrent. We could introduce something like an automatic three points on the driving licence of anyone who discards any of those products. I tried to introduce a measure into Parliament on that some years ago, and an awful lot of people congratulated me on the idea, but it did not actually go anywhere—I think we might have had an election in between.
We all recognise that vapes, and all the other disposable products, are causing a lot of damage to our fauna and flora, and that that is seeping into the whole food supply chain. As my hon. Friend said, it is now causing toxic waste to seep into everything around us. It is impacting the already perilous environment in which we live.
Furthermore, ASH Scotland has called for a tightening of vape ads and promotion, following its consultation report. The Association of Directors of Public Health has also called for tighter regulation to ban brightly coloured packaging and for a review of flavours likely to appeal to children. The “e” part of e-cigarettes—more specifically, the battery—is using up valuable minerals, the mining of which has led to water loss, ground destabilisation, biodiversity loss, increased salinity in our rivers, contaminated soil and toxic waste.
This place has the power to change the weaknesses in the law that allow those pitiful practices to continue. Members have made excellent points in their speeches, but I humbly suggest that serious action is needed to hasten a behavioural change to benefit our health, wealth, and wellbeing. That might mean points on driving licences, or that we change the way we advertise these products and tighten up the ads, but whatever we have to do, the Government must take action before it becomes too late, once again. I am very keen to hear from the Minister on the action she is taking to address the issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and it is good to be in Westminster Hall with colleagues for this important debate. I acknowledge the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for securing the debate and providing Members from all parties with the opportunity to address our collective responsibility to preserve our planet, protect our environment and leave a world for the next generation.
I gently suggest to the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) that he may be on the wrong tack, as new evidence is revealing that vaping is encouraging young people to get into smoking, rather than the other way around. However, before you remind me to do so, Mrs Murray, I will return to the topic in hand of the environmental impact of vapes.
We have heard today about the scourge of waste in our communities increasingly being caused by disposable vapes. We need and expect our Ministers in DEFRA to stand up and be counted. They need to give councils the resources they need to keep our communities clean and safe and I encourage Members to continue to raise this issue in seeking help, change and assistance. I assure them that Labour will act when we form the next Government if Tory Ministers fail to deliver in the coming months.
Thanks to a lost decade of Tory austerity, waste is piling up on high streets and street corners and in our green open spaces. It is being exported to some of the world’s poorest countries, where what was supposed to be recycled material ends up in landfill, polluting our oceans and being shipped back to Britain for us to deal with. That is a very real problem and it requires speedy, comprehensive and properly funded solutions.
Without question, the problems have been made worse by the increasing use of disposable vapes. Members from all parties will know, as I know the Minister does, that many of the agencies that should tackle waste and pollution are underfunded and understaffed. The Environment Agency has struggled to tackle waste crime and to monitor waste exports because of the cuts to its budget and staff numbers, and we all know the impact that austerity has had on local government.
I thank the Wildlife and Countryside Link for its very helpful briefing ahead of the debate, in which it notes that the use of vapes has surged over recent years. Those items are now ubiquitous; they are for sale on every high street and are used by millions on a daily basis. As we have already heard, they are now increasingly to be found littering the natural environment.
Research suggests that half a billion vapes are now purchased every year, with almost a fifth of UK adults having bought a vape that is either single use, rechargeable or rechargeable with a single-use chamber. Further research by Material Focus has found that 37% of people who purchased vapes in the last year bought a disposable vape, and that figure rises to 52% for 18 to 34-year-olds. Wildlife and Countryside Link says that researchers have found that since 2021 there has been more than a sevenfold increase in the proportion of 11 to 17-year-olds in the UK who use disposable vapes.
Material Focus goes on to claim that at least 1.3 million disposable vapes are thrown away every week, which equates, as we have already heard, to two vapes being thrown away every second. Around 1 million of those disposable vapes are not recycled. That is unsustainable and requires action from Ministers. I would be grateful if the Minister could outline, in precise terms, what is being done to tackle the issue.
Last week, the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), agreed with the claim that there is a risk that delay will become the default culture in DEFRA. He highlighted that the targets in the Environment Act 2021 for extended producer responsibility for textiles, fishing gear and packaging, and the deposit return scheme in England are all behind schedule. Furthermore, last week also marked a year of inaction since the Government opened consultations on bans on plastic plates and cutlery, alongside a call for evidence on a wider suite of items that could be restricted, including action on tobacco filters. There is much more to do.
The Minister will know that in England the total volume of aggregate waste increased by 12% between 2010 and 2018. Recycling must outpace the growth in consumption; it really is a simple equation. Despite the new powers on waste targets in the Environment Act 2021, I am afraid that I must remind the House that the Government have delayed the roll-out of important elements of extended producer responsibility, including the scheme administrators and fee modulation.
Actual delivery is running far behind even the relatively modest new proposed targets to reduce residual waste per capita by 50% by 2042 and to raise the current municipal recycling target of 65% by 2035 to between 70% and 75% by 2042. The inadequacies of waste collection and recycling systems mean that used compostable packaging tends to end up in landfill or incineration, or messes up recycling plants.
I do not want to irritate the Minister, but I want to talk about the Welsh Labour Government, because Wales has long been a standout performer in the United Kingdom on recycling rates and tackling waste pollution. The Welsh Labour Government’s £1 billion investment in household recycling since devolution has helped recycling rates to catapult from just 4.8% in 1998 to over 65% in 2021. If the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire has come to the Chamber today hoping to find solutions to tackling vaping waste in her constituency, I urge her to look to Wales. Like her, I asked the Secretary of State whether he had made an assessment of the impact of single-use vapes on waste levels in England. I received the following response from the Minister, which said:
“The Department has not undertaken an assessment of the environmental impact of disposable vapes in the UK, including on waste levels.”
I gently say to her that that is a disappointing response.
As the Minister winds up, I hope that I can get some answers to the following questions. Has she made an assessment of the environmental impact of disposable vapes in the UK, including on waste levels, since 24 October? What discussions have taken place with the Treasury and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about ensuring that councils have the resources needed to tackle waste pollution? Finally, what lessons have been picked up from the Welsh Labour and Scottish and Northern Irish Governments about their approach to tackling toxic waste, fly-tipping and waste pollution? I would be happy for the Minister to respond to me in writing, but I ask her for answers to those specific questions. This has been an interesting debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire for securing it.
It is a delight to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mrs Murray. I thank the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for bringing the important matter of disposable vapes to our attention, and thank other Members who have taken part in the debate. This area has probably not been covered in Parliament so far and is, as has been said, a new and growing concern for the environment. I was particularly saddened to hear the comments about disposable vapes turning up on beaches; that was backed up by the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally), who remembered the plastic nurdles that we talked about when we were both on the Environmental Audit Committee. It is terrible to think that this may be similar.
I took a puff of a disposable vape in preparation for the debate. I am not a smoker at all, and it caused a huge amount of coughing and spluttering—it was raspberry flavoured. I cannot say that it is something that I will take to, but it was important to have a look at some of them and try one.
Before I carry on and tackle the environmental issues, I will touch on the health issue so clearly outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson). The Government are absolutely committed to making this country smoke-free by 2030, doing more to help adult smokers to quit and to stop people taking up this deadly addiction. We also note that most smokers want to quit, and there is a call to offer vaping as a substitute for smoking. We recognise that vaping is far less harmful than smoking and is an effective device for quitting. One of my officials, briefing me for the debate, shared his experience. He said that he had been a smoker for a lot of his life, starting as a young person, and how useful vapes actually were in transitioning off dangerous nicotine cigarettes. Our recently published “Nicotine vaping in England” report set out the most up-to-date evidence on vapes, providing an even more compelling case for supporting smokers to switch. Our message is clear: if the choice is between smoking and vaping, as pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, choose vaping. Obviously, if the choice is between vaping and fresh air, please choose fresh air.
The Government have two priorities for vaping, which are to maximise the opportunity to help smokers to quit while minimising the uptake by children, because the stats that we have heard on the number of children using vapes are shocking. It is the disposable ones, of course, which they are attracted by. The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire mentioned the Geek Bar and Elf Bar in particular. They get hooked on those products, which do not come under our waste electrical and electronic equipment register because the companies that produce these brands have not registered as WEEE producers for this compliance year. That is definitely something that the Environment Agency is working on. I will touch more on how we are getting those who import these vapes, many of which are made in China, to pay to join our producer compliance scheme, so that they are part of the collection and recycling scheme. That very much needs attention.
While the public health impacts of vaping as an aid to quit smoking are clear, I share the concerns we have heard today about the environmental impacts of these products, especially of disposable vapes. I welcome the recent report by Material Focus because it shone an important light on some of the environmental concerns that have arisen about the improper disposal of disposable vape products.
According to that study, around 1.3 million disposable vapes are thrown away every week in the UK. We have heard quite a lot of stats, but that is pretty shocking. More than half a billion of all the different types of vapes are bought each month, by 6.4% of the population. It is a huge and growing market. A significant amount of the disposable vapes that are thrown away each week are not being recycled properly and are instead being littered or discarded with residual waste in the bin.
That waste includes a lot of single-use plastics, although there are also refillable vapes, and they contain critical resources. Lithium is one of the most valuable. That lithium is literally going to waste; the single-use vapes being thrown away contain 10 tonnes of lithium per year, the equivalent of 1,200 electric car batteries. That is a huge amount of a critical material that is being thrown away.
The findings of the Material Focus report highlight the importance of ensuring that the vaping sector, its products and those that sell them are fully compliant with the obligations set out under key pieces of waste management legislation, which my Department has responsibility for. I would like to remind Members exactly what those obligations are and what my Department is already doing to assist the vaping sector with understanding those obligations and, most importantly, to increase compliance with them.
All vapes, including disposable vapes, fall within scope of the UK’s waste electrical and electronic equipment regulations, referred to as the WEEE regulations. Although waste policy is devolved, I welcome the extremely close working on the suite of producer responsibility legislation, particularly that which covers waste electricals, between the devolved nations, including Wales, where the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), resides. DEFRA is working very closely on the issue.
The WEEE regulations require importers and manufacturers of vapes and other electrical equipment to finance the cost of collection and the proper treatment of all equipment that is disposed of via local authority household waste sites and returned to retailers and internet sellers. Producers do that via membership of approved producer compliance schemes. They must be registered with the Environment Agency in England or their partners in the devolved Administrations. I know that a number of producers of vapes are registered, but clearly a great many are not, including Geek Bar and Elf Bar, which I already mentioned.
Retailers and internet sellers of vapes also have important obligations under the WEEE regulations to take back used vapes on supply of new vapes to their customers. In addition, they must also make available information to their customers about how to recycle vapes. Smaller retailers—say, a corner shop that sells all sorts of things and just a few vapes—can opt out of the take-back obligations if they pay into a scheme that supports local authority electricals recycling. Of course, those obligations are not different from those that apply to other electrical products.
The Minister makes a number of factual points about the regulations and how they apply equally to vapes and to other types of electrical equipment, but the very nature of disposable vapes is so different from that of any other kind of electrical equipment. That is the crux: they are made to be disposable and to be thrown away. The problem is that people throw them away. I am keen to hear from the Minister what will be done, and what assessment will be made, so that we can take some action to stop the environmental harm.
I get the hon. Member’s point, but I was trying to make the point that there are a lot of regulations and obligations in place, so we need to ensure that those work effectively before going on to see what more needs to be done. I will touch on that in a minute.
For example, there are also separate obligations under the Waste Batteries and Accumulators Regulations 2009 that are relevant to the batteries contained in vapes. Businesses selling vapes should be registered as battery producers because, as well as vapes, they are putting the batteries in the vapes on the market. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford effectively asked that we not have a ban on disposable vapes because we need to consider the health aspects of this issue. The Government do not have any immediate plans to ban disposable vapes, but we are concerned by the increasing number of these products and their improper disposal. The primary focus of this debate is the environment, and we need to work constructively with the sector to help businesses understand their obligations and bring them into compliance.
I can report today that my officials have held discussions in recent weeks with the vaping sector to ensure that the sector understands and communicates its members’ obligations in relation to the WEEE regulations, as well as their similar obligations in relation to batteries. Those discussions on regulatory matters will continue with all those working in the vaping sector, and will of course be in accordance with the UK’s commitment to article 5.3 of the World Health Organisation’s framework convention on tobacco control.
My Department has already engaged with the Environment Agency and the Office for Product Safety and Standards, which is the enforcer of the retail take-back obligation. They are putting together a programme to drive up compliance, and are looking at what more can be done. They regulate the producer obligations in England and the UK-wide distributor obligations laid down in the WEEE regulations, and we are working with them on this emerging sector. It is an emerging sector, which is one of the issues: it is growing so fast, like Topsy. I can also report that, as we meet, representatives of the WEEE producer compliance schemes are meeting and discussing what they can do as a sector to proactively encourage producers of all types of vapes to fully meet their obligations under the regulations. We will support their active engagement in any way that we can.
I hope that Members will acknowledge my Department’s efforts so far. It may be that we must continue to strive to ensure compliance with existing environmental obligations before jumping to an outright ban, or anything as dramatic as that. I can also report that we are reviewing the current producer responsibility system for waste electricals and batteries, and plan to publish consultations on both areas next year—I think that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Newport West, touched on that. The WEEE regulations were developed when the vaping industry was in its infancy, so it is right that, in undertaking that review, we consider what, if any, changes are needed to that legislation to ensure that the vaping sector plays its part in properly financing the cost of the collection and treatment of the products when they become waste. More generally, the reviews are exploring ways in which we can make it easier for the public to dispose of their unwanted electrical items—including vapes—and how future regulations can better support the circular economy, which all of our waste and resources measures are driving. We have heard a lot about Scotland, but England is equally doing a great deal in this sector, so that we can have a level playing field between the businesses supplying electricals to customers via online sales and those that use more traditional sales and distribution channels. We are also considering similar measures under a parallel review of the UK’s battery regulations.
Littering was touched on; I mention it because disposal vapes are contributing to litter. They get thrown around in our beautiful countryside. Local councils are responsible for keeping their public land clear of litter and refuse, and the role of central Government is to enable and support that work. DEFRA published a litter strategy for England in April 2017, setting out how to deliver a substantial reduction in litter and littering within a generation by focusing on education and awareness, improving enforcement and so forth. It goes to show that all those things are relevant to vapes as well as cigarette filters, which are the most littered item. The tobacco industry is working hard on how to reduce that. Potentially, companies that make vapes should be brought into that thinking as well.
In conclusion, there is an obvious consensus that disposable vapes—and what they may break down into—represent a genuine threat and risk to our environment. I have set out the measures that my Department is already taking to increase the vaping sector’s engagement with the existing environmental legislation. I also have signalled our intention to consider any necessary changes to the WEEE regulations in their forthcoming review to ensure that the vaping sector properly meets its obligations to finance the cost of collection and proper treatment of waste from vape products.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the environmental impact of disposable vapes.