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Westminster Hall

Volume 723: debated on Wednesday 30 November 2022

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 30 November 2022

[Sir George Howarth in the Chair]

Avian Influenza Outbreak

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the avian influenza outbreak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George, and I am grateful for the opportunity to debate avian influenza, which is an incredibly important issue. Avian influenza is not a new phenomenon—the industry and wild birds have been affected by it for a long time—but the current outbreak is by far the worst on record. Since the beginning of October, 136 cases of H5N1 have been identified, with millions of birds dying or being culled. The outbreak is affecting every part of the country, but particularly East Anglia. In my constituency of Maldon we have already had three cases in the past few weeks.

The disease spreads rapidly, possibly because the mutated virus that is affecting the population has an increased ability to replicate, and is extending to infect a broader range of species. That issue is not specific to this country, but global. In America, a record outbreak has led to more than 49 million birds in 46 states either being culled or dying since the beginning of the year. Across Europe, the disease has been found in 37 countries, with about 48 million birds being culled. Every country across the globe is affected, including even penguins in South Africa.

An epidemic on such a scale is a disaster for wildlife and agriculture. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reports that 65 species of wild bird have tested positive, with tens of thousands of birds dying every day. For a number of species, there is what the RSPB describes as a population impact, and guillemots, kittiwakes and Svalbard barnacle geese are all dying in such numbers that those species are being put at risk in this country.

However, the disease is not only affecting wild birds; it is having a dramatic effect on the poultry industry—a major industry worth £2 billion to our economy. It employs more than 34,000 people and provides about half the meat consumed in Britain. The industry has already had to cope with serious challenges: the seasonal labour shortage, which came about immediately after we left the EU and remains a challenge, as the Minister is aware, and, following that, covid. Just as the industry was beginning to recover from those blows, along came avian influenza. It now faces an existential threat.

We need a clear plan. The Government have rightly identified biosecurity as crucial in trying to stop the spread of the disease, and I welcome the move that has required mandatory housing of birds since the beginning of November, but the spread is extremely rapid, and a single wild bird can infect thousands in a short time. It is right that we have established protection zones around areas where the disease has been identified, and there are more measures that we can take, particularly around the collection and disposal of the carcases of wild birds—one infected wild bird can massively affect a flock in a short time. We probably need to improve oversight of those backyard businesses involving a small number of chickens that supply eggs for families or perhaps for neighbours. They are equally at risk and the disease is equally likely to spread from them. Those businesses need to be more visible to regulators.

We have to accept that, although biosecurity is tremendously important, it will not stop the spread of this disease. The Government have instituted a policy of culling, which has already led to the death of thousands, if not millions, of birds. In the case of the very biggest producers, the entire flock in a shed will be culled if the disease is identified there, but at least they will have some remaining birds in other sheds, and of course compensation will help if there needs to be a cull.

However, smaller producers can lose their entire flock overnight, and the compensation available is totally inadequate. Under the Animal Health Act 1981, compensation is payable following culling, but it was passed at a time when there was a relatively low pathogenic strain that did not kill all the birds in a very short time. That has now changed: birds die extremely rapidly, which means that smaller producers can lose almost their entire flock without being eligible for compensation.

In my constituency, I have KellyBronze Turkeys—arguably the finest turkey producer in the country, as vouched for by Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and so on. In one flock, it had 10,000 birds. It identified the disease on a Thursday evening, informed the Animal and Plant Health Agency, which said that it would send vets round, but by the time the vets arrived on Monday morning 9,850 of the 10,000 birds were dead. It was likely therefore to get compensation for the 150 remaining. That is the situation facing poultry farmers right across the country.

The answer is that compensation needs to be payable from the moment of the identification of the disease or notification. The change that has taken place is welcome, but it will not make a great deal of difference: 48 hours post confirmation is simply not enough. We need compensation to be paid on the same basis as it is paid for four-legged species. I understand that that requires an amendment to the law, but it is absolutely essential if we are to preserve the poultry industry in this country.

In the longer term, the answer is likely to be vaccination. At the moment, there is not an effective vaccination, but we need to work on that as rapidly as possible. We saw what could be done during the covid epidemic. We need to identify an effective vaccine, and we need to talk to our international partners to ensure that trade restrictions are lifted. This disease is affecting every country, and the answer is likely to be the same in every country. It is notable that the head of virology at the APHA, who previously was not in favour of vaccines, is now saying that we have to establish an effective vaccine rapidly.

We are in the run-up to Christmas—a time when millions of families will want to eat turkey or goose. This year, we are already seeing dramatic shortages of turkeys, and geese are almost impossible to find. The situation next year is likely to be even more serious, because unless the Government give farmers some confidence, who will invest in a turkey flock for Christmas production when they could lose the entire thing due to an outbreak of disease and have no compensation payable?

We have just emerged from the covid crisis; this is the equivalent of the covid crisis for birds. Biosecurity is important to stop its spread, but ultimately will not be successful. Vaccination is probably the key, and in the meantime the Government need to step in to support the businesses affected. Those things happened under covid. They now need to happen again if we are to have a viable poultry industry in this country.

Order. I do not intend to impose a formal time limit, but if Members could stick to five minutes, it should be possible to get everybody in. That is an informal time limit.

It is an honour to serve under your guidance, Sir George. I want to pay a genuine and heartfelt tribute to the right hon. Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale), who has successfully secured this debate on a hugely important and significant issue for us all, particularly in communities such as mine.

Animal diseases pose an enormous threat to UK farming, trade and rural communities. We are in the midst of the worst outbreak of avian influenza that we have ever seen. H5N1 has stayed with us all year round for the first time ever, and it is more virulent than previous strains. Yesterday, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee heard evidence on this; I am grateful for the work it does, and many of its members are here today. There have already been more than 140 confirmed avian influenza cases in poultry and captive birds in the UK—in previous years, getting to double figures was considered to be bad news. The fact that we are well into three figures is terrifying.

As of 20 November, 1.6 million birds had been culled directly because of bird flu on farms. Half of the free range turkeys produced for Christmas in the UK have been culled, as we have heard. British farmers are under immense pressure, both emotional and financial. Poultry farmers often rely on the Christmas trade to pull their annual income out of the red and into the black, but that Christmas trade has been wiped out in an instant, and the small independent farmers, particularly in Westmorland, are bearing the brunt of it, fearing that their businesses will be wiped out completely.

It is not just avian flu that we should worry about. The UK faces real threats from bovine tuberculosis, new diseases such as African swine fever and, of course, diseases affecting domestic pets, including rabies. These outbreaks do not just threaten our food security, trade and farming; they also threaten our natural environment. All birds are being culled, not just those sold for meat—the great skua population, for example, has declined by between 55% and 80% in the UK this year. The species has immediately been placed on the red list, and its population will not recover for decades. If the Government do not intervene effectively, the ecosystems and food chains we rely on—the very fabric of Britain’s countryside —will be changed forever.

A report from the Public Accounts Committee this month found that the Animal and Plant Health Agency has been

“left to deteriorate to an alarming extent.”

It said that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had “comprehensively failed” in its management of the agency’s Weybridge site. That is the site where the science happens—surveillance testing, disease tracking and so on.

We have seen what the consequences of inaction and not learning from the past can be. The foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001 devastated communities in Cumbria, not just financially and economically but socially and emotionally. A friend of mine who passed away just a month ago was among those 20-odd years ago who were involved in the large-scale culling in the Rusland valley. It broke him—and 20 years on, it continued to live with him.

A year after foot and mouth happened, I remember the children of Kirkbie Kendal School doing a play they had written themselves about the emotional effect the outbreak had on them. One of them likened it to Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach”—waking every morning and thinking, had the disease got closer to them? Had it hit their valley yet? Those people are adults now, and the impact on them, on all of us and on our shared memory is huge. We must never think that animal disease outbreaks only affect animals; they have a huge impact on human beings as well.

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the contribution he is making, particularly on the impact of foot and mouth in Cumbria. I was one of those schoolchildren in Cumbria at that time. Given the closeness of Cumbria and north Lancashire to the Scottish border, does he share my concerns that, while we are housing birds in England we also need to see the devolved Governments following suit when it comes to biosecurity?

I absolutely agree that this needs to be a whole-UK project. I thank my friend and neighbour for her contribution—not least for reminding me how much younger she is than me. If we had an outbreak of foot and mouth on the same scale today, it would have an economic impact of £12 billion. As I said, there are impacts that are not quantifiable but even more devastating.

What do the Government need to do? I will briefly suggest three things. First, they should support our farmers through the current crisis. As the right hon. Member for Maldon rightly said, the compensation scheme is not fit for purpose, and the Government must bring it into the 21st century. The legislation that it was built on was introduced in 1981. It is practically prehistoric —like me. Farmers are able to receive compensation only for birds that are alive when the flock is seen by a vet.

As the representative of a constituency that has a large number of intensive poultry farms, and as someone who has kept a backyard flock and been the financial controller of a poultry farm, I have seen at first hand the difficulties of trying to house poultry. Most importantly, I have seen the difficulties that the farming industry faces when trying to insure against avian influenza. It used to be possible to obtain insurance, because the disease was an unlikely event—it was a peril that insurers would happily insure against—but now it is almost impossible. Does my hon. Friend agree that taking preventive action—

I agree with my hon. Friend, and am grateful for her intervention. The uninsurability of flocks is a reminder of why the compensation scheme must work and be effective.

In 1981, avian flu had a low pathogenicity. It did not kill the poultry, so farmers could get a vet to confirm an outbreak and command a cull before the livestock was dead. That is the crucial thing. Now, the disease has a high pathogenicity. Turkeys are dying within four days. The legislation was introduced to incentivise farmers to take their birds to be culled, and it is no longer serving that purpose. The Government must therefore intervene to correct the compensation scheme accordingly.

Secondly, the Minister should take evidence-based decisions. Earlier, I mentioned that the Animal and Plant Health Agency is where the science happens. It is vital that our approach to the disease outbreaks is based on science. Scientists think that avian flu probably lasts for around six weeks after death, so why do farmers have to rest their sites for 12 months? Why are some being told to strip six inches of soil off their free-range paddocks? Farmers are ordered to move their bird flocks indoors, but it takes longer for avian influenza to spread among a flock if they are kept outside on the ranch.

Thirdly, I ask that the Government ensure that they properly prepare for future outbreaks. I expect that the Minister might say that the Government are investing £2.8 billion to redevelop the Animal and Plant Health Agency. That is welcome, but the programme is not due to complete until 2036, and the Treasury has not yet agreed to fund it.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Maldon for bringing forward the debate. It is a huge issue for farmers in my patch, for rural communities across the board and for the infrastructure of our natural environment across the UK. Action must happen now.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) on securing this debate on an issue that affects many businesses and communities.

Avian flu is not just about commercial poultry farms or agricultural interests; it has the potential to strike at the heart of the work being done to conserve some of the most endangered species on our planet. The Government must ensure that the approach taken, and the policy structure around it, is suitable for all situations in which avian flu may strike.

Some Members may be aware that Paignton zoo, which is part of the Wild Planet Trust and located in the heart of my Torbay constituency, was recently the site of the first avian flu outbreak at a zoo in England. It is highly unlikely to be the last. Zoos are innately open places. Local wildlife and human visitors are able to access them, and wild birds can mingle with some of the zoo’s stock, especially those species that do not need to be kept in an aviary. It will be obvious to Members that, in breeding birds, zoos have a very different purpose from that of commercial poultry operations. That means that the response to avian flu at a zoo that is focused on conservation objectives needs to be very different from that at a farm that is focused on egg or meat production.

It was late August when avian influenza arrived at Paignton zoo. At the onset of the outbreak, on the late August bank holiday Sunday, the zoo was ordered to close at no notice and with immediate effect. Thankfully, the outbreak was successfully contained and the zoo was permitted to reopen, with the birds under quarantine clearing through the surveillance regime, yet the zoo was closed to visitors for 10 days.

The approach to culling that would normally be taken at a poultry farm would have had a devastating effect at the zoo. I pass on the gratitude of the team at the zoo for the Secretary of State’s intervention, which prevented the unnecessary culling of healthy birds that posed no risk of disease spread. However, the zoo derives much of its revenue from the peak tourism season, so the final week of the school holidays is one of its biggest trading periods. The revenue lost from the enforced closure and additional related costs came to just under £1 million. The loss of a week’s trade for a zoo is not a simple one-out-of-52 loss; a week lost in summer can be equivalent to losing five to six weeks at another time of the year.

As I said, the normal approach to culling would have been devastating, and I am grateful that it was not applied, but the situation where a zoo is affected highlights a tension between the two fundamental strands of the current avian flu strategy—those relating to wild birds and to captive birds. The wild birds strategy is to monitor, because little can be done, while the captive birds approach is to stamp the flu out.

There are inherent tensions in simultaneously applying two fundamentally different approaches to the same disease, which can lead to practical challenges and inconsistencies on the ground in the case of a zoo. A more nuanced approach that recognises the challenges for a range of stakeholders impacted by the disease would help to mitigate the tensions, especially at a zoo such as Paignton, where, inevitably, both wild and captive birds are present on the same site.

The compensation scheme is similarly designed for the poultry industry, where the biggest impact for the business concerned is likely to be the value of the birds—their lost sale value. Despite the £1 million impact in lost sales and costs from the outbreak, Paignton zoo was offered £207—the value of the birds—as compensation. The £1 million loss will have a material impact on the charity and constrain investment plans focused on animal welfare and support for the zoo’s biodiversity protection programmes. Following the impact of the human pandemic, which heavily affected tourism, that is a bitter pill to swallow.

It is always easy to outline the problems, but it is vital we also highlight how the situation can be solved. Following the outbreak, the Wild Planet Trust conducted an after-action review. In addition to internal learnings, the review identified two important issues that merit further attention: ensuring fairness in financial compensation for zoos, and making changes to outbreak response arrangements that will help to deliver better outcomes in such circumstances.

First, the compensation scheme should be revised to ensure fairness and equitable loss-of-revenue treatment for all entities that are required to close as a result of a bird flu outbreak. That would recognise that compensation simply for the value of the bird does not reflect the overall impact on zoos. Secondly, decentralising testing capabilities and promoting delegated outbreak management decision making would allow more flexibility when dealing with unique locations. Thirdly, we should adapt the avian flu strategy to the new reality and ensure that lessons learned in a specific location such as a zoo are identified, and improvements are embedded, in parallel with continuing to conduct outbreak response operations.

Sadly, we are likely to see the experience of Paignton zoo repeated at zoos elsewhere. I hope that the Minister will take the lessons learned from the outbreak at the zoo, which the trust and I will be happy to share with him directly, and embed them in our future approach to dealing with avian flu. We simply cannot allow vital conservation work at our zoos to be the next victim.

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for his important comments. As always, he has a real grasp of the situation.

We have seen increasing numbers of outbreaks of avian flu in my constituency of Strangford and across Northern Ireland, which is now a zone where no movement of any poultry of any sort is allowed to take place. We started with a smaller response with restrictions in certain areas, but it now applies everywhere across the whole of the Province. It is crucial to the safety of animals, plants and individuals that the signs of avian flu, and the correct way to prevent its further spread, are known. It is great to be here to address that today.

Some six weeks ago, we had the first indication of avian flu in my constituency in Ballywalter, where there is a fairly large pheasant shoot and 6,000 birds were put down. In one fell swoop, all those birds got avian flu, and the shoot has been closed and will be closed next season. I should say that I thank the right hon. Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) for securing the debate. On the east coast of Strangford lough, just across from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust at Castle Espie, wildfowl and swans were found dead at Mount Stewart. Some of the wildfowlers who shoot there tell me that they have found dead geese, ducks and other smaller birds, which indicates the deadliness of avian flu in my constituency. The Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs took significant steps to try to prevent the disease, but unfortunately it was unsuccessful, and all those things have happened across my constituency and, now, across Northern Ireland as a whole.

As a farmer myself, I am aware of transmission and can understand how crucial preventive steps are to stop potential spread to poultry or even humans. The mandatory avian housing order, which I mentioned earlier, was introduced on the 25th of this month and came into force on Monday. All bird owners are to keep their birds inside and completely separate from wild birds, to try to contain the outbreak of avian flu. Swift action was taken to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2021, when Northern Ireland witnessed its worst ever outbreak of avian flu, which resulted in the cull of 80,000 birds and potential damage to our £450 million poultry industry.

I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on eggs, pigs and poultry, which is a wonderful APPG to chair; if you start your morning with a bit of bacon and an egg—I always start my day with an egg—that is the one to be on. I go to work on two eggs in the morning, which I think was an advertising slogan back in the ’60s and ’70s—that ages me.

The British Egg Industry Council asked me to mention two things this morning. The first relates to compensation, which was mentioned by the hon. Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale. The present compensation system does not give the industry what it needs. The British Egg Industry Council said in its correspondence:

“With this particular H5N1 HPAI virus causing high levels of mortality in a short space of time, any delay in culling and assessment for compensation can result in little or no compensation being paid to an affected farm.”

The council has some fears about that, and I am quite happy to share the letter with the Minister. The second thing the British Egg Industry Council asked me to mention is the avian influenza vaccination. It says:

“Over the last few months, vaccination against AI has been a subject of significant discussion within the poultry industry.”

The Minister will know that, because he knows this subject well. The council continues:

“The current strain of H5N1 HPAI appears to have spread globally and there is increasing interest in AI vaccination both in the UK and also among a number of our trading partners.”

I will pass the letter on to the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, but those are the two requests we have from the sector.

I am conscious of the time, so I will push on. I want to say a couple of things for people—not farmers, but those who go out walking in local parks and near ponds, of which we have plenty round about where we are. The authorities have stated that people must not, on any occasion, feed the swans and ducks. The hon. Member for Torbay referred to zoos, which are also of great concern. There must be greater awareness among members of the public that if they see a dead or injured bird when they are out and about, under no circumstances should they handle it. If is important that dogs are kept under control, on a lead. That is the message from DAERA, DEFRA and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Steps can be taken to ensure that the disease does not spread further, including the use of protective equipment such as eye protection, avoiding touching your mouth, nose and eyes, and washing hands with soap and water after touching birds. I am sure we are all comfortable with that, as the pandemic has taught us well, but this time we do it for the protection of wildlife and our poultry industry. That is what we are here for, and that is why we are very pleased to see the Minister in his place. I thank him and look forward to his comments later.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale), who is my constituency neighbour, on securing the debate and on highlighting how badly this epidemic has affected Essex and the east of England. This debate follows the one that we held in Westminster Hall last week on support for British farming. Of course, we are all here to pay tribute to those whose livelihoods depend on farming, and to recognise the valuable contribution that they all make. As has already been said, with Christmas fast approaching, there is rightly a significant amount of public interest in this issue. Agriculture, whether it is our poultry industry or other aspects of farming that have been mentioned, is crucial to Britain. It fills our tables and keeps people employed in this country. This is a challenging and worrying time for farmers.

As right hon. and hon. Members have said, farmers in Essex, the east of England and other parts of the country have been heavily hit by bird flu. I pay tribute to those farmers; what they are enduring is incredibly difficult. Anyone who keeps birds, whether on large farms or smallholdings, including hobbyists who keep heritage breeds, is living in fear, with genuine concerns. Those concerns are not short term; they are long term with significant impacts.

We should note that many farms already maintain strong biosecurity measures but have still been infected. As this strain spreads across the wild bird population, the damage is now severe. In the Witham constituency, between 1 October and 15 November, a highly pathogenic avian influenza was detected in poultry and captive birds; it was detected in three premises out of six in Essex. Nearly 50,000 birds have died or been culled in Essex as a result, including around 7,600 in the Witham constituency.

Members have already heard and discussed the impact, but there is one example from my constituency that I would like to highlight. Blackwells farm is one of many fantastic farms in Essex and is a great business. It has been rearing its own free-range poultry and meats for many years. The farm shop also showcases other local producers. There is, of course, a knock-on effect on the supply chain and access for other producers. Bird flu was detected on Blackwells farm in October, and I raised that with the Secretary of State and the Minister. I am grateful to the Minister for his diligent response. Within days, thousands of birds were infected and died. Those that were left by the time officials arrived from DEFRA were humanely culled. That process was a devastating time for the farm.

We have heard from Members about the processes and procedures, but first there are some specific issues that need to be addressed, such as the lack of information about what other activities could or could not take place on the site of a working farm and business. Local businesses with diverse operations need to factor in all those matters. The situation became very much about certainty and clarity of advice from DEFRA on what constitutes business as usual, so that the farm could operate. I would welcome the Minister’s feedback on those points, which he has heard raised before. I would also like clarification on the compensation arrangements, which have already been debated.

Blackwells has received some compensation for approximately 5,000 of the 7,300 birds affected, which were either culled or died. Compensation was not paid in respect of all the birds lost. The arrangement for compensation is an issue. The Department knows well that compensation and payments not only need to be on time, but must reflect the scale of the damage and the impact of the pandemic on businesses.

The farm, along with other businesses, will need to know about compensation measures, and the measures in place need to be reviewed, with details of what further support can be given to farms affected to help them get through these tough times. This is not a period of four to six weeks; the disruption is becoming persistent, and it is affecting businesses. As well as compensation, we must look at the timescales for the restrictions that are in place. Blackwells now faces 12 months of restrictions on poultry, which will hamper its ability to get the site up and running and to plan not just for now but for next year’s Christmas and all its other business operations. It is unclear why the restrictions are so lengthy, when they will impact the farm and many other businesses.

Small and independent poultry producers, including those that help fulfil Christmas orders, are being affected by the restrictions. The cleaning regime has already been highlighted. We also need to consider the cost of the restrictions, and what they mean in terms of time for the operations of these businesses. I would like the Minister to respond specifically on those issues and to say what the long-term plan is. Avian flu is here to stay, and its implications for businesses are significant. Poultry farmers cannot be expected to face regular patterns of restrictions and disruption to their businesses.

As ever, I pay tribute to our farmers, and to our poultry farmers in particular. They are part of our rural communities—part of the rural backdrop of our country—and I know the Minister will do everything he can to ensure that our farmers are supported during this very difficult time.

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind those who are yet to speak that I intend to call the Front Benchers starting at 10.28 am.

I pay tribute to the poultry farmers of Lancaster and Fleetwood, many of whom I have had some very challenging and emotional conversations with in recent months. Clearly, the poultry industry is facing huge challenges from labour shortages, and the avian influenza outbreak is further compounding those challenges. Colleagues have articulated well the challenges posed by the compensation scheme not meeting the needs of those businesses. The scheme clearly does not work. I am sure the Minister will have heard that loud and clear from colleagues, so I will not dwell on it.

On the issue of biosecurity, which will not stop this pandemic but is a very important part of controlling the speed of transmission, I tabled a written question about what conversations the UK Government are having with devolved nations regarding the housing of birds. I gently ask the Minister to look again at his response, which was basically to explain devolution. I am well versed in how devolution works; what I would like to know is what the Government are doing to come up with a UK-wide response that controls the speed of transmission of the disease.

I appreciate the point the hon. Member is making about the need for a UK-wide approach. She and the Minister may be aware that there have been five outbreaks in Scotland in as many weeks, all of which have been in my constituency. My constituency happens to be in the north-east, but as I think the hon. Member mentioned earlier, if it was closer to the border, that would be more of a concern in Cumbria and other places in north England. Will she join me in asking the Scottish Government—or the SNP representative, the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar)—to comment on that?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, the fact that the outbreaks in Scotland have been so far from the border highlights the speed with which this disease is spreading and the requirement for us to act in a co-ordinated way, not just with different Governments in the UK but with our European neighbours. The whole nature of the disease is that birds move around, and wild birds are obviously spreading it. Many of my constituents have raised with me the difficulties they now face in getting insurance for their farms, so will the Minister touch on any support that the Government might be able to give farmers with that particular issue in the years ahead?

One issue that has not yet come up is that of free range. I have a lot of free-range egg producers in my constituency. Currently, of course, there is a 16-week grace period during which a farm can maintain its free-range status. It is likely that a lot of those producers are going to breach that 16-week grace period because of the status of the avian influenza outbreak, and they will face additional costs from rebranding their products, which will no longer be free range, at the end of that period. What specific support will be provided to those free-range egg producers, who are going to face particular challenges?

Vaccines are probably the only way out of this situation, and that is going to involve huge Government support. Colleagues have already touched quite a lot on this issue, but it is going to involve an international effort, so I would like to hear from the Minister what steps the Government are taking internationally on vaccines. Given that 50% of the UK’s protein comes from consuming poultry products, this is actually a food security issue. Indeed, the speed of the response is so critical because farmers will be making decisions in February about whether they go ahead with producing turkeys and geese for Christmas 2023. February is not that far away, and farmers will be making those decisions in the coming weeks. This could have long-term effects. Even if a vaccine were discovered tomorrow and rolled out, the reality is that if we have not taken control of this avian flu outbreak by February, then we will be looking at the consequences into the coming years.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, a fellow Lancashire MP, for giving way. Many of the farmers in her constituency are associated with the farmers in South Ribble. I want to emphasise her point about decisions and the future of the industry. Does she agree that it would be great if the Minister could provide some certainty, not only to clarify the rules on farm access, but to keep people in the industry, because they are seriously considering their future?

I thank my Lancashire neighbour for making that point; she is absolutely right. Farming is a difficult industry. It is not an easy way to make a living. When I speak to farming constituents, many of them tell me that they are concerned about whether their children will go into the industry. In fact, many want their children to have more secure work and an easier way to make a living. That concerns me, because this is an issue of food security. I completely agree with the hon. Lady. To echo her point, I urge the Government to take prompt action and to communicate it clearly with the farming community.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) for raising this important issue. I declare a strong personal and professional interest as a veterinary surgeon. My thoughts go out to the farmers, vets, officials and anyone on the frontline in this catastrophe. It is incredibly distressing. I pay tribute to the vets and officials at the APHA for all their work at this unprecedented time.

We have heard about the impact of the disease on birds in the domestic market and on wild birds. I want to talk about its impact on people on the frontline. I sit on the EFRA Select Committee and in our urgent session on avian influenza yesterday, we looked at the impact not only on birds but on humans. It very much goes in parallel with our inquiry on rural mental health and the long-term effects of these situations on those on the frontline.

I spent a period as a veterinary surgeon on the frontline during the foot and mouth crisis, and I witnessed sights that I never want to witness again in my lifetime. People on the frontline in the current situation are seeing things on a similar scale. We need to be cognisant of that moving forward. In the Committee’s session yesterday, we found that there needs to be more collaboration and more data collection, so that we understand more about the incidence of the disease in the wild bird population and the transmission pathway.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon mentioned that we have learned lessons from covid. Work needs to be done at pace to develop a vaccine. This is a highly pathogenic H5N1 strain, and the available vaccine is not suitable for this particular strain. This work needs to be done internationally; we need international collaboration and Government support. There needs to be a lot of research on the difference between naturally infected birds and birds that have been vaccinated. That technology needs to be moved forward at pace. We have learned lessons from covid, and this is a similar situation. Where there is a will, there is a way.

We need to remember that viruses do not respect international or domestic borders. We need to have a UK approach and a global approach to tackle the disease. I pay tribute to the people at the APHA. They really are on the frontline and they are coping at this point. The EFRA Select Committee had the chief executive and the chief vet before us yesterday.

As a member of the EFRA Committee, I guested on the Public Accounts Committee with the National Audit Office for the session on the APHA site at Weybridge. It needs a radical redevelopment and it is going to cost £2.8 billion. We know that there are fiscal constraints, but it is so important that we spend that money now to prevent us from having to spend a lot more in the future and, as we have heard, to stop the devastating impact on human and animal health. I urge the Minister to bat for DEFRA and make the case that it needs that £2.8 billion; £1.2 billion has been earmarked and we need the additional £1.6 billion as a priority. The APHA is coping, but heaven forbid that we get something else like foot and mouth disease, African swine fever or African horse sickness coming in. The potential outbreaks could be catastrophic for our country. We need resources, people and expertise.

In some quarters, this situation has been likened to fighting a war with a peacetime army. That is probably where we are now. We are coping, but we must make preparations to ensure that we are resilient into the future, so we need sufficient vets and officials. The EFRA Committee has produced reports that recommend that the Government look at veterinary workforce issues and workforce issues across the agricultural sector, and ensure that our farming communities, who are so important to food security, are supported with the workforce they need.

We have talked about compensation, and this highly pathogenic strain means that the compensation needs to kick in earlier in the cull process. I would like to hear from the Minister—this has been raised by other colleagues—whether there could be some help through insurance schemes, perhaps underwritten by Government, to help farmers have a bit of security. In addition, at what point would the Government act according to the Agriculture Act 2020 and say that we are in exceptional market conditions and that they can use the powers in the Act to help farmers?

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) spoke about free-range classification and that movement from post-16 weeks to not being free range. There is discussion at EU-level about whether, if the state vets say that the birds need to be indoors, the free-range status can be carried on longer. The UK needs to be cognisant of that and make preparations to ensure that our farmers are on a level playing field. I thank everyone on the frontline; my thoughts, feelings and prayers are with them. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I will make some comments about compensation and timescales for restocking.

On compensation, although the Government have made some moves in the direction of valuing the destroyed birds earlier following the avian flu outbreak, it is still not good enough. I want to describe the situation for one of my constituents. The birds that she and her family keep were infected in spite of being inside. Perhaps the avian flu got in via some fresh straw, but over 30,000 birds were destroyed. The valuation of the stock by the APHA was made promptly but, despite the outbreak occurring in early August, they have still not received any compensation for the second of their two sites. It was only last week that they received compensation for the first. This is entirely unacceptable given that their incomes ceased at the point of the cull and compensation was needed to ensure that bills were paid. Speedier payment of compensation is critical.

Secondly, I will comment on restocking timescales. The secondary cleaning and disinfection protocol, as described by DEFRA, is not fit for purpose. It provides three options for restocking the farm. The quickest restocking option is unavailable to many small and medium-sized farms and free-range producers, which means that they are forced to choose restocking the poultry, and that cannot be carried out until 12 months after the avian flu outbreak. That is catastrophic for farm businesses whose main income is from poultry. They are stopped from trading for an entire year because of this legislation. It is causing otherwise viable businesses to go to the wall. In one case in my constituency of Tiverton and Honiton, when the bank became aware of this requirement for a 12-month pause in the farm being restocked, the lender requested that the constituent’s banking facility be removed.

In addition to the volume of avian flu cases expected this winter, this legislation means that there will be shortages lasting well over a year, especially in the seasonal Christmas turkey market. Many farms, if stuck with the 12-month restocking option, will be unable to produce turkeys not only this Christmas, but next Christmas. I have not read any scientific evidence that backs up the 12-month restocking rule. Professor Ian Brown, head of virology at the APHA, confirmed at a conference this week that the virus can live during the winter period for six weeks. If the longevity of the virus is only six weeks, I see no reason why a farm should be forced to cease trading for a whole year.

The secondary cleansing and disinfecting requirements, which must be achieved to restock a farm with poultry, are not fit for purpose. That is especially the case for a small, family-run and free-range farm, for seasonal poultry producers and for those operating on earth or stone floors. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) is absolutely right that any enforced shutdown of a farm needs to be based on science. At the moment, there seems to be little or no scientific justification relating to the longevity of the virus that requires a 12-month shutdown.

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that there is one more speaker to be called and I will be calling the Front Benchers at 10.28 am.

Thank you, Sir George; I will be brief.

My constituents and I suggest that the current 12-month period should be reduced to six months, and the onerous and expensive cleansing and disinfecting requirements should be reduced. We propose that no differentiation should be made between the treatment of earth, stone or concrete floors. Having farms out of production for two Christmas turkey-producing seasons is catastrophic for small, family-run businesses. To summarise, the Government should think again about the payment of compensation and the timescales for restocking.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) on securing the debate and everyone who has spoken to highlight not only the real and practical challenges the poultry industry is facing as a result of this incident, but the impact on our wild bird population.

I alert the Minister to an incident that happened in my constituency last week. Members of the public reported to me and, as they should have done, to Shropshire Council and the Environment Agency sightings of dead geese around the River Severn near the bridge in Bridgnorth. I immediately contacted Shropshire Council, which promptly sent an animal health officer to investigate. By the time the animal health officer had arrived, the birds in question were in the river and not on public land, as had been thought. They were therefore inaccessible to the animal health officer. The council contacted the APHA, which did not have a watercraft available to assist. There was therefore a delay. The next time there was an inspection, three days later, the birds had not surprisingly disappeared—it is a fast-flowing river.

There is a question over resourcing and the capacity in the EA’s workforce to respond to incidents. I appreciate that it is difficult to do this right across the country, but there is no doubt that this disease is becoming endemic in the wild bird population, in particular in migratory wildfowl, which can travel all over the country, as we have heard from hon. Members.

On the poultry industry, my constituency in south Shropshire has a significant number of poultry farmers of several types. I pay tribute to my constituent James Mottershead, who is present in the Public Gallery today. He is a poultry farmer and happens to be chairman of the National Farmers Union poultry board. He has been engaging well with the Minister’s officials in DEFRA, and I pay tribute to their efforts in trying to find a resolution.

I will mention a couple of challenges, building on what has been said by other hon. Members. On compensation, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon said, given the speed with which this disease can take hold in a shed that has become infected, it is simply no good to pay only for birds that remain alive, because the vast majority may have been killed by the disease before the approval was granted. We need to look at the compensation mechanism. One of the knock-on effects of having inadequate compensation for farmers is that the insurance has now been withdrawn because the insurer did not expect there to be a contribution towards the loss. That means that sheds will not be restocked in the event of an incident, even once biosecurity efforts have been completed, because insurance is not available. Even if it were to be available, the cost would be far too heavy. A more realistic compensation payment would help to resolve that problem. That applies to layers as well as broilers.

Finally, as I am conscious that I need to conclude, clearly the solution will be an effective vaccination. I encourage the Minister to pick up on the observations made by Members across the Chamber today that that has to be given the same level of priority as we gave to vaccinating against covid, if we are to have a poultry industry in this country and wild birds flourishing, as we would all like.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Sir George. I thank the right hon. Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) for securing this important and timely debate, and for informing us all so well about the current avian influenza outbreak in the UK and further afield. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the debate.

The latest outbreak of avian flu, commonly known as bird flu, is the largest and most invasive we have seen in the UK to date. The highly virulent H5N1 strain of the disease has meant that the virus has lingered persistently in wild and farmed birds since October 2021, even during the summer months, with no slowing down or dissipation of the virus due to its high pathogenicity. It is affecting wild bird populations as well as commercial or farmed birds and, of course, backyard flocks as well.

Each member nation of the United Kingdom has handled the epidemic similarly, with avian influenza prevention zones being declared across the four nations to mitigate the risk of the disease spreading among poultry and other farmed birds. From Monday 17 October, it became a legal requirement for all bird keepers in the United Kingdom to follow strict viral security measures to help protect their flocks from the threat of avian flu. In early November, DEFRA and its Irish counterpart introduced a mandatory requirement to house all farmed birds in England and in the Republic of Ireland. We in the SNP welcome continued cross-border collaboration on both islands of Britain and Ireland to mitigate the risk of bird flu. The outbreak emphasises the need for pan-European and international co-operation on pandemic issues, now and in the future.

Turning to the Scottish perspective, in July, the Scottish Government agency, NatureScot, announced it was setting up a taskforce to respond to bird flu. That followed outbreaks over the spring and summer months among our wild bird populations around Scotland’s coastlines. The main birds affected at that point were gannets, skuas, geese and gulls. Shetland was one of the worst affected areas, with carcases also found from the Mull of Galloway to St Kilda and East Lothian. The number of contact zones in place in Scotland has risen from six to nine as the risk of exposure increases.

Scottish Government veterinary advice is that the current risk from avian influenza in Scotland does not justify mandatory housing of commercial birds, as has been announced in England, Wales and Ireland. Scotland’s chief veterinary officer, Sheila Voas, states that the evidence in Scotland does not currently justify a housing order being imposed:

“Whilst we are keeping the situation under review we don’t believe the evidence, as yet, justifies mandatory housing here. We are keeping an eye on number of cases, we’re keeping an eye on wild bird results coming through and if the position substantially changes here then we may choose to go to a housing order as well.”

Ms Voas added that keeping birds indoors should not be seen as a silver bullet for tackling avian flu and that other measures, such as keeping feed and bedding away from wild birds, can also be effective. I reiterate that the situation is being monitored and kept under constant review, and all breeders should be concerned and take whatever precautions they can to keep their flocks safe.

I am not being critical of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I do have some concerns. Scotland has decided not to house its birds in the way that has been decided in the rest of the United Kingdom, and indeed in the Republic of Ireland, but it seems to me to be logical that we all work together, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) said. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am not being critical, but we need to have a policy that we can all agree on for the betterment of us all.

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention and I appreciate the points he has made. I think that DEFRA and the Scottish Government have an excellent working relationship, and work collaboratively across all areas to ensure the safety of our industries at all times. However, I must say that I think it is extremely rich, considering that we are coming off the back of a human pandemic that has seen hundreds of thousands of lives lost across the UK, when the Government were putting people back to work and telling people to eat out to help out, against the wishes of the Scottish Government. There was no such collaborative working then and there was no such good will coming forth from the UK Government.

I was about to ask to intervene just before the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), so I will not comment on the most recent comments made by the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar), but I welcome his remarks about how the situation is being kept under review. I plan to meet—hopefully very soon—the chief veterinary officer for Scotland, Sheila Voas, who he mentioned. Does he share my concern, particularly as the most recent outbreaks are in my constituency and are very concentrated—although across Scotland it may look like there are not a lot of outbreaks on average, there is such a highly concentrated and focused series of outbreaks in one area—that housing orders, perhaps even in one location, may be required?

I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s point. This is a concern for every Member of Parliament, across all four nations of the UK. Of course there are specific outbreaks in his area. I am glad that he is meeting our chief veterinary officer. I am always quite willing and able to take the advice of the experts on these matters. The current advice from the Scottish Government is that mandatory housing is not yet required in Scotland, and I am quite happy to maintain that position.

Order. Before the hon. Lady intervenes, can I just point out that I will call the Opposition spokesman shortly and I think the hon. Gentleman is about to run out of time?

Thank you, Sir George; I will be brief.

I do see a contradiction between the hon. Gentleman’s party’s approach to the human pandemic of covid and the approach it is taking now, by which it is trying to protect farmers in Scotland. I draw his attention to the fact that his party is in government in Scotland and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) has pointed out that many of his constituents have had outbreaks. Frankly, it seems that there needs to be a little bit more compassion from the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) about the devastation that this disease is having on the livelihoods of Scottish farmers.

I take the hon. Lady’s comments on board. I disagree with her comments about compassion; I am very compassionate about animal welfare right across the board, and of course I have compassion for anybody’s constituents in Scotland who are affected by this situation.

I will move quickly on. Sadly, more than 100,000 birds have had to be culled at three Scottish farms so far. The National Farmers Union of Scotland has revealed that 72,000 birds had to be taken out at two farms in Aberdeenshire, while down in Ayrshire farmer Billy Robb has lost 32,000 hens in the past week. This is devastating for all those concerned with the keeping of animals and it has a profound effect on people in the farming community. As we heard at the EFRA Committee yesterday, livelihoods have indeed been lost due to the outbreak.

Of course, it can also be concerning for members of the general public when they come across dead birds Just last week, 23 swans were found dead in and around Hogganfield Loch—a well-renowned and much-loved nature reserve, which borders my constituency and is frequently utilised by my constituents in the Stepps area. The severity of the outbreak has limited public access to the surrounding paths and advice has been given to people to avoid bringing dogs to the area, as they can also be at risk of infection.

The risk of incursion to wild birds of highly pathogenic avian influenza has remained very high. NatureScot launched a surveillance network in October to track migrating geese and wintering waterbirds arriving in Scotland. Alastair MacGugan of NatureScot said:

“As we head into the winter months, we are still very concerned about the potential impact of avian flu on our wild bird populations and we remain vigilant to ensure we can respond to the evolving situation. We’re monitoring wintering goose populations very closely for avian flu and are working with colleagues in Iceland and Norway to identify cases in migrating populations. Here in Scotland, we’ve set up a network of site managers and volunteers to provide real-time reporting on what is happening out in the field, helping us take swift and targeted decisions.”

I will turn briefly to consumption. It is important to stress that the risk to the general public’s health from avian influenza is extremely low. Food Standards Scotland advised that bird flu poses only a very low food safety concern for consumers, and does not have an effect on the human consumption of any poultry products, including eggs. The Scottish Government are aware of a number of issues affecting egg supply; some shops, including Asda and Lidl, are starting to ration the number of eggs that customers can buy due to supply issues. Although the impact of avian influenza on all commercial flocks is a consideration, the cost of living increases and a number of other issues, such as labour shortages across all sectors of the industry, feed into that. It was refreshing to hear a Conservative MP identify that Brexit has caused a severe shortage in the workforce, and that a fuller workforce would have helped to combat the outbreak.

As we head towards the Christmas period, people might be wondering whether any of the 10 million turkeys, 200,000 geese and 100,000 ducks, which are sold to some of the highest standards in the world each year, will be available as normal. The answer to that is yes. Of course there concerns, but about 50% of those tasty festive dinners are sold frozen, and the industry has managed the situation very well by carrying out early plucking, and using industry standard freeze and thaw processes.

We can all play our part in combating this outbreak of bird flu. I will finish with some advice for my constituents in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and people across Scotland. If they encounter any dead birds, they should not touch them, but should report the findings of the following: a single dead bird of prey, three dead gulls or winter waterfowl, such as swans, geese or ducks, or five or more dead wild birds of any other species at the same time and in the same place. Any such findings should be reported to DEFRA’s UK-wide telephone number, which is 0345 9335577. In addition, although wild birds of high-risk species cannot be taken directly to Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals animal rescue centres, sick or injured wild birds in Scotland should be reported to the SSPCA via its telephone number, which is 0300 099 9999.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I join other Members in congratulating the right hon. Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) on securing this crucial and timely debate. Like me, Members are rightly concerned about the impact of this virus, and they have made excellent points. I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord), the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), and the esteemed Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne). Of course, no debate could exclude the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who shared an egg anecdote.

I am delighted to be stepping in for my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who is addressing farmers at the Norfolk Farming Conference and therefore could not be here. Norfolk and the east in general have suffered acutely from this crisis. He is disappointed not to be here himself to continue to press the Minister on this important matter. He has been asking repeated questions of the Minister in recent weeks at the Dispatch Box and in this Chamber, often not receiving direct answers, but we will try again—never fear. On my hon. Friend’s behalf, I am more than happy to keep the pressure on. Hopefully, we will get more answers today to the questions we have posed.

The UK is currently experiencing its worst outbreak of bird flu, which is impacting the wild bird and farm bird populations. As the chief vet said in a DEFRA statement on 31 October,

“We are now facing, this year, the largest ever outbreak of bird flu and are seeing rapid escalation in the number of cases on commercial farms and in backyard birds across England.”

According to data provided by the Minister’s Department last week in response to a written question, 2.8 million farm birds have either been culled or died because of bird flu in 2022. Just under 2 million of those were since September. That figure is made up exclusively of chickens, ducks and turkeys. That relates to the many points that Members have made about Christmas.

The rate of the spread has been alarming, with wild bird populations severely affected, and the problem has been known about for months. The RSPB, which gave evidence to the EFRA Committee yesterday, is helping to remove wild bird carcases, and I want to put on the record my thanks to it for that vital work. Some 65 species of wild bird have so far tested positive for avian flu in the UK, and population-level effects have been seen in seabirds including guillemots, kittiwakes, terns, great skua, gannets and barnacle geese, as other Members, including the hon. Member for Torbay, mentioned.

The Government’s response has been criticised for being reactive instead of proactive in spite of early warning signs that there was a worsening problem. However, in the past month we have finally seen action from the Government, which we welcome. A full housing order was implemented on 7 November, which legally required all bird keepers to keep their birds housed, regardless of type or size. The Government altered their compensation process so that farmers could be compensated from the outset of planned culling, rather than at the end, and some regulatory liberalisation was introduced to allow poultry producers to freeze and then defrost birds between 28 November and 31 December to limit any supply issues in the run-up to Christmas, but has that been too little, too late?

When the Minister delivered the Government’s statement on the housing order to the House of Commons, it was clear that he thought biosecurity was the most effective tool in tackling bird flu. I am sure he recalls what he said:

“It is fair to say that the housing order has a twofold impact on the spread of avian influenza, whereas biosecurity can have a 44-fold impact on the spread, which is why our focus has been completely on biosecurity.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2022; Vol. 721, c. 806.]

We accept that biosecurity is crucial to preventing the spread of bird flu, but the industry was calling for a full housing order weeks before one finally arrived.

Will the Minister tell us what impact the housing order is having on the spread of avian flu? Is it proving successful in stemming the spread? As we have heard—I join the criticism from other Members—some devolved nations have not yet implemented full housing orders, so what can the Minister tell us about the situation there? I am sure he will want to comment on that, considering the debate we have had. Does the evidence suggest that, in England, the housing of birds has been successful?

On support for farmers, we need to ask whether the Government are doing enough. The evidence provided yesterday to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee by the chief executive of the British Poultry Council, Richard Griffiths, and poultry farmer Paul Kelly of KellyBronze Turkeys, who was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Maldon and is from the right hon. Gentleman’s area, showed that they argue that the compensation scheme laid out in legislation from 1981 is out of date and does not reflect the consequences of the disease in 2022. With compensation being issued for healthy birds culled, smaller producers might see all their flock die before the APHA is able to arrive to cull, and be left without compensation.

The growing worry is that financial loss, coupled with the trauma and mental strain of losing an entire flock—we heard from the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale about the historical effects of previous crises on other types of farming—might lead to producers deciding not to restock for next winter, so that they effectively leave the sector. It is not hard to understand why after hearing what Paul Kelly said yesterday during the Select Committee hearing after detailing the £1.2 million hit his farm has taken as a result bird flu this year: “Could we take the risk to produce Christmas poultry based on what we’ve seen this year? We couldn’t.” That is pretty telling.

The Department issued £2.4 million in compensation in the six weeks from 1 October. Will the Minister put that in context? How many birds does that involve? I appreciate that the compensation scale is complex, and I hear that there are 13 different documents just for turkeys, but are farmers getting enough support to be able to restock and continue in business next year? To put it frankly, will they have confidence that the Government have a grip on the situation such that they stay in the sector?

Avian flu has been returning year on year, as was stated by the esteemed Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, the right hon. Member for Ludlow, so it seems as though there is no long-term strategy. Are discussions being had in the Department on vaccinations? Is consideration being given to speeding up the development of an effective vaccine? What discussions are being held with trading partners to ensure that vaccination becomes a viable proposition?

Can we hear from the Minister about capacity in the APHA? We have heard many speeches here discussing that and capacity in the Environment Agency, but the recent report from colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee hardly inspires confidence. Do those agencies have the capacity to respond to another disease outbreak? The Public Accounts Committee doubts that. When my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood put that issue to the Secretary of State during EFRA questions just two weeks ago, the Secretary of State ducked the question. I hope we get a better response today.

Crossing one’s fingers and hoping it does not happen does not constitute a plan. That is what Labour is concerned about—DEFRA’s long-term strategy for our agriculture sector. The Government seem content for the public to believe that bird flu is the cause of egg shortages and worries about Christmas turkeys, but we all know that farmers face more fundamental problems, and there have been warnings of egg shortages for months because producers could not make a return. Avian flu should not be used as cover for wider systemic problems and failings.

Avian flu is a horrible disease that is dreadful for wild birds and harrowing for farmers and their flocks. Overall, the advice is that numbers lost should not cause supply problems on the shelves, but the Government need to keep on top of the outbreak. For individual farmers who lose their flocks, the impact is dreadful, and they deserve our support, not least because we need them to farm in the future. Across the country, staff at the APHA and other agencies, including local authorities, are doing everything they can to keep the country safe and our food system secure. We thank them for that. They are doing their job. The Government must support them, and enable them to do what they need to do.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) for securing the debate. The debate has been positive, and many Members have made similar points. I shall try to address as many of those points as I can over the next 10 minutes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) was probably an outlier in talking about Paignton zoo, which is a matter that he has raised with me in private before. There are many zoos up and down the country that face specific and challenging circumstances. Highly valuable birds have to be protected, and many are quite difficult to manage. I am told that penguins, in particular, are of significant value, and that it is difficult to vaccinate and manage birds such as flamingos and ostriches, which are difficult to physically handle and are very wild in their nature. I can perhaps pick up some of those comments with him afterwards.

I thank the Minister for his response so far. I am very happy to meet him, perhaps with a representative of the Wild Planet Trust, so that we can go into those areas in more detail.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s supportive comment.

DEFRA’s avian influenza disease control measures aim to minimise the economic burden of the current outbreaks. We are working closely with industry to address the impact on the sector and protect public health and the wider economy. We recognise that the poultry industry is under serious pressure, and we also recognise the impact of avian influenza on wild bird populations. Outbreaks of avian flu in both the kept and wild bird populations are at an unprecedented scale: for the first time, significantly, new cases have been confirmed for the second year of the outbreak.

October saw a massive escalation in the number of cases confirmed. Although the number of confirmed cases in poultry and captive birds is slowly reducing, which is good news, there were 124 cases in England, nine in Scotland, three in Wales and one in Northern Ireland as of last night. That compares to a total of 158 cases between October 2021 and September 2022, and 26 cases in winter 2020-21.

In responding to avian flu in kept birds, our priority has always been to get as quickly as possible to the farm where the disease is suspected, and to get on with the issue of compensation. Despite the unprecedented scale of the challenge, the APHA is staying on top of it. I thank the people working at the APHA and DEFRA; they are working day and night to deal with the pandemic, in very difficult circumstances. I know that they will continue to respond effectively as long as the outbreak continues. They are taking steps to improve the operational and policy response, even as it is under way, to support our vital food sector.

We produce approximately 11 million turkeys in the UK every year, so the numbers of them affected are relatively small. We believe that the outbreak will not affect the overall supply of Christmas turkeys, which is a huge credit to the industry. Its response has been robust, and it is keeping us well fed and supplied at Christmas.

Wild birds have also been hard hit over the summer for the first time, and breeding sea birds have been particularly badly affected. DEFRA and the Welsh Government have joined forces to produce a mitigation strategy that provides practical guidance for land managers, the public and those involved in environmental organisations, so that they can work alongside the Government to monitor the disease. Together with the Scottish and Welsh Governments, DEFRA is working closely with the APHA, Natural England, NatureScot, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and other non-governmental organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the British Trust for Ornithology, to monitor and respond to the effect of avian flu on wild birds.

I turn specifically to compensation. We recognise the significant financial pressure and emotional impact that the outbreak can have on producers. Current rules are designed to encourage good biosecurity standards, which means being careful about every single movement on and off farm and into poultry sheds. I cannot underestimate the importance of good biosecurity. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) mentioned my comments about housing orders; my direct answer is that they help. It is not a silver bullet, but housing poultry helps. As I indicated during that statement, it has a twofold impact, but biosecurity can have a 44-fold impact. We must not underestimate the importance of biosecurity.

I took the liberty of passing to the Minister’s PPS the BEIS request forms on compensation and vaccination. There is an argument that the compensation system, as it is now, does not respond to the help needed. Has the Minister had a chance to look at that, and is he able to reply?

Let me try to address that directly now. What we cannot do as a Government, which is much more challenging, is to underwrite the whole poultry production system; UK taxpayers would find that too much of a challenge. Of course, we want to try to support the industry and ensure that it is there for the future. That is why we changed the rules, so that we start the conversation process from the second that the APHA vets recognise there is an outbreak of avian influenza. We have become much better and quicker at getting those APHA vets on to site—within 24 hours, in most cases—to identify the disease and start the conversation process from that moment.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon made reference to four-legged animals—that is almost identical to the compensation scheme for foot and mouth disease, for example, whereby the Government pay compensation for animals that are not diseased that are being culled to stop the spread of the infection. We are working day and night to ensure that this system works. We have improved. People in the industry recognise that that is a better place than we were in at the beginning of this terrible disease, but it still brings huge financial and emotional challenges to the people working in the sector.

We have also moved to assist with defrosted products. They will be properly labelled and accompanied by in-store signage, along with the online information for customers, and this option will give producers certainty over business planning. There have been a number of calls, including from my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon, to extend that scheme to next season, and to give producers the confidence to step back into the marketplace. The Department is genuinely open to a conversation about whether to roll that forward to next year. We do not want to allow competition from overseas to undercut our sector. We are genuinely open to a conversation on what producers see as the best route forward, as we want to support them into next season and next Christmas. Our work with the sector has shown that, in the past, there has been too much uncertainty about the compensation schemes, and we are keen to engage and work with it moving forward.

I return to biosecurity, which is an essential defence against avian influenza, and, when done extremely well, can reduce the risk of infection by 44-fold. Despite a legal requirement for an avian influenza prevention zone as a baseline for the industry, veterinary investigations at infected premises continue to reveal unacceptable lapses in biosecurity in some cases. The industry must play its part in helping to prevent further outbreaks. That means maintaining buildings properly, ensuring biosecurity is done as robustly as health and safety with senior leadership in companies, and effective training for all staff. One small lapse can have a devastating effect, allowing this terrible disease to enter into a poultry house.

The measures legally require birdkeepers to keep their birds indoors and to follow stringent biosecurity measures to help protect their flocks from the disease, regardless of type or size. I urge all birdkeepers, from those who keep large commercial flocks to those who have one or two birds in their back garden, to adopt the best practice biosecurity advice measures that are required in law.

Any future decisions on disease control measures, including the use of vaccination, will continue to be based on the latest scientific and veterinary advice. A lot of work is going on in the background internationally to develop that vaccine and make sure it works. As many Members have identified, the covid pandemic has given us much more professionalism and put much more of a system in place to develop those vaccines, and we will call on that expertise to try to find a vaccine that is effective, in order to prevent this disease internationally. That will also require a lot of co-operation in terms of trade, making sure that the markets we export to are willing to receive vaccinated meat products and eggs in future. That has to be an international agreement, because we do not want to damage our ability to export products.

We have seen a tightening in the egg sector, as some Members have referenced. The UK supply chain is resilient: there are currently 38 million laying hens across the country. Avian flu is not having an impact on the overall supply, with only 2% of the national flock having died or been culled due to avian flu. The disruption to the supply of eggs we have seen recently is mainly due to the commercial decisions that businesses are taking as a result of the rising costs of feed and energy over the past year, mostly caused by Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

We welcome the announcements made by some retailers that they will provide additional financial support to the egg sector in recognition of the challenges that the sector faces, and we encourage those retailers to continue to support the egg industry. We are working closely with devolved Administrations to keep the egg market under close review, and will continue to do so. We have also been keen to work closely with the egg industry; we have done so in recent weeks, and I will chair a roundtable on 6 December with representatives from across the UK egg supply chain to discuss the challenges that the sector is facing and determine how we can assist.

This has been a very positive debate. Lots of Members have identified the way out of this challenge in the long term, which of course will be vaccination. I sincerely hope that our scientists can find a solution that will solve our challenges. I express my extreme sympathy with those people who have been caught up with this terrible disease, and we will continue to work closely with the sector to make sure we have a thriving poultry industry moving forward.

The fact that we have had contributions this morning from Members from all parts of the Chamber and every part of the United Kingdom is an indicator of how important this issue is to our country. I am grateful to all those who have contributed to the debate; I am particularly grateful to the Minister for setting out what is already in train, and for demonstrating that the Department will continue to have urgent talks with the industry and is open to suggestions. I therefore wish everybody a happy Christmas, and that they enjoy their turkey at that time and, hopefully, for many years to come.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the avian influenza outbreak.

Accountability in the NHS

I will call Sir Mike Penning to move the motion, and then will call the Minister to respond. There will be no opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered accountability in the NHS.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I called this debate on accountability in the NHS. As a nation, we love our NHS which does a fantastic job for us, day in, day out. However, like any human being or organisation, sometimes it makes mistakes. When the NHS makes mistakes, the process of trying to get an apology or a mistake rectified is invariably a bureaucratic nightmare.

I have a couple of examples I would like to raise. I have permission from one to use their name, but I probably will not do so, because I will yet again pass correspondence to the Minister. I appreciate that the Minister here, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), is not responsible in the Department for this subject. The relevant Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), is on the Floor of the House answering questions, and I thank this Minister for explaining why she is not here.

We in Parliament are here to speak up for those who sometimes cannot speak up for themselves. When something goes wrong, Sir George, you would think we could get answers for constituents and get matters rectified, but within the NHS there is a lack of ministerial accountability, which I will come to in a moment. The complaints procedure eventually ends up with the ombudsman, but it takes for ever. There is a feeling in my constituency that, when things go wrong, the longer the process can be delayed, the more people will just accept what has happened. In some cases, they will sadly not be around any more. For their families and loved ones, this short debate is very important.

Probably the most dramatic example for me, not of the physical effects of surgery but of the effect on someone’s life, concerns one of my constituents. The NHS decided in 1986 that he needed an operation on his nose, but the operation that took place was not the one that was supposed to. I will use the language: it was botched. It was probably not intentional; it was a mistake but, to this day, that has had detrimental effects on his quality of life.

My constituent tried to go through the process of getting it rectified. I have tried to find out what was going on. He has pushed from pillar to post by different trusts: University College London and West Hertfordshire. I have written to previous Ministers over the years, only to be told that Ministers do not interfere in individual cases. I accept that but, when we reach a situation where there is nowhere else to go, ministerial accountability is important.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, not least for the sensitivity of the issues he is raising. Ministers under Governments of all colours have sought to keep NHS operational matters at arm’s length. Does he agree that that reduces accountability and effectiveness? I am thinking more generally about the current huge backlog in cancer diagnosis and treatment. I do not see any direct and urgent Government intervention. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that is partly the result of the lack direct operational accountability for Ministers to the service?

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. We have seen during covid that, actually, when things get really bad, Ministers can step in and Prime Ministers can step in, but when we talk about individual cases, they cannot.

In the case I am referring to, I ended up writing to the Minister, to be told to go to the ombudsman. I got fobbed off by the ombudsman, after we had been to the trust three or four times. I then wrote to the Minister again—this is over the course of years—to be told to take legal advice. This particular person has now been told, “Go back to your GP and get them to re-refer you if you’ve still got problems.” He has problems because they did not do the operation properly in the first place, and it has had a massive long-term effect on this gentleman’s quality of life.

That is not the only case. I have been here for nearly 18 years, and I worked for a Member of Parliament for many years before that. In every constituency, this sort of case is brought before the MP. I have another example. Last summer, in the middle of heatwave in July, when the temperatures were unbelievably high, a very vulnerable young lady was brought in for a scan at my local hospital. She is the most vulnerable young lady. Her mother cares for her 24/7. She has carers in. She is a wheelchair user or bed-bound. She was left on a trolley in the heat for five hours when her ambulance did not arrive.

When I contacted the trust and said, “What happened there?” it blamed the ambulance trust. When I contacted the ambulance trust, it said, “No, it was cancelled by the trust—it was their fault.” I do not care whose fault it was. It was the NHS’s fault that this happened to a very vulnerable young lady. She had no drink and no food. She was very, very ill. The ambulance trust said that the return journey was cancelled because she was so poorly on the trolley—well, she was so poorly because she had been left there for five hours!

Trying to get to the bottom of what happens within the NHS when something goes wrong is so difficult. We have seen terrible situations in maternity services and in trusts around the country. These problems need to be addressed early on, instead of the drawbridge being brought up and people having to go through a massive complaints procedure where they have to complain three times before going to the ombudsman, and then the ombudsman will say it is out of time, and if they are not careful, they cannot go to court because that is out of time too. Is that the way we want our NHS to be seen by the public, who love the NHS?

The NHS sees the NHS as a single entity. As MPs—and I was a shadow Health Minister for four and a half years—we understand that it is not a single entity. It is a set of silos where everybody passes the buck back and forth. What we need is joined-up thinking. When Members like myself write to Ministers about these issues, the answer is not to say, “Nothing to do with me, guv” and pass it down the line to the ombudsman or a lawyer. That surely costs more money and does not put the NHS in a particularly good light with my constituents who have had their operations botched

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He talks about silos, and I want to give him an example of that in my constituency. Many people await their care packages in order to be released from hospital and get better at home. On the other hand, there are people waiting urgently for hospital beds who cannot get one. Does he agree that there must be greater communication between trust managers and social care workers to ensure efficiency of care in the community, which would free up hospital beds and allow people to be treated quicker? In other words, we should do away with the silos and get things co-ordinated.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I know that right next to my constituency, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell) goes to Watford General Hospital and looks at the boards to see whether people can medically be discharged, but they cannot because there is a lack of joined-up thinking.

This is different. This is about the need for the NHS, when it may or may not have made a mistake, to address it full-on at the start. It should not draw up the drawbridge, with people having to go through the long, drawn-out procedure of making complaints and going to the ombudsman. For a Minister to say to a colleague and fellow MP, “Perhaps this person needs to take legal advice,” is not the attitude we should have towards people who have done the right thing. The NHS has said that they should have an operation, and the NHS has mucked up and botched—I use that word under privilege. At the same time, the person’s life has been detrimentally affected for years and years to come.

I know the Minister is not the Minister responsible, but because we are all constituency MPs, I guarantee that before he was in his position, people were at his surgeries or wrote to him to say, “This happened to me within the NHS. What can you do to help me do something about it?” Somewhere along the line, perhaps the short debate we are having today will nudge the Department of Health and Social Care and the Government —I was a Minister in several Departments—to look at ministerial oversight.

The right hon. Gentleman is making a fantastic speech. In the light of this week’s shocking reports from Byline Times about the amount of sexual abuse and rapes that have occurred in hospital settings, does he agree that to improve accountability, we need the Government not only to urgently repeal the five-year rule, which limits some people from making complaints to the NHS, but to have clear, systematic and consistent data collection on all sexual misconduct across all hospital settings?

As usual, I agree with the hon. Lady. We do not agree on everything, but we agree on 99% of things.

This is the crux of the matter, and there are two real issues here. In the case that I spoke about earlier, which goes way back to the ’80s, the gentleman’s mental and physical health has not been great. Other people, including the extreme examples alluded to by the hon. Lady, may be mentally affected in a way that I and many of the people in this room probably cannot understand. To have a block exclusion post five years seems so arbitrary in the modern world. The Government really must look at whether there should be an arbitrary rule and perhaps leave it to others to decide, rather than setting down in regulation the exceptional circumstances that might well have been in place. Trusts do have delegated powers—many more powers than I think they should have—and I know the new Act will help that, but it does not take into consideration the points that we have tried to raise in this morning’s debate.

If we had this debate on the Floor of the House, I think we would have a full Chamber of colleagues. Rather than talking down the NHS, they would be saying, “When things go wrong, we need to address them.” When I was Police Minister, there was a big mistake under my portfolio, and I went before the House, explained that mistakes were made on the funding formula and put my hands up. I took a lot of flak for that, but it was a way to address things going forward. With the NHS being such a massive organisation, and an organisation that the public want to be able to trust, it must be better for us to address the issues at the start of a complaint.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, did not write the letter that I mentioned; it was written by her officials, who desperately want to defend the NHS. The complaint was not about the NHS in general; it was about a specific issue that we need to address. We are all here as Members of Parliament because we are supposed to represent the taxpayer—representation through taxation. I should be able to represent my constituents in that way without being told to go to the ombudsman. I know I have to go to the ombudsman, because I have been here a very long time, so I am capable of working that out. I am also capable of working out that we are outside the time limit, given the five-year rule.

We need a change of mindset. I do not want individual Ministers to say, “This operation should take place, that one shouldn’t, and the hospital should have this number of wards”, but there has to be ministerial oversight when things go well, and when things go wrong.

My constituent has given me permission to raise his case. I think it would be more useful not to put his name on the record here, but I will pass another letter to the Minister, which I hope might get a little more positivity when the Minister responsible writes back to me, rather than a response that fobs us off and says, “Please go away.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on bringing this important debate to the House today. I know from our numerous conversations over the years that he is a tireless champion of healthcare provision, not just within his own constituency, and an advocate for instilling accountability and a learning culture throughout the NHS as a whole. Today, he has raised some difficult cases, albeit anonymised. I know the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), who is responsible for patient safety, looks forward to receiving more information and will be happy to meet our right hon. Friend to discuss the cases further.

I assure my right hon. Friend that this Government share his commitment to ensuring that the NHS delivers excellent care to all of its patients. We will never tire in striving to ensure that patient safety and high-quality care are at the heart of all patient care in our country. I am of the firm view that accountability for excellence applies at all levels of patient care, from the individual clinician caring for an individual patient through to Parliament’s role, as my right hon. Friend set out, in ensuring accountability for healthcare delivery by the NHS. It is essential that the commitment to excellence is central.

My right hon. Friend rightly says that we love our NHS. Of course we do. However, we recognise that on rare occasions—not as rare as I would like—patient care falls short of the very high standards that we expect. He talked about getting answers for his constituents as a Member of Parliament. That is hugely important. I apologise that ministerial responses have not been as full as he hoped they would be. I will certainly look into that, because those responses are important. As a constituency MP, I too have cases from constituents who have raised concerns, either about their GP or their acute trust, and the level of service provided.

My right hon. Friend rightly raises questions about why the NHS as an organisation does not more often simply say “sorry” when things go wrong. It is, as he sayd, a human business and things do go wrong.

I hear what he said about ministerial responses. He is also right to say that Ministers are unable at present to respond to individual cases. There are reasons for that. As the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said, the NHS is a complex organisation. We have NHS England, integrated care boards, integrated care systems, primary care networks, acute trusts, mental health trusts and ambulance trusts, and there is a question about whether Ministers or bodies such as NHS England and individual trusts should hold a level of operational accountability or delivery responsibility. That is a fair question, raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, but it is a tricky balance to reach.

Ultimately, who is responsible for any failings within the NHS? Well, that is me. Who is responsible for delivery of services through the NHS? Not me. That position presents some challenges. Ministers have the ability to set the strategy at national level, but there is a big difference between the strategy, the approach, the culture and the leadership set in Whitehall and what actually happens at grassroots level at individual trusts. However, although I do not have direct operational responsibility, trust me when I say that every single day I am thinking about every single case where an ambulance is delayed and people have to wait too long; about all the 7.1 million people in our elective backlog, and about all those who do not get the excellent care that they rightly deserve and expect through our NHS. That is because I am the one who is responsible for that. I get the letters, and sometimes the responses are not as full as we would want, because I do not have at my fingertips all the information I need to be able to respond in the way I would like. We need to look at that.

My right hon. Friend rightly says that most people do not want to sue or take legal action against our NHS. They are desperately sad about what has happened, and they may be disappointed or even angry, but that does not mean that they want to seek financial redress or sue a hospital trust. They know the implications of that—the money comes out of operational budgets.

Having been the responsible Minister, I am acutely aware that we have an annual clinical negligence bill of £2.6 billion, which is huge. Understandably, I would rather spend that £2.6 billion on NHS frontline services. I have huge sympathy with my right hon. Friend’s view that we should collectively put our hands up, explain what went wrong and why, demonstrate how we are learning from that as an organisation, and clearly explain the steps that we are taking to put it right. We collectively as Ministers have a role to play in that. I will reflect on his comments and explore what more we can do.

The Government have made significant strides to advance patient safety over the last decade. As I said, it remains a top priority not just for the Government but for me personally. We are creating a transparent learning culture across health systems. That is key to avoiding tragedies in the first place, and essential to driving the improvements that we want to see. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, patient feedback has to be at the heart of that. Patients have to have the opportunity to share their experiences.

It is vital that clinicians reflect upon the lessons learned and translate them into opportunities to improve their practice. That is vital for not just the individual consultant, doctor, nurse or allied health professional, but the NHS as a whole. We have to listen and learn from individual patient stories. Accountability is a thread that has to run through every single level of the NHS—from individual patient complaints and the learning they generate to organisational responsibility for the standard of patient care, through to integrated care boards and the delivery of high-quality outcomes and access to care for their populations.

The accountability owed to partner organisations and local patients is just as important as accountability to national bodies. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, that is why we passed the Health and Care Act 2022, which embeds the principle of accountability throughout the NHS and our health and care system.

The Minister is being generous in his comments to myself and to colleagues. The issue for colleagues and patients is that the over £2 billion bill, the delayed operations and the waiting lists would be remarkably smaller problems if we had addressed them right at the start. The biggest point, going back to my constituent, is that the wrong operation was done in 1986. That gentleman has been back and forth with the NHS, with help from myself and others, which must have cost the NHS a small fortune in legal fees. Instead of addressing the individual issue to stop it getting bigger, the NHS fobbed and fobbed it off and passed it back around.

I know we are short on time and the Minister wants to conclude. My final point is that when Ministers send out letters, it is often the trust that we are complaining about that has drafted the letter to their officials, which actually ends up coming to us. In a classic example the other day, I was thanked for being so supportive of the refurbishment of Watford General Hospital, when actually I have opposed it for the last 20 years. The trust wanted to send that message to the Minister, rather than address what we needed to address, which is patient safety. The stress on patients in this particular case is huge.

My right hon. Friend is right that there is a lot more that we can do. Reflecting what he has just said, I will touch on some of the measures that have been put in place over recent years.

In 2019 there was the NHS patient safety strategy. We introduced, for the first time ever, a patient safety commissioner. There is the Health Service Safety Investigations Body, which will be an arm’s length body from April 2023 and which was the brainchild of the Chancellor when he was Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, there has also been huge investment in maternity services following those awful cases, not just to boost staff numbers, but to improve leadership and culture. There have also been changes to the Care Quality Commission, with the single framework coming in from January next year.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that some cases take far too long, especially some of the neonatal cases. Those are often the cases that result in the largest payments made, but it can take many years before patients and families get the redress they needed. The Health Services Safety Investigations body is designed to be far more upfront about where something goes wrong. It is much better to learn the lessons in the period immediately after something has gone wrong than several years after the event, looking back retrospectively on what could have been done differently. We need to learn the lessons now and ensure that as few patients as possible go through the same experience. Clinicians, not just within that trust but across the integrated care board, or, where appropriate, across our NHS, should learn those lessons.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead has hammered home the point again about ministerial responses. I hear him, and I will speak with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes to see what more we can do in that space. Those points are well made. However, it is difficult because of the number of NHS acute trusts and the fact that we rely on information about what happened on the ground. It is a huge and complex organisation, but I understand, recognise and take his point that ministerial responsibility and oversight is important.

We need to know the facts, and not just the facts as they are presented by a trust, in whose interest it might be to paint a rosier picture than it actually is on the ground—or to not paint the full picture. That is why it is so important that Ministers engage with local Members of Parliament to get the facts. They are the ones who are meeting with the trust executives and the board, as well as their constituents and the clinicians and health professionals on the ground delivering care, who will often—for want of a better word—whistleblow about what is actually happening in a trust, and not give the rose-tinted view that the executives of a trust may want.

This has been a hugely important debate. It speaks to issues that are at the heart of our NHS. It is about getting it right first time and the excellent and consistent patient care that we rightly expect from our NHS. I hope, to some extent, that I have assured my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead of the importance that the Government place on quality, excellent patient care and accountability. His points have been well made. I will reflect on them, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes. I look forward to working with him to improve the situation across our NHS.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Greening the Financial System

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of greening the financial system.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bone. Before I begin, I would like to thank the numerous organisations, especially ShareAction and the WWF, that offered advice and briefing in the run-up to this debate, which is on quite a technical subject.

This is a very important area of debate. Not only do we face the twin climate and nature crises as possibly the greatest existential challenge of our era, but to meet them we will have to engage every part of economy and society, especially our financial system. Globally, the volume of privately invested financial assets is expected to reach $140.4 trillion by 2025, a 250% growth in less than 20 years. In the UK alone, pension assets amount to almost £3 trillion. Across the globe, investment in pensions constitutes half of all the money in the world.

An estimated £32 trillion of investment is required to decarbonise the global economy. In the UK, private investment in carbon-cutting activities such as home insulation and electric vehicle charging points needs to grow by an extra £140 billion over the next five years to reach our current net zero goals. It is therefore not only right but essential to mobilise these vast global and national resources to tackle the climate and nature emergencies; however, our finance system is not serving the interests of people or planet. Just 100 of the richest companies are responsible for over 70% of all global emissions. The world’s three largest asset managers have a combined £300 billion invested in fossil fuels, including money from private savings and pensions. In the five years since the Paris agreement, the world’s 60 largest banks have financed fossil fuel projects to the tune of $3.8 trillion.

Britain is a financial giant and the biggest net exporter of financial services in the world. Our weight in the global financial system means we have the influence to reshape it for the better, but we remain part of the problem. If the City of London were a country, the emissions it finances would make it the ninth largest polluter in the world. Between 2016 and 2021, UK banks HSBC and Barclays provided $107.44 billion to the top 50 companies expanding upstream oil and gas.

So far, efforts to change the system, such as through the Government’s green finance strategy and new benchmarks such as the TCFD—Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures—recommendations, have emphasised greater reporting, transparency and information. Initiatives have often been sector-led. However, while they are necessary, they are certainly not sufficient. We also need action and regulation, not only to shift financial flows away from carbon-intensive areas and towards climate-friendly investment, but to ensure that financial institutions play their own role in tackling the systemic problems in the sector.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate her on securing the debate. Does she agree that a very important part of the issue to be resolved is the impact of financial investment in countries and organisations involved in deforestation, and that it is important for the City of London and our financial services sector to face the same kind of due diligence requirements that the Government rightly put in place for retailers in the Environment Act 2021, in terms of forest risk products? I encourage the Minister to consider that as an important next step in our battle against the loss of ecologically important forests around the world.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I completely agree: deforestation is a massive issue, and finance plays a huge role in it.

As I was saying, we need financial institutions to play their own role in tackling the systemic problems in the sector, alongside the overarching role. The Financial Services and Markets Bill, which is due back in the House next week, was an opportunity to do that, but the Bill has sent the wrong message. Take the priorities that the Bill sets out for regulators: that they should aim to enhance the competitiveness of the sector, but should only “have regard to” the Government’s net zero target.

That undermines the Government’s green finance strategy, which has two objectives:

“To align private sector financial flows with clean, environmentally sustainable and resilient growth…and to strengthen the competitiveness of the UK financial sector.”

A principle does not have the same force as a statutory aim. The Bill, therefore, represents a significant downgrading of the first target of the ambition set out in the green finance strategy.

The Bill was also an opportunity to move more rapidly on instituting mandatory net zero transition plans for financial institutions, but they are so far missing from the legislation. Plans are important, because they move us away from simply reporting and sharing information, to concrete climate action. We should also be doing much more on investor stewardship and fiduciary duty.

We need not only to encourage and incentivise fossil-fuel divestment, but to ensure that investors are engaging with and making demands of companies on climate action. That means raising capital requirements on fossil-fuel investments and raising the bar on stewardship, so that climate and nature form critical points of engagement with companies. That should also mean expanding the concept of fiduciary duty. The purpose of a pension is to provide a standard of living to the beneficiary when they retire. We need to shift the concept of fiduciary duty away from gaining returns at any cost, to thinking about the kind of world beneficiaries will retire to, or the world in which their children will grow up. Pension investors have a duty to their customers to ensure that the world is not wracked by flooding, flash fires, famine and freak weather, all driven by the climate emergency.

It is clear that the Financial Services and Markets Bill does not go far enough; it may even exacerbate some of the results of the climate crisis. Global heating has made our food supply even more insecure. In dumping the MiFID II regulations, the Bill makes speculation on food even more likely, driving up prices and worsening the consequences of the climate emergency.

However, the issue is not just regulation: so much needs to be done to create markets for green investment. In the green finance strategy, the Government set out their approach to leveraging private investment in five key areas: power, homes, transport, environmental land management and business energy use. On power, we have seen an effective ban on onshore wind, blocking of oven-ready new solar and nothing on tidal. On homes, since the Government “cut the green crap”—I am quoting—in 2013, home insulation has flatlined.

On transport, unless we are talking about building more roads for cars, the system is ravaged by underinvestment. In my constituency, people can wait more than an hour for a bus. On environmental land management, the Government appear to have scrapped or delayed environmental and land management schemes, and are now umming and aahing about their replacement. On business energy use, I repeatedly hear of small and medium-sized enterprises that want to do much more about their emissions, but do not feel they have the support to monitor them and cannot afford the upgrades to do anything about them.

I have long argued for a green new deal, and it is obvious from what I have just said that we are desperately in need of one. One way to kick-start that would be to re-examine the mandates of public financial institutions, such as the British Business Bank, offering discounted financial products to SMEs to make green investment in their business.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. There is a real role to play for public finances—contracts for difference and national funding—but we also see private finance coming in. If we had regulation, for instance on carbon offsetting or through the green investment bank, private finance would flow into this area. Even that is not happening with the Government. Would a better regulatory environment create those green financial opportunities?

I completely agree. The regulatory framework that we have here is really holding us back, when it could offer us real opportunities and help to prevent things from getting worse, which is my fear.

For example, we really need to think about what more we can do to support everything, from the bottom to the top of our financial system. That is why I mentioned SMEs, because they are the backbone of many of our local economies. However, an inability to access the financial products that I am talking about is causing a lot of harm to the future of those businesses. Alternatively, strengthening the climate commitments in the mandate for the UK Green Investment Bank while strengthening its lending power could really help to unlock some of this issue.

We could be doing so much more. I hope that when the Financial Services and Markets Bill returns to the House, Members will support amendments along the lines that I have outlined. I also hope that this debate spurs the Government to greater action, because we certainly need it.

Order. I will call Alexander Stafford next. I am helpfully provided with a list of people who are going to speak; by his name, it says, “Ignore”. However, as you are here, Sir, I will call you.

Thank you, Mr Bone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and I am glad that you ignored the orders given to you from high above. I appreciate that in all aspects of life.

First of all, I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) on securing this debate. She is a south Yorkshire colleague, and we have appeared together on various panels and at numerous events, both in south Yorkshire and in this place, since we were elected in 2019. I know that she shares my passion about building a greener future for the people of south Yorkshire and for Britain as a whole.

I think the hon. Lady also agrees with me that greening our financial system is not something that any one person, business or party can do alone. I know that people in financial services across the UK are working together to encourage green investment and green banking. I also know that many Members from across the House are working together to encourage green finance. I am grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to do my bit to push this cause.

First of all, I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on environmental, social and governance, or ESG. Our group has been hard at work on this topic for the past 18 months, since I founded it. We have looked a lot at sustainable finance. I am particularly pleased to be able to speak today, because tomorrow—I know the Minister is listening carefully—the APPG is publishing a report on the upcoming UK green taxonomy, which will be an essential part of the UK’s green finance strategy. Although I do not want to beat the press by saying what is going to be in that report, I am sure the Minister is looking forward to reading it; I will write to him to encourage to read it and ask questions in the House to make sure that he has.

A UK green taxonomy, first announced in the Treasury’s “Greening Finance: A Roadmap to Sustainable Investing” policy paper just over a year ago, is simply a classification system for sustainable finance. Members who do not know about it should think of it as a tool to help investors understand whether an economic activity is environmentally sustainable or not. It helps businesses to navigate the sea of transition to reach the lands of the low-carbon economy. Crucially, it will hopefully spell the end of greenwashing by clearly showing what is sustainable and what is not. Once the report is published, firms will no longer be able falsely to claim green credentials that they do not deserve or to fool investors by fluffy sustainability reports that do not have any meat to them.

Under this upcoming green taxonomy, any economic activity that meets the strict scientific requirements for being sustainable can be designated as taxonomy-aligned. That will enable investors, firms and funds proudly to label their investments or products as being aligned with the taxonomy, thus boosting such funds and giving consumers confidence to invest in them. British firms will then be able to root out greenwashed investments and replace them with products scientifically proven to be sustainable.

This will not only change the game within our own economy; it will also propel the UK back to the forefront of global green finance. As I am sure many Members will know, the UK has one of the deepest pools of internationally oriented capital, with 12% of the global total of foreign companies listed in the UK, and at least 80% of equity and 50% of debt invested in by UK asset managers is directed overseas. That means that there is a visible multiplier effect; any changes made here in the UK will echo around the world. We have a real opportunity to retake our position as the leader in green finance.

On that point, the most important takeaway from the APPG’s report, which will be published tomorrow, is—as I am sure all Members will agree when they read it—that we need this taxonomy now. The EU’s green taxonomy was launched over two years ago, and new taxonomies are being designed in green finance hubs worldwide, such as China, Korea and South Africa.

Right now, we have what I would call the second-mover advantage. We have missed the initial go, but we can build on the mistakes made in the EU’s taxonomy, such as on different types of fuel and gas, to create a better and stronger taxonomy that will be mirrored by international partners the world over. We can learn from the taxonomies out there and make ours the best—we can make the UK the world leader again. However, the longer we wait, and as more and more countries come out with their own taxonomies, the less this advantage matters to us, and the less we can learn and improve; we will just be following. If we keep delaying in the fashion that we have done, we will lose our advantage, and our taxonomy will simply fall into being just one of the roughly 30 taxonomies being developed worldwide. We need to move fast and publish it soon, so that we can retake our rightful position.

Although speed is of the essence, we must be sure not to sacrifice quality, and the taxonomy has to be robust. The Treasury must make sure that our green taxonomy is widely consulted on, and I urge it to begin the consultation that was promised to commence in March. Stakeholders, academics, firms and investors must be consulted in order to build a taxonomy that is credible, usable and interoperable. Fundamentally, it must also have the confidence of the consumer. If our taxonomy fails to hit all three of those marks, it will have failed before it has even begun.

Greenwashing has instilled market distrust of anything held out as sustainable or green. We must work hard to rebuild trust, and a credible, science-based taxonomy that is usable, that does not present yet more compliance and that is more internationally focused should be the aspiration for the way forward. We must ensure that we get rid of the greenwash in our system; if the greenwash keeps happening, consumer confidence will be lost and consumers and the public will turn their backs on green financial measures.

I am sure the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam will agree with me that a UK green taxonomy, as described in the upcoming report, is essential to a good UK financial system. I hope the Minister will read the report, and I look forward to hearing his comments when he has.

I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) for securing the debate and for setting the scene so well, and it is always nice to follow the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), who cannot be ignored—indeed, he was not ignored in the Chamber today by you, Mr Bone. He is certainly a gentleman who sets the scene well on subjects that he is interested in and knowledgeable about.

As part of our climate change goals, greening our financial system has become a priority, and the hon. Members for Sheffield, Hallam and for Rother Valley are absolutely right to say how important that is. I believe that our financial systems across the UK have a duty to ensure that they are investing wisely in green strategies and understand that banks can take steps to become greener. I always speak from a Northern Ireland perspective, and I will give examples of some of the things that we are doing. Before I do so, I want to say that I am encouraged by Government strategies in relation to mapping and charting a way forward. Perhaps we will hear more about that from the Minister, who I hope will give us encouragement.

In November 2020, the then UK Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), set out his “The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution”. I always welcome such steps, but what we want to see, and I think what the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam wants to see, is a wee bit more meat on the bones, to see what the plan means. The former Prime Minister stated that his plan would create hundreds of thousands of jobs,

“making strides towards net zero by 2050.”

The highlights included a ban on combustion engine sales by 2030, a pledge to quadruple offshore wind power by 2030—the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam referred to offshore and onshore wind power—and an investment of £525 million towards new nuclear power. I am not absolutely sure whether the target for the ban on combustion engine sales by 2030 is achievable, given that we live in a country whose population is dispersed between urban and rural areas. I live in the countryside, where people need to have cars—usually diesel cars in the case of the farming community—because bus services are not always dependable.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam also referred to charging points. We have a lot to do in Northern Ireland to catch up on charging points; I mean that. I know that the Government, Northern Ireland Assembly and local councils back home have taken some steps, but again they are all commitments: we have not yet seen much of how they will work out.

In relation to nuclear power and the other things in the former Prime Minister’s strategy, the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy came up with its own strategy entitled “Future Energy Decarbonisation Scenarios”, which aimed to represent realistic green truths for the future of our economy, financial sectors and businesses. Both strategies ensure that the banking and finance sector will play a key role in the greening of the economy and the ambition to reach net zero by 2050. I, the hon. Lady and others welcome the commitment, but we want to see how it will turn out.

The UK must ensure that we consolidate our position as a global hub for green finance. We must position the UK at the forefront of green financial innovation and data and analytics, and build skills and capabilities on green finance. Banks are looking to help their customers thrive in the low-carbon transition, and build a more sustainable future for themselves, their businesses and ultimately the planet that we live on, which we will leave for our children and grandchildren.

I commend the Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland in particular. One branch is only a couple of doors down from my office in Newtownards. That bank is offering green initiatives for Northern Ireland businesses, which include the adaption of smart technology, going paperless, cutting energy costs by introducing remote working, and carrying out energy audits that allow businesses to spot where costs could be saved. That is a very practical and physical way of showing how we can move forward. I commend the Ulster Bank for its commitment and clear strategy, and for doing its bit for customers. I wish that other banks in Northern Ireland, and indeed across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, would take similar initiatives.

The Green Finance Institute in Northern Ireland has stated that we need an extra £5 billion over the next decade to protect and restore nature. In relation to the UK as a whole, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology released a briefing to discuss the financial risks of nature loss. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), and the shadow spokesperson for the Scots nats party, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), have a deep interest in that subject, as does the Minister. We cannot ignore nature loss.

The Amazon rainforest has always been a pet subject of the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who is no longer in his place. He often talks about it. Just last week in the national papers, I read an article that said the Amazon rainforest is at a crux. It is reaching the stage where it will no longer be the lungs of the world, such has been the destruction and the removal of trees. We need to encourage the Brazilian Government. The article made the point—and this ties in well with the debate today—that many investment companies, finance companies and banks are investing in the companies that are removing the trees from the Amazon rainforest. There is a duty upon them to look at what they are doing, and how it is affecting the Amazon.

Some people will ask how relevant the Amazon rainforest is to us here in London today. Well, it is incredibly relevant. It is the lungs of the world and the biggest rainforest—at least it is now; we are not sure whether that will continue. I will ask the Minster one question, ever mindful that he is out to respond in a positive fashion. What discussions has he been able to have with the Brazilian Government, and with the finance companies and banks that are investing in the firms that are removing trees from the rainforest? What happens there will become irreversible at some stage. We in this part of the world—in London—will be poorer for that. Let us do something positive if we can.

Some of this economic activity is driving the nature loss that I referred to. That results in physical sources of financial risk for businesses and financial institutions. For example, that 1 million species are under threat of extinction should not solely be an issue of concern for conservationists, ecologists and nature lovers. It should also concern global business, the finance industry and the agri-environment sector. We cannot ignore the fact that we unfortunately get regular notifications about the animals, birds and plants that are in danger of becoming extinct because of what is happening.

We need a strategy and a way forward for the finance industry and the agri-environment sector. Meeting our targets will require unprecedented public and private sector investment. The Government have not been slow to respond to requests about environmental technology, infrastructure, services and jobs, and we welcome that.

It is encouraging that several Northern Ireland and United Kingdom banks and financial institutions have joined green marketplaces. That indicates that we are heading in the right direction to green our financial system. I know this request does not suit everybody, and perhaps it is not the right thing to do from a ministerial point of view, but I sometimes wonder whether we should set targets, although if we do that and do not achieve them, does that mean that we are not winning? It is good to have a target or a percentage at least to ensure we are heading in the right direction in greening the financial system.

It is great to see the uptake of green loans, which ensure environmentally friendly and sustainable investments into businesses. That is another indication of the success of financial institutions and their willingness to take part in supporting this agenda.

We all recognise that there is still a long way to go, but we are committed to the strategy and the programme of change, and are doing our best to head that way. What discussions have other countries in the world had? COP27 has just finished. It was good to get a deal at the end, but it took a long time. I noticed when I watched it on TV that they were sitting there for 36 or maybe 48 hours, and were under a bit of pressure. How do such agreements relate to a strategy for the future? I look to the Minister to assess what further steps we can take as a collective on green finance to meet our 2030 and 2050 targets and goals.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) for securing today’s important debate, and I commend colleagues from across the House for their contributions. We are speaking about the most important issue facing humanity and looking at some very specific, important and positive aspects of the contribution that the financial services community can make through wise investment.

I will focus on the potential contribution of the pensions industry in the UK and in other countries. I believe the contribution is entirely positive and should be commended. I praise the work of the Minister I used to shadow, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who took me to a site where solar farms were being built on reclaimed land, which was previously a landfill site. That is a fantastic example of this type of positive investment, and it illustrates the enormous potential to use onshore wind and solar in the UK to reduce carbon emissions. Pensions investments can be used in a highly constructive way to support and protect the environment and drive this important agenda.

The site that we visited is right next to the M4. It is in Berkshire, but not in my constituency—it is in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood). It is on a site that used to contain gravel pits and landfill, and the solar panels are next to a motorway, so it is in no way an eyesore or a problem for the local community. In fact, it is an entirely benign development. I believe that there are many more such sites that have enormous potential for solar and onshore wind, and I hope the Minister addresses the Government’s policy on these important issues when he responds.

There is the potential for a win-win: pension savings can be invested constructively in an industry that offers great long-term returns for savers. The industry is aware of that and is working with the Government. What is needed now is a firmer steer from the Government, particularly on the benefits of onshore wind and solar in the UK. They need to make that clear to the industry to help in its planning process and thinking ahead. This area of investment needs a long-term perspective, and greater reassurance from Ministers would be helpful. I urge the Minister to respond to that point. I also reassure Government Members that such sites are plentiful. There is a lot of brownfield land in the UK. There are lots of other sites where solar and wind need not be a visual intrusion to local communities, which may well welcome them as a source of green energy.

On the contribution to pension savings, some funds are actively looking for illiquid long-term investment that can provide a reliable return in the future, and investment in the sector is just what they are looking for. They are looking at similar sectors such as social housing and other forms of infrastructure, but I believe there is particular value in investing in green energy. It would be wonderful if the Minister could do more to reassure the sector when he responds today and, in particular, to move on from the rather negative comments made by some of his colleagues about onshore wind and solar, which have an enormous contribution to make. They are cheaper to deploy than offshore solutions. They also have the advantage of greater accessibility, and are often nearer to the grid. The site that I mentioned was right next to a line of pylons running across the country, so it was easy to plug into the grid, and other sites in other parts of the UK are similar. I hope the Minister will come back on that point.

I appreciate that other colleagues want to contribute—indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) is due to speak for the Opposition—so I will sum up by urging the Minister to be clear about the Government’s intentions on onshore wind and solar. They can make a very important contribution to this vital issue. There is a real desire on the part of the pensions industry to see that change from Government, so I look forward to hearing what he says. I hope he will be able to reassure us and our constituents across the country.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) on securing this debate. It is good to see Back-Bench participation.

The hon. Lady set the scene very well on the amount of investment required for us to achieve our climate goals, and on the specific impact that so few companies have, with 100 companies responsible for 70% of emissions. The scale of investment from the City of London makes it the equivalent of the ninth biggest polluter in the world. Those are very stark statistics.

I liked the key point about pension funds and looking at wider beneficiary considerations rather than just returns. Clearly, there is no point in having a high financial return if it results in greenhouse gas emissions that wreck the planet we live on. Also, the point about energy efficiency investment flatlining is key. We need to get more money invested into energy efficiency.

An answer that I got to a written question said that 12 million homes are still rated in EPC band D to G in terms of energy efficiency, so to get every property upgraded to band C by 2030 means that more than 1,000,700 properties need to be upgraded every year.

We heard from the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford). I commend him on the work he is doing as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on environmental, social, and governance. I pledge to look out for its report. He made a key point about the risk of greenwashing and how we need to make sure that that does not remain part of the financial system. On greenwashing, I am always cynical when companies contact me and say, “Hurray! We have set a target. We have announced we are going to meet net zero. Will you congratulate us and promote us?” I never do that because I want to see the proof of the pudding.

As always, we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who made a very good contribution. He rightly pointed out that it is fine to have 10-point plans and other soundbites, but, as he said, we need meat on the bone. The reality is that we need a joined-up Government strategy to deliver. He touched on the risk of the Amazon’s deforestation and how we cannot allow investment that encourages that. It seems to me that we should encourage investment as part of the loss and damage considerations as we move forward as well. I did wonder if the hon. Gentleman slipped up slightly, and I have to ask if he is okay, because he did not once mention Better Together. I think that is the first time he has not done that.

Finally, we heard from the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), who again highlighted the importance of the pensions industry in driving investment in brownfield regeneration to create renewable energy. What could be better than to regenerate in a sustainable way and actually help bring down emissions?

As many Members have said, it goes without saying that we do need to hit net zero, in line with the Paris climate agreement on a global scale, if the Earth is to have a proper future at all. Time is running out. But as well as fighting this existential threat, we do actually have fantastic economic growth opportunities arising from the green investment required.

As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam said, an estimated $32 trillion of investment is needed globally by 2030 to tackle climate change alone. Instead of the bland rhetoric about being global Britain, there is actually a great opportunity for the UK to be a global centre for those financial flows. It will bring significant economic returns and help address our own economic challenges, including the ongoing cost of living and energy crisis. We have to remember that London recently lost its position as Europe’s most valuable stock market. This green concession could spur the necessary growth to help the UK regain its overall competitiveness.

The reality is that the UK will not lead the global green finance sector without the right regulatory framework to support it. At COP27, finance experts, including the former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, demanded the alignment of financial regulation with net zero. The reality is that the financial sector is exposed to financial risks that stem from nature loss, via the businesses they invest in, advise, insure and lend to. That was illustrated by the Bank of England’s first climate stress test, which concluded that UK banks’ insurers could end up taking on nearly £340 billion-worth of climate-related losses by 2050 without better mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Separately, the Green Finance Institute estimates that almost £650 billion-worth of infrastructure investment from UK organisations, planned to take place this decade, could face considerable climate risk. It is madness that the Government are trying to commit us to giving billions of pounds to Sizewell C, in an area that is subject to coastal erosion and the threat of increased sea levels due to climate change. That is not joined-up thinking when we are looking at infrastructure for the future.

The Financial Conduct Authority must have a duty to consider climate goals in dealing with its activities. The SNP’s proposed amendment to the Financial Services and Markets Bill could have had that effect. Had the amendment been accepted, it would have required the FCA to act in a way compatible not only with competitiveness and growth objectives, but with the Government’s climate commitments, in addition to strategic and operational objectives.

At the moment there is a disconnect between the Financial Services and Markets Bill and the Government’s work on transition plans. The COP26 commitment included the requirement for all UK regulated financial institutions and public listed companies to publish their net transition plans by 2023. To implement that, the Government pledged last year to legislate for mandatory transition plans through the UK sustainability disclosure requirements. But the Financial Services and Markets Bill fails to do so, and there is currently no other upcoming legislation to allow that to be implemented.

The Government’s transition plan taskforce, set up to develop the gold-standard transition plan guidance, recognises the importance of nature. By contrast, nature is not addressed in the Financial Services and Markets Bill, despite the Economic Secretary to the Treasury recognising in Committee that we cannot achieve our climate goals without acknowledging the vital role of nature. Other contributors touched on the importance of considering nature as well.

Even business is saying more needs to be done in terms of regulations. Numerous financial institutions, including Aviva Investors, Phoenix, Hargreaves Lansdown and Federated Hermes, have written to the Bill Committee backing a secondary statutory objective of facilitating the transition of financial services to net zero. Supplying goods and services to enable the global net zero transition could be worth £1 trillion to UK businesses by 2030. Accelerating the roll-out of low-carbon technologies could reduce household energy bills by up to £1,800 a year. Onshore wind is the cheapest form of energy generation, so, by blocking it for so many years, the Tories are adding money to consumers’ bills.

Get this right, and there are fantastic opportunities. However, Brexit Britain—a subject close to your heart, Mr Bone—is currently playing catch-up on green finance. The EU has legislated on a number of issues, which include corporate disclosures, climate-related obligations and sustainability-related disclosure in the financial services sector and the European green bond standard, while the UK lags behind. As the hon. Member for Rother Valley said, the UK also lags on taxonomy. There might be some failings that can be picked up and improved on, but the reality is that the UK lags behind.

A report by the social enterprise think-tank New Financial entitled “A reality check on green finance” claims that the value of green finance in Europe increased by 97% in 2021 compared with 2020 levels, to reach an overall total of €311 billion. It concludes that Government issuance tripled, and several nations launched sovereign green bonds as part of their covid-19 recovery plans. Meanwhile, activity in the private sector doubled year on year. The report also notes that, despite that massive increase in expenditure, green finance represented only 12% in all capital markets across Europe in 2021. By contrast, green finance in the UK accounted for only 6% to 7% of all capital markets activity.

It is clear that more must be done to green the financial services industry. It is imperative that the FCA is mandated to consider climate goals and that the Government improve legislation accordingly. To finish on a positive note, if we get this right, there are fantastic growth opportunities, green jobs and a just transition to net zero.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone. I see that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is on her feet in the main Chamber, so we may be interrupted, but let us see how we get on. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) on securing the debate. Having served on the Environmental Audit Committee, I know that this is a complex area. We did inquiries into green finance, and there are many aspects that could be covered.

My hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hallam and for Reading East (Matt Rodda) said that the financial sector needs a sense of stability from the Government—that has obviously been lacking somewhat in the past year, if not previously—so that it knows what the future direction is and feels safe in taking a long-term perspective on investments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East said, pension funds very much need a firm steer from the Government on where policy is heading. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam talked about the lack of investment in green infrastructure, whether it be transport or home insulation—she mentioned many things. That is because, again, the market does not have confidence that that is where it should put its money. I hope that can be rectified.

I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) said about the APPG report that is due out tomorrow. I was not aware that that work was in progress, and will certainly be reading it. It is sad that we lag so far behind the EU on green taxonomy. Anything that we can do to root out greenwashing would be appreciated across the board.

As the indefatigable hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, we very much agree on the nature side of things; we agree on quite a few things, perhaps surprisingly. He talked about the Amazon, as did the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who I know is doing good work with the APPG on global deforestation. It is crucial that UK financial institutions are not contributing to that by financing such activities in the Amazon and other places around the globe, and we should definitely seek to stamp that out in supply chains.

The hon. Member for Strangford also talked about EV charging points, a subject that is dear to my heart. Most people who own EVs know the pain of trying to charge at a public charging point, particularly if they have to venture into rural areas. Reliability used to be the issue, but now it is that everybody else wants to charge at the same time. I had to head down to Somerset at the weekend for work reasons, and I was in that situation. It is said that in England, we are never more than 20 miles from a charging point, which is not necessarily okay because we might get there and find we cannot use it and then have to drive another 20 miles. In Northern Ireland, it is 50 miles. We will inevitably get private sector investment where there is quicker market return—in other words, where there are more people to use the charging points and where there is that critical mass. The Government need to do more to pump-prime the market in rural areas and ensure that the public infrastructure is there. That can be done with the help of private finance, but the Government need to step in.

The contribution that the City makes to the UK economy cannot be overstated. It represents 8.3% of all economic output. It is one of our most successful exports and has been so for centuries; it has been at the heart of our economic life. Some people think there is a disconnect between what they call the real economy and the City, but allowing the City to thrive will deliver the tax receipts we need to repair our public services, to support people through the cost of living crisis, and to spearhead and finance economic growth.

Labour is committed to supporting the City to retain its competitiveness on the world stage. We support the principle of a new secondary statutory objective for regulators that prioritises both nature targets and long-term growth, but that in itself is not enough. We need to do more to harness the power of the City to drive growth in the real economy, and that means putting the right incentives in place for financial services to provide capital, credit, insurance and other services to firms in every sector and every region and nation of the UK.

Of course, sustainable growth in the 21st century means green growth. Climate change is the defining social challenge of our times, and we have seen this year what happens when we are overly reliant on fossil fuels and foreign dictators for our energy needs. Globally, the risks associated with climate change from the ever increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events will require insurance and reinsurance, as well as sustained investment in climate adaptation.

Labour does not see the transition to a green economy as a risk. We see it as an opportunity for both the City and the wider economy to reverse over a decade of stagnant growth and to create hundreds of thousands of green jobs. The financial services industry will have a key role to play. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam explained, UK public financial institutions such as the UK Infrastructure Bank must be aligned with predetermined sustainability aims and objectives.

There are numerous examples of the financial sector already supporting green innovation in British industries, yet too often businesses—especially SMEs—struggle to access the green capital they need. That goes back to what I was saying about the lack of market confidence to invest in the green transition. Leaving aside the political and economic instability of the past year, there have been specific moves by the Government that have undercut market confidence. In 2013, for example, the Government cut energy efficiency programmes, which saw home insulation rates fall by 92% in that year alone.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I just want to draw out some detail in relation to that final point from my constituency. It is a tragedy that the Government have made that mistake, because there are many people—often older people—living in terraced houses who do not have adequate home insulation. They have been failed by the Government, and that is a real tragedy.

Yes, and if the Government had kept that home insulation programme, they would now be having to spend a lot less money on bringing down energy bills, because people would be saving hundreds of pounds a year by having warmer homes.

There was a series of sudden changes to low-carbon energy policy in 2015 that undermined investment confidence. The moratorium on new onshore wind programmes in 2015 effectively destroyed the market. In the same year, the Government slashed solar subsidies, causing a huge crash in private investment. We are still not quite sure where the Government are on onshore wind or, indeed, on solar. There is the move to reclassify grade 3b agricultural land, bringing that out of solar use. As we have heard, the Prime Minister has not been able to give an answer, and at Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions yesterday, the Business Secretary was not able to give a clear line on onshore wind. I know that a vote will happen soon if a consensus is not found, but the market wants confidence. It wants to know whether it is time to invest in things such as onshore wind. That does not mean just a temporary lifting of the ban, subject to local consent; people need a long-term vision to be able to do this.

The Prime Minister did not inspire confidence in his initial approach to going to COP27; he was eventually dragged there. On the issue of international climate finance, there was the groundbreaking announcement of a loss and damage fund to assist developing countries, in response to the damage that they have incurred through climate change. There was a call for financial institutions to raise the ambition, to change the models and to create new financial instruments to increase access to finance. We ought to be at the heart of that global transfer of funds from developed countries that have polluted to countries that need support. Yesterday, I was with representatives of the overseas territories who are really struggling to get finance just to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy production in what are very small territories. We ought to be looking to support that through finance from the City of London.

The Government promised radical action on a green transition, and we were promised that the UK would become the world’s first net zero financial centre. Instead, as we have heard, we are falling behind global competitors. A recent report from the think-tank New Financial revealed that in both share and penetration of green finance in capital markets, the UK is a long way behind the EU. It found that green finance penetration in the UK is at half the EU level and roughly where the EU was four years ago.

I will say this very briefly, particularly because we are expecting the Division bell to go. Labour has given clarity through its green prosperity plan: £28 billion a year until 2030 for green investment. It is that sort of certainty that the Government need to adopt.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake). This is an incredibly important subject and a very timely debate. I thought she delivered her speech very clearly and eloquently and made some very important points, and I will do my best to respond to the various points that have been made by her and other colleagues. I thank them all for contributing to what has been a thoughtful debate.

I will just give a couple of personal perspectives. I had the privilege to represent the Treasury at the COP finance day. It was pretty much my second week in the job. It was striking that in discussions with financial counterparts, three of them raised the fact, without my prompting—just by coincidence—that their nations had raised their green sovereign bonds, or the equivalent instrument, in the UK. That is a real testament to the strength of the City. I think it was Mexico, Uruguay and Egypt, which of course was our host. That feeds into the point made by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), who spoke for the SNP: this should be seen as an economic opportunity. The journey to net zero goes hand in hand with strengthening our economy and taking advantage of economic opportunities. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) quite rightly referred to the green industrial revolution. I will go as far—[Interruption.]

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but the sitting will be suspended; we have a number of votes. If people return as soon as possible after the last vote, we will reconvene.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

To cut straight to the chase—given I was interrupted by the vote—we published the green finance strategy in 2019 and the “Greening Finance: A Roadmap to Sustainable Investing” policy paper in 2021. Together, they add up to an ambitious and detailed agenda on which we are making significant progress.

The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who spoke for the Labour party, said that the market needs a clear steer—just as I need to get my breath back. To be clear to her, a central tenet of our approach has been to ensure that every financial decision takes climate change into account. This year, the UK made good on our commitment to introduce a mandatory Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, or TCFD. This is the first country to make a commitment to do so and we have now delivered. As set out in the greening finance roadmap, we will build on those rules with new SDR rules, the aim of which is a comprehensive, streamlined and co-ordinated reporting framework. SDR will incorporate international sustainability standards—I’m sorry, but I have completely lost my breath.

Order. I am grateful to the Minister for running back—I know what it is like. We are pushing things a little earlier to help with later debates. My saying that might have given the Minister enough time to catch his breath.

You are very kind, Mr Bone. As I was saying, SDR will incorporate international sustainability standards, including the global baseline standards being developed by the International Financial Reporting Standards Foundation.

The SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, raised the subject of transition. A central element of SDR is transition plans for financial firms. We recognise the importance of requiring firms to set out how they will adapt as the world transitions towards a low-carbon economy. Transition plans form a key part of the UK’s ambition to become the world’s first net zero-aligned financial centre, and will see organisations setting out how they plan to adapt as the world transitions to a low-carbon economy. That is why we launched the transition plan taskforce in May to create the gold standard for transition planning. I was pleased to announce at COP a few weeks ago the launch of the TPT’s disclosure framework and implementation guidance consultation. The documents are a huge step and set out clear recommendations for the preparation and disclosure of high-quality transition plans.

Let me turn to the important issue of stewardship. More than 70% of the UK public say they want their investments to avoid harm and achieve good for people and planet. In 2020, on average UK savers put almost £1 billion a month into responsible investment funds—a clear sign that a shift is under way. As made clear in “Greening Finance: A Roadmap to Sustainable Investing”, the Government expect the UK’s pension investment sectors to act as responsible stewards of capital.

The FCA’s consultation on SDR and investment labels includes proposals to promote integrity and trust in the market, protect consumers, allow consumers to better compare products and reduce the risk of what my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) quite rightly referred to as greenwashing. In November, the FCA convened the vote reporting group to develop a more comprehensive and standardised vote disclosure regime.

On the specifics of the greening financing programme, Members will know that the UK kick-started a greening finance programme with a record-breaking debut sovereign green bond last September. The UK plans on raising an additional £10 billion from green gilts this financial year, with transactions worth £6 billion so far. That means we have raised more than £22 billion from green gilts and retail green savings bonds since September 2021, helping to finance projects to tackle climate change and other environmental challenges. The world sees the progress we have made. There is a lot of talk about the competitiveness of the City and UK financial institutions. Just last month, London was once again ranked one of the leading centres in the world for green finance in Z/Yen’s global green finance index.

Let me turn briefly to the UK Infrastructure Bank, for which we are legislating at this very moment to put it on a sound footing. The bank has £22 billion of capital to invest in infrastructure that supports two objectives: helping to tackle climate change and levelling up the UK. Based on the 10 investments it has announced so far, UKIB estimates it has already crowded in £4.5 billion of private investment. Notably, its first private-sector deal was to support a £500 million subsidy-free solar fund—a good example of exactly what we are setting out to achieve.

Of course, it is about not just tackling climate change but the key issue of nature. The Government have invested significantly in financial sector transparency and the disclosure of nature-related financial risk. The UK is the largest financial backer of the taskforce on nature-related financial disclosures and supports its work developing a framework for financial institutions and corporates to assess and report on their nature-related dependencies, impacts and risks.

Let me turn to some of the points raised by colleagues. My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley—we were right not to ignore him—made a good contribution, and I note his previous work with WWF before becoming an MP. He is right about green taxonomy—it must be about quality not speed—and I look forward to receiving a copy of his report. The Government will be engaging with the market on the design of a policy approach to guide investors on how they can best support the transition to net zero, and the value of taxonomy rests on its credibility as a practical and useful tool for regulators, companies and investors. It is important that we learn from the approach taken in other jurisdictions and take the time to get this right for the UK and the market.

I invite the Minister to attend the all-party group meeting to discuss the report with our members as a priority.

I would never say to my hon. Friend that he should be ignored. On that basis, I will certainly consider his invitation, alongside reading his interesting report.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam raised the issue of insulation. Our new £1 billion ECO+ scheme will see hundreds of thousands of homes receiving new home insulation worth approximately £310 a year each. Of course, the autumn statement made significant and ambitious commitments on energy efficiency.

The hon. Members for Bristol East and for Strangford spoke about charging points. Since 2020 we have committed £1.6 billion on charging points, but I know that people want to see us go further and faster, and we are making huge progress on the transition to electric vehicles.

The hon. Member for Strangford and my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who is not in his place, mentioned the important issue of deforestation. The Environment Act 2021 includes due diligence requirements for companies to check and eliminate illegal deforestation, and a significant pledge was made at COP26. To be clear about financial services, the UK is focused on transparency with regard to deforestation and has included that very point about disclosing that sort of activity in our disclosure framework, as part of the taskforce on nature-related financial disclosures. That is the key point about the financial services sector: it is all about disclosure. [Interruption.]

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

It has been an interesting debate. I again pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam for raising this very important subject. I hope I have managed to set out the comprehensive steps the Government are taking to support the green finance system. We look forward to further action in due course.

I will address a couple of points that were made and thank the Members who took part. It was a very valuable debate. The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) was right to point to the dangers of greenwashing and the green taxonomy framework. It is about ensuring that we have enforcement and concrete action, through the guarantees of investors. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is no longer present, so I will skip him and everyone else—but we have had a really valuable debate.

Next week provides a perfect opportunity. I ask Ministers to look again at where the Financial Services and Markets Bill can be strengthened in this subject area; hopefully we will see the concrete action that we need. I have read the green finance strategy and I am afraid some of the wording in it is a bit wishy-washy, to say the least. It quite often says things such as, “We will encourage”, “We will have discussions”, “We will catalyse”. There are more than a million ways of saying we might do something, and not that we will do something. There is an opportunity for the Minister to do something—please take it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of greening the financial system.

Independence Referendum for Scotland

As is the convention for the 30-minute debate, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government policy on a further independence referendum for Scotland.

Today is St Andrew’s day, and on this national day there is a particular significance and imperative. Last week, the UK Supreme Court told the Scottish Government that they could not exercise their democratic mandate to hold an independence referendum. But there was something else in that judgment—something that simply cannot be tolerated. There was the suggestion that, somehow, Scotland as a nation does not possess a right to self-determination. In suggesting that, the London Supreme Court overturned what has been the accepted legal, historic and political position that the UK is a voluntary Union.

Scotland’s separate constitutional tradition is perhaps best summed up in the view expressed by Lord Cooper, in the case of MacCormick v. Lord Advocate,

“The principle of the unlimited sovereignty of Parliament is a distinctively English principle, which has no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law.”

The Supreme Court seems to have repudiated that. Last week’s judgment rendered the UK a state of glaring contradiction. There are contradictions in our shared history, and contradictions of equality, politics, and representation.

The UK enthusiastically claims it seeks to preserve democracy the world over, yet moves to block Scotland at each and every turn. Can the Minister imagine the circumstances where, having entered the common market and ratified every subsequent treaty—leading to the European Union—the EU Parliament moved to block his party’s Brexit vote, or set a limit on when and if such a vote could be heard? The notion is, of course, ludicrous, because democracy is not a single event but an evolving and continuous process. That is how civilised people behave, and how freedom of thought and expression are peacefully demonstrated. Those are the foundations of inalienable human rights.

I will consider the contradictions, concluding with a commentary of the Supreme Court’s judgment. We are often told in this place that Scotland must be proud of our shared history as part of the most successful political union ever. I will test that narrative and ask the Minister to consider our shared history through a Scottish prism.

Before the Union, the English Alien Act 1705 threatened economic sanctions if Scotland did not settle the royal succession, or negotiate for a political union. The treaty was met with vociferous opposition both inside and outside Scotland’s parliamentary chamber but, given threats and enticements, a majority of Scottish parliamentarians were persuaded. The people were never consulted.

It so often goes that this is all ancient history and irrelevant to a modern Scotland in a respectful union of equals. Last week’s judgment challenged that previously understood narrative. What of that modern Scotland? In my lifetime, the political complexion of Westminster rule has rarely reflected the polity of Scotland. We have endured repeated Tory Governments that Scotland did not vote for, or Labour Administrations that took us into illegal wars that we wanted no part of.

Socioeconomic policies have destroyed our communities, exploited our resources and worked against the utility of the people of Scotland, contrary to the Articles of Union. The pursuit of such social and economic policies has driven a stake through the heart of once proud communities. As noted in the pleadings of the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), in her prorogation case to the UK Supreme Court, the 1707 parliamentary Union between England and Scotland may have created a new state but it did not create one nation.

Scotland was an independent nation for millennia before its coerced incorporation. It remains a distinct and internationally recognised people and country. No clearer is that evidenced than by the much earlier and continuing Union of the Crowns, where our shared monarch does not accede to a single throne of Britain, but takes the separate crowns of the realms of Scotland and England.

As a member of the EU, the UK possessed and exercised a veto, yet claimed its sovereignty was impeded by membership. Scotland has no such mechanism in this place, and is always subject to the wiles of the policy of its larger neighbour, exemplified by Brexit. How does that constitute access to meaningful political process, as claimed by the UK Supreme Court judgment?

In signing the Atlantic charter of 1941, wartime Prime Minister and hero of the Conservative party, Winston Churchill, brought into being the principle of self-determination of peoples, as now set out in the United Nations charter, in article 1(2), article 73 and article 76. Margaret Thatcher in her memoirs said of Scotland:

“As a nation, they have an undoubted right to national self-determination.”

John Major, when Prime Minister, said of Scotland:

“No nation could be held irrevocably in a Union against its will.”

The hon. Gentleman is making a fantastic speech. He started by raising the point about the Supreme Court and self-determination. I found paragraph 88 of the judgment particularly interesting:

“The people in question are entitled to a right to external self-determination because they have been denied the ability to exert internally their right to self-determination.”

The judgment did exactly that; it did limit that right. The reason the judgment did not give the referendum was because, if it happened—even if it had limited legal effect—as it says in paragraph 81, it

“would possess the authority, in a constitution and political culture founded upon democracy”—

and that is all over western Europe. Ultimately, the concession has been made by the Supreme Court that the ballot box rules supreme. Indeed, the ballot box made the Supreme Court because the Supreme Court is a creature of the UK Government, which in turn was made at the ballot box.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will consider the blurred boundaries of legal and political, as I move through my speech. In 1989, this place reaffirmed and acknowledged the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs. In May 1997, in an exchange with the right hon. Alex Salmond during the passage of the Bill that became the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Act 1997, the late Donald Dewar responded that he should be the last to challenge the sovereignty of the people, accepting the right of the Scottish people to a choice, including independence, should that be their wish. None of these senior politicians ever placed a limit on or sought to constrain that democratic right to self-determination. Indeed, in the wake of the 2014 referendum, the Smith commission agreement was signed by all of Scotland’s main political parties and it stated:

“It is agreed that nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose.”

Of course, the Good Friday agreement sets out a reasoned and internationally considered timescale of every seven years to consider constitutional change. A political generation of seven years is not unreasonable, but Scotland is now a year beyond and no further forward. It is therefore imperative; if there is a consented, legal and democratic route by which the people of Ireland —north and south—can choose their own constitutional future in a border poll every seven years, what is the consented, legal and democratic route by which the people of Scotland’s sovereign right to determine their own constitutional future can be respected? That is a right underpinned by Scots law, which rests on the claim of right that asserts that it is the people who are sovereign.

The Supreme Court’s rejection of the argument that Scotland has the right to self-determination in international law was described last week as “problematic”—very problematic—by Michael Keating, emeritus professor of politics at the University of Aberdeen. He states:

“The way is now open for the UK Government to say that there is no time or way for Scotland to exercise its acknowledged right of self-determination”.

He has quite rightly pointed out that in invoking the Canadian court’s ruling on Quebec, the UK Supreme Court failed to mention or consider a further aspect of that Canadian judgment—namely, that if Québec or any other province did vote for independence by a clear majority on a clear question, the Government of Canada would be bound to negotiate. That aspect of the Canadian court’s ruling is significant and in essence reflects a situation where legality meets politics.

The hon. Gentleman is making a great speech, and I am grateful to him for giving way again. The Holyrood Standing Orders perhaps possess a way, and the Supreme Court has, unwittingly perhaps, opened up every election from now on for people to speak at the ballot box. Under rule 11.10 of the Standing Orders for Holyrood, “Selection of the First Minister”, paragraph 5 mentions what happens when there is one candidate, paragraph 7 when there are two candidates, and paragraph 8 when there are more than two candidates. That, with a combination of no-confidence votes, surely leaves the way open, if it was chosen, for Scotland to determine its own future—if Holyrood decides to do that.

The hon. Gentleman will probably not like my answer, but that is a matter for the Scottish Government to consider.

In addition to the point that I was making about political reality, Professor Keating goes on to argue that not going beyond the letter of the law to look at broader constitutional issues

“risks undermining the conventions and understandings on which”

the UK’s “largely unwritten constitution depends.” Those are wise reflections that both the UK Government and the UK Supreme Court would do well to consider.

With regard to Kosovo, the UK has stated, in its submission to the International Court of Justice:

“The United Kingdom considers that the Declaration of Independence of Kosovo was not incompatible with international law. It was not made in haste or in a political vacuum. Rather, it flowed from the failure of the two sides, and of the international community, after long and sustained effort, to secure any other framework”.

Further, the UK

“considers that developments since 17 February 2008 have crystallised Kosovo independence and cured any deficiency that might initially have existed. As the 1776 Declaration of Independence of the United States”—

I want to ask a question of clarification on the comparison to Kosovo. Is the hon. Gentleman really comparing the situation that Scotland finds itself in within the United Kingdom with Kosovo in the literally war-torn former Yugoslavia?

I am referring to the petitioners’ arguments, the Supreme Court’s response and the UK Government’s judgment on the Kosovan situation. I am pursuing a line that was submitted by the petitioner and responded to by the UK Supreme Court.

As the 1776 declaration of independence of the United States of America—a declaration of independence that the United Kingdom opposed at the time—illustrates, many states emerge to independence in what, at the time, were controversial circumstances. That does not vitiate their subsequent emergence into full statehood.

These developments are succinctly crystallised by Robert McCorquodale, a professor of international law and human rights who has himself appeared as an advocate before the International Court of Justice and the UK Supreme Court. The dissolution of the USSR and its influence on the development of the right to self-determination has been examined, and Robert McCorquodale states, “Lithuania’s declaration of independence had substantial impacts on the understanding and application of the right to self-determination. The right to self-determination, which is a human right acknowledged by all states, changed from being limited to people with traditional colonial territories to applying to all states, including to peoples within states. This development has profound effects today, such as enabling people in all states worldwide to seek to exercise their right to self-determination.”

That directly challenges a key assertion of the UK Supreme Court, which led it to conclude that the Scottish Government could not independently consult the Scottish people about independence and that it was in the gift of Westminster. Yet a public petition entitled, “The Treaty of Union 1707 is no longer fit for purpose and Dissolve The Union”, was submitted to this place in 2019 and was rejected by this place for the following reason:

“We can’t accept your petition because this would be a decision of the people of Scotland and not the UK Government or Parliament.”

On that, I wholly agree. For all the reasons given above, the UK Supreme Court’s position cannot stand unchallenged, particularly on our national day.

Today I invite others to sign the declaration of St Andrew’s day, published in my name as early-day motion 633, which asserts the following:

“we the people, elected members and civic organisations of Scotland assert that our nation has the right of self-determination to freely determine our political status and to freely pursue our economic, social and cultural development, mindful of the Scottish constitutional tradition of the sovereignty of the people, we will democratically challenge any authority or government which seeks to deny us that right.”

On Wednesday 23 November 2022, it became clear that the wrong case had been argued at the wrong time and in the wrong court. Just as Westminster and the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court are part of the British state apparatus, so too is the Scottish Parliament, but if Scotland’s Parliament is denied agency over the future of its people, where stands democracy for the Scottish people?

In Scots law, there is no sovereignty higher than that of our people, and here today I have asserted that right into the record. Neither Scotland’s claim of right nor the aspirations of the Scottish people to be a normal, outward-looking, independent nation are the sole purview of any one political party or any individual party leader. We now learn, the UK’s Secretary of State intends to act as a territorial viceroy, banning the Scottish civil service from advancing the democratic will of the Scottish people. Well, I give him fair warning: the independence movement extends far beyond the Scottish civil service. If anything, such an undemocratic move will simply galvanise and liberate the movement by decoupling our ambition from the daily trials of government. We are the nation of the Enlightenment, and our movement possesses minds with more ambition and vision than any Government or civil service that is subject to diktats from London.

At the start of my contribution, I said that this was an issue of contradictions. Let me say today, on St Andrew’s day, that there is no contradiction in Scotland. Scotland is a proud and ancient nation that goes back millennia, and no one but the people of Scotland shall impede, limit or restrict our right to self-determination. It is precisely a week since the Supreme Court gave its judgment on the right of the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. Let me be clear: Charles Stewart Parnell said about another nation that was once a part of the United Kingdom:

“No man has a right to fix a boundary of the march of a nation…no man”—

no court, no Government—has the right to say to another country

“thus far…and no further.”

It is a privilege to respond to this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) on securing this debate. I am pleased to respond to my first Westminster Hall debate as a Scotland Office Minister. The hon. Gentleman chose to focus the debate on the issue of an independence referendum. I cannot help but feel that this valuable debating time could have been better focused on matters of immediate importance to his constituents, mine in the Scottish Borders, and the constituents of other Members across Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

I shall make some progress, if I may. The hon. Member had quite some time to make his points, and I want the opportunity to—

On a point of order, Mr Bone. It is a shame that the Minister did not allow me to intervene. However, he makes assertions that are simply not possible. He is asking me in some way to manage the Scottish Government, or indeed to divorce myself from the reality experienced by my constituents, who voted for me to secure Scotland’s independence.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point of order. It was clearly not a point of order, but his remarks are on the record.

I think our constituents would rather that this place, the Government and the Scottish Government concentrated all their attention and resources on the issues that matter to Scots and people across the United Kingdom.

Let me respond to the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. It is clear to this United Kingdom Government and people in Scotland that now is not the time to talk about another referendum. This Government have noted, and respect, the unanimous ruling of the United Kingdom Supreme Court. Its unanimous view on the substantive matter supports the United Kingdom Government’s long-standing position that a referendum is not within the powers of the Scottish Parliament. It is clear that Scotland has a strong and thriving democracy, but the power to have a referendum rests with this place. To suggest that Scotland does not have a thriving and strong democracy, and to suggest that only those who support leaving the UK support democracy, is an insult to the majority of Scots who wish to remain part of the United Kingdom. The nationalists’ rhetoric is irresponsible. The notion is absurd—so absurd that, in recent days, we have heard the absolute nonsense of some nationalists bemoaning the death of democracy in one breath and boasting of election victories with the next. I should be clear that the hon. Gentleman was not guilty of that, for perhaps obvious reasons.

The Scottish Parliament is able to legislate in every area in which the Scotland Acts 1998, 2012 and 2016 give it the power to do so. That makes it one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. People want the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government to focus on the issues that matter to them, not on constitutional division. We should not forget that the people of Scotland voted decisively to remain part of the UK in 2014. The hon. Member made much of the people of Scotland’s need for self-determination; the vote in 2014 was the ultimate act of self-determination. The Scots voted in record numbers to remain part of the United Kingdom.

On the hon. Member’s questions about the path to a referendum and whether the Union is based on consent, in 2014 both the UK and Scottish Governments agreed that it was right for the people to have their say in an independence referendum. If there is ever a referendum again, then it has to be based on consent and consensus across both Governments and all parts of civic Scotland.

I will spend a little time pointing out some of the benefits of the Union, which the hon. Member failed to mention at all.

I want to comment on the previous point, which my hon. Friend the Minister made very well. The independence referendum in 2014 was agreed on through powers devolved temporarily to the Scottish Parliament. For the benefit of the House, will the Minister confirm, following last week’s Supreme Court ruling, that the democratic and legal position that led to consensus at the time of the independence referendum has not changed in any way? Will he confirm that nothing has changed in a democratic or legal sense since then?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is about securing consensus, not just between the UK and Scottish Governments, but across all parts of society in Scotland. We are lacking that just now. As he knows, we face major challenges, including restoring economic stability, gripping inflation, supporting people with their energy bills, supporting the NHS, combating climate change, supporting Ukraine and levelling up. People across Scotland just do not accept that now is the time for another divisive referendum.

At this time of unprecedented challenges, the benefits of being part of the United Kingdom have never been more apparent. For instance, the people of Scotland benefit from substantially higher public spending thanks to being part of the United Kingdom. That Union dividend means that remaining part of the UK is worth around £2,000 per year for every Scot. That is demonstrated in figures from the SNP Government in Edinburgh. Furthermore, the UK Government are providing the Scottish Government with a record block grant settlement of £41 billion per year over the next three years.

There can be no question about this Government’s commitment to Scotland; it is best demonstrated by what we are delivering on the ground. That includes a multibillion-pound investment in Scotland’s defence and shipbuilding industries, which will safeguard not just the UK’s security, but tens of thousands of jobs on the Clyde and beyond.

The Minister does not have to give way, but he might be under the impression that we have to keep this debate to half an hour. We have some extra time because the previous debate finished early, if that helps the hon. Member and the Minister.

I am grateful for that clarity, Mr Bone. I am keen to make the strong and positive case for Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom. We have heard much nonsense from nationalist Members in this debate, and I want to make the record slightly more accurate.

There has also been the record £1.5 billion city and growth deals programme, which invests in Scotland’s infrastructure and future. Another example would be the collaboration of local councils, which are delivering real devolution by levelling up communities and bringing local projects to life. Another divisive referendum is the wrong—

The question that is being considered is the position on a further independence referendum for Scotland, not the Government’s alleged beneficence towards Scotland. That is not the matter under consideration. I would respectfully ask that the Minister restricts his comments to the subject of the debate.

Thank you very much for that intervention, but I am afraid that is my job. If the Minister is wandering off, I will bring him to order. He is wandering, but not quite off the pitch yet.

Thank you, Mr Bone. Another divisive referendum is the wrong priority, at the worst possible time, and would be a complete distraction from the very real challenges that people across our country face.

I am listening to the Minister expound the great virtues. Can he explain to me why, when Scotland is energy-rich, more than half of our people are going to be fuel-poor this winter, and many will be in extreme fuel poverty?

Order. I am just considering what the hon. Member said, and am remembering what the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath said. I am not quite sure what that point has got to do with the referendum. I will leave it up to the Minister.

I am grateful for that clarification, Mr Bone.

I fully understand and recognise the real pressures that people are facing just now with the rising cost of energy. We all know that is largely due to rising inflation, which is of course due to the illegal war in Ukraine.

The hon. Member for East Lothian shakes his head; I would like to know what evidence he has to suggest that the war in Ukraine is not causing rising energy prices.

That is why this Government have taken action to support households in all parts of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, to deal with those rising energy bills. That is yet another benefit of the strength of the Union and the power that this Parliament and Government are able to take to support people during difficult and challenging times.

Instead of divisive constitutional arguments, people in Scotland want and rightly expect both of their Governments, here and in Edinburgh, to be concentrating all their attention and resources on the issues that matter to them, their families and communities, such as the cost of living, working to drive down NHS backlogs, protecting jobs and securing our long-term energy security. The Prime Minister has been clear in his commitment to working collaboratively and constructively with the Scottish Government to tackle all the challenges we share and face. That is exactly what we want to do in vital areas, such as growing our economy, supporting our NHS and leading the international response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. This Government remain focused on getting on with the job of delivering for the people of Scotland.

Question put and agreed to.

Domestic Homicide Sentencing Review

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Domestic Homicide Sentencing Review.

It is great to see Members here, and I thank the House for allowing time for this vital debate. I believe this Government have a strong and world-leading record on tackling violence against women and girls. I am very proud of what the Government have done, including, to name just a few, the violence against women and girls strategy, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, the domestic abuse plan and the “Enough” campaign—a multimillion-pound public education broadcast campaign aimed at achieving long-term behaviour change and preventing public sexual harassment and domestic abuse.

Time does not allow me to give a comprehensive summary, but I am confident that the debate today will receive a positive hearing from the Minister. It deals with the most serious form of violence, which is where the violence ends in the death of a victim.

Last week, I spoke to two bereaved mothers of beautiful, young, talented daughters who had their whole lives ahead of them, but were murdered by their male partners. It was impossible to come away from a meeting with Carole Gould and Julie Devey, the mothers of Poppy Devey Waterhouse and Ellie Gould, without feeling heartbroken and devastated, not least because Poppy was about the same age as my daughter. I feel her mother’s pain only too intensely.

Carole and Julie are just two parents bereaved as a result of domestic homicide. There are too many more, and too many for me to refer to each one by name, but that in no way diminishes their pain or trauma. In researching this debate, I read hundreds of stories. Each one is harrowing. I want anyone watching or reading this debate to know that their loved ones are not just a set of words on a page, or a statistic that we can flick past and forget. As Her Majesty the Queen Consort said yesterday in her first major speech since she ascended to her position,

“we refuse to be desensitised by cold facts and figures and we resolve to keep the names and the memories of these women alive.”

Domestic homicide means that the victim is killed by someone with whom they are closely connected—either their intimate partner or family member. Before I go any further, I want the House to be in no doubt about the facts. Men and boys can be, and are, victims of domestic abuse and homicide. Government policy rightly can and does take account of that, but in the context of the United Nations campaign to raise awareness of violence against women, it is also a fact that domestic abuse is a gendered crime. In that context, I will keep the focus of my remarks on female victims.

Women are much more likely than men to be victims of domestic homicide. Forty-nine per cent. of all female homicides and 10% of male homicides are domestic homicides. Home Office data for the past three years records 207 female victims of domestic homicide who were killed by their male partner or ex-partner, compared with 29 male victims of domestic homicide killed by a female partner or ex-partner.

Poppy and Ellie’s killers were caught and sentenced, but the court cases did not bring justice for their families and friends. Poppy’s murderer, Joe Atkinson, was sentenced to a minimum term of 16 years and two months, and Ellie’s murderer, Thomas Griffiths, who was sentenced as a child, got 12 years and six months. The families point out that had the killers taken a knife out of the home and gone to the local park to stab their daughters, they would have received a much higher sentence, with a 25-year starting point, but most domestic homicides take place in the home, meaning that a knife is not taken to the scene; it is already there in the home. That automatically reduces the available sentence starting point to a minimum tariff of only 15 years.

Carole and Julie point out that overkill is overlooked. Overkill is a typical feature of domestic homicides; they are often frenzied, brutal and violent, involving excessive, repeated use of force or injury way beyond what is needed to achieve the actual killing, yet that does not add any significant time to the sentence.

I agree with everything that the hon. Member said. I wish to place on record a similar case from Leyton in my constituency: Linah Keza was murdered by her former partner in the home in a very frenzied attack. Does the hon. Member agree that, very often, the system lets down these women? In this case, the police repeatedly refused to take any notice of threats to her, one of which was recorded, and a police officer told the attacker, Ms Keza’s former partner, that he was fine to visit her unsupervised.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing that case to the House’s attention. As I said, I have read about hundreds of such cases. It is very important that the police and all the frontline services put into practice the training that they now have to deal with these issues. I will come on to my recommendations later.

For many women, the murder comes after they have experienced domestic abuse, including violence or coercive and controlling behaviour. An overkill element also means that the family members’ trauma is even more heightened. Many of them suffer from post-traumatic stress.

Let us turn to another killer. Sally Challen bludgeoned her husband to death with a hammer. She was sentenced to life imprisonment with a tariff of 18 years, but a landmark judgment using the new coercion and control offences that the Government introduced in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 saw her conviction quashed, and she walked free after serving nine years. The judge agreed with her barrister, Clare Wade KC, and the campaign group Justice for Women, that Challen was a victim of coercive control that spanned decades; she met her husband aged 16. He had humiliated and manipulated her, which is a classic pattern of controlling behaviour. The court accepted that, and her sentence was converted to manslaughter.

Let us touch on the case of Anthony Williams, who strangled his 67-year-old wife, Ruth, to death. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility and was acquitted of murder. His defence argued that his actions were due to his mental state, which had worsened due to the covid-19 pandemic. This lesser charge and the sentence of five years’ imprisonment was strongly criticised by politicians from all parties and anti-domestic abuse activists. The Joanna Simpson Foundation, among others, argued that diminished responsibility and loss of control are overused defences for men in domestic homicides; that the defences are used in circumstances that they were not designed for; and that their use risked downgrading and normalising domestic abuse, which should not be tolerated. The “Women Who Kill” report, published by the Centre for Women’s Justice, found that, by contrast, women who kill their partners largely do so having been subjected to abuse from the men they kill. In 77% of the cases covered in that research, there is evidence to suggest that women had experienced violence or abuse from the deceased. Despite that, they are unlikely to be acquitted on grounds of self-defence.

Finally, I will mention one more case. Sophie Moss was choked to death during sex by Sam Pybus. He applied prolonged pressure to her neck and admitted to manslaughter; however, he literally claimed that she asked for it, as part of a consensual rough sex game. The judge accepted that, and he was jailed for four years and eight months—the same length of time that he might have received for a driving offence. An appeal to increase his sentence was rejected. It is clear even from this cursory summary, which in no way covers all the victims to whom I could have referred, that some of the sentences received by men who kill their female partners or ex-partners do not reflect the seriousness of domestic abuse, or the fact that these homicides often follow a period of prolonged abuse. On the other hand, sentences received by women who kill their partners in self-defence could appear disproportionate, particularly in cases in which they used a weapon. The issue of the knife coming from inside the home, as it is much more likely to have done when a woman is killed in a domestic homicide, adds another dimension.

It is an unfortunate fact that a woman who kills her male partner in self-defence is, due to her lesser physical strength, more likely to have needed to use a weapon of some type. That attracts a more serious sentence than would be received by a male such as Sam Pybus who kills a female partner by strangulation. We have seen that he was able to claim that he strangled her as part of a consensual sex activity that tragically went wrong. Strangulation does not always leave a mark, which compounds the difficulties for the police investigation and prosecution.

In response to all these cases and many more, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and Victims’ Commissioner wrote to the then Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), calling for a review of domestic homicide sentencing, due to their concerns that the sentencing for these homicides did not match the impact and severity of the crime. In March 2021, the domestic homicide sentencing review was announced, and in September 2021 Clare Wade KC, Sally Challen’s appeal barrister, was appointed to conduct the review. In welcoming the review, Nicole Jacobs, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, said:

“Crucially, the Wade Review will also shed some much-needed light on how victims of domestic abuse who kill their abusers are treated by the criminal Justice system. Victims of domestic abuse…must receive a trauma-informed response from the criminal Justice system.”

I come to the central purpose of the debate, which is to ask the Government to publish the review as soon as possible and come forward with their response. I will ask detailed questions later, but first I wish to put on the record my thanks to all the campaign groups and people who spoke to me in the course of my research; I pay tribute to them for all the determined work that they have done on behalf of the victims, who, of course, cannot speak for themselves. I was fortunate to be able to speak to Clare Wade KC ahead of the debate. The content of the report will be familiar to the Minister, as it was to me when I briefly had the privilege of serving in the Ministry of Justice as the Minister of State for Victims and Vulnerability. It is a detailed, extensive, substantive, compelling and well-researched piece of work that makes for harrowing reading. I thank Clare Wade for the thoughtfulness that she has brought to the commission. She tells me that she set out a suite of recommendations that, taken together, constitute a coherent policy response. If implemented, they would tackle the gaps in sentencing options. She believes that the only way forward is to properly recognise the impact of domestic abuse, violence and coercive control in all its forms, and that the criminal justice process needs to take account of the harms to the victim, their family and wider society, so that justice can be done, and be seen to be done.

Another group I have spoken to, Refuge, states that one of the key problems is that the nature of coercive control is still poorly understood. More work needs to be done to educate people about the fact that it is not solely about physical violence. Frontline practitioners need to understand and act on the knowledge that the trigger point for danger is when a woman tries to leave or has left a relationship. The cases need to be dealt with by specialists, and more can be done to build on existing practices to ensure that courts, juries and judges understand and incorporate that knowledge. I recently tabled a written question to the Ministry of Justice and the response stated:

“The independent reviewer required more time than anticipated to complete the review and it was delivered to the department in June this year. The Review examines a number of important and complex issues… the government is carefully considering its recommendations and next steps.”

Let us return for a moment to Carole Gould and Julie Devey. They believe that one of the key problems with the law is on the issue of premeditation. They state that it may never be known whether the perpetrator planned to commit the murder in the home, knowing that weapons were there. Remember, that planning would attract a higher tariff, in that taking the knife to the scene indicates an element of premeditation. They state that using hands as weapons for strangulation has never been acknowledged as part of premeditated murder. They also believe that sentences do not reflect the fact that these are dangerous perpetrators. The fact that they could strangle or stab someone with whom they have been in an intimate relationship surely means that they are a danger to the public, so there is a public protection issue that is not being picked up in sentencing.

I ask Members to cast their mind back to the case of Sophie Moss, which I mentioned. The Minister will be aware of the outstanding work of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris). As part of a group of MPs, she was successful in removing the rough sex defence to killing. She now has a private Member’s Bill that seeks to amend the sentencing code to provide for a minimum sentence of 12 years for cases of manslaughter that are sexually motivated. It is right to consider her ask in this debate.

I have questions for the Minister. Has he read the Clare Wade review, and what does he think of the recommendations? When will he publish the review? When will he come forward with the Government’s response? What is his response to my hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill? Will he ensure that the measures he brings forward in response to the Wade review tackle the sentencing injustices relating to victims killed as part of so-called rough sex? How will he ensure that any recommendations flowing from the Wade review include training for courts, juries, judges, prosecutors and police in fully recognising the wider harms of domestic abuse, abusive relationships and the origins of violence against women? Will he bring forward the new measures that are required if we are to level up sentencing in the victims Bill? If he is unable to commit to that, what legislative vehicle does he foresee as being suitable?

Her Royal Highness the Queen Consort said,

“These women, tragically, can no longer speak for themselves. But we listen to those who can. I have learnt from my conversations with these brave survivors that what they want, above all, is to be listened to and believed, to prevent the same thing happening to others. They know there is power in their stories and that, in the telling, they move from being the victims of their histories to the authors of their own futures.”

We must and will do more. I finish with the words of Julie and Carole:

“Public perception needs to be changed and the correct sentencing can lead the way to show that these Domestic Homicides will not be seen as lesser crimes.”

I look forward to the Minister’s response. I want to place on the record my thanks to everybody who spoke to me before the debate, whether they are from a campaign group that assisted me with research, or whether they are the families.

I thank the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) for setting the scene so well. I spoke to her outside in Westminster Hall—it was freezing out there; it is slightly warmer in here, thank goodness. She deserves to be commended for bringing this matter to the House.

I mentioned to the hon. Lady that I want to give some figures for Northern Ireland to underline where we are. To be fair, Northern Ireland is not the responsibility of the Minister, because this is a devolved matter, but I want to give those figures to illustrate why I fully support what the hon. Member for Redditch is putting forward today.

The hon. Lady has spoken up on numerous occasions; she has done good work and made sterling comments in support of victims of domestic abuse and, ultimately, the voiceless. In Westminster Hall and in the Chamber, more often than not we speak for the voiceless—those who do not have a voice and who do not have anybody to ask questions on their behalf. The hon. Lady set that scene very well.

We also speak for those who, sadly, have been taken too soon due to domestic homicide. I speak today to raise awareness of the issue and for those in Northern Ireland who have fought tirelessly for greater sentencing reviews. It is great to be here in Westminster Hall for them.

Recent Home Office statistics show that 61% of victims of domestic homicide had a vulnerability. The hon. Lady referred to a lady who was dependent on her partner, who abused her in every possible way, to the extent that her confidence was low and she did not have the freedom she deserved, and then she was brutally injured by her partner. Some 34% of those victims had mental health issues, while 28% had alcohol problems and 23% used illicit drugs. Most of that was down not to their addiction but to their dependence on their evil partner, who subjected them to that lifestyle and, ultimately, to their death. Despite those figures, there is absolutely no reason why somebody should be subjected to their own death at the hands of a domestic partner.

It was revealed in February 2022 that Northern Ireland has, per head of population, the joint highest rate in Europe of women killed as a result of domestic violence. I was horrified to hear those figures. I have already told the hon. Lady about some of the figures that we have back home. Over the recent period of covid—and, indeed, before that—the worrying trend of abuse against partners was at a level incomparable with anywhere else in the United Kingdom. We remain the only part of the UK that does not have a law criminalising the use of coercive control of a partner. Back home, the Northern Ireland Assembly has decreed that it will look at this matter.

Following that news, I am pleased to make Members aware that on 10 November 2022—just two weeks ago, or thereabouts—the Northern Ireland Department of Justice concluded its review of domestic homicide. Independent reviews of homicides include a range of representatives from numerous agencies across Northern Ireland, including Women’s Aid, which I have worked with on numerous occasions and which has information on some absolutely worrying trends; the health and social care trusts; the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which tells me that domestic abuse issues are involved in a large number of cases that it deals with, not just in my constituency but across Northern Ireland; the Probation Board for Northern Ireland; and the Department of Health’s strategic planning and performance group, formerly the Health and Social Care Board.

Over the past few years, as I told the hon. Lady before we came into Westminster Hall, there have been occasions on which the sentence given for murdering or injuring someone has not equated to the crime. I want things to be improved. We have asked the Public Prosecution Service to review those cases. It is important that the law of the land gives the right sentence for the crime.

Since the start of the pandemic, 12 women have been killed in their homes. Similarly, instances of domestic abuse have increased and continue to increase in Northern Ireland. These figures cover a short period of time and are shocking for a population of 1.9 million, but they underline why today’s debate is so important. The latest PSNI figures show that it received reports of almost 2,000 domestic abuse incidents between 14 December 2021 and January 2022—in other words, during a six-week period. Those figures are worrying. That illustrates why this debate is important and why the sentencing review must take place, and it is why I am here to support the hon. Lady in her request for that. Domestic violence and homicide accounts for some 20% of all crime in Northern Ireland, which is completely unacceptable. None of us here could ever contemplate just how bad it is.

Domestic homicide sentencing reviews are to learn, to improve services and to support the families who are living with domestic abuse. Northern Ireland’s latest domestic homicide plan confirms the horrifying truth that domestic violence and homicide is getting worse. Is it because of covid? Is it because of stress? Nothing whatsoever justifies an attack on a partner, especially on a lady. I am an old-fashioned person, and I will always speak up for someone who is unable to speak for themselves. That is why this debate is important to me.

These cases are a complete tragedy. Each one is preventable with the correct support and encouragement to victims to speak up and notice the signs. Sentencing reviews will strengthen the link between review learning, policymaking for domestic homicide sentencing, and practice. There is hope that that will result in changes that prevent future deaths of loved ones who are subject to domestic abuse.

We live in a very troubled society. The reality is that domestic violence is a common occurrence. I know that it features heavily in my constituency workload back home. Domestic violence that is not dealt with in the first instance has the potential to turn deadly, which is why the hon. Lady has brought the debate forward.

We must ensure that sentencing reviews for domestic homicide are treated with the most intense sentencing rulings, as they are murder. That is necessary both for prevention and to ensure that sentencing reflects just how bad the crime is. Regardless of the situation or the circumstances, no individual deserves to die at the hands of someone else so violently. I have seen that with horror in Northern Ireland. I know that is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I wanted to add it into the equation in support of the hon. Member for Redditch. I very much look forward to the Minister’s reply.

I will, obviously, share this debate with the Justice Department back home and the Minister, Naomi Long, to let her know what is happening here so that we can try to move forward after the report that we have just done on domestic homicide reviews, and do something equally vital. The volume of abuse and homicide contributes to a deteriorating picture of our criminal system, and we must do more.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) for securing this incredibly important debate, for speaking so powerfully and for all the work she did as a Minister in the Ministry of Justice. This debate is particularly timely as we are six days into the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence—a time when people all over the world take action to try to stop violence against women and girls.

In many cases, domestic murderers get off too lightly after committing some of the most horrific crimes against women. As we have heard, there is clearly a gap in sentencing between those who murder at home and out on the street. That is why, in our May 2021 Green Paper, “Ending Violence Against Women and Girls”, Labour outlined that, in Government, we would commission a review into the effectiveness of the current legislation and sentencing policy. In June 2021, we also tabled an amendment in Committee during the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, calling on the then Justice Secretary to commission a review, but the Tories voted it down.

Although I am pleased that the Government have finally commissioned a review, I am dismayed by how long it has taken to progress. It took until September 2021 for Clare Wade KC to be appointed to undertake the review of domestic homicide sentencing. The review was originally due for completion in December 2021, but the report was delivered to the Justice Secretary this June. Nearly six months on, we are still waiting for the review’s findings—in that time, we have been through three Justice Secretaries. I am concerned that the chaos, and the carousel of changing Ministers, has meant that even a matter as important as this has not been seen as significant enough to be acted upon. Once again, women and victims of domestic abuse are being let down.

We have heard that men who kill their partners often receive a lesser sentence than those who kill others, despite the fact that domestic homicide often occurs in the context of years of domestic abuse. For example, the law regards a murder where the knife is taken to the scene of the crime as premeditated. It therefore warrants a longer jail term, with a starting point of 25 years. That is a 10-year disparity with the starting point for a murder in the home where the weapon, such as a kitchen knife, is already present.

Domestic homicides are often fully premeditated, aided by the perpetrator having full knowledge of the property and where to find objects to assist their violence. Indeed, the femicide census findings published in November 2020 showed that over the previous decade 62% of female homicides were at the hands of an intimate partner, 72% of victims died in their homes, 59% of cases involved a history of coercive control or violence, and almost half the perpetrators were known to have a history of abuse against women.

The case of Poppy Devey Waterhouse, which the hon. Member for Redditch powerfully spoke about, highlights that. Poppy was just 24 when she was murdered in December 2018 by her ex-boyfriend. The couple had split in October 2018 but continued to live in the same flat in separate rooms. Three days before Poppy was due to move into a new property, her killer had been out drinking and was said to be intoxicated and fuelled by jealousy and rage. He returned to the flat and stabbed Poppy to death with a knife from their kitchen, inflicting over 100 injuries. Poppy’s killer received a sentence of just 16 years, but had he taken his weapon to the scene of crime, deemed an aggravating factor, he could have received a much longer sentence. As Poppy’s mother Julie Devey has outlined, the sentence ignores the fact that Poppy’s killer had no need to bring a weapon to the scene; he had knowledge that knives were in the flat and could be used in the attack.

Julie has campaigned on this issue, and believes that the sentencing guidelines are simply wrong. She says:

“The savagery and violence of the attacks seem to count for nothing in the eyes of the law and this is infuriating”.

The change that Julie wants is for domestic murder tariffs to reflect the severity of the crime, rather than the location of the killing. If that were the case, the fact that a knife was used would be the aggravating factor, rather than the act of bringing it to the scene. That seems a wholly just change, which I would hope to see covered in the sentencing review.

If the public are to have confidence in the criminal justice system, we need appropriate sentences to deter potential offenders and to deal just punishment for serious crimes. That is why we called for a review into sentencing for domestic homicide and domestic abuse over a year and a half ago. We cannot afford for our laws and their enforcement to send the signal that violence against women and girls will be tolerated; yet record low prosecution and conviction rates under this Government are sending that message. Labour would back specialist rape courts to drive up prosecution rates, set up a domestic violence register and introduce new minimum sentences for rape and stalking.

I am fearful that the delays with the domestic homicide sentencing review are part of an ingrained culture that tackling violence against women and girls is not a matter of urgency for the Government. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the review will be published as a matter of urgency, and the Government will end their inaction.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) for securing the debate; I know how much time and personal effort she put into this topic when in Government. I welcome the focus that she is continuing to create on what I know is an important issue.

This is not an area normally in my portfolio. I put on the record that I cannot possibly imagine the distress and trauma of the families of Ellie Gould and Poppy Devey Waterhouse, who were murdered in such awful circumstances. I can only commend their mothers for the ongoing campaigning that they are doing in relation to this issue. I know that colleagues who are taking part in the debate, and from across the House, will continue to support their campaign, and will have the families in their thoughts and prayers as they deal with the loss of a loved one.

Throughout the debate I have listened to the argument for reform of sentencing in cases of domestic homicide, which has been so eloquently explained. That is why the Government commissioned the review that we received in June and are now assessing. People are saying, “You have had the review now nearly six months—can’t you just get on with it?” But it is important that we get it right. It is tempting to rush, and I know that there is always a desire in such distressing circumstances to be seen to be acting. But in this place we quite often see the impact and consequences of acting without reflecting. I want to ensure that the response to the review is measured, and takes onboard the recommendations and factors that we need to assess.

I take this opportunity to publicly express my thanks to Clare Wade KC, the independent expert appointed to undertake the review. Ms Wade was the lead counsel in the high-profile case of Sally Challen, and has brought her unparalleled expertise to the complex nature of this piece of work. As has been pointed out, the published terms of reference for the review stated that the final report would be submitted to the Secretary of State for Justice by the end of last year. The report was received in June, and I appreciate that the delay, along with the changes in Government, will have been frustrating for all of those involved and concerned, and who want to see action.

I can give my full assurance that the Secretary of State and I are in the process of carefully considering all of the recommendations made in Clare Wade’s review. The topic is not only extremely important but complex and challenging; as I said earlier, it is important we get it right. Changing the law on sentencing for murder can have profound consequences, so it is something that we must do properly and consider very carefully, to avoid any unintended impacts. The matter has the full attention of the Secretary of State and the ministerial team, and I look forward to updating Parliament in due course with more detail on the review, its recommendations and how the Government will respond to them.

On my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch’s question about the private Member’s Bill that has called for a minimum sentence to be imposed on rough sex manslaughter, the Government are clear that there is no such defence in law as the “rough sex defence”. We clarified that position in statutory form in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. The Government are aware that there are rising concerns about seemingly low sentences given in some cases involving death, especially when there is evidence to suggest that there may have previously been consent between the parties for that type of behaviour.

Minimum sentences are rare in England and Wales. They tend to be used for repeat offences, or offences that are straightforward in definition, such as knife possession. Manslaughter offences cover a wide range of behaviours and circumstances. It is right that the courts have the full range of disposals available.

I thank the Minister for the detail and commitment that he has shown to this process. I want to lodge one thought with him: he mentioned that courts need to take account of evidence that the parties had engaged in such activity within the rough sex domain, as we have already discussed. I make the point that the woman who was part of that is now dead. There is no evidence that she could give; she is no longer with us. I want the Minister to take that away and consider it when he comes to his final conclusion.

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. Clearly, it is not always possible to know exactly what those who have no voice because they are no longer with us have said or consented to in the past. That is an important point, which will be reflected in our response.

The issue of rough-sex manslaughter will be a major consideration in our response to the independent domestic homicide sentencing review. Today, I heard the calls for reform to ensure that sentences are fit for purpose and commensurate with the crime. The Government are committed absolutely to that endeavour, and the domestic homicide sentencing review builds on significant action that we have taken already.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, passed earlier this year, ensures that those convicted of some of the most serious sexual and violent crimes, such as rape, manslaughter and attempted murder, will spend a longer proportion of their sentence in prison, protecting the public and giving victims the confidence that justice has been served. In the Act, we also took swift action to raise the starting point for murder for older children and young adults, to ensure that sentences in such cases reflect the seriousness of the crime and the age of the perpetrator. That was in part in response to the case of Ellie Gould, mentioned today, who was murdered by her 17-year-old ex-partner.

Going beyond sentencing, the Government are fully committed to improving outcomes for victims of domestic abuse and violence against women and girls in all its forms and, critically, to preventing more victims in future. Last year, we passed the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and, since then, we have published the rape review action plan, the cross-Government tackling violence against women and girls strategy, a complementary tackling domestic abuse plan and, in May this year, our draft victims Bill.

The vast majority of the measures passed in the Domestic Abuse Act are in force already. In July this year, the most recent measure in the Act came into force, meaning that abusers are no longer able to cross-examine their victims directly in the family and civil courts. The cross-Government tackling violence against women and girls strategy seeks to transform the whole-society response in order to prevent offending, to support victims and to pursue perpetrators.

The tackling domestic abuse plan is investing more than £230 million of cross-Government funding into prevention and protecting victims, including more than £140 million to support victims and more than £81 million to tackle perpetrators. The plan introduces key commitments to reduce domestic homicide, including reform of the domestic homicide review process and building the first ever central repository of such reviews.

The plan also announced a domestic abuse policing and domestic homicide prevention pilot, which will involve auditing forces that have relatively high levels of domestic homicide to ensure that they are doing everything possible to prevent those crimes. It also announced that we continue to invest in research to build the evidence base on domestic homicide prevention. The Home Office has already awarded more than £2 million in research projects over the past two years.

The victims Bill will improve victims’ experiences of the criminal justice system. It sends a clear signal about what victims can and should expect from the criminal justice system by enshrining the overarching principles of the victims code in primary legislation. It will increase transparency and oversight of criminal justice agencies’ services to victims, so that we can identify problems, drive up standards and give the public confidence. It will enable improvements in the quality and consistency of support services for victims by improving how organisations work together to commission support services to meet the needs of victims better, and to increase awareness of independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers. We are carefully considering the recommendations of the Justice Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, which will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Tackling violence against women and girls in all its forms remains an utmost priority for the Government, and the Prime Minister spoke last week about his determination and motivation to ensure that we tackle this issue. I have outlined the key action that the Government are taking, but of course there is more to do, and we will revisit this topic once we are able to respond to the Wade review. Finally, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch for her tireless work on this issue, both in and out of Government, and I thank colleagues for their contributions today.

Thank you for allowing me time to wind up, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for the compelling speech that he gave. In his remarks, he talked about the fact that women have been killed at the hands of their partners, and about the desperate circumstances that those women have endured after a lifetime of domestic abuse. He has done an extremely good job of representing his constituents, and I really hope that discussions can continue with the Northern Ireland criminal justice authorities to ensure that they continue to bear down on this awful scourge, which affects women and girls across all parts of our United Kingdom.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive summary. He answered all my questions, and I am extremely grateful to him. I agree with him that the leadership shown by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Justice—the Lord Chancellor—is exceptional, and we should be proud of all the work that we are doing. The Minister outlined some of it, but had he had more time, he could have touched on many more actions that we are taking. I agree with him that the Wade review encompasses complex issues, and there are unintended consequences.

Sentencing policy is not straightforward, and we need to make law that is workable and that does not duplicate what is already on the statute book. I know that people who are listening to this debate will be reassured that the Minister is committing to publish the Wade review. He will be coming forward with some recommendations, and he is committing to take them forward as soon as parliamentary time allows, so I thank him very much.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Domestic Homicide Sentencing Review.

Sitting adjourned.