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Westminster Hall

Volume 729: debated on Wednesday 15 March 2023

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 15 March 2023

[Derek Twigg in the Chair]

Access to Sport: People with Colour Blindness

I beg to move,

That this House has considered access to sport for people with colour blindness.

It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mr Twigg. Today I am here to speak about one of the world’s most common inherited conditions. This condition affects 3 million people in the UK. In fact, it is so common that it is estimated that, in the House of Commons, 34 male MPs will have the condition, while 32 female MPs will be carriers. The condition is colour blindness, also known as colour vision deficiency. In the UK, it affects one in 12 boys and men and one in 200 girls and women.

What is colour blindness? It is a common misconception that people with colour blindness just confuse reds and greens. In truth, colour blindness comes in many different types and severities. Although red-green colour blindness is the most common form of the condition, it changes the way people affected view all sorts of colour combinations. Humans see colour through three types of specialised cone cells in the eyes. The cones absorb red, blue and green light. With inherited CVD, one cone type does not function normally; in 25% of cases, it does not function at all. Red-green colour blindness is the colloquial term for a defect in the red or green cones. It is an incurable condition, which neither improves nor deteriorates throughout life.

Last June, I held a drop-in event here in Parliament with the charity Colour Blind Awareness to give MPs the chance to discover what it is like to be colour blind. MPs had the opportunity to try on glasses that simulated the effects of the condition—with some rather entertaining results. They tested themselves by trying to sort a line of socks by colour while wearing the glasses. That was one event where our party political colours became a bit mixed-up! It was all to show the impact of colour blindness on those who have it. As well as the fun, we had academic researchers there to explain their work.

Jokes aside, this is a condition that, in the most severe instances, can have an adverse impact on the daily lives of those affected. Thanks to technology, we live in an increasingly colourful world. In classrooms, interactive smartboards have replaced old-fashioned blackboards. We use tablets and smartphones to entertain us and even to educate younger children. These things often use vibrant colours, and even the Government relied on that vibrant colour palette throughout the covid pandemic, giving public health information that relied on the use of bright graphics and colour indicators.

In an example even closer to home, the BBC’s 2015 general election coverage saw complaints upheld against it because of its inaccessibility to people with colour blindness. The issue was colour pairings: the Conservatives’ blue against the UK Independence party’s purple; Labour’s red against the Liberal Democrats’ orange; and the Lib Dems’ orange against the SNP’s yellow. As they were broadcast, those colour pairings were a nightmare for people with CVD. Lack of accessibility in a range of arenas excludes people with colour blindness from vital aspects of public life and can even hamper their future prospects. That is the sad truth, as people affected by CVD are often an afterthought when it comes to things like that. But it is so much more than that: people who are colour blind are being let down by the Equality Act 2010.

That brings us to the central topic of the debate, which is access to sport for people with colour blindness. The issue was first brought to my attention by a young person in my constituency. Marcus Wells has red-green colour blindness, and from a young age he has done great work to raise awareness of his experiences of grassroots football. At just 10 years old, in 2018, he told a film crew about how simple things such as the colours of balls and cones used in training affected his ability to take part. He said:

“I was really confused at times, why they’d put those cones out, because I thought everyone was seeing like me. Why wouldn’t they put different coloured cones down? It made me feel really upset and frustrated.”

Marcus’s coaches noticed that his enthusiasm and confidence would waver in some of his training sessions, despite his passion and love for the sport. It was only after his diagnosis that they realised this was due to changes in the colour of the kit and equipment being used. Thankfully, the local team were then able to work with Marcus and his family to make sure that they were meeting his needs, but many children with CVD are going undiagnosed, as screening is not currently required in schools or even at optician’s appointments, and that is leading to many promising young athletes getting lost in the system.

Eight per cent. of boys have colour blindness, but research done by Oxford Brookes University suggests that only 6% of men playing elite-level football have the condition. That translates to 25% of colour-blind players like Marcus dropping out due to a lack of accessibility in sport. I am pleased to say that the Football Association and UEFA have introduced colour blindness guidelines for football, while similar guidance has been published by World Rugby, but to date, there is no official published guidance for cricket, hockey or other sports, and even in football and rugby, most clubs and coaches remain unaware of the implications.

We know that encouraging children to take part in sport is a vital aspect of ensuring that they get a healthy start in life. Participating in a team sport is not only good for children’s physical health; it also supports their mental wellbeing and facilitates social inclusion. That is why it is vital that we work to make sure grassroots sport is as accessible as possible, including for people with colour blindness.

It is not only at grassroots level that we see barriers to inclusion. Professional sport is incredibly varied when it comes to its support of people affected by colour blindness, whether that is support for professional athletes or support for fans. Kit clashes are a particularly difficult issue for athletes and fans alike. As a north-east MP—albeit one who does not do football—I know only too well the pride and support that fans have for their respective clubs, with two great football teams in Newcastle and Sunderland battling several times over the years in the famous Tyne and Wear derby. Despite this being a momentous day for so many fans, it has often been a source of frustration for those who cannot join in on the occasion.

This is just as much of an issue on the pitch as it is in the stands. Former Newcastle United player James Perch has colour blindness, and he told the BBC:

“It was because of the stripes—black and white against red and white. I struggled to tell the difference. That game was definitely the toughest.”

He is not alone in finding kit clashes difficult. Nick Bignall, who previously played for Reading, has described how he would end up running into his own teammates or even tackling them. In football, like many sports, marginal gains are important. If we fail to accommodate players with colour blindness, it can hamper their performance and their chances of selection.

We also need to consider the impact on those who are not playing. Professional sport at every level relies on a team of officials to ensure that sport is fair and competitive. Referees are often the unsung heroes of sport, being largely a background figure until the odd moment of controversy brings them to the centre. Referees who suffer from CVD will often find it much more difficult to get the big calls right if we do nothing to support them. If it is difficult to tell the difference between the teams or the players, or even at times spot the ball, they will be hindered in being able to correctly officiate. David Pearson, a former rugby referee, described his experiences of officiating by saying:

“Try calling in an offside line, you’re an assistant referee, you get a line break, where’s the offside line? You just don’t call it. And of course, you get the whole crowd on your back going ‘he’s offside!’”

Meanwhile, for fans, the reality is that kit clashes are a constant issue. Ten premier league games in 2021 were played in kits that were difficult to distinguish for people affected by CVD. Clashes also affect one of the most anticipated games in the rugby union calendar: Wales versus Ireland in the Six Nations. In 2023, the Welsh Rugby Union took the decision to continue to play in red at home, despite knowing that this would prevent tens of thousands of colour-blind fans from enjoying the game.

Times are difficult for many people, and it is a testament to the love that many fans have for their chosen team that they continue to spend their wages on match tickets and pay per views. Those fans should not be let down by pictures that they are unable to watch. As one fan said on Twitter:

“I’d paid a fiver to watch the official stream and I may as well have thrown it out the window.”

Another said:

“I hang my head in despair when I can’t differentiate between the teams, and that can include the referee as well. This happens too often and it spoils my day—nobody seems to care.”

On top of that, there is the important issue of fan safety in stadiums—something we are all very much aware of. We need to ensure that fans with colour blindness are safe in stadiums, but emergency signage and equipment, including emergency evacuation plans, often use colours that prevent colour-blind people from being able to read them, or even make sure that they can identify a steward if needs be. In the UK, only two stadiums have been fully audited for colour blindness accessibility. That must change if we want to make sport a safe environment for all spectators.

I know that the Premier League and the FA have done a lot of work with the charity Colour Blind Awareness better to understand the issues, and I thank them for the briefings they sent me ahead of the debate. The Premier League now has software to identify kit clashes while the English Football League has changed its rules to allow clubs to switch home kits for away if that makes games easier to watch.

I am also aware of great staff, such as FA coach co-ordinator Ryan Davies, who are doing all they can to make the sport inclusive. Ryan suffers from colour blindness, and he attended our drop-in last year. However, the guidance being issued is unfortunately not always followed by clubs, and in many of our other sports it is non-existent, so what do we need?

First, we need cross-departmental working. The Minister needs to have conversations with the education and health teams, and to encourage routine screening of children for colour vision deficiency. Screening is quick and easy, and inexpensive to carry out—and it would help so many young players to identify the problems they are having and ask for accommodations. Outside sport, it would help to tackle the struggles that children with CVD often encounter in classroom settings and ensure they got access to the learning they deserve. It is important to remember that one pupil in every 30 in a co-ed classroom is likely to be colour blind. Teachers must be aware of the issues those children face and should receive training in how to accommodate them.

Secondly, I ask the Minister to have conversations with broadcasters and sports governing bodies to place guidelines for fixtures on a firmer footing. For example, broadcaster contracts could contain clauses allowing the control of content from competition organisers to avoid kit clashes. Broadcasters should also be aware of using TV graphics that might exclude colour-blind people.

Thirdly, we need to ensure that fans with colour blindness are safe in stadiums. I emphasise that emergency signage and equipment, including emergency evacuation plans, often use colours that prevent colour-blind people from being able to read them. I ask the Minister to consider what steps he can take to ensure that the safety issue is addressed by sports authorities. I suspect that he will likely put the responsibility back on the sports governing bodies, but the truth is that the current frameworks are still letting down fans, players and referees. Whether it is the colour of balls, pitch lines, kits or even allergen advice on stadium menus, let us make sure that sport is accessible to the millions of colour-blind people in the UK.

Finally, I ask the Minister to meet with me to discuss in more detail the issues faced by colour-blind people in sport and how we can address them. Most of all, let us make sure that sport, which is starting to address the real difficulties, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport work with other Departments to tackle the problems faced in education, health and all aspects of life by those with colour blindness.

It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for leading it. She always raises subjects that are perhaps not very topical but are none the less important, as this one is. She outlined the difficulties that those with colour blindness suffer in their everyday lives. I am glad to say that I am not one of them—she is probably not either—but that does not take away from the issue. In this place, we are tasked with highlighting issues on behalf of those who need assistance.

It is always a pleasure to see the Minister in his place. He responds well and understands the issues, and I am sure he will contribute to the debate positively. It is also a pleasure to see the shadow Minister. This is the second day in a row on which I have been called first in Westminster Hall. It seems to be no accolade other than that I am the only other Back Bencher, but that does not take away from the importance of this debate.

The information that the hon. Lady and the charity Colour Blind Awareness sent to us contained a picture comparing normal colour vision with how colour-blind individuals see things. It gives us a wee flavour of what it means to be colour blind. It was extremely useful to see the impact that colour blindness has on sport. The Royal Society for the Protection of the Blind once offered to take me out with a guide dog, so I went to Holywood in my neighbouring constituency, where it is based. The guide dog did not know me, and I did not know it. When I had the blindfold on, I could see absolutely nothing, and that guide dog was my whole contact with what was happening on the footpath. That gave me a real experience of what it is to be blind, and the information that the hon. Lady sent us did the same for colour blindness, so I thank her for that.

It is important that we listen to people’s comments and consider how the condition affects them. Colour blindness affects one in 12 men and one in 200 women. It is caused if one of the three cones—specialised cells that detect red, green and blue—does not work as well as the others or does not work.

I love watching football; I used to play it many moons ago when I was much younger. Like others, I am really thrilled to watch ladies play football—they are very skilled. Last year, in the UEFA women’s Euro 2022, Northern Ireland played England. For the record, we lost 5-0. England were due to wear their crimson away kit, but instead they wore their home kit so the colours would not clash for colour-blind fans. It might be a small thing, but it was a big thing for those who have colour blindness and cannot differentiate between the two teams on the pitch and on the TV. That is an example of what can be done. The green of the Northern Ireland shirt and the red of the Lionesses’ shirt would have clashed, as green and red commonly have that impact on vision. It would have looked like 22 players playing among themselves, rather than playing against each other. That would have been the interpretation on TV.

Teams often change colours to make them easier to see. In my opinion, it should be compulsory to discuss that before every game with a potential colour clash. Has the Minister had an opportunity to discuss that with the Football Association to ensure that it is always checked before the match—long in advance of the match, I should say, as a precursor—so that there is not a clash for those who watch the match through eyes that are colour blind? That is a simple thing to ask for. I know the Minister is always keen to respond to us, and I believe we should take that factor on board.

Another factor that we should discuss more is stadium safety and security, which the hon. Lady referred to. Colour-blind people can struggle to understand wayfinding information on venues and tickets because of its colour. Many times I have gone to a football match and been given a ticket of a certain colour. It is no problem for those of us who are not colour blind. We are told, “Go to this place,” and we all know where it is as the colour is the way to find it. For those who are colour blind, that becomes a problem—not to mention emergency signage, equipment and evacuation plans.

The organisation Colour Blind Awareness notes that in the entire United Kingdom only two stadiums have been fully audited for colour-blindness accessibility. I have a gentle question for the Minister that we should try to address. What has been done to encourage the many hundreds of other stadiums to ensure that they are audited for colour-blindness accessibility to ensure that everyone can participate fully in sport? The Minister has always been helpful in answering our questions in the Chamber or in Westminster Hall. I am confident that he will do that in a positive fashion.

The issues apply to sports fans and the many guys who play football regularly. Sports presenters and journalists have raised awareness of the issue on social media and TV programmes, and have asked sporting organisations to do better. I could be a wee bit mischievous and say that it might be a good thing for Gary Lineker to do; we would all support him. He might even—I say this to him with gentleness—mention it this Saturday night on his football programme. We live in hope. I say that having been a Leicester City supporter since I was 14 years old, when they were in the FA Cup final in 1969 against Manchester City and lost 1-0. They were my team then and they are my team now.

There are many great sports people who suffer with colour blindness, and I will mention two or three across sports. They are a credit to their sport and fantastic role models who did not let the condition get in the way of what they wanted to do in life. Tiger Woods, a household name in golf; Jürgen Klopp, manager of Liverpool, and a fantastic football player in his day; and Bill Beaumont, the rugby player, are all colour blind. They are representatives of completely different sports, but the impact the condition has is the same. Of course, there is no need to worry about the yellow and red cards on the football pitch. One is light and one is dark, and it is possible to tell the difference. If a player is sent off, they are sent off and will know why. That is just an example.

It is estimated that 40% of colour-blind pupils leave school not fully aware that they are colour blind, because they do not speak out about what they are experiencing. Sometimes at school they might feel that they were different but not let on, because people would not understand what they were on about, and would probably give them a quizzical look. We should do all we can to speak out on this issue, because it is more common than we think. We can learn about social behaviours to treat people with colour blindness better. It is also important to train teachers how to identify and support pupils who suffer with colour blindness.

The hon. Member for Blaydon referred to better co-ordination between Departments. It is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I know he will contact the relevant Minister in the Department for Education to see what has been done with sport in schools and education. That is my third ask; hon. Lady has already asked it, but I want to reinforce that. It might be helpful for the Education Secretary to undertake research on why schools are not responding better.

I conclude by thanking the hon. Member for Blaydon for raising the issue. She often raises issues that I am happy to support. It is our duty to raise issues that people might forget about. As my party’s health spokesperson, I have been involved in significant work on eye health, so I understand the importance of the issue. This is an aspect of eye health that I am happy to learn more about, and today has been an opportunity for that learning, through the hon. Lady’s graciousness in sending information relevant to the debate.

I hope consideration will be given to the comments of Members, the two shadow Ministers and the Minister who will sum up at the end, and that there will be greater support for those who are colour blind, especially in the sporting industry. What a joy it is to participate in sport, and to participate equally! Those with colour blindness are unfortunately not able to do that to the fullest extent. I know the Minister will be keen to respond in a positive fashion, and to give us the answers that we want.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Twigg. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as I do on many occasions.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). She is committed to rare diseases, syndromes and conditions that affect the daily life of so many people and their families, and she works continuously in this area. I am happy to put on record my thanks to her for all the outstanding work that she does to make others aware of many conditions. I also thank the charity Colour Blindness Awareness for its briefing and for raising awareness of these issues, which many of us have never actually thought about. We have already heard about the amazing numbers of people who are either carriers or affected by colour blindness, yet the issue is not taken as seriously as it should be in sport.

I also make a plea. This issue does not just affect rugby and football. My granddaughter plays netball, which is, I think, the biggest sport played by women and girls—certainly in my area in Scotland and, I think, across the UK. Although fewer women are affected by this condition, they have mums and dads who watch avidly. We have to think about all sports here.

The briefing from Colour Blindness Awareness made me aware that in England children are no longer screened for colour blindness as part of the healthy child screening programme. Screening has been stopped on the basis of evidence that has perhaps been discredited. Teachers are not trained how to identify and support colour-blind children. In Scotland and Wales, however, there is colour vision screening for under-16s. Studies show that despite 75% of children having had an NHS eye test by year 7 in England, 80% have never had a colour vision test, so they and their families will not know what is wrong. It is a huge thing for parents not to be aware of. I ask that the Minister looks at that and refers to it in his summing up.

The hon. Member for Blaydon and the Colour Blind Awareness briefing mention the Equality Act 2010. Almost incredibly, the guidance notes on that Act are erroneous. They state that people

“unable to distinguish between red and green”

should not be considered to have a disability. There is no such medical condition. People with colour vision deficiencies have a lifelong, debilitating medical condition that cannot be rectified, which excludes them from much information provided in colour. Many colour combinations can cause challenges, not just reds and greens. Consequently, the business, education and sporting sectors mistakenly believe that they do not have to take into account the needs of colour-blind people. That error discourages colour-blind people from bringing a legal challenge when discriminated against. That is important, because the Equality Act is about equality, so they should be able to bring forward these discrimination challenges. We all know from our experience in this place that those challenges often affect the decisions made by Government. Reviews are carried out and mistakes are rectified.

Colour vision deficiency, or CVD, affects about one in 12 men and one in 200 women, and there are approximately 3 million colour-blind people in Britain—approximately 4.5% of our population. That could be a significant number of people who play sport. As we have already heard graphically from the hon. Member for Blaydon, who spoke about her young footballer constituent, sport is losing out on people who could achieve elite status, simply because needs related to their CVD are not met.

The hon. Member for Strangford talked about signage in football stadia and other places, although we are talking specifically about sport in this debate. I thank him and the hon. Member for Blaydon for raising that point. I will write to sportscotland to find out its take on this important issue. We are aware that there are differences across the four nations in how things are done, but I do not ever want to say, and I hope I never have, that everything in Scotland is perfect—it almost is, but not always.

I am aware that a lot of what I am saying is repetitive, but I make no apology for it. My first ever Chief Whip would say, “Marion, repetition is good. It gets your point out to your constituents and to people across the Chamber,” so I will carry on repeating stuff that has already been said. In Scotland, the Government are keen on sport for all. They have taken a number of actions and follow a number of guidelines. For example, sportscotland, which gets its money from the Scottish Government, follows the SCULPT framework for digital accessibility. Importantly, under that framework, one of the basic principles that should be considered when digital material is produced is its colour and contrast. That comes back to the point about people finding things difficult in football or sports stadiums when things are colour-coded. I will also write to the Scottish Football Association, the Scottish Professional Football League and the premiership clubs on this issue.

Until the debate was announced, I had not considered this issue at all in my role as SNP disability spokesperson, so I have got more work out of this debate, which I am actually quite happy about. We cannot always make effective change here and now as a result of these debates, but we can speak to the relevant bodies and raise their awareness of issues. The hon. Member for Blaydon is good at pointing people in the right direction on various issues, so again I commend her for her work.

The Active Scotland outcomes framework describes the Scottish Government’s ambitions for sport and physical activity and commits to ensuring that everyone has opportunities to achieve, irrespective of disability. I will be speaking soon to Scottish Government Ministers, and will flag this issue. I cannot guarantee that I will be completely successful on it immediately, but I will keep plugging away. I understand the Minister is keen on responding to this sort of thing. Does he know which two stadia the previous speakers were talking about? If someone could let me know, I would be grateful. I will visit my local football club, Motherwell, and will be particularly interested in its signage. I do not know if the claret and amber cause difficulties for people with colour blindness, but I will find out as soon as I can.

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Twigg, and it is a pleasure to respond on behalf of the Opposition. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) not just on securing the debate, but on her excellent speech, which set out all the issues and made some good asks of the Minister. As Members have said, she has been stalwart in raising awareness of the issue, and giving it a profile in Parliament, as she is doing today. The issue potentially impacts millions of people.

It is always a pleasure to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I did not know until today that the origin of his support for Leicester City was the 1969 FA cup final. As a lifelong Manchester City fan, that is one of my earliest memories, although it is a much happier memory for me than for him.

Colour vision deficiency or colour blindness affects many people in many different ways. One of the impacts is on their ability to participate and compete in, and watch, sport. Sport and physical activity are essential elements of a modern, healthy, thriving society. Participating in sport is important for physical and mental health and overall wellbeing. Watching sport helps connect communities, tackle loneliness and bring people together, as well as providing entertainment. Sport should be accessible and everyone should be able to enjoy it, no matter who they are. Unfortunately, for people who are colourblind, who face many challenges, this is not always the case.

The issue starts in school. Colour blindness is thought to affect around 450,000 schoolchildren in the UK. It can have real implications for their ability to learn and build confidence at school. Colour is often used as a tool for learning; for example, younger children use colouring-in sheets. Colour is used on maps and graphs. It is used to highlight information and make distinctions, particularly in school sport. We have heard the example of two teams wearing different coloured bibs in a school sports session. For a young person with difficulty differentiating between two colours, that can lead to their making mistakes or being slower to follow instructions, and it can knock their confidence and their ability to participate. Studies show that 80% of pupils get to year 7 without ever having had a colour vision test. I understand that school screening for colour blindness ended in 2009, and teachers are often not trained in how to identify and support colour-blind children.

It certainly seems that this lack of support and knowledge can impact negatively on participation in sport. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon said, research by Oxford Brookes University on the comparative levels of involvement of colour-blind and non-colour-blind players suggests that 25% of colour-blind players are potentially being lost to the system. That is obviously a problem, particularly as levels of physical activity among the population are not where they should be. Disabled people are one of the groups whose activity levels have declined most sharply since the pandemic, and fewer than half of all children do the recommended amount of sport and physical activity. We need to remove barriers whenever we can.

The issue continues into professional sport. For colour-blind people who make it as professional athletes, the barriers continue. It is welcome that colour blindness guidance has been created by the Football Association and UEFA for football and by World Rugby, but to date there is no official published guidance on the subject from the other major sports. Even in football and rugby, there is low awareness among clubs and coaches. If there is not a proper focus on the subject, lots of the issues that affect sports and players, such as team kit colours or the colour of the ball, can cause issues.

A lack of consideration for colour vision deficiency can mean that players struggle to identify their team mates. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon gave a couple of examples; I will point to another. Matt Holland, the former Northern Ireland international, used to play for Charlton Athletic. On his debut for Charlton, they were playing away in Plymouth. Charlton were playing in red; Plymouth were playing in green. After a few minutes, Matt had to run over to the side of the pitch and say to the assistant manager, “I don’t know what I’m doing here; I can’t differentiate the teams.” He said that the assistant manager looked at him as if to say, “What on earth have we signed here as our new player?” He went on to have a very successful career. He is now working as a pundit, and continues to face similar issues.

If it is bad for players, think about the difficulties for referees. It is difficult anyway to get people through the barriers to becoming referees in sport, so we need to try to tackle this extra barrier. This issue also affects sports fans. We have heard about the kit clashes, which are a common occurrence and can make a match difficult to follow. That is particularly galling if someone has spent lots of money on tickets, travel or pay-per-view. Issues can also be caused by ticketing portals, which sometimes use colour to distinguish different seats’ pricing and availability. As we have heard, this is also an issue when it comes to stadium safety and security. Because of the use of colours, colour-blind people can struggle to understand way-finding information, pick out emergency signage or understand things such as allergen advice in catering outlets. In the whole UK, only two stadiums have been fully audited for colour blindness accessibility.

Ambiguity around colour blindness and the Equality Act means that people who are colour blind often do not get their needs taken into account. Colour Blind Awareness, the organisation advocating for people with colour blindness, feels that the guidance notes to the Equality Act 2010 are problematic. The guidance notes state that people who are unable to distinguish between red and green should not be considered to have a disability, but people with colour vision deficiency do have a lifelong, debilitating medical condition that cannot be rectified, and many colour combinations cause challenges, not just red and green.

Under the 2010 Act, a person is considered to have a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a “substantial and long-term” effect on their ability to manage normal everyday activities, but colour blindness is not specifically cited in the Act. The Government Equalities Office does recognise that colour blindness can be a disability in some instances, so I ask the Government to look at this. Will the Minister and his colleagues consider the arguments in favour of reviewing the Equality Act guidance, to ensure that it supports all people with visual impairments or colour vision deficiency?

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon made a number of excellent suggestions for actions to be taken, and I endorse them, because they raise questions about what more the Government can do to ensure that schools and sporting bodies from the grassroots to the professional better take into account the needs of colour-blind players, staff and fans. We need to break down every barrier to people getting active and enjoying sport in all its forms, and that includes for people with colour blindness.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this important debate and thank Members for their contributions. There is a fair bit of cross-party consensus on this. I suppose I should, in a sense, come out: I am a member of the colour-blind community and understand the challenges that come with living with the condition. I have a bad case of it. I get colours like red, green, orange and brown confused, and I also get blues and purples confused. I remember being in school and having to draw a map of where we lived, and I coloured a river purple and got told off for doing so. I certainly understand many of the points that have been raised today about educating people about the impacts. I have sometimes come downstairs in the most shocking clothes with colours that clash appallingly, and I have struggled to get my socks in order.

The world around us is often designed for people with standard colour vision, and that can make everyday tasks and activities much more difficult. The hon. Member for Blaydon raised the issue of the different political party colours at the election. I had to be very careful when designing my leaflets that I did not make them purple rather than blue, for fear of being confused with a UKIP candidate; I would not have wanted that.

The Government believe that opportunities to play sport and be physically active should be available to everyone, but we recognise that there are barriers that prevent some people from taking part. I can assure hon. Members that we will continue to work with the sports sector to tackle those barriers. That is an area of high importance to me as the Sports Minister, because I believe that it is our responsibility to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities to participate in sport, regardless of their abilities.

As we have heard from a number of colleagues, the statistics are that in the UK one in 12 males and one in 200 females have some form of colour blindness. That means that in many team sports, such as football, rugby and cricket, at least one player in every male squad is likely to be colour blind. This condition can affect athletes’ development and performance at every level. The disadvantages that colour-blind athletes face obviously vary from sport to sport. As we have heard, in team sports, the colours of strips can be difficult to distinguish between. Team training presents similar challenges when different coloured cones are used. The hon. Member for Blaydon rightly pointed out—indeed, it was heart-warming to hear—the account from Marcus Wells where he talked about the different coloured cones and bibs for drills or games.

In canoeing, a colour-blind competitor might find it difficult to distinguish between the red and green gate markings that indicate the direction in which to pass through a gate. In cricket, the red balls can be difficult to pick out against a green background, even if the player is standing almost on top of the ball. I struggle with this personally, having always found it difficult to tell the difference between the colours of the balls while watching snooker. I often use that as an excuse for how bad a player I am, but I do recognise the issues.

Of course, it is not just those taking part in sport who are affected; it is, as hon. Members have said, the spectators too. Close to 3 million people have colour vision deficiency in the UK, and kit clashes in team games are an increasing concern. That is where, as we have heard, two teams wear colours that appear to blend into each other if someone has colour vision deficiency. There are many examples of games with clashing kits. Last season, in both legs of the League One play-off semi-final between Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday, there were problematic clashes for colour-blind people. When there is a kit-clash game, large numbers of people could be affected.

Football fans have spoken out—we have heard today a number of accounts—on other struggles and highlighted the fact that it is hard to tell a red card from a yellow card. What is more, some fans say that they did not realise—I am one of these people—that a substitution board had different colours to show which player was coming on and which was coming off; some have even said that they could not see the numbers at all. As we have heard, fans with colour blindness arriving at stadiums and grounds to support their teams can also find it challenging if way-finding information is colour-coded.

The Sports Grounds Safety Authority guide highlights various challenges that venues need to consider, such as when information is conveyed solely by colour or when a plain high-visibility jacket is used to show that someone is a steward. Adding the word “steward” to those jackets is a simple solution that helps to improve the safety of all fans. I can commit to hon. Members today that I will happily raise this in my next meeting with the SGSA, because safety is a high priority for us. As I have said, it is sometimes very difficult if signs have red backgrounds and green lettering. I say to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), who spoke for the SNP, that I do not quite have the information to hand yet on the two stadiums, but I will be more than happy to get that information for her and pass it on.

It is important to note that some good work is being done to help to tackle these issues. I welcome the English Football League’s decision to allow clubs to wear away kits at home games next season to aid colour-blind people in differentiating teams. That will benefit players, staff, officials and spectators. By allowing a home club to wear its away kit or third kit to avoid a kit clash, that organisation is making it easier to differentiate between the two teams, and in turn helping to make football inclusive for all. But I will be more than happy to do what hon. Members have asked me to do and continue to raise these issues with the FA and, indeed, with other governing bodies.

Another example in football is that of Stoke City, which ahead of this season made a number of retail changes around its new kit launch in order to assist colour-blind fans with their shopping experience. The club has renamed its replica kit items by adding a description of the colour on to all labels. That simple change makes it easier for colour-blind people to support their club how they want.

In cricket, there has been ongoing research into how pink balls have affected colour-blind cricketers. Actions taken from the results include changing the stitching on the ball to black to help make it stand out against surrounding colours.

World Rugby has also made changes to make the sport inclusive to those with colour vision deficiency. It consulted on proposed new laws that would be introduced for the men’s 2027 rugby world cup. The proposed changes would see international teams wearing different shirts in situations that present a red-green clash.

There is also a collaborative partnership called Tackling Colour Blindness in Sport, which has been doing great work investigating the prevalence of colour blindness in professional sport. Although its primary focus is on football, it aims to identify any barriers to progression for colour-blind players as well as strategies to overcome them. We have heard a lot today about Colour Blind Awareness, which has worked with many sports and organisations, including the Football Association and UEFA, helping them to develop the first guidance document for football.

The Government’s aim is to create an inclusive and diverse sports sector for all. That means sports should take into account the diversity of their players, spectators and workforce. We are currently working on the cross-Government sports strategy, and I want to ensure that inclusion features heavily. Hon. Members have raised a number of issues that stretch across other Departments, such as the Department for Education. We are working towards equal access for PE, and it is important to identify these issues early on.

I was fortunate to have the colour blindness test at school. I remember the coloured dots, where we had to read the number inside the dots. Because of my colour blindness, I could never find the number, and I thought I was just looking at pretty patterns. Identifying the issue early on makes everything easier.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) raised an important point about seating plans when people are trying to buy tickets. I never go on those sites—I have to get someone else to do it for me, because I cannot work out which seats have been sold and which are available, because of the use of colours.

I have a departmental role in terms of the Equality Act. I will have a look at the issues and see what can be considered, although I make no promises.

I thank the hon. Member for Blaydon for securing the debate, and all other Members for their contributions in highlighting this important issue. Everyone should have the chance to watch, play and enjoy sport. The Government will continue to work with stakeholders to make sport in England as inclusive as possible. As a colour blindness sufferer myself, I know acutely how challenging it can be. I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the issue further.

I thank all Members who have taken part today. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is always so supportive in pursuing these issues. He spoke very well about stadium safety, as well as the practical aspects. I thank him for his contribution.

I thank the two Front-Bench spokespeople—the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) and the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith)—and the Minister for their responses. This is one of those debates where everyone knows there is an issue and everyone is looking to do the best thing, but we just need to do some more.

I thank the Minister for telling us about his personal experience of having colour blindness, and the practical difficulties it entails; I thank him for saying that he will continue to pursue the issues, especially through the sports strategy. He raised an important point about PE in schools, where there is that intersection between sport and education.

People who suffer from colour blindness face very real difficulties. There may be good anecdotes, but those people face real difficulties in their lives, not just in sport. It is good to hear that sport is, in some ways, leading the way in tackling the issues, but we need to make sure that the broader issues are picked up as well. I thank the Minister for agreeing to raise this matter through the broader sports strategy.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered access to sport for people with colour blindness.

Sitting suspended.

Mental Health and Wellbeing Plan

I will call Kevan Jones to move the motion, and I will then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention for a 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 the mental health and wellbeing plan.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg.

It is now 11 years since there was a major debate in Parliament on mental illness, when I and many other hon. Members spoke about their own experiences. That debate changed attitudes in this place towards mental illness and wellbeing, and both the press and members of the public have made great strides in being able to speak about mental health. We also now have members of the royal family speaking about their own mental illness, and it is heartening to see the Prince of Wales taking mental health and wellbeing as one of their charity initiatives. Unfortunately, however, there is still a lot of progress to be made in delivering timely treatment, particularly prevention and early intervention.

In England, the numbers speak for themselves. Around 1.7 million people are in contact with mental health services, and according to NHS England’s monthly statistic dashboard, 26,000 of them are occupying hospital beds or have a hospital bed open to them. We have also seen severe pressures on ambulance services and the police due to people in mental health crisis asking for help. However, according to the National Audit Office, there could be around 8 million people with mental health needs that are not currently being met by mental health services.

I am sure the Minister will tell us shortly that the Government are delivering record levels of investment in mental health services, but according to research by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, almost a quarter of people are waiting more than 12 weeks for any form of treatment. Some 43% of mental health patients say that longer waiting times make their conditions worse, and 78% resort to attending A&E because they cannot access services. I am sorry, but that is unacceptable. It shows that despite the amount of money going into mental health—I would argue that there needs to be more—much more needs to be done on prevention. We need a joined-up approach across Government to reduce the demand on services and to get people more timely treatment and intervention.

That is why I welcomed the Government’s announcement of the development of a cross-departmental 10-year mental health and wellbeing plan last year, and it was also broadly welcomed by everyone in the mental health sphere, including many charities. It was launched with a great fanfare of publicity as a major initiative by the Government, who said at the time of the launch that

“now is the right time to think about bold, long-term actions to build the mentally healthy society that we want to see in 10 years’ time.”

The then Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), said that

“our new 10-year plan will set an ambitious agenda for where we want the mental health of our nation to be in a decade’s time.”

Over 5,200 individuals, organisations and stakeholders responded to the discussion paper. Charities such as Mind said that a truly cross-Government plan will play a key role in making sure that support for our mental health starts to rebuild, post pandemic, to the same level as our physical health, so it was a bit of a shock when the 10-year plan was quietly scrapped in January this year. Instead, the Government say that mental health will be addressed in their major conditions strategy. As I have already stated, it is clear from the number of people requiring interventions that mental health should be included in any such strategy.

My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I completely concur with his concern. There is a challenge. We know we are very interconnected beings, and our mental health and physical health are joined up. If we do not provide the focus required around mental health, it can get subsumed into other priorities, with mental health not having its day, its funding or real impact.

Yes, but that is what was so good about the 10-year mental health plan. That was going to do exactly what my hon. Friend suggests. It was going to look at the interconnections between physical and mental health, and some of the reasons it occurs in the first place.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the consultation and the enthusiasm of the respondents. YoungMinds, a great organisation dealing with young people’s mental health, had 14,000 young people commenting as part of that consultation. Is he as concerned as I am that their views will now be lost and that they will be dispirited?

I congratulate YoungMinds on its great work. It is disappointing that many of those people will feel let down, that their perfectly legitimate concerns around the mental health of young people will not be taken into consideration in a broader strategy. I will come on to that, but I would like to make some progress.

The major conditions strategy covers cardiovascular disease, including stroke, respiratory disease, musculoskeletal disorders, dementia, and cancer. Those are some of the most challenging areas that face the NHS. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) just mentioned, much has been said about parity of esteem between mental and physical health. I am a passionate believer; I believe that the integrated whole approach is right and should be our aim. However, a co-ordinated approach does not simply scrap the plan for mental health and wellbeing, if that means, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Central just outlined, that those will not actually be taken up or given the priority that they need.

If anything, trying to create change across a vast swathe of health in one strategy could risk dealing with none of the challenges that are faced in those different areas.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate forward. One of my concerns, which I suspect he has along with others, is for those with eating disorders, which is clearly a mental health and physical issue. Across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, there are 700,000 young people with eating disorders. That is not a core part of the Government’s plan, but it needs to be. Does he agree that eating disorders have to be key and core to any strategy addressing mental health and physical health?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, eating disorders can affect people of any age, but there is a huge cohort that are young. I am coming on to my concerns about particular emphasis on young people’s mental health, which needs to be addressed.

Give me two minutes to make some progress. There are two issues that I want to highlight, which will fall through the cracks without dedicated attention. That is tackling disparities, and the mental health of children and young people, just raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). In the original plan for the 10-year strategy, the Government spoke about tackling enhanced disparities. They said:

“Addressing disparities will be a key aim across the whole of the mental health plan—from prevention through to early intervention and treatment.”

The right hon. Gentleman is talking about young people. We would all concur that additional support for young people with mental health issues is extremely important. Does he agree that emotional intelligence support for young people is related to this? Does he agree that more emotional intelligence should be taught in schools, to help people through with their mental wellbeing?

Personally, I would not call it emotional intelligence; I would call it emotional robustness and I will come on to say more about that. However, the hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of trying to make sure that young people are as robust as possible in dealing with the situations that face them now in modern life.

The discussion paper for the 10-year plan mentioned no fewer than 18 disparity factors relating to mental health, including financial insecurity, discrimination, the criminal justice system, poor quality of work or employment, living standards—the list goes on. It is important to acknowledge those factors, because the Government themselves said that they needed to be addressed in mental health and wellbeing plan. Colleagues will know that I have often been on the record saying that the way to tackle mental health and wellbeing is to make sure that we hardwire into Government policy consideration of mental health and resilience across Departments. That is why I welcomed the approach in the plan.

However, building consideration of mental health into a major conditions strategy means that only one disparity factor is likely to be taken into consideration, which is physical health. Many other disparity factors, which are often complex, obviously relate to people’s wellbeing, but I fear they will be sidelined in the strategy.

Let us just take one of those other disparity factors, which is financial insecurity. According to the Office for National Statistics last autumn, around one in six adults experienced moderate or severe depressive symptoms. That increased to one in four for those who find it difficult to pay energy bills, or rent or mortgage payments. And according to a YouGov poll for Barnardo’s, almost a third of parents said that children’s mental health has worsened during the cost of living crisis.

We know that the effect of wellbeing on health includes its effect on mental health, which is substantial. This was such a key priority for the Government that they outlined its importance in their levelling-up agenda. The levelling up White Paper said that

“wellbeing has a bearing on all four of the UK Government’s objectives for levelling up”.

The 10-year plan discussion paper specifically said that

“a new plan for mental health is needed to deliver the Government’s levelling up mission to narrow the gap in healthy life expectancy between local areas”.

However, we now have no mental health 10-year plan, so where does that leave those good words that were in the levelling up White Paper?

We also need early intervention and prevention, which are so important. We know for a fact that around 50% of mental health conditions are established by the time that a child reaches the age of 14 and 75% of them are established by the time someone is 24. However, it is estimated that 60% of children and young people who have diagnosable mental health conditions currently do not receive NHS care. I share the very valid concerns raised by mental health charities and others that scrapping the 10-year plan and merging mental health into the major conditions strategy means that the people who will be at most risk will be children and young people, who are less likely to have chronic physical health conditions, but are most likely to benefit from early intervention, for example counselling or psychotherapy.

I have spoken before about the importance of making sure that we get children and young people’s mental health right. Rates of probable mental health disorders in children aged between six and 16 have risen from 11.6% in 2017 to 18% in 2022. That equates to one in six children aged between six and 16 having a probable mental health condition. And as has already been mentioned, 700,000 children have accessed mental health services in the last 12 months.

The Government need to take on board the important point that addressing the scale of mental health challenges in young people will not just be about health and looking at that major conditions strategy and how it interrelates with other health conditions, but about looking at what society offers, such as the education system, the digital community and so much more, which put so much pressure on young people. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is why we need this focus?

That was the beauty of the 10-year plan; it was going to do that.

Coming back to children’s and young people’s mental health, referrals have increased according to the Children’s Commissioner, but waiting times are growing and fewer children are receiving treatment. We need universal access to counselling for children, which we do not have at the moment. That is why I support providing special mental health support in every school. I stress that schools are not islands, separate from their communities. We also need clear links between the support given there and in the community.

I have already spoken about having a joined-up approach to mental health, but there is another issue: to use a Bill Clinton quote, “It’s the economy, stupid.” If media reports are correct, the Chancellor will stand up later today to deliver what he is calling a back-to-work Budget, but unless we take proper joined-up action on mental health, any ambitions he announces today will not be achieved. Adults with mental health conditions are more likely to be out of work or in lower paid work. The total annual cost to the Government is estimated to be between £24 billion and £27 billion a year, and the overall loss to the economy to be between £70 billion and £100 billion. That is money people could contribute to our economy, so this is not just about people’s wellbeing, but about ensuring the economy benefits from good mental health and wellbeing.

England is the only nation in the UK that does not have a 10-year plan. The Government’s current approach of scrapping the previous 10-year plan risks, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Central said, sidelining mental health and short-changing future funding and policy decisions. It shows the lack of a coherent focus and risks losing the momentum that has been built over the past few years in mental health and wellbeing. Whether it is tackling disparities and the many complex drivers of mental health, or pursuing prevention and early intervention in children’s mental health, long-term planning is desperately needed in this sector. I cannot understand why the Government have put this to one side.

As I said last year to mark the 10th anniversary of speaking about my own mental health in the House of Commons, we need a dedicated public health strategy for dealing with mental health and wellbeing. We need a mental health strategy that is hard-wired into not just the Department of Health and Social Care, but every single Department and into local government. When the Government launched their paper for a dedicated 10-year plan on mental health and wellbeing last year, they said to

“challenge us to be ambitious”.

I am urging the Minister today to be ambitious.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for bringing forward the debate and for all his work in this space. He is absolutely right that mental health affects us all, and for those who have a poor experience with mental health the impacts can be life-changing. He is also right that debates in this place have broken taboos and challenged stigmas around mental health, and have helped with the national conversation about mental health and why it is so important. In one sense, I violently agree with all that he said. The difference is about how we get to that place where we are looking at mental health, rather than just mental illness, and treating people sooner when they need help and support.

I believe that in the last 10 years we have seen a seismic shift in the way that we look at mental health—a shift to parity with physical health, and towards early intervention and community support, rather than waiting for someone to reach a crisis and then intervening. It has been a shift to look at mental health as well as mental illness; the two are very different, but support each other. If we get mental health right, we are much more likely to deal better with mental illness. Parity between mental health and physical health is why the major conditions strategy has mental health in it.

Huge progress is being made. We have committed to funding increases each year, from almost £11 billion in 2015 to £15 billion in the current financial year. Such a level of funding has not been seen in mental health services before, and it is making a difference. The additional £2.3 billion a year to transform mental health services in England has the aim of getting in as early as possible when people need help, and moving to community mental health services as the first port of call for people who need support.

I have seen in practice the difference that the funding and change of emphasis are making. I recently visited Hammersmith and Fulham Mental Health Unit, where community and in-patient mental health teams are working together. If someone is struggling in the community they get input from the in-patient setting, and, when someone is an in-patient, the community team are making sure they are getting the help and support they need for discharge. It is working extremely well.

I have met with police chiefs and talked about the Humberside model, which means that patients are not being taken to A&E or police cells as a first point of refuge, but are instead seen by community support teams. That frees up police time, and is a better experience for patients to quickly receive more appropriate care. That would not have been possible 10 years ago. Of course, there is work to be done, and we get huge numbers of patients who need services and want referrals, but a huge amount of progress has been made.

We recently announced £150 million to support crisis centres in local communities up and down England, so that someone who is not well has easier access to teams and support. Up to 90 mental health ambulances are being rolled out, which means that if someone is going into crisis, it is a mental health support team that responds to them, and not necessarily a paramedic, who would normally be the first responder. That is making a difference, keeping people out of hospital and making sure they are getting the right support as quickly as possible.

The Minister will recall a conversation we had some time ago, when I was very keen for her to meet a constituent of mine from Shrewsbury who has a daughter experiencing mental health problems. They are not happy with the level of service we receive in Shropshire. I hope the Minister will commit to meet my constituent.

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend’s constituent.

Record numbers of patients are coming forward, both through referrals and via GPs. The consequence of breaking stigmas and taboos and encouraging people to come forward early is that more people want to use the system, so it is taking longer than we would hope for them to be seen. The situation is the same in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; it is not just something that England faces, which is why we are focused on increasing funding and resources. We are recruiting 27,000 additional mental health staff, and we are on track to deliver much of that in terms of support staff that are already in place.

We are also putting mental health support teams in schools. There are 287 mental health teams in place, covering 4,700 schools and colleges. They are not only helping young people who are struggling, but normalising mental health and making it as important as physical health. We teach young people about their physical health in schools—how to look after it and look for signs and symptoms of concern—but we have not done that in the past with mental health. Mental health support teams will normalise the idea that mental health wellbeing is as important as physical health wellbeing.

It is an achievement that in the major conditions strategy, mental health is on a par with other major conditions in the strategy. We cannot see patients just as people who have mental health needs, or who are suffering with a mental health illness. More than one in four patients who have mental health conditions have two or more long-term conditions, and 30% of people with a long-term physical health issue will also have a mental health problem. We cannot treat problems in isolation—seeing the individual as a cancer patient, a heart disease patient or a mental health patient. People are complex and have multiple issues.

By putting mental health in the major conditions strategy, we are matching what NHS England is doing with its Core20PLUS5 strategy. The right hon. Member for North Durham talked about inequalities. That is exactly what Core20PLUS5 does: it looks at the 20% of the population who are the most deprived and struggling the most with all their health needs, both physical and mental, and drills down into the five conditions that drive those inequalities, of which mental health is one. The major conditions strategy will mirror exactly what NHS England is doing.

Will the Minister comment on the 5,200 responses to the discussion paper and the issue that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) about groups that fed into the discussion paper? How will that work, and how will charities and people in the sector be able to feed into the new strategy?

I am not one for reinventing the wheel. Consultation work has been done, and we received a significant response. The hon. Member for Blaydon is right to point out groups such as YoungMinds, who will be in Parliament next week—I hope to meet them to follow up discussions. We will publish the previous call for evidence this spring, because we want to use that work to navigate and develop the mental health part of the major conditions strategy. This is not about undoing the work that was done before; it is about including it with physical illness. Over a third of people with severe symptoms of common mental health disorders also report a chronic physical condition, compared with a quarter of those with no or fewer symptoms of a common mental health disorder. Physical and mental health are very much interlinked, and to address one without the other would be to do a disservice to those patients.

I am glad that the Minister has talked about parity of esteem, but only 8.6% of the health budget is spent on mental health. I hope that we will see a real uplift in funding for and investment in people’s mental health. Will the Minister set out the timeline for the publication of the strategy? It feels like the can is being kicked down the road.

For the mental health perspective, which is the area that I work on, we will publish the previous consultation responses this spring—in the forthcoming weeks. That will feed into the development of the mental health aspect of the major conditions strategy, which we want to publish very soon. We also have the suicide prevention strategy, which will be a stand-alone strategy that will dovetail into that as well. There are record levels of funding for mental health. I am sure that more will be required, but it is not just about the amount of money; it is about how we spend it. We want to deliver on mental health ambulances, crisis centres and community support. We want to get in as early as possible.

I hope that I have been able to reassure hon. and right hon. Members that, just because this is not a standalone mental health strategy, that does not mean that we are reducing elements of the work that has gone before. It is so important to include it with those other major conditions, which is exactly what NHS England is doing with its Core20PLUS5 strategy to reduce inequalities. We hope to do the same with our strategy.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Shellfish Aquaculture

[Julie Elliott in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered shellfish aquaculture.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. As treasurer of the all-party parliamentary group for shellfish aquaculture, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak up for shellfish aquaculture across the United Kingdom and the businesses linked to it.

I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that the UK’s aquaculture sector has long been overlooked and undervalued. A quick comparative glance at the various European oyster, mussels or scallop farms versus those of the UK shows that we are behind the curve in size and scale. Such a lackadaisical approach to aquaculture has dulled confidence in the industry and seen successive Governments fail to recognise the true potential of harnessing, working and using our coastal waters. If done right, we can help to create tremendous opportunities along the UK’s coastline and address some of the very real issues outlined in Professor Chris Whitty’s report on health and wellbeing in coastal communities, as well as countless reports on the aquaculture sector.

In accepting that more needs to be done and by addressing the bureaucratic red tape, improving our relationship with our friends and neighbours in Europe and ensuring the regulatory environment is a help, not a hindrance, we can create more jobs, boost local economies, support coastal communities, protect the marine environment and even enhance our coastal waters and play a part in sequestering carbon dioxide, as well as creating a sustainable food source that relies on little to no chemicals and addressing our food security concerns. Yet those successes are dependent on us changing our approach.

In the past seven years, UK mussel production has decreased by 60%—by 99% in Wales. In the past three years, UK oyster production has declined by nearly a third. That decline comes despite the Government’s best efforts to help through the fisheries and seafood scheme and countless other funds and initiatives that have been put in place over the past few years.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the woeful lack of attention received by the sector, which is important for communities such as the ones that I represent. Can I suggest that what we really need is Government and Governments who operate in the same direction? At the moment in Shetland, we have the Shellvolution project, which brings £4.4 million to develop low-carbon, sustainable mussel farming—something that is good for the whole of Scotland—and is funded by both the UK and Scottish Governments. At the same time, we have a consultation on highly protected marine areas that is focused almost exclusively on inshore waters, which was today described to me by a local businessman in Shetland as an existential threat to the industry.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I know how hard he works on behalf of the aquaculture businesses in his area, but also that he sees the wider picture across the United Kingdom. He is absolutely right about the spatial squeeze that is closing out our fishermen and aquaculture businesses. I suspect that this will not be much of a debate; it may just be a moment of violent agreement across the House to talk about how we can work together to find a collaborative approach that allows us to grow the sector and bring enormous benefits to our coastal communities, and indeed to the sector itself. The right hon. Gentleman will find no disagreement with me on this matter and I will certainly come on to that point later on.

We need to change our approach to address the decline and recognise that we must be fleet of foot to not just save the sector, but build it up, develop it and let it become the success that we all know it can be. With the Windsor framework almost agreed, it should not be wrong to expect an improved relationship between the UK and Europe. If that is the case, we can rightly expect to take advantage of this situation and see to it that sectors that are so readily dependent on close-to-home export markets have the opportunity to address some of the problems they have experienced both at home and abroad.

I will point to specific examples both at home and abroad of where I believe we can take the necessary steps to help our aquaculture sector enormously. As a representative of south Devon, with one of the finest coastlines, I can tell you, Ms Elliott, that there are few delights as good as fresh oysters and a pint of Guinness. In fact, I invite you and the Minister down to south Devon, and, even more, I shall pay for lunch—I don’t know if this counts as bribery—to welcome you down any time you like to experience such a delectable combination.

The Chair of the International Trade Committee is more than welcome to come as well. On the basis of cross-party co-operation I am happy to invite the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), as well. However, this lunch, which is rapidly becoming more expensive for me, is conditional on addressing the problems facing the mighty Pacific oyster. For over 100 years, the Pacific oyster has existed in our coastal waters. In fact, in the 1960s, to mitigate the inability to farm many native species in certain parts of the United Kingdom, the Government reintroduced Pacific oysters to help expand and cultivate the aquaculture sector, so that we could grow a proper aquaculture industry.

The lack of clarity around the status of the Pacific oyster has held back the ability to farm it and benefit from its presence in our waters. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been absolutely clear in correspondence to me and the chairman of the shellfish aquaculture all-party group, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell), that there is no doubt that Pacific oysters are a non-native species. We do not disagree with that point. However, given the prevalence of Pacific oysters, and the almost indisputable presumption that we will not be able to rid them from our waters, it is surely time for DEFRA to recognise that the Pacific oyster has become naturalised to the UK environment.

It is worth pointing out, but I am happy to be corrected on this, that in the guidance on section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, paragraph 18 states:

“A species would be considered to be ‘in a wild state’ where the population lives and fends for itself in the wild.”

If we were not farming them, those Pacific oysters would continue to exist in our waterways. Why not take advantage of what we have?

As the Minister knows, DEFRA has moved positively for those farming Pacific oysters south of the 52nd parallel. However, for those north of the line of latitude, the future looks desperate if not deathly. One only needs to consider the issues with Lindisfarne Oysters, which has been restricted from expanding by Natural England. North or south, east or west, the future of the industry is still in jeopardy because we are failing to be clear about the status of Pacific oysters in our waters.

The knock-on impact of the issue is that shoreline owners stop supporting the sector. I will give the very specific example of the Duchy of Cornwall, which has decided to phase out all Pacific oyster farms over the next two to three years on sites where they exist. It says the reason is that Pacific oysters remain classified as non-native and invasive. That decision alone will close three to four businesses in my constituency, and impact hundreds more across the country. It will also provide an example for other shoreline owners.

To compound the problem, Natural England has already issued advice to Natura 2000 sites, saying that it believes that,

“there should be no new pacific oyster farms and no expansion of existing ones should be allowed”.

Stopping the farming of Pacific oysters will not reduce or eradicate their presence in our waters, so why are we not taking advantage of the chance to build up the sector? To use comparative figures, the UK produces in the region of 3,000 tonnes of oysters while France produces 145,000—95% of which are Pacific oysters.

An hon. Lady from Cornwall—whose constituency I have totally forgotten—cannot be here but would make the point that in parts of Cornwall they do not want Pacific oysters to be introduced. It is important to put on record that the oyster farmers of Cornwall take a different approach.

As a neighbouring MP to Truro and Falmouth, which is the constituency my hon. Friend was seeking, I know that there is a wild native oyster fishery in that area. When it comes to the Pacific oyster, my understanding from my dealings while I was Secretary of State and Minister in this area is that there is an acceptance of triploid oysters, which are sterile and thus less likely to spread and have an impact. Is my hon. Friend aware that his constituents and businesses could use triploid oysters?

I am, and I am also particularly grateful for the work my right hon. Friend did during his time as Secretary of State for DEFRA. I thank him for reminding me about the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), and for putting on the record what his oyster community is talking about.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, but in parts of south Devon triploids do not work as well as Pacific oysters, and farmers there have a tried and tested method. That is where we have to be careful about the language we use. At the moment the language used by DEFRA is holding back the sector. It is not about saying that Pacific oysters are right for everywhere, but recognising that, where they already exist, there is a chance for us to create a community and an industry that could grow, develop and rival the size of France’s industry.

We are at odds with European countries, many of which have long since stopped trying to eradicate Pacific oysters and have accepted that they are fully resident and compatible. To avoid choking the industry out of existence, we need to look at how we can support and grow the Pacific oyster sector. That can be achieved in three rather quick ways.

The first is to create a new national policy that takes a realistic, pragmatic and holistic approach to the species and the benefits it can bring not just to biodiversity, but through a social and economic impact on coastal communities. We must question, even push back, against the all-too-often precautionary approach of Natural England. DEFRA, through the Minister, should use this new era—dawn, start, beginning, whatever we want to call it—to create an environment that returns the sector to its previous size, and to develop it.

Pacific oysters are only part of the aquaculture jigsaw. The export of live bivalve molluscs is also of the utmost importance. The changing relationship with the European Union has meant that the export of shellfish from class B waters has become far more complicated. Before we go into the weeds on that, I want to pay tribute to the Food Standards Agency for its work and co-operation with the sector in helping to prioritise and implement improvements to UK classification protocols. Since 2021, in England and Wales, class A areas of water have increased from 26 to 40, and seasonal class areas from 19 to 27. That is a significant improvement that should be welcomed.

I want to put on record my thanks to the Food Standards Agency, which has done so much to co-operate and engage with the APPG and my shellfish community, but significant improvement does not mean job done. Our attention must be directed towards creating stability and as much certainty as possible. Within the trade and co-operation agreement there are 18 specialised committees. Two of those, on sanitary and phytosanitary measures and on fisheries, are the conduit—the mechanism—for both sides to address grievances and technical issues, as well as to find solutions and harness improved trade and agreement between parties.

However, like most EU structures, they can be cumbersome and bureaucratic. The SC on fisheries has met only five times since 2020, and the committee on sanitary and phytosanitary measures has met only twice. Progress through those committees can be sped up. I politely ask the Minister to put his weight behind that request, and to raise the matter with his EU counterparts. Resolving trade frictions can be achieved through expedited measures. Although the SCs are a valuable avenue, they are by no means the only route to take.

Sort out the trade flows and we can reach new markets, and grow our oyster, mussel, scallop and clam markets far beyond their current levels. Engagement with our friends and neighbours can be only part of the strategy. We also need to look closer to home for what we can do. As already mentioned, the changing relationship with our neighbours has had an impact on trade flows, but our domestic legislation plays a significant role in holding back the growth of the sector, particularly the classification of harvesting waters.

The Minister will be aware of the Seafish report, “Review of the application of the Official Control Regulations for shellfish production as they relate to microbial contamination”. Once we are past that rather tricky title, it is a fascinating report comparing UK and European standards. The purpose of the report was to review the

“application of official controls across different EU member states and to identify the areas of deviation and flexibility that may exist.”

Bearing in mind that the United Kingdom wrote the rules when we were in the European Union, it should be a cause of concern to see other countries take a more flexible and agile approach to those rules. The report goes into forensic detail. In a response to a letter from me and my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness, the Food Standards Agency said, in relation to that Seafish report, that it had

“prioritised working on improvements based on several proposals from the report such as: application of different tasting methods for classification results; use of industry sampling as part of official sampling records; reviewing the timeframe for reopening sites after high results; reviewing the relationship between investigative sampling results and the classification record.”

What correspondence has the Minister had with the FSA about the Seafish report? Is he able to share that with the House or put it in the House of Commons Library? Is there an update on the FSA’s progress on those points? It is fantastically good to hear that it is willing to look at the report and act on the recommendations, but we need an update, because many businesses have been waiting far too long.

All businesses in the sector—and all businesses generally—need certainty and stability. The comparisons and recommendations put forward by Seafish would go a long way to creating an environment of stability, thereby attracting investment and opportunities for the sector. The four proposals would not put us out of line or in contention with other countries in Europe. Indeed, they might see us become more aligned with many of their practices. Given that we now sit outside the EU and can act on a unilateral basis, I ask the Minister to push through the proposals as quickly as possible. Implementing the measures will not put at risk our harvest or humans consuming live bivalve molluscs, but will at least make the sector more flexible and able to respond to circumstances that are often beyond its control.

While changing the regulation and testing methodology can help, there is no substitute for simply improving our water quality. Despite some Opposition mischief and misdirection, I am hugely proud to have voted in support of the Government’s landmark policies to help clean up our rivers and coastal waters. Our Victorian-era network is creaking under ever more pressure from development and age, but our new laws have pushed water companies to invest a further £56 billion over the next 27 years and have set actionable targets that are punishable with hefty fines if not met. Those measures, without raising the costs on households, are set to bring our water network up to speed and ensure that waste water and sewage management plans are adhered to and delivered so that the public can have faith in our water companies to do what is right.

Through not just the Environment Act 2021 but the Agriculture Act 2020 and environmental land management schemes, we can help change habits to improve the quality of our waterways. If we bring farmers and fishermen together, they can help one another understand how what happens on land can have a huge impact on water quality far off the coast, impacting many aquaculture farms. Joining land and sea-based businesses in common cause and understanding will help improve biodiversity and protect our landscape and seascape for future generations.

I have several businesses in Totnes and south Devon in the aquaculture space, but the reality is I should have hundreds more. Perhaps the most effective case study is Offshore Shellfish—the largest mussel farm in the UK and, soon, Europe. Based out of Brixham and operating in Lyme Bay, it is an extraordinary success, despite immeasurable challenging circumstances facing the sector. In succeeding, it demonstrates just how much potential there is in the aquaculture sector. Offshore Shellfish has pioneered blue offshore food production and, in doing so, has been recognised internationally as being technically, scientifically and commercially 10 years ahead of any competitor in Europe. Indeed, it has already been contacted by the Dutch, the French, the Germans and the Irish to run trials and pilot schemes, showing just how viable and brilliant its model is and how brilliant British innovation in the sector can be. However, to attract long-term investors, the Holmyard family, who run that extraordinary company, need to be able to reassure investors about stable access to markets, strong and comparable testing regimes, good trade flows and clean waters.

My asks are perfectly simple. They are those of the APPG for shellfish aquaculture, so they are not new, but they come with a warning: failure to act now will condemn the sector. The Minister has the powers, ability and understanding to make the necessary changes. At the end of this not quite Chancellor-esque lengthy speech, I hope he will take the opportunity to take advantage of our new-found freedoms, use the agility of not having to consult 27 other countries and change our rules and regulations to unlock the huge potential of the sector. If he does, not only will he be a champion of the aquaculture sector—I know flattery gets you everywhere in this place—but he will effectively and meaningfully go a long way to help coastal communities level up, without having to use Government resources. The potential is there. The opportunity is there. I know how hard the Minister works on the issue, so I look forward to working with him.

Thank you for calling me in this important debate, Ms Elliott. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for introducing it. I will be taking a slightly different tack from him, because I represent Huddersfield —as you know, Ms Elliott—and the last anyone looked, it is not on the coast. I also chair Thames Renaissance, and although Huddersfield is not on the Thames either, I was born in Sunbury-on-Thames, and I went to Hampton School, which is on the Thames, and the London School of Economics, which is also on the Thames, so I have some credentials when it comes to water.

I also regularly visit coastal resorts such as Whitby in Yorkshire and Whitstable. They are both favourites of mine because they are places where people can enjoy the most wonderful surrounding countryside and the beautiful fishing that goes on there. Historically, people could also buy fresh fish, lobsters, crab, oysters and mussels in both resorts, take them home and have an absolutely brilliant feast made from something that is produced in our seas.

The reason I am speaking in this debate is that I am increasingly concerned that it is no longer possible to get fresh fish in Whitby or Whitstable. Mysteriously, it is no longer on sale, and neither are crabs. Indeed, the notices in those two resorts will say: “Everything here is imported”—all the crabs, all the oysters; everything. There is something really strange going on, and if I ask the restaurants that I have been going to for years, they say, “Oh, something’s gone wrong, guv’nor,” or maybe, “The sea’s warmed up.”

There is a real worry that something is going on in our seas and oceans, and I am particularly concerned. I have been interested in the marine environment for all of the 40-odd years I have been in Parliament. It is so essential, and I want to share with the Chamber something that really triggered my decision to be here. I also chair the Westminster Commission for Road Air Quality, which was taking evidence on air quality when suddenly one of the scientists said, “You know, a lot of nasty stuff comes off tyres and goes into the air, but the real pollution is what comes off tyres, stays on the road, and is washed into the gullies and ditches, and then into the streams and into the rivers and oceans.” He said that most people think that tyres are made of rubber. There is some rubber, but there are also 32 chemicals in the average tyre. Those 32 chemicals are very sophisticated, some of them are very related to cancer, and all over the globe—not just around our coast—they are flowing into the seas and the marine environment.

As Members know, there are other pollutants—microplastics and other things—but we have had all these years of pollution, and these particulates are particularly poisonous for marine life. I hope that today we can put on record that we all want a marine environment where oysters, crabs and lobsters can thrive. I might also throw in the fact that, as some of us who know something about the history of London will remember—I do not know whether there are any London Members here—there used to be all sorts of different things in the river that people could buy and catch. I have to admit, though, that I was surprised when hosting a birthday party for my granddaughter on the Terrace in the summer to peer over the side into the Thames and see three seals swimming by.

Does that say something about the quality of the environment in our river? I am not sure, but it is certainly true that eels have disappeared from the river. Where have the eels in this country gone? When I was a very young man at the London School of Economics, I used to go to Eel Pie Island on a boat—eel pie was a very important dish—to hear this anonymous group that I liked. I met the guy who started the group and used to go to hear them, before they had a name. Then this colleague of mine, a student at the LSE—well, his name was Mick Jagger—and his group got a name, and they performed as the Rolling Stones. What has happened to the eels and crustaceans in our marine environment? If there is one thing that I hope we can all agree on today, it is the serious poisoning effect all around our coast.

In his very good speech, the hon. Member for Totnes mentioned sewage. Even after being given enormous fines, Thames Water and Southern Water are still discharging tonnes and tonnes of sewage into our rivers, streams and seas. I am constantly pursuing Thames Water and the Environment Agency, which is very lax. So many of the places it should be monitoring around our coast, it is not monitoring efficiently and effectively, because it is under-resourced. This type of pollution, which is linked to cancer, will poison all of our marine environment. I hope we can do something about it.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on obtaining this debate. I echo an awful lot of what he said. There is enormous potential for the expansion of shellfish production in the UK.

I want to talk specifically about my constituency and echo some of the comments of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). Looking around the room, I see that we have representation from Devon and Cornwall, Yorkshire, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. I want to talk on behalf of Essex, where oysters have been cultivated since Roman times.

When I was first elected to this place, I had the honour to represent part of Colchester, so I used to attend the Colchester oyster feast, with oysters from Mersea Island. I have always represented Maldon, where the Maldon Oyster Company is based. I had the pleasure of visiting its new depuration and packing plant in Cock Clarks recently. Restaurants across the great city that we are in now frequently have Maldon oysters on the menu.

The Maldon Oyster Company is doing well. The oysters are grown in the Blackwater estuary, which is a category B water. It has only exceeded that once in recent times. Various explanations have been put forward for that, with suggestions that it is to do with discharges from houseboats or seabirds, but my constituents believe—this is where I follow on from the comments of the hon. Member for Huddersfield—that it is due to the level of sewage discharge, particularly from development that is taking place.

My area, like many represented here, is undergoing substantial extra housing development, which is putting ever-increasing pressure on the sewerage companies. In my case, that is Anglian Water. When I talk to the company, it tells me that it monitors and is compliant with the requirements of its permits, and it is fitting new discharge monitors; 70% of my constituency has been fitted, and Anglian is confident of reaching 100%. But part of the problem is that the contamination affecting oyster production is not subject to monitoring outside of designated shellfish waters and bathing waters. While part of the Blackwater estuary is a designated water, other parts where oysters are grown are not.

I recently held a public meeting in my constituency on the issue of the water quality in the Blackwater estuary. The hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned the Rolling Stones. I invited an old friend of mine to participate in the public meeting, who I think will be known to the Minister. He was known to me in his previous capacity as the lead singer of the Undertones, who I saw perform on several occasions. He has now become a strident campaigner on the issue of water quality. While I do not always agree with Feargal Sharkey, he is doing an important job in raising awareness.

My contribution this afternoon is to pass on the request from my constituents at Maldon Oysters that there needs to be more monitoring, not just in specified designated shellfish waters, of such things as E. coli and bacterial contamination, which is not generally monitored, and that priority needs to be given to investment in the processing of discharge, perhaps through UV treatment of discharges that are close to shellfish waters. At the moment, Blackwater continues to grow extremely popular oysters that are enjoyed around the country, but there is concern that, if development continues at this pace without additional investment to ensure that the water remains uncontaminated by bacteria, that could one day be put at risk. I echo the point about the importance of maintaining water quality, which is essential if this extremely important industry is to continue to thrive.

Thank you for calling me, Ms Elliott. I am pleased to be able briefly to highlight a few issues. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on his knowledgeable contribution. His delivery was almost as rapid as mine—although his abbreviations are much easier to understand. I thank him very much. I found out only this morning that the debate had changed, but when I saw it was on shellfish, I recognised right away—representing Strangford, as I do—that I could make a contribution on the subject.

DEFRA’s figures indicate that wee Northern Ireland, as I call it, produced more oysters than even England did in 2020, so it is important that we have an input in this debate. It is clear that this is yet another UK-wide fishing industry that needs improvement to balance the key goals of conservation and production.

Of course, the Minister knows that fishing and shellfish aquaculture is a devolved matter, but in Strangford we have a very active, thriving and economically viable industry, with Cuan Oysters. We have had it for a number of years—I cannot remember not having it in Strangford lough, to be truthful. I recognise the work that it does, the contribution it makes to the economy and the jobs that it creates.

I understand that the Department feels that it is inappropriate to develop a policy for a non-native species. However, I agree with the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, to which the hon. Member for Totnes referred, that Pacific oysters are not harmful, that they in fact increase biodiversity and that they can benefit native oyster populations by acting as a settlement surface. Why should anyone want to change that? The hon. Gentleman was right in his request to the Minister to seek to have the position overturned.

Worldwide, oyster reefs are generally considered highly desirable habitats, and there are many projects under way to create or restore them. Whether native or non-native, the fact remains that all oysters are equally good for the environment; they clear waters of algae, remove carbon and nitrogen, and increase biodiversity. Again, why would we want to change that successful process? Indeed, oyster farmers control the accessible wild stocks in their areas, making use of the resource and reducing the visible population. There is a strong argument to be made that, if we continue to restrict the UK industry, it will not stop the spread of Pacific oysters.

The popularity of Pacific oysters is growing in the UK, as evidenced by the demand for them, and that cannot be ignored. There are areas where oyster festivals attract tourism and economic growth. Many things come off the back of what the hon. Member for Totnes said. I agree with the APPG that we need a national policy that is realistic and pragmatic and that takes a holistic approach to the species. We need a better understanding of what is before us.

Another issue that I wish briefly to touch on is—this will not surprise anybody—the dreaded EU bureaucracy. My goodness! We never get away from it, do we? I know that we do not in Northern Ireland—I will not get into the Northern Ireland thing at the minute; that is a matter for the future. It is necessary to purify shellfish after harvesting in UK waters, as many of the waters around our coast are not deemed clean enough for shellfish to be consumed directly after harvesting. However, following Brexit, the EU will only accept shellfish that are already safe to eat, so the UK industry can no longer export produce for purification, even though the waters are the same.

I cannot understand what the difference is. It is a bit like it was for us in Northern Ireland when the EU said that we could not bring in plants and seeds, when the soil was the same on 31 December as it was 24 hours later. That policy has meant a dramatic fall in shellfish exports, with many businesses unable to operate at all.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The EU reversed its earlier position when it came to the export of depurated live bivalve molluscs, which is really quite outrageous. It told the Government, in the latter part of 2020, that that trade could continue and that it would just draft a new certificate, and then it just changed its position, inexplicably, in February.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention; as always, he brings knowledge to the debate. That is part of the debate, and it is part of the evidence base that backs up the very point that the hon. Member for Totnes and others are making.

As with so many issues, that barrier to trade is not logical, but then when did anything logical come out of the EU? I say that maybe a wee bit cynically, Ms Elliott. There may be a few others here who agree, and there may be some who would say, “No, that’s not entirely correct.”

If the hon. Gentleman intends to talk about Huddersfield, I am not sure, but I give way anyway.

We will be divided on membership of the EU and the wisdom of leaving it, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that what we are debating—air quality, the marine environment and support for species—is something that we have to work with the rest of Europe on?

I stand corrected, Ms Elliott. Thank you for reminding us all of the real reason for the debate. The thing is that shellfish aquaculture is restricted by EU bureaucracy. The trade has existed for many years—it existed when we were in the EU and it exists now that we are out of it—and nothing has materially altered. That is the issue. There is no reason for the trade not to continue as it was before. Again, that is part of the issue.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) is right: if we could work together honestly, pragmatically and reasonably to try to find a solution, then I would say, “Yes, let’s do that.” But we will not find the UK Government causing any difficulties; we have to put the ball at the toe of the organisation that is responsible. The Shellfish Association of Great Britain highlights that DEFRA does not agree with the current EU interpretation of the regulations and has raised the issue at the sanitary and phytosanitary committee, but to no effect.

The Minister knows that I respect him greatly. He understands issues very clearly, and I know that he understands this one. I have no doubt that he will get behind the shellfish aquaculture sector, and the Shellfish Association, to ensure that a solution is found. This is not about negativity; it is all about solutions, and the Minister is a solution-led Minister.

I urge the Minister to progress this issue as a matter of urgency. We have the resource—when I say “we”, I mean this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—and that can be used to the benefit of everyone in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in England—the mainland—as well. To realise that benefit, we must utilise the resource more effectively, and that can happen only if we can find a solution. Let us hope that the EU will give us that solution so that we in the United Kingdom can work alongside it.

It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon); I have never done so before and it has been on my bucket list for a while. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this important debate. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on shellfish aquaculture and he is its treasurer. He is definitely the Dastardly to my Muttley, which makes him the more intelligent one.

The Chamber has heard from Members from Devon, Cornwall, Yorkshire, Essex and Northern Ireland—and is now hearing from me, a Cumbrian. My home looks out on to Morecambe Bay, where hundreds of small fishers operate. There is a large oyster farm off Walney, and in Barrow, quite surprisingly, we have one of the largest producers and conglomerators of live bivalve molluscs in the UK.

The sector is struggling, but it does not need to. There are huge opportunities; if it is managed well and given the tools it needs for growth, it could be a great British success story. It offers an almost unlimited and sustainable source of protein for us and for export markets. It offers a boon to our coastal communities—many of which, as we know all too well, are struggling—and it could be a guarantor of marine biodiversity. But it is hamstrung and held back. The tools to unlock it are within our grasp, and I urge the Minister to enable us to grasp them.

I would like to focus on three areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes has covered them all, but I have learned during my two and a bit years in this job that original thought does not get you anywhere in this place, so I will repeat them. The areas are live bivalve molluscs, highly protected marine areas and pacific oysters. If we can unlock those three, the sector will be flying.

I turn to live bivalve molluscs. We operate under the same water testing rules as the European Union, but many of our European friends clearly interpret them differently. The trade and co-operation agreement means that we are unable to export grade B live bivalve molluscs without their having undergone depuration. That holds back the sector tremendously—when I talk to them, businesses in my area say that it is what they are most concerned about.

Of course, we can build up our home-grown depuration facilities. In fact we do, and I am grateful to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for extending funding to some aquaculture businesses for that purpose. However, we really have to grip the core issue: the Food Standards Agency, which has taken an incredibly bureaucratic view of the testing regime. That is holding the sector back and has led to stagnation over the years. We have the same system and rules as elsewhere in Europe, but the UK interprets them the most strictly.

There is no evidence that our more restrictive system does any better in protecting public health. Given that measurements can change by the hour, the system of taking them monthly means that many fantastic local businesses are one bad measurement away from closure. That speaks to the really parlous state of the industry, and it needs to change. Our waters are not poor, but our system of measurement, and our ability and willingness to measure quickly, are poor.

We need to look at how our colleagues in Europe are interpreting exactly the same rules and to unashamedly copy them. Kingfisher Seafoods—the business in Barrow that I mentioned—supports about 100 family businesses in Morecambe Bay. The economic impact of failing to get this issue right will be devastating not just for that business, but for the 100 family fishermen, who have been operating for years.

The excellent Benyon review suggested that highly protected marine areas should not include commercial fishing. I strongly agree, but I do think that aquaculture businesses should be permitted to operate in them. Their inclusion in highly protected marine areas would aid biodiversity recovery as well as acting as an effective carbon sink. We should consider that closely; to my mind, it is a win-win.

The third point is about pacific oysters, which make up 95% of all UK-grown oysters. For some time they were classified as invasive but, as we have heard, they have become naturalised due to their prevalence. There is almost no chance of ridding our coastal waters of them and we would not want to. Our waters, of course, are linked to our European neighbours, who have correctly recognised pacific oysters as naturalised and started harvesting them. What is the result? As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes said, France’s aquaculture sector produces 145,000 tonnes per year, compared with our 2,680 tonnes. The delta is enormous. By simply looking at this in a different way, we can see the scale of the growth on offer.

If DEFRA were to recognise Pacific oysters as naturalised across the UK, businesses such as the excellent Morecambe Bay Oysters on Walney in my constituency would be able to scale up. Others that are currently at risk of closure would be able to continue to operate and to leave the parlous state they find themselves in now. If we do not grasp this issue and change the language and terms that this sector operates under, we risk many of the most innovative businesses in the UK closing within the next few years. We have it in our gift to enable a viable and sustainable aquaculture sector, on which thousands of new jobs could rely and which would promote biodiversity and offer considerable trade opportunities.

Although I am too cheap to copy my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes and invite colleagues and the Chair to lunch, I would encourage them to take up his offer, because this is a story we should tell people about and that they need to learn about. It is a good news story waiting to happen. I hope the Minister will listen to the cross-party consensus on supporting this sector and help get things moving for it.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. Let me start by congratulating the fantastic hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall). He has been one of the pivotal members of my trade Committee over the last number of years. I might have spoken wrongly —when I say my trade Committee, I mean his trade Committee, as he has guided us, shaped us, positioned us and pointed us in various directions. He has a natural enthusiasm, and I say with all sincerity that today he brought the fantastic enthusiasm he has as MP for Totnes to this debate. For that alone, he should be congratulated.

The hon. Gentleman raised issues that are very important and dear to my heart, and he has given me a fantastic opportunity to point out the companies that operate in my constituency. If he is looking to supplement the production of Devon with any other shellfish, he could look to Macduff Shellfish in Stornoway; Kallin Shellfish in Grimsay, North Uist; Barratlantic in North Bay, Barra; Kilbride Shellfish in Ludag, South Uist; Kilo Shellfish, which often buys razor fish for the far east market; Islander Shellfish in Stornaway; William Stewart, again in Grimsay, North Uist; or PDK Shellfish. Of course, I have to mention MacNeil Shellfish—not close cousins, but on the Hebridean islands we are often very related—Islay Crab, Sutherland Game & Shellfish, Norman Campbell, which does live shellfish for the export trade, and Hebridean Mussels, which is part of Loch Fyne Oysters. On Loch Fyne Oysters, I would gently say to Marine Scotland that it should look to help the company, which operates in my area, and to support the efforts it is making. When there are disputes, maybe one person being judge, jury and executioner is not the best way to proceed. I must also mention Raven Rock Sea Products, based in Lewis; Seaforth Mussels, in Scalpay, Harris; and Lewis Mussels, based in Lochs, in Lewis. While I am at it, I think I missed out Stellamaris Trading, Morrison Shellfish and Isle of Barra Oysters, which I am very indebted to for a number of points I will make later.

The hon. Member for Totnes touched on a number of things that have been echoed in my correspondence with Isle of Barra Oysters, namely the issue of Pacific oysters and the reality of their existence. Gerry MacDonald makes the very good point—I think somebody mentioned it in the debate—that it is not far from Cornwall to France, so any attempts on Pacific oysters will be in vain. They are important commercially. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the production of oysters—I think it was 3,000 tonnes in the UK and 145,000 tonnes in France. Gerry MacDonald tells me that 90% of that, or 130,000 tonnes, is consumed around the two weeks at Christmas in France and that the car producer Renault buy about 300 tonnes of oysters for staff. If anyone is looking for a job, they might want to go to Renault just before Christmas for a nice feed of oysters for Christmas dinner. Those are quite amazing statistics. France is, of course, a huge market for oysters.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) left no stone unturned—or no stone unrolling, given his mention of Mick Jagger. He made an important point about how interdependent different parts of environment are. The cars rolling around Huddersfield and everywhere else—I am not singling out Huddersfield—give off 32 chemicals from their tyres, which are inevitably washed into the oceans. That is a fantastic point, and we should dwell on it.

I misled hon. Members a little. I have a Bill going through the House at the moment on tyres. There are some higher-standard tyres that are better, so the Minister could make a real difference very quickly.

I utterly forgive the hon. Gentleman for using his intervention as an advertisement. After all, I mentioned many companies involved with shellfish in my constituency, so it is only just and right that he similarly uses the opportunity.

The right hon. Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) mentioned water purification, which has become an issue, particularly in recent years, since Brexit. He also mentioned a pop band: The Undertones. We have just left the “Rock Lobster” unturned—that is the only one we have left. We have certainly put every bit of music into this—the debate has gone almost like a symphony.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is never usually left out of any debate. I think I heard him ask when anything logical has ever come out of the EU. I do not know whether that was a criticism of Brexit. Did I mishear him? I definitely misheard him—I know what he was saying. The point is that the UK is now trading like a third country and will have the barriers that third countries have. The trade and co-operation agreement helps, but a sanitary and phytosanitary agreement would help further.

The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) is the chair of the very distinguished all-party parliamentary group for shellfish aquaculture. I am sure he relays his august position to all his constituents in his constituency correspondence. If I am not a member, can I make an application?

Thank you. Reflecting the tone the hon. Member for Totnes took in his speech, my application has been expedited in record time.

The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness said that original thought in Parliament does not seem to get us anywhere, but I think he may be wrong when it comes to some areas of aquaculture. More power to his elbow as he carries on that noble pursuit.

Scotland’s mussel production increased by 52%, to 8,590 tonnes, between 2020 and 2021, and oyster production was up 70% in the same period. Combined, their value was £9.8 million—up 61%. That is a success story. It is also a success story in this particular form of aquaculture. Oysters are kept in protective cages, as I have seen myself at Isle of Barra Oysters, and mussels hang from ropes, feeding on what passes by in the sea. In fact, they clean the sea, in many ways.

I am very much indebted to Gerard MacDonald of Isle of Barra Oysters, who said that Brexit has made export more difficult for him, and the import of specialist equipment more expensive. That is a very interesting point. He feels that Brexit has damaged the industry, limited prospects for expansion and hindered jobs in rural areas. He pointed out that Renault took much of the production. He said that France has huge production, but it imports a lot from Ireland, the Netherlands and England. He also points out that the Irish are now selling an awful lot of oysters directly to China at very good prices. He says that the cash is good for oysters from Ireland to China. We can learn from what is going on there, especially at this time of Brexit. Whether we are inside or outside the EU, that should not hamper our exports to China.

I am anxious to hear what the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and the Minister have to say in reply to the hon. Member for Totnes, and I want to leave him time to wind up. Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak, Ms Elliott.

It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Ms Elliott. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing the debate, on his introduction and on his account of the issues facing those working in aquaculture. I suspect I will cover much of the same ground, although possibly in a slightly different order and with a slightly different take on one or two points. I am, as ever, grateful to those working in the industry for their advice. In particular, I thank Mike Cohen of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations and David Jarrad of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain.

I hope the Minister will address four key issues. The first, unsurprisingly perhaps, is water quality and the Government’s continuing failure to clean up our water. I very much enjoyed the observations from my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). The issue, of course, goes way beyond aquaculture. I am sure the Minister will be disappointed to hear that I am not going to re-rehearse all the arguments now; they are, I am sure, very familiar to him and his colleagues. With the recent heavy rainfall, we are once again seeing huge quantities of human effluent being pumped into the seas, including into shellfish areas, which are supposed to have mandatory protection, whether that is under the water framework directive or the legislation that we carry forward. That is unacceptable and it directly impacts fishermen and their livelihoods.

The right hon. Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) made that point very persuasively, and I heard it directly myself when I went to West Mersea last year. The shellfishermen were clear that it was an all-too-regular occurrence that effluent discharged into the sea and meant they had to stop work. That has a direct cost for them, and it would be an avoidable one if water companies had invested in improvement rather than pouring out money to shareholders.

The point was picked up by Labour’s shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), when she visited the Fal Oyster Ltd fishery at Mylor in Cornwall last year. She told ITV News at the time:

“We just can’t afford to lose industries like this. It is about the heritage of Cornwall, it’s about what makes this place so special not just to people in Cornwall but to people all around the country. We need to hear and heed the warnings of fishermen here in Cornwall who are worried about water quality, who are worried about the impact that’s having on their ability to sell their produce here and abroad.”

She was absolutely right. I suspect that she is probably quite busy at the moment, but I ask the Minister to tell us what assessment the Government have made of the impact of poor water quality on the aquaculture sector.

If that is a relatively well-rehearsed discussion, the second issue is probably less familiar to those outside this room. It is the Government’s attitude to Pacific oysters. The industry view is pretty clear, and its call that we should “love them” makes a strong case that they are good for farmers, the consumer and the environment. Its case is that, with a low-carbon footprint and with no requirement for external inputs, the cultivation of the Pacific oyster represents a sustainable method of producing high-quality marine protein while providing employment and economic activity in coastal communities.

Of course, not everyone agrees—we have heard observations on this from other communities—because it is not a native species. Natural England and others are concerned about the impact on the marine environment. They say that feral populations of Pacific oysters have become established in Natura 2000 sites, sites of special scientific interest and marine conservation zones. They say that monitoring conducted between 2012 and 2017 in the south-west showed a large increase in Pacific oyster density. There are concerns that colonisation by the species will have a negative effect on the designated intertidal features of these protected areas. They say that that has already contributed to some sites declining into unfavourable condition, because of the alteration of the biotopes and therefore the loss of original biotopes that make up the protected habitat features within marine protected areas. They say that if populations are left unmanaged, the expansion of dense Pacific oyster populations will most likely reduce the extent of habitat features at the sites and could reduce species richness and change community composition, as well as the diversity of biotopes making up the habitat.

Therefore this is not a simple or straightforward issue. The industry argues—again, we have heard these points made—that with warming of the seas, attempts to cull the Pacific oyster are, frankly, unlikely to be successful, so it is better to manage and farm it. Although indigenous to western Pacific coasts, it is nowadays the world’s most globalised shellfish, with cultivation occurring in more than 50 countries. It provides high-value crops in all continents. In Europe, production in France, Ireland and Spain dwarfs that in the UK. As we have heard, production in France is in the region of 100 times that in Britain and attracts significant Government support.

The industry is therefore unhappy that the UK Government seem to stand alone in Europe in acting against the species. David Jarrad, chief executive of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, writes:

“Do we actually want a UK oyster industry? For too long, the government has been sitting on the fence, and the failure of successive governments to deliver a consistent national approach is leading to poor conservation outcomes, as well as hamstringing our oyster growers…It’s time to get priorities straight, with proper leadership on this issue.”

There is the challenge to the Minister—the call for proper leadership.

The third issue, which returns us to more familiar ground, is the classification of harvesting waters. I was interested in the comments from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), but I promise I am not going to go there. We do things in a different way here —gold-plating, as the industry argues, compared with the way EU members do things, even though we supposedly work under the same legislation.

The Shellfish Association of Great Britain tells me that there is no evidence that our more restrictive system does any better than other countries’ more permissive ones. Our system is based on taking one sample a month from waters that change on an hourly basis because of tidal flows. I am told that it has been shown that one sample is often entirely different from another sample taken from the same place at the same time. The test method has been shown to be more variable and less accurate than other approved test methods. The association argues that the system needs to be changed, to be more in line with other countries, so our industry is not disadvantaged.

I hear those points and have considerable sympathy with them. Again, we heard reference to the work of the Food Standards Agency. I would be grateful if the Minister gave his take on what the FSA has done so far, and what more can be done. Of course, safety always has to be highest priority, but it is fair to ask why our fishermen are being held to higher standards than their competitors. What is stopping him levelling the playing field?

I always defer to my hon. Friend as the Member for Cambridge, expecting him always to know everything about everything scientific. Could he tell me whether there is evidence that we are overfishing oysters? Is there a decline in stock? Should we stop? I have given up red meat. Should I also give up oysters?

I am terribly sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend: I do not know everything about everything. I would not pretend to do so, and must go away to seek advice on that question. I suspect that the Pacific oyster is plentiful, and there is plenty of opportunity to make more of it. I do not suggest that he needs to give up.

The long list of companies from my constituency of Na h-Eileanan an Iar that I read out would encourage the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) to eat oysters and mussels, as well as a variety of other shellfish. I would also like to mention an advertisement that I missed out, which is that they are operating in class A waters probably all year round.

I am grateful for the intervention. Finally, I return to a familiar theme, which we discussed at length in the Chamber with the previous Secretary of State: trade with the European Union. Since Brexit, we have lost our main market for live bivalves, as it is now much harder to sell them from class B sites. As I recall, it was such a difficulty initially that the Government offered short-term help, while, as we have heard today, blaming it on the European Union.

I am sorry, but I will be brief. It is worth being clear on this, because there is not a broad amount of disagreement in this debate. We have not lost that market. Current export figures are going in the right direction. It is a case of our saying that more work needs to be done. Exports are reaching that market; it is not “lost”, as the hon. Gentleman termed it.

Well, it seems to me that there were some who lost their businesses at that time. I do not think we should shy away from that. I would like to hear from the Minister what has happened over the past couple of years, and what is being done to secure a negotiated solution, to reinstate that trade, which had been possible over many years.

In conclusion, the aquaculture sector is one with considerable potential. Labour will sell, make and buy more food here. That is good for food security, for jobs and, I would argue, for the local environment. More will be produced locally, and we will expect the public sector to source at least 50% of food locally.

It is hard to disagree that the fishing sector more widely felt let down after the many promises that were made to them about Brexit. The reality was much more bureaucracy, much more cost and, in some cases, the end of business. One of my first visits as a shadow Minister was to King’s Lynn, where I met a processor who told me just how much extra work had to be done, contrasting the single form they used to fill in with the pile of manuals detailing how they need to proceed today. I have to admit that he cheerily told me it would all be worth it. I admired his pluck and optimism, but whatever one’s view on the issue today, I hope the Minister can explain what he and his Department are doing to reduce that bureaucratic burden, so that our fishermen can do what they do best, which is feed people, rather than fill in forms.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. We have had a wide-ranging debate, from Brexit to car tyres to pop stars. I fear that I cannot compete with some of the connections my colleagues have in that sector, although I have to put on record my connections to both Michael Jackson and George Michael, which go right back to the 1980s, when I first bought their records. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing the debate. His efforts and those of other members of the APPG for shellfish aquaculture are very much appreciated, and I thank all those who have made valuable contributions to the debate.

Aquaculture is a vital part of the United Kingdom’s seafood industry, and shellfish aquaculture in particular holds an important place in our coastal communities. It supports local economies and provides sustainable, healthy, low-carbon food. The Government support the sustainable, industry-led growth of shellfish aquaculture. However, as Members have noted, there are challenges facing the sector.

Let me start by looking at export issues. The Government continue to challenge the restrictions imposed by the European Union on the import of live bivalve molluscs. It is my belief that the EU’s decision only to import live bivalve molluscs that are already fit for human consumption is unjustified. It does not align with the terms of the trade and co-operation agreement. DEFRA continues to push the EU on this issue. We do not expect the EU to change its position any time soon, but we will continue to push it as robustly as we can.

My recollection is that the EU basically used an animal health certificate and just changed the wording to preclude live bivalve molluscs, so it probably does not require a legal change from the EU; it simply needs the EU to draft a particular type of export health certificate that would accommodate live bivalve molluscs. Given that there has been a slight thawing in relations with the EU following the discussions on Northern Ireland, does the Minister think this is something the chief veterinary officer could broach again?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for all the work he did as Secretary of State. I do not want to over-promise—I would rather over-deliver—but I recognise what he says about the changing relationship with the EU. Now that we have resolved the challenges with Northern Ireland, we are into a new phase of co-operation and working with our friends in the EU, and I hope we can continue to raise the matter with them and find a suitable conclusion that will help businesses up and down our coastline to export great-quality products to the EU as soon as possible.

Would it not be better if we consumed more of our own oysters, rather than exporting them? I always thought oysters were rather boring in this country, and when I went to New Orleans, I realised that they can do wonderful things with oysters there. Is it not about time that some of our chefs made oysters more interesting on the menu?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the political trap of a Minister saying, “Let them eat oysters”, which I hope not to fall into. UK food producers in general, not only in the shellfish sector, are producing some of the highest-quality food anywhere in the word. We consume great amounts of that in the UK, but there are also opportunities to export at the same time. We should consume more UK-produced food as well as exporting to our friends around the world.

The Minister and I go back quite a long way, and have had tug o’ wars in the Commons in the past. The hon. Member for Huddersfield makes a serious suggestion. While the Minister was right to point out the dangers of being trapped by a headline in the paper, far too often, good food production is overlooked—in the west of Scotland, as I have mentioned, and in other places in the UK. It is even overlooked in the House of Commons. We cannot see production anywhere near this Palace, and if we cannot have it in Parliament, where can we have it? We should have it everywhere, and everyone should know about it and talk about it. It is a serious point, although I do see the media trap of raising it, as the Minister expertly pointed out.

I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that if he talks to the catering team in the House of Commons, he would find that they are very good at procuring UK-produced and locally produced food. If he goes to the Tea Room this afternoon, there is a fish pie on offer that I encourage him to partake in. It may well have Scottish fish in it.

Turning to shellfish classifications, yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting Susan Jebb, the chair of the Food Standards Agency. The FSA is a non-ministerial Government Department responsible for its own policies. I can report that the FSA is committed to delivering official controls that are pragmatic and proportionate while supporting the shellfish industry to thrive. The FSA will continue to work collaboratively with the industry to prioritise and implement improvements to shellfish classification protocols. It is a complex area, and it will take some time.

In making improvements, the FSA is drawing on Seafish’s 2021 review of the application of official control regulations for shellfish production across the globe. To illustrate the impact of what the FSA has achieved in this respect, since 2021, changes made to the shellfish classification system have increased the number of class A areas in England and Wales from 26 to 40, and seasonal class A areas from 19 to 27. That means the EU market remains open to an additional 22 business, without increasing risk to human health. Ultimately, the classification of shellfish waters is dependent on the water quality, which is why DEFRA’s ongoing work to improve water quality in England is so important.

Most English shellfish harvesting sites are class B. Water industry investments of nearly £200 million in improvements to assets that affect shellfish waters in England between 2000 and 2020 have prevented deterioration. We are looking for more improvement opportunities. Through collaboration with the Shellfish Association of Great Britain and the Environment Agency, DEFRA has identified 63 priority shellfish areas, where water quality improvement is considered feasible. We have asked water companies to make improvements in those areas and we expect to see this reflected in their plans.

The Pacific oyster is an important species for the shellfish aquaculture industry in England. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes contests its invasive, non- native status and has argued for the species to be considered naturalised. At present, Pacific oysters are classified as a non-native species in UK waters and are currently considered to be invasive. Evidence from Natural England suggests that they can alter habitats and ecosystems through reef formation, which can displace native oysters and have a negative impact on native biodiversity.

I am aware of the length of time that Pacific oysters have been in UK waters. I am keen to understand more about their impacts and benefits, and possible mitigations. As such, I will seek to meet with officials, regulators and scientists in the coming weeks to explore the matter further. DEFRA’s policy position on Pacific oysters and the expansion of the industry was shared with the shellfish aquaculture APPG in August last year. I am happy to share with Members the fact that the Department seeks to balance economic and environmental considerations.

In short, north of 52° latitude, where it may be possible to reduce the rate at which Pacific oysters spread by limiting human assistance because they are currently less prevalent, DEFRA does not support the expansion of the Pacific oyster farming industry. However, DEFRA recognises that some Pacific oyster farms have operated in this region for many years, and to reduce the risk that the farms can pose to nearby MPAs, DEFRA supports regulators in the introduction of mitigating authorisation conditions where necessary. South of 52° latitude, both new applications and existing farms will be considered on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the impact on MPAs.

On support for the industry, it remains possible to export LBMs from class B waters to the EU, provided that they have been depurated prior to export. As well as working to improve water quality and free up trade, DEFRA has provided significant financial support to help LBM businesses continue to export and develop new markets. Under the fisheries and seafood scheme, DEFRA has supported the sector with over £600,000 in grants to 15 projects involving the construction or purchase of tanks for the depuration of LBMs. It also remains possible to farm Pacific oysters, and many businesses continue to do so very successfully.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. Given the earlier mention of oysters, mussels and filter feeders, I am not clear what impact they have on MPAs. I know that there are always bureaucrats and people who call themselves conservationists with plenty to say on the issue, but they are usually more a hindrance than a help. I struggle to see what the impact is, and I would be grateful, if it is obvious, if the Minister could tell us. If not, he can write to us.

It is about reef formation and whether the reefs that are formed from those oyster communities have an impact. I am not saying that they do have an impact on marine protected areas; what I am saying is that we want to continue to monitor that to ensure that they do not have a negative impact on those marine protected areas.

In summary, it is clearly a difficult time for the industry. His Majesty’s Government recognise the challenges that shellfish farmers face, and we will continue to work with the industry to address them. We have already set out how we can assist and how we are trying to help. However, we ask the industry to think seriously about its business models and how it can best adapt its operations to meet post-exit trading conditions and ensure its own long-term survival. As I noted at the start of the debate, aquaculture is a vital part of our seafood industry. I want it to thrive over the next few years, and I will continue to liaise with colleagues, help and support the industry, and move forward together.

This has at times been quite a weird and tangential debate but, as I think I said in my opening remarks, it has not really been a debate—it has been a moment of violent agreement about the fact that we all recognise the opportunity for the sector and the fact that there is work that can be done. Let me sum up in a few ways.

First, I encourage all Members here to join the all-party parliamentary group on this topic. It is trying to push the right agenda—one that works with the industry. Secondly, I encourage Members to attend the Shellfish Association of Great Britain conference on 6 and 7 June—they would all be very welcome—in Fishmongers’ Hall. It would be extremely interesting to hear how the Minister gets on with the chief veterinary officer on export health certificates and how the piece of legislation that will digitise our trade documentation would allow that to work. There is an opportunity for us to reshape the document that we use for global trade and trade with the European Union, which is important.

Thirdly, we would be very interested in hearing how the Minister gets on with officials regarding Pacific oysters and the progress he makes on that. The problem that I have at the moment is that they have been here for 100 years. Go to an oyster farm, mussel farm, scallop farm or clam site; pick up a rope of mussels—all that falls off is plankton, crab and small larvae of sorts. It is unbelievably enthusing and impressive to see the positive impact that that has on biodiversity. Finding a way to allow that to work with marine protected areas and highly protected marine areas would be of huge benefit, and would give a very strong signal to the industry. I hope that the Minister will listen on that.

We are grateful for the Minister’s time. The opportunity is now. We have all raised these issues before, and we will strengthen his arm in whatever way we possibly can to make this a success and help the industry to grow.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered shellfish aquaculture.

Sitting suspended.

Levelling Up Fund: Tipton and Wednesbury

I will call Shaun Bailey to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Tipton and Wednesbury and the Levelling Up Fund.

People across the Black Country, in Tipton and Wednesbury specifically—whether they live on the Tibby estate, the Lost City, Friar Park or the Woods estate—are proud of their communities and where they come from. I am proud to represent an area with a long tradition and a proud sense of community.

Our great Black Country towns of Tipton and Wednesbury have consistently felt like they have been left behind. When I was elected to this place three years ago, I made one simple pledge to them: I would ensure that they were never forgotten again. That has been at the forefront of the work I have done since I was elected as the Member of Parliament for West Bromwich West in 2019. Of course, we have to remember that in 2019, the current Government were elected on a manifesto to level up and invest in communities like those in Tipton and Wednesbury, and indeed across the Black Country.

We know that talent and genius are uniformly distributed throughout the country, but opportunity, wealth and standards of living are not. Unfortunately, in my area, we have acute issues and problems with standards of living and access to opportunity. It is vital that we close that gap. We know that as it widens, it will only compound the problems in communities such as the ones I represent. I want to talk about the importance of the levelling-up fund to the communities I represent, in particular the towns of Tipton and Wednesbury, and to tell the story of the process they have gone through on this journey, particularly in respect of the levelling-up fund.

First, we need to set the context. Look, for example, at employment opportunities. Sandwell Metropolitan Borough, the local authority area that contains my constituency, has an employment rate below that of the west midlands, and indeed Great Britain. In 2004, Sandwell’s unemployment rate was 8.7%, compared with 5.2% in the west midlands and 4.8% nationally; in 2009, that unemployment rate rose to 14.4%, compared with 8.5% and 6.8% respectively. In 2022, unemployment in Sandwell stood at 6.2%, while the national average was 3.8%. Sandwell’s labour market profile shows that the economically inactive rate in Sandwell is 10% higher than either the west midlands or the wider country.

Let us look at wages. In April 2022, median gross weekly wages in Sandwell were £470 for all employees, compared to £532.50 across the UK as a whole, and £549.80 for full-time employees, compared to £640 across the UK as a whole. On average, therefore, my constituents take home £90 a week less than the average person in the United Kingdom. Equally, we have to address education gaps. At early key stage 2, 55% of pupils attending state-funded schools in my local authority area achieve the expected standard, which is below the national average of 59% and the west midlands average of 57%. The gap continues to grow at GCSE level, where 61% of students attending state-funded schools in my area achieve a standard pass, which is below the national state-funded average of 69% and the west midlands average of 67%. It goes without saying that Sandwell is the eighth most deprived upper-tier local authority area in the country. One of my wards is, I think, the second most deprived in the west midlands region.

In setting the context of the importance of the levelling-up fund to my communities, we can see that the acute challenges and problems that I was sent to Parliament to address on behalf of my constituents and the communities of myself, my neighbours and friends are absolutely self-evident.

My hon. Friend is a true champion for his constituency. I find it rather sad that the Opposition Benches are absolutely empty today, even though we have MPs in this place from both major parties representing the west midlands. I rose to support my hon. Friend and to ask this: does he agree that the levelling up of opportunity is about not just his constituency, but all constituencies across the west midlands? We have strong local councillors in Walsall under the leadership of Mike Bird. They work with local MPs and our West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, who is doing a fantastic job and has secured the devolution deal that he just heard about in the Budget. That is how we make the huge strides that my hon. Friend has been seeking to secure in levelling up the west midlands, but the work continues.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. It is as if she is clairvoyant—that is the point that I was about to come to. She is right; strong, local leadership is key. Although central Government funding is an important part of the tapestry of levelling up and investing in communities, strong and accountable local leadership, such as what we have seen from our West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, is vital. He goes out there, bangs the drum and secures funding for our wider region.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s council leader, the legendary Mike Bird. Many of us active in the west midlands have known Mike for some time—he beats the drum for Walsall incredibly. I pay tribute to the Conservative group leader on Sandwell Council, David Fisher, who does that too.

I turn particularly to the need for the levelling-up fund in Tipton and Wednesbury. We found that, until recently, the Labour administration in Sandwell did not have a plan for how they were going to apply for the funds. It is vital that local authorities have a plan—whether they are red, blue or any colour in between, it is important that we take such opportunities. At a recent Sandwell Council meeting, certain councillors were carping about not getting central Government funding when they couldn’t even be bothered to apply for it, which is unacceptable. That is the hilarity of the situation.

One reason why I applied for this debate is that it is important for us to have a conversation about how to ensure that communities do not miss out on this funding through churlish party politics or sheer ineptitude—because people cannot be bothered or cannot manage multiple priorities. I acknowledge that this has got better recently, but at times my constituents have missed out not through failing any test or any central Government requirement, but because the council literally did not put in the application. That is just astounding. The fact is that our communities miss out.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) made the point that Opposition Members were not here. That is unfortunate because what I am talking about must be built across the political divide. Among the 28 Members of Parliament representing the West Midlands Combined Authority area, there is a 50-50 split. It astounds me that there is not one Labour MP in this Chamber.

I commend my hon. Friend for all his work. I know how hard he fights for his constituents. Even before we were elected to this place, he and I were both so passionate about the levelling up of the Black Country, and we were both elected on the hyper-local ticket of changing these communities. In Wolverhampton North East, we have seen Government investment into the city of Wolverhampton, and I welcome that.

I absolutely agree with him about the announcement of the devolution deal. Having Andy Street there to work with our Labour and Conservative authorities in the west midlands is key to the Government’s pledge to level up. I ask the Minister to look at Wolverhampton’s remaining levelling-up bid. Today’s funding has gone to one of our outstanding bids in Bilston. I welcome that, but I ask her to look kindly on the one in Wolverhampton North East, our green innovation corridor, which will unlock more jobs. I want to ask my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) if he will celebrate the devolution deal and admit that more has to be done to accelerate that. Our communities need the change very quickly.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her detailed intervention and I endorse her comments. She raises a point made by our right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills about the nuances of the west midlands; that is something I have found in my interactions on the levelling-fund in the context of the towns of Tipton and Wednesbury, which I am discussing today.

We cannot think that the West Midlands Combined Authority area is effectively one socioeconomic area. There are four sub-divisions: the Black Country, Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry, all of which have unique economic and social challenges. Of course, we have seen that in the roll-out of their own levelling-up opportunities in those areas. Indeed, in my conversations with the West Midlands Combined Authority—this is a point I pressed with the Mayor—I said we cannot have a strategy of levelling up in the west midlands based on the idea that if we level up Birmingham, it will spread everywhere else.

There is sometimes a risk in these conversations, and this is another issue my communities in Tipton and Wednesbury face, that people will think, “You can be part of the Greater Birmingham commuter belt zone.” Well, that does not work because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) will know, communities in Wednesfield or Wednesbury could be as far from Birmingham as we are right now.

My hon. Friend makes the passionate point that we need an equitable share of levelling up right across the region. We are talking about not just jobs and skills, but resources like the police, which is why I campaigned to keep my police station in Aldridge open, and transport. Having the city region sustainable transport settlement is equally important so that areas like my hon. Friend’s can level up transport to enable people to go to work or to enjoy leisure and social facilities. That is why—forgive my indulgence, Ms Elliott—I must give a big plug to my train station in Aldridge, which I hope the Minister will now be aware of, although it is not in her portfolio.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and to you, Ms Elliott, for your indulgence. The point my right hon. Friend makes is that we cannot take the levelling-up fund on its own. As I say, it forms part of a much wider patchwork of particularly capital investment into our area. She rightly references her active campaign to keep the Aldridge train station open. I have no doubt whatever, given her other successes such as the redevelopment of Ravens Court in Brownhills, that she will succeed. She has a record of delivery and a promise of more, as I am sure we have all seen on election leaflets.

I turn back to the importance of the levelling-up fund for Tipton and Wednesbury. The point about it being part of a broader patchwork is demonstrated. My local authority has been successful in securing other funding, such as £67 million from the towns fund. I secured £80,000 for flood defence in Tipton, £50,000 to deal with congestion on the A461 Black Country New Road, and £3 million for Wednesbury town centre as part of the heritage action zones. That all forms part of that tapestry with the levelling-up fund.

I say to the Minister that when we look at the levelling-up fund, and I know this was the case in the applications that went through, what I have mentioned should be considered as part of that process, but should not be to its detriment. I appreciate that with a lot of these bids there is a difficult balancing act. I know from interactions I have had with the Department that there has to be a balance between how we divvy out that part of the levelling-up fund, accepting that if areas have had significant funding, it can be difficult to give more and more when other areas have not had it. On Tipton and Wednesbury and the development in Tipton that was part of the recent bid, accepting the broader strategy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East alluded to, is important.

I turn to the specific bid for Tipton. In round 1 of the levelling-up fund, Sandwell Council—for some reason unbeknownst to anyone with logic—did not decide to submit a bid, but in round 2 we did. It had a focus on Tipton town centre. The rationale was based on the fact that Tipton town centre—Owen Street—was Tipton’s beating heart. Tipton itself is a post-industrial town that still has a strong sense of community, and that has been its historical centre. The bid itself looked at a variety of different ways to level up the town centre, whether through regenerating commercial and residential premises or ensuring we had a residential offering in town centres. We have talked a lot in this place about the balance between residential and commercial and how we can reinvigorate our town centres through a residential offering, and that was a key part of the submitted bid as well.

Broadly speaking, my view at the time was that it felt like a good strategic fit for the town. It respected the history of the area and fitted very much with the aims of the Government through the programme, ensuring the balance between commercial use and that we can truly see a return for the community on the investment put into these areas, and also complementing existing investment. I give Sandwell Council its dues—its engagement with me as part of that process was consistent and good, particularly given our recent challenges as a local authority with the introduction of commissioners at the council and a rejig of our senior leadership team. We could see how the changes from the fund could have an impact.

In winding up my remarks, I say to the Minister that the levelling-up fund presented a great opportunity. I was pleased by the Chancellor’s announcement today that we will hopefully now see some investment in Tipton. We must ensure we continue to press forward this levelling-up agenda; it is part of a broader tapestry of work. I thank the Minister for the work she does in this space and for continuing the engagement to ensure we truly maximise this and tackle the acute problems I addressed at the start of my comments.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) on securing this important debate on Tipton, Wednesbury and the levelling-up fund. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for their contributions—I will address them.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West is a committed champion for his area and, importantly, a committed advocate of levelling up. Debates such as the one we are having are excellent opportunities to not only talk about the levelling-up agenda but engage with Members such as my hon. Friend, who does so much for his constituency and wants the very best for his area.

Local leadership matters: that is what the levelling-up fund, at its core, is all about. It is about backing local projects and initiatives that restore people’s pride in the places they live and work and help to draw in new opportunities and investment. That is why the levelling-up fund is so over-subscribed. Round 2 was exceptionally competitive, with just under £9 billion of bids submitted for £2.1 billion of funding. That meant that we had a lot of high-quality shortlisted bids that we were unable to fund, including Sandwell’s Tipton town centre regeneration bid. It is also why my Department has identified just over £210 million of unallocated departmental budgets that we are using to fund 16 high-quality regeneration projects, including the Tipton town centre bid, announced in today’s Budget.

We have not touched on the regeneration of brownfield sites. Does the Minister agree that, particularly in the broader west midlands and Black Country, the levelling-up fund’s use of regeneration funds for brownfield remediation and regeneration is crucial so that we can protect our green belt and build the precious homes that we all want?

As my right hon. Friend alluded to, that is outside my portfolio, but I believe passionately in regeneration and the importance of prioritising brownfield land.

The £210 million that we announced at the Budget today is part of a much wider levelling-up package, which will further level up growth across the UK and spread opportunity everywhere. Other key levelling-up announcements include greater responsibility for local leaders to grow their local economies; over £400 million for new levelling-up partnerships for the 20 areas in England most in need of levelling up; a business rate retention expansion to more areas in the next Parliament; trailblazer devolution deals for the west midlands and Greater Manchester combined authorities, which include single multi-year settlements for the next spending review, alongside a commitment to negotiate further devolution deals in England; 12 investment zones across the UK, including in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and £8.8 billion over the next five-year funding period for a second round of the city region sustainable transport settlements.

The Government are investing a lot more funding in West Bromwich, to which my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West alluded, specifically in Tipton and Wednesbury. The Black Country region benefited from over £217 million of local growth funding between 2014 and 2021. A few projects in my hon. Friend’s constituency received direct funding, including the Opus Blueprint project in Wednesbury, which received £2.5 million.

Today, funding was announced for the £20 million Tipton town centre regeneration project, which will be a huge boost to the town. I thank my hon. Friend for his work on that. Meanwhile, West Bromwich, which sits within Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, has received towns fund deals for three towns, totalling £67.5 million—£25 million for West Bromwich, £23.5 million for Smethwick and £19 million for Rowley Regis. Beyond West Bromwich, levelling-up funds have been awarded for towns fund and future high street deals in Dudley, Wolverhampton and Walsall.

We recognise the need to improve connectivity in West Bromwich and the wider Black Country, and the £54 million for the reopening of two train stations at Darlaston and Willenhall will do just that. We have also allocated £25.9 million of capital funding to the West Midlands Combined Authority, including £13.6 million towards the Dudley-Brierley Hill metro extension. We recognise the importance that it will have in enabling faster access to the wider region.

Beyond Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities funds, Historic England has partnered with Sandwell to deliver an up to £3.6 million heritage regeneration scheme in Wednesbury, which will bring funding and opportunities to a large number of local shop owners, organisations and visitors. Today, the Department announced a new partnership programme, which will work with places in England that are in need of levelling up. I am pleased to say that Sandwell is among the places we will work with. That will involve extensive local engagement, data gathering and focus groups to form a picture of a place and its challenges and opportunities. Through that process of engagement and analysis, obstacles to levelling up will be identified. That will be used to develop policy interventions to tackle those obstacles.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills talked about the trailblazer deal, and I want to spend a few moments on that, because I think it is significant. I am delighted to highlight the earlier announcement that the Government and the West Midlands Combined Authority have concluded negotiations on the trailblazer, deeper devolution deal, transferring more control and influence over the levers of economic growth and levelling up. The deal equips the Mayor and the combined authority with additional tools to realise their goal for their residents and businesses, and demonstrates levelling up in action.

For the first time outside of London, decisions about the affordable homes programme will be devolved, boosting housing supply, complemented by the devolution of £150 million for regeneration developments on brownfield land. The commitments in the deal will help to harness the commercial potential of public land in areas such as Tipton, Wednesbury, through to Brierley Hill and across the west midlands. The deal will also support wider levelling up through its business-retention and skills budget agreements.

Before I sum up, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East asked specifically about her proposal for the levelling-up fund round 2. I am afraid that, today, I cannot get into the specifics of individual bids, as she will understand, but I am happy to sit down with her and the relevant Minister.

Taken together, I believe that the policies and the political will are there to make levelling up a reality in every single part of the country, including, clearly, Tipton and Wednesbury. I want to work with Members across this House so that we can continue to press forward with this agenda. That is why I am glad to be the Minister at this debate.

The Government are committed to our levelling-up mission on local leadership, transferring more control and influence over the levers of economic growth and levelling up to local, empowered and accountable leaders, such as our Mayor Andy Street. The WMCA has also committed to greater scrutiny, including scrutiny by residents, by constituent councils, when requested, and by local MPs at regular sessions.

Together, we can transform the fortunes of places such as Tipton and Wednesbury. We can write overlooked towns and cities back into our national story, and we can shape a better, more prosperous future for our constituents across the country. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West for calling this important debate, and for all his work on behalf of his constituency.

Question put and agreed to.

Local Housing Allowance

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Local Housing Allowance.

I am grateful and delighted to be able to lead the debate, and to do so under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Elliott. I am glad to be here.

Housing represents a large cost to many people, but it is becoming increasingly unaffordable. The aim of the local housing allowance, of course, is to help those renting in the private sector, but it is becoming less and less effective because the level of support is increasingly out of step with the actual housing market. Since 2012, LHA rates have been decoupled from the 30th percentile of rents. Some hon. and right hon. Members will perhaps remember when it was coupled to the lower half of the market, rather than the lower third, but there we are—it is now the 30th percentile. Decoupled, it is instead uprated by consumer prices index inflation, 1% or even 0%.

That, in turn, has led to a growing gap between the actual rents that people pay and the amount of housing support that they can receive. It was therefore very welcome —but long overdue—when, in March 2020, in response to the pandemic, the Government increased LHA rates to realign them with the lowest 30% of rents at September 2019. Suddenly, we were returned to the status quo ante. However, that relief was very short lived: inexplicably, the Government froze LHA again in November 2020. Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that the policy was

“arbitrary and unfair, and its consequences will only become more bizarre over time.”

Freezing the LHA has two broad consequences. First, the rise in rents is decreasing the amount of housing in the private rented sector available to those claiming housing benefits. Secondly, the support that low-income renters get with housing costs will be related not to the current level of rents in their area but rather to the rents of 2019. A moment ago, I used the word “inexplicably.” However, the Government’s thinking might well be quite obvious. Most commentators see it plainly as a short-term money-saving exercise—short term and short sighted, as the annual cost of maintaining the LHA level in cash terms was forecast to be £840 million in 2022-23, which would gradually fall to £345 million by 2025-26.

The alleged saving is illusory when one factors in the wider economic and social damage that the decision is causing. Previous analysis from Crisis showed that the annual cost of restoring LHA to the 30th percentile would be around £1.1 billion. That would in turn lift 32,000 people out of poverty and save a further 6,000 people from homelessness, which would produce savings of £5.6 billion—a cost of £1.1 billion, a saving of £5.6 billion. Some £5.5 billion of that saving would be on homelessness services, and £124 million on temporary accommodation. Over a three-year period, after the costs are deducted, that would save the UK Government £2.1 billion. That is why one must take the broader costs into account.

That sum is itself not to be discounted—it is a large amount of money—but most importantly, restoring the LHA to the previous level would save vulnerable people and their children from untold misery. That is the real gain. I would say it is unnecessary misery—unless, God forbid, we think that the cut in LHA is in fact an arm of disciplining the poor. Despite that evidence and the growing pressure on the Government, it was bitterly disappointing to see them maintain a freeze on LHA in the 2022 autumn statement. Although I listened very carefully to the Chancellor’s jolly festival of optimism at lunchtime, I did not detect a single word of comfort about LHA.

Despite the housing benefit freeze, rents continue to rise. In the 12 months to January 2023, private rents, in Wales at least, increased by 3.9%, the highest annual percentage change since records began in 2010. The damage being done is quite clear. The Bevan Foundation reports that in the last month only six of the 22 local authorities in Wales had any properties available at or below the LHA rates. The actual numbers are stunningly bad. During the first two weeks of February, only 32 properties in Wales were available at or below LHA rates—just 32 properties for the entire country and just 1.2% of the properties advertised on the formal rental market. In my local authority of Gwynedd, 187 properties were advertised for rent, but only 10 were fully covered by the LHA rates. People should remember that Gwynedd is—if Members will allow me this term—one of the “better” areas, with 10. Many places have none whatsoever.

There is broad consensus across the housing and homelessness support sector in favour of unfreezing the LHA and restoring it to the 30th percentile. Voices such as Crisis, the Select Committee on Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the National Residential Landlords Association and Welsh anti-poverty organisations—such as the Bevan Foundation, which did the research I mentioned earlier—say that, and I echo those calls. The Chancellor should unfreeze local housing allowance and uprate it to the 30th percentile of market rents as we begin to address the unaffordability of housing.

Last year, I asked the Government in a parliamentary question whether they had made an impact assessment of the decision not to uprate the LHA and about the impact on the proportion of homes available in Wales that would be covered in full by LHA. I was told that no such assessment had been made. That is making policy in the dark. If we do not know what we are dealing with, how can we make policy? I ask the Minister, given that the growing gap between real rents and LHA rates in Wales is plain to see, how the Government can justify not making such an assessment and whether she will do so? That seems to me to be an obvious step to take.

Such an assessment might highlight the way that the LHA freeze perpetuates homelessness and housing insecurity. The shortfall means that people claiming housing benefit are forced to move into properties that are not fully covered by what they receive from the DWP and, often, properties of terrifyingly poor quality. Many hon. Members will have seen the sorts of cases we get—I get them regularly—that involve houses that are essentially unfit for people to live in.

Crisis Wales has said that

“too many people and families are being forced into homelessness because housing benefit simply isn’t sufficient to keep a roof over their heads”.

It is a fundamental failure. Policy in Practice found that for every 10% increase in the number of households experiencing a gap between the LHA rate and rent, the proportion of households in temporary accommodation will rise by 1%. The cause and the effect are quite obvious, I think; there is a congruity and a causality there. There are just more people in temporary accommodation.

Between 2015 and 2022, the number of households that required assistance to avoid homelessness in Wales increased by approximately 9,000, while the estimated number of rough sleepers increased by 69%. The evidence is there if the Government choose to look; if they choose otherwise, and not to look—if they choose to pass on the other side of the road—they will of course not see it. The Bevan Foundation also notes that it is not a coincidence that this all took place at the same time as LHA rates were frozen. Even now, we can see a slow increase in homelessness, with 158 more people in temporary accommodation in Wales between November and December of last year. That is in just one month. I say again that that is at a substantial and unneeded cost to the public purse.

I have another question for the Minister. Will she now assess how much local authorities could save in housing people who are homeless by unfreezing LHA rates, to enable them to sustain tenancies? That is an obvious piece of research, and the answers would be illuminating.

Housing insecurity can also lead to further pressure on other essential costs, such as energy and food, with serious consequences for mental and physical health. That is likely to be one contributing factor in the shocking statistic that 61% of people in Wales report that their mental health is negatively affected by their financial position. The LHA freeze means that emergency discretionary funding, such as discretionary housing payments or DHPs, are being used to plug the gap. Again, Welsh local authorities spent the highest sum of their allocated DHPs in 2020-21. The latest data show they are on course to do the same this year, with a 4% increase in the number of DHPs being spent on local housing allowance shortfalls.

That is all in the context of austerity, of course, as the reduction in DHP funding available to Welsh local authorities in the last financial year amounted to a 27% cut, which follows a reduction in the previous year of 18%. The cuts resulted in the Welsh Government topping up DHP funds last year by £4.1 million. That is the knock-on effect. I again put it to the Minister that there is a fundamental problem when local authorities are using their emergency allocations, and the Welsh Government have to top up the funds due to successive cuts. Does the Minister think that is sustainable in the long term? I do not think so, but I am interested in her opinion.

The LHA freeze is not the only concern. When it comes to the calculation of LHA, it is important to note that the rates sometimes do not accurately reflect market conditions, particularly at the very local level. At present, there is no obligation on landlords to share information on rents they charge, which makes it difficult to secure a true overview of the local rental market. Furthermore, are the broad rental market areas used to calculate each area’s LHA truly representative? They can encompass large areas with multiple rental markets within them. The gradient of change in the markets might be extremely steep, and might not take hotspots of high rent into account.

For example, in my constituency of Arfon we have Bangor University and a student population of 9,000, which is very large relative to the around 20,000 people in the local area of Bangor itself. There might be a severe hotspot there. In more rural parts of north-west Wales, holiday lets might have a significant effect. In the south-east, the removal of the Severn bridge tolls has increased rents in places near the border, such as Newport. People live in the cheaper parts in Wales and drive over to Bristol for their jobs.

The hon. Gentleman mentions Bristol, where this is a massive issue, which is the reason I have come to this debate. A recent inquiry by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism and a local newspaper, The Bristol Cable, found that there were virtually no properties with LHA rates available in Bristol, as he said is the case in his patch. I share his concerns; it is happening everywhere.

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. As I said earlier, this affects the entire UK. Indeed, she might be clairvoyant, because I am going to refer that particular point in Wales. My concern, of course, is with Wales, where I know what is happening best. In Arfon, as I said, we have Bangor University and the holiday lets market, and then we have the Severn bridge.

I have asked the Department for Work and Pensions if it plans to undertake an assessment of the accuracy of the mechanism and metrics used to calculate the rate at which the local housing allowance is set and allocated in Wales, and the broad rental market area boundaries, if they are relevant. I was told that those boundaries are kept under review by the rent officers in Wales, and if they decide that a boundary should change, they can submit a review to the Secretary of State for consideration. I ask the Minister: have there been any applications by rent officers in Wales to request a review of broad rental market areas in Wales? I would be interested to know. I believe the BRMA mechanism should be devolved. Housing is already a devolved matter, as are other welfare services. There is a congruence between them, and a reasonable case can be made for them to be under the same authority. We could then redesign the mechanism to be far more responsive to local circumstances.

The local housing allowance is just one plank of the large-scale reform of the housing market. That is why Plaid Cymru secured the inclusion of a welcome commitment by the Labour Government in Wales to introduce proposals for a fundamental right to adequate housing for Welsh citizens, as well as an explanation of the role that a system of fair rents could play in making the private rental market affordable for local people on local incomes. There are also new approaches for making housing affordable. The devolution of housing benefit has a key role to play in that process. Had we control of the funding of housing benefit, we would then do things differently, such as repurposing some of the money into building more social housing. That would allow Wales to move from a model of subsidy to a rent system that subsidises supply. It is a straightforward move.

Welsh Labour has committed, in the co-operation agreements with Plaid Cymru, to advocate for the devolution of the administration of benefits. I asked the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), if he would be prepared to pledge that. He said that I was inviting him to venture into choppy waters. I think that is quite true, but I will just bowl this one at my colleague on the Labour Front Bench, the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck): will the Labour party in Westminster consider supporting devolving LHA to Wales, as Welsh Labour Members in the Senedd have asked?

To conclude, it is vital that the Government take action to end the housing crisis. Affordable, decent housing should be a right for everyone. Affordability is central to housing stability, and can then reduce stress and increase self-esteem, wellbeing, life satisfaction and a sense of security for people. It can also alleviate crowding, further reducing stress and the spread of infectious diseases. I call on the Government to take action now to address the affordability crisis by unfreezing the local housing allowance.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Elliott. I congratulate the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) on securing this debate.

On Monday, in Committee Room 5, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation launched its research on an essentials guarantee. It has tested public opinion and worked out the cost of absolutely basic, non-housing essentials in Britain today: food and non-alcoholic drink, electricity and gas, water, clothes and shoes, communications, travel, and sundries such as cleaning materials. That is the lot, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that the cost of all that for a single person is £120 a week, which is £35 a week more than universal credit from next month. That is just for the minimum, basic essentials. It is absolutely clear why so many people have to go to food banks.

Quite a lot of people do not get the full rate of universal credit because of deductions of one kind or another. In addition to that, because of the subject we are debating, a growing number of people have to take money out of their inadequate universal credit payments in order to pay the rent. Local housing allowance often stops people on universal credit being paid housing support anywhere near to the amount of their rent. It is making life impossible.

Since LHA was frozen in 2020, after temporarily being restored to the 30th percentile, as the hon. Member for Arfon pointed out—it used to be the 50th before 2011—rent has risen sharply across the country. DWP data shows that by last August, 57% of private rented households in receipt of housing support had a shortfall between their benefits and the rent. That proportion is going up.

In July 2022, the Work and Pensions Committee published a report, “The cost of living”, which highlighted how support through the LHA was not keeping up with rising rents. The fact that housing support and current rents are so out of kilter—the hon. Member for Arfon referred to this—creates what the Institute for Fiscal Studies described as “bizarre consequences”. It gives an example, one of which affects the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), stating that

“the 30th percentile of rents in Bristol is £100 more than in Newbury. But the amount of housing support that those who live in Bristol can receive is £12.50 less than those who live in Newbury.”

That makes no sense. The system has got completely out of touch with the reality.

Crisis told the Select Committee about research with Alma Economics before the pandemic, showing that a return to the 30th percentile would benefit the public purse by over £2 billion, because it would avoid councils resorting to more costly temporary accommodation.

The hon. Member for Arfon rightly made this point. In its briefing, the National Residential Landlords Association says that we should press the Minister, and I want to join the hon. Member in doing so. Have the Government worked out how much local authorities could save in temporary accommodation costs if the local housing allowance was back up at the 30th percentile?

The impacts are getting more severe. Shelter has warned this year that the

“continued freeze on housing benefits is pushing more and more private renters towards homelessness”.

The number approaching Shelter with rent arrears is up 30%. Crisis says that the

“affordability gap is driving homelessness”,

and reports that evictions from the private sector have more than doubled in the last year.

Government figures last month showed the first increase for four years in the number of rough sleepers, and in London there was a 34% increase. The Government say they are committed to ending rough sleeping, but their policies, and particularly this policy, are increasing rough sleeping.

People in households with a disabled person are more likely to be hit by LHA shortfalls. Paul Sylvester, head of housing operations at Bristol City Council, told our Committee in 2021 that half the households they saw with a shortfall included a disabled person. They were increasingly seeing disabled people forced to use their disability benefits to

“cover the rent top-up, rather than what they are meant for”.

Discretionary housing payments can be used by local councils to support households at risk of homelessness. This financial year, the DHP budget has been cut by 29%. Shelter has said—echoing again the hon. Member for Arfon—that a number of councils

“appear on the brink of running out of funding”.

There are 31 English councils that had spent over three quarters of their budget on DHP before winter began. They included traditionally low-rent areas such as Derbyshire Dales, Leicester, and Hinckley and Bosworth, which all spent over 80% of their annual allocation in the first six months. The east midlands, where they are all located, had the highest rate of private rent inflation in the last year, at just over 5%. In the north-east—your area, Ms Elliott—Sunderland, Gateshead and Northumberland all spent more than 90% of their DHP allocation by the end of September.

Sadly, today’s Budget has done absolutely nothing to help. The Government must stop turning a blind eye to such a very serious problem and recognise that local housing allowance must go up, at least to the 30th percentile. Once it has gone up to that, it needs to be kept there.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I congratulate the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) on securing this Westminster Hall debate. Northern Ireland has a totally different system, so I do not expect the Minister to answer any questions about Northern Ireland. This is a devolved matter on which the Assembly takes decisions. However, I want to support the hon. Member for Arfon by illustrating how the local housing allowance is causing similar difficulties in Northern Ireland. I put on the record that I concur with and fully support his comments on the difficulties in his constituency and in Wales, as well as remarks of the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) on the difficulties in England.

Housing allocation is done differently in Northern Ireland. The principle of shortfall housing allowance is a UK-wide issue, which is why I am here to support the comments. Almost 30,000 private renters in receipt of local housing allowance in Northern Ireland are facing a shortfall in their monthly rents. It is having a real effect. Among the biggest issues raised with my office are those of benefits and housing. If an issue combines both benefits and housing, that causes real difficulty. That is where I am.

I read an article this week that said that almost three quarters of housing benefit claimants living in private rented accommodation in Belfast are being charged more than their housing benefit allowance. This is replicated in Newtownards, the mainstay of my constituency, with a lack of one or two-bed properties meaning that people have to rent three-bed properties, which costs a lot for those on a smaller wage. In Northern Ireland and particularly in my constituency, rental accommodation costs far outstrip income and wages.

The local housing allowance in Ards is £83.53 per week, meaning a make-up of around £300 per month for those who rent accommodation. It takes a massive effort to squeeze the shortfall at a time when price rises are putting the pressure on. It is important to say that I recognise that the Government have taken many steps to try to help with the issue of price structures and increases, and I recognise the many good things that the Government have done. However, I think there needs to be a focus on this issue in particular, and I concur with the comments made by the hon. Member for Arfon and the right hon. Member for East Ham.

It is unsustainable for my constituents to have to make up £300 when the cost of gas and electric has trebled. Further information shows that in a workgroup covering Dunmurry and Lisburn—both in Northern Ireland—89.5% of claimants have a shortfall between the rent charged by their landlord and the applicable local housing alliance for the property occupied. That massive number indicates that this is an issue. Local housing allowance is used to calculate the level of housing benefit available to those living in the private rental sector. Over half of low-income renters—some 51%—surveyed across Great Britain in November said that their rent had increased. Research by Crisis on the cost of living provides a snapshot of the devastating impact of unaffordable housing. The hon. Member for Arfon illustrated that very well and evidentially in his contribution.

It is little wonder that we are in a housing crisis. In the past year alone, rents in Northern Ireland have risen at their fastest rate in 16 years, and have increased by an average of 11% across Great Britain. In the last year, listed rents in Scotland have increased by 13%, and by 15% in Wales. These are massive increases to try to keep track with. It has led to people applying for affordable social housing, which has in turn led to the Northern Ireland housing statistics for 2020-21 showing that some 44,000 people were on the Northern Ireland Housing Executive waiting list as of 31 March 2021. Of those 44,000, just over 30,000 are in housing stress. That means that three quarters of those people are in housing stress through attempting to address the issue of rent.

I will conclude, as I want to give the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) the chance to participate. For me it is abundantly clear that if we address the issue by making the local housing allowance come close to covering basic rent, we will allow those who are working and able to cover a small difference to come off the list, thereby allowing those who need full rent coverage to access social housing. Families are under pressure and inflation has risen, along with the price of groceries, energy and fuel. The price of every single item has increased. I heard on TV this morning that every foodstuff has increased by between 17% and 19% in the last few months. The rates will increase again this year. That automatically results in an increase in outgoings, but the incomings simply cannot meet the cost. That is a fact.

I agree with the assessment made by Crisis, which did a case study of a lady who could make her rent payments but could not afford to heat her home or eat three times a day. This is the depth of crisis that homelessness statistics do not show—those who have walls but do not have a home. That has to be addressed.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Elliott. I congratulate the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) on securing this very important debate.

Wales is facing a housing crisis because there is a shortage of affordable properties that people can purchase or rent. That shortage forces many low-income households to move into a property that they cannot afford, risking financial hardship, or into a property that is in poor condition, risking ill health, or to seek assistance from local authority homelessness services. The local housing allowance, introduced in 2008, is the amount of housing benefit, or the housing element of universal credit, available to those who are renting from private landlords. The amount of support provided is based on the area in which the individual lives and the number of bedrooms they require. There are a number of LHA determining factors, including allowing a tenant to rent in the cheapest third, 30th percentile, of properties within a market area, which depends on the location of the property—Wales is divided into 23 broad rental market areas—and on the number of bedrooms to which a household is entitled.

However, despite the good intentions behind the LHA, the scheme has been the subject of much criticism and controversy. In many areas, the LHA does not cover the full cost of renting a property, leaving individuals and families in a precarious financial situation. The issues have recently been exacerbated, as LHA rates have been frozen since 2020 at the level of 2018-19 private rental rates. Research by the Bevan Foundation found that in my Neath constituency, 51 properties were advertised for rent in February 2023, but not one property was covered by the LHA rate. Furthermore, the gap between market rents and the LHA rate in my constituency is £95.93 for a one-bedroom property, £113.33 for a two-bedroom property, £146.24 for a three-bedroom property and £251.45 for a four-bedroom property. That means that many people in Neath face the prospect of homelessness, with some being forced to choose between paying their rent and putting food on the table. That is an unacceptable situation that needs to be addressed urgently.

One solution to the problem is to increase the LHA rate for the area. That would provide much-needed relief to those who are struggling to pay their rent and would help to prevent homelessness. The Welsh Government have already taken steps to address this issue with the introduction of the Welsh housing quality standard and the Housing (Wales) Act 2014. However, more needs to be done. The UK Government must recognise the unique challenges facing areas such as Neath and take action to ensure that the LHA rates are sufficient to cover the cost of renting a property. That not only would help those who are struggling to make ends meet but would have wider economic benefits by reducing the number of people who are at risk of homelessness and supporting the local rental market.

However, low-income tenants may face more barriers when looking for properties in the private rental sector, and many may find them difficult or impossible to overcome. Examples are requirements for deposits of more than one month’s rent, guarantors, credit checks, minimum income checks, and professional-only tenants. The Bevan Foundation found only 32 properties in Wales at or below the LHA rate. Twenty-three also had one or more of the barriers that I just mentioned. To put it another way, only nine properties fully covered by the LHA did not require one or more of the additional qualifications. Seven were in Cardiff, one in Ceredigion and one in Rhondda Cynon Taf; there was none in my constituency of Neath.

The local housing allowance is a vital scheme that provides much-needed financial assistance to those who are struggling to pay their rent, but current rates of LHA are inadequate in many areas, including my constituency of Neath. It is time for the UK Government to take action to address the issue, and to ensure that LHA rates are sufficient to cover the cost of renting a property. The Chancellor could have used his Budget today to uplift LHA rates to the contemporary 30th percentile, providing housing security and decreasing mental and physical illness among those struggling to pay their rent. By not taking action, the Chancellor has increased pressure on local authorities, which will drive up the use of temporary accommodation. He has not prevented homelessness, not supported the local rental market and not provided a brighter future for the people of Neath, Wales and the UK in their home.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair for this afternoon’s proceedings, Ms Elliott.

As others have done, I commend the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) for securing the debate, which is short but none the less important. We have had an interesting discussion, with thoughtful contributions from the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Neath (Christina Rees).

The debate of the hon. Member for Arfon allows my party to place on the record our asks on local housing allowance rates. For example, we want to see LHA increased in line with average rents. Likewise, we have called on the British Government to support renters by suspending the shared accommodation rate for under-35s and care leavers, which I believe remains a massive social injustice.

As we know, in November the Secretary of State confirmed that LHA rents for the 2023-24 financial year

“will be maintained in cash terms at the elevated rates agreed for 2020-21.”—[Official Report, 17 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 24WS.]

My party has pushed the British Government to ensure that the approach to LHA rates does not go back to that taken by the pre-pandemic cuts, which made the private sector totally unaffordable for people in receipt of benefits in some areas, especially when we take cognisance of the long-term shortage of social housing that blights many of my constituents. We cannot have a conversation such as this without recognising the enormous damage done to social housing by the right-to-buy policy and the failure to build more social housing after that.

Ministers’ decision to maintain LHA rates at cash terms in 2023-24 means a further freeze for private renters and places additional and needless pressure on tenants, which in turn adds to pressure on the discretionary housing payment funding pot. Through discretionary housing payments, my colleagues in the Scottish Government are supporting tenants who are under severe financial pressure. In reality, the Scottish Government are plugging some of the gaps caused by the crumbling of the UK social security system here in Westminster.

To highlight one particular example, since the introduction of the punitive bedroom tax, the SNP Government in Scotland have spent £350 million on mitigating it. That has been done by way of discretionary housing payments, which in effect means that the bedroom tax is not in operation north of the border. The hon. Member for Arfon will correct me if I am wrong, but the situation in Labour-run Wales means that the bedroom tax is not necessarily mitigated—something their colleagues in Scottish Labour often forget to mention in Holyrood.

Obviously it is great that SNP Ministers have chosen to act to protect people from the bedroom tax in Scotland, but it is just one of the many areas where the devolution framework comes under strain, as spending decisions in Scotland are frankly taken to paper over the cracks of poor welfare policy made here in London. The inescapable reality is that every penny we spend on the discretionary housing payment to deal with Westminster’s heartless social security agenda is a penny less spent on devolved competences such as education, transport and health.

In summary, Ministers must do better and this Government must act urgently to improve some of the problems with local housing allowance that I and others have outlined today. Failure to do so, I am afraid, only highlights the need for Scottish independence, and for decisions about Scotland to be taken in Scotland—not to languish in the Whitehall in-trays of Tory Ministers the people of Scotland did not vote for.

It is a pleasure to respond for the Opposition under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I congratulate the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) on securing this important debate. This is a niche issue for many people, yet it is so incredibly important. Rents are the single largest item in most families’ budgets. Not being able to pay the rent has the consequence of forcing families into poverty and also risks homelessness, as we have heard—I will return to that point in a minute.

I wish that, just occasionally, we could have a debate such as this with more than one Department present—it would be a good experiment and brilliant to have that opportunity. It is absolutely impossible to consider local housing allowances in isolation from housing policy. The fact that the housing market is so fundamentally broken is driving the crisis in rents and unaffordability, and therefore the pressure on the local housing allowance. The attempt to bear down on the local housing allowance drives up homelessness and has consequences for other Government Departments. It would be good to be able to hold two Ministers to account for the policies they pursue and their two different agendas, which usually—and in this case—involve a toxic pass-the-parcel game of responsibility and blame, with consequences for both.

As we have heard, the Government have accepted the need to uprate benefits in line with inflation this year—indeed, they have been proud of that fact. I do not think that should be a cause for congratulation. It should be the most absolutely fundamental principle of social security policy, yet they completely fail to accept that that same principle should apply to the local housing allowance. I would like the Minister to explain exactly why in this one area of policy, which affects the largest item of a family’s budget, the Government do not seem to believe that inflation exists. Of course, inflation does exist and, as we particularly heard from the Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), rents are soaring across the country, but probably most severely in London.

There are two consequences. First, over 800,000 households in the private rented sector face a shortfall between their rent and their local housing allowance. Some 57% of all universal credit households in the private rented sector have that shortfall. Secondly, dipping back into the issue of housing policy, it forces households into the absolute worst end of the private rented market. In this place, we discuss what has happened to households stuck in the poorest quality housing and the conditions that people are forced into if they are concentrated at the bottom end of the market, even if they can get it, have been a big media theme over the course of this winter.

Although we are discussing the freeze that has happened, in particular since 2020, this is also not a new phenomenon. Since the Government reduced the LHA from the 50th percentile to the 30th, there has been a continuing series of freezes, of which this is only the most recent. It was all based on the belief that the setting of the LHA levels would be bound in itself to influence rents, because it was understood or believed that such a large proportion of the private rented sector was funded by it. That was only ever partially true, or only true in some places, and always failed to recognise that even in a broad market rental area, there are different housing markets, and what applies to one part of the private rented market will not apply to others.

We know that the blind spot over the local housing allowance uprating can be seen in the homelessness statistics, as well as being felt by tenants in the shortfall between actual rents and the support available. There is an average monthly shortfall between rent and local housing allowance of £100 a month. It is indisputably true that the shortfalls are driving tenants to lose their homes. The end of a private rented tenancy is the single largest contributor to homelessness almost everywhere in the country.

Does the hon. Member agree that the Government have to look at the picture in the round? When someone is evicted from their home, it is ultimately the state that picks up the cost. We should consider local housing allowance a preventive spending measure and the Government are short-sighted on the issue.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that homelessness is a cost on the central Government budget and on local authority budgets as well.

We have seen homelessness soar. Rough sleeping is up by 74% since 2010 and by 26% in the last year; there has been an 83% rise in the number of children who are now living in temporary accommodation as a result of homelessness. One in 23 children in London is now homeless. The squeeze on local housing allowances is undoubtedly a major factor driving that situation.

I have no doubt that the Minister will refer to discretionary housing payments, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham has made clear, they make only a tiny contribution towards the total cost of budget shortfalls. Those payments have been cut by one fifth in 2021-22, and again this year. In any event, they are restricted in various ways, including by the fact that they are only ever meant to be temporary, so they are not, and never can be, the answer to the fall in local housing allowance.

The poorest, the most vulnerable and those with the least bargaining power in a toughly competitive private rented market, among them families with hundreds of thousands of children between them, are forced to deal with evictions, with frequent moves, and with all the disruption that homelessness causes to education, employment and caring allowances.

As Policy in Practice demonstrated in an important research report yesterday, the broken housing market also drags a substantial number of higher earners and higher-rate taxpayers into means-tested benefits such as universal credit via the housing allowances system, which is a completely unintended consequence of the freeze.

Investment in social housing—a way of ensuring that those with the lowest incomes can enjoy secure and affordable homes—is by far the best solution to this crisis. A better managed private rented sector would also be good for tenants. We have been promised action on that for years but we are yet to see it. All of these things would be better for the public purse, too. In the meantime, freezes in the local housing allowance make no sense whatsoever and only serve to make a bad situation worse.

I thank the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) for calling this debate on the local housing allowance, which provides housing support for universal credit and housing benefit claimants in the private rented sector. I thank you, Ms Elliott, for presiding over this important debate; it is my first time here, too.

The Government fully recognise the importance of affordable, decent quality housing, as the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) pointed out, which is why we have invested significantly to support those on low incomes, including private renters. All constituency MPs are focused on this issue, as has been alluded to this afternoon. We are grateful to our excellent caseworkers who support us and keep us informed about what is going on in our constituencies. I thank all the charities for all the positive work that they do in the sector. I will be visiting further innovative pilots and interventions on Monday to look and learn and see how we can really help the most vulnerable to progress, including some of the groups that have been mentioned this afternoon.

Acting on childcare, as we have done today, helping people to progress and earn more and helping people with energy costs will help with the wider challenges that many of our colleagues have spoken about this afternoon and all the constituents who have been impacted. The Government spent almost £30 billion supporting renters with housing costs in 2021-22. More widely, the Chancellor announced in the autumn statement a significant wide-ranging package of support to help low-income households struggling with the increased cost of living, which will of course include housing.

We recognise and acknowledge that rents are increasing. However, the challenging fiscal environment does mean that difficult decisions were necessary to ensure that support is targeted effectively. That support provides stability and certainty for households through the further cost of living payments for the most vulnerable for 2023-24, which I was pleased to bring forward myself. Around 8 million households on eligible means-tested benefits will get a further £900 pounds in payments in 2023-24.

Does the Minister accept the argument that I and other Members have made—that doing something about the local housing allowance would save the Government money in the round?

I appreciate and understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, and I will make some further comments shortly.

Today’s Budget has focused on more help so that people can be better off, to raise living standards and to improve lives. To the hon. Member for Westminster North and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), I say that this is a challenge that I am working on and that I am keen to rise to—across Government, as the hon. Lady says, and of course with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I say to anybody struggling today, whether with housing costs or other matters that are impacting them, that there is an opportunity to find out more on the benefits calculator website, in case they are missing out on any extra support. There is also the Help for Households website and the Job Help website. Of course, as has been mentioned, the benefit cap, working age benefits and disability benefits will also be uprated by 10.1% for 2023-24.

The household support fund extension provides an extra £1 billion of funding, including the Barnett impact. I met many local authorities yesterday afternoon to see how they are targeting that support—particularly on housing needs and costs, white goods and other things that might affect household budgets. The scheme will be backed with £842 million and will run from 1 April to 31 March 2024. It is right that devolved Administrations will decide how to allocate that Barnett funding. As we have heard, local authorities are expected to support those households most in need.

One of the Government’s key aims is to support people into work and to progress in work where possible. That approach is based on clear evidence that, for those who can work, particularly where the work is full time, it substantially reduces the risks of poverty. We see real challenges, to which the hon. Member for Westminster North alluded: more single households, more single parents and family breakdown. The support that we are giving, because of global impact, means that the supply is all the more challenging. I agree with the hon. Lady that wider issues around cost and quality, which very much concern me, mean that this policy, the growing need and the focus are only getting larger. I agree that, in Government, the issue is very much about more than me; I am sorry that I am not enough this afternoon, but I will try to do my best.

Let me turn to some of the points made by hon. Members. On the decision to freeze, we recognise that rents are increasing. However, the challenging fiscal environment has led to where we are, and it is important that we target effectively. The Secretary of State will review the rates and the standard process annually. The hon. Member for Arfon raised the issue of quality. Discretionary housing payments can be made to help claimants with the costs associated with moving to a new home if there is a quality issue. Everyone rightly has the ability to get a safe and secure home. Landlords are key; we need them to come forward, to stay in the sector and to want to be part of the solution where they have already met the decent homes standard. Quality housing remains a priority for this Government, and of course there is currently a White Paper on that.

On the point about people moving to alternative accommodation, in London just 4.2% of available private rented properties are below the local housing rate, and other examples have been given by other Members. Where are people meant to move to?

I understand the point. That is why I want the quality to rise, rather than people feeling that they have to move. There is obviously a fall-back position.

The hon. Member for Arfon made a point about the broad rental market rates. Those are determined for Wales by rent officers in Wales. If the rent officers believe —I have just looked again at my local rates—that the boundary needs to be reviewed, as the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned, they can apply to the Secretary of State for change, but no reviews have been submitted by Wales. Local authorities can also request a review by contacting rent officers. It is up to the rent officer whether they will review it, but I think that is an important point for the hon. Member for Arfon to take away. 

Obviously, there is the wider cost of living support as regards Welsh and indeed Northern Ireland devolution. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), with his typical empathetic tone and understanding, has brought real care to the debate, as usual. I recognise the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees), because I lived nearby in Neath for many years, and I very much welcomed the Welsh housing standard. I think that is exactly what we should be doing, rather than reducing things. I sense that the right hon. Member for East Ham is keen to come in.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I am pleased to hear that she is working across Government on the issue, and I wish her well with that. Can she tell us whether there has been an assessment of how much could be saved in the costs of temporary accommodation if LHA was raised back up to the 30th percentile?

I hope to come that before I conclude my remarks. On the “no impact assessment” point made by the hon. Member for Arfon, we will publish an equalities analysis to the House of Commons Library, and I know the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) will keenly watch for that. On the recent question regarding shared rooms, there is an issue with the quality of data on room entitlements, so, if the hon. Member for Arfon writes to me, I will share with him further what I can best do to provide that.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I spent a bit of the afternoon reading the Government’s White Paper on health and disability, and have actually been very encouraged by one part of it that talks about the importance of transparency in decision-making processes in the DWP. Will the Minister confirm that there will be a change of culture now in the transparency and publication of some of these things, which, recently, some of us felt to be a bit murky?

The hon. Gentleman points out the many questions he is asking about transparency, and I welcome that. Where policy is in development, we need to protect it, but, ultimately, if it needs to be transparent, I am very happy, where suitable, to share it.

On the point made by the right hon. Member for East Ham and others about temporary accommodation, it is, of course, an important way of ensuring that no family is without a roof over their heads. We are committed to reduce that need for temporary accommodation by preventing homelessness. We are investing £366 million into the homelessness prevention grant to support local authorities to prevent homelessness. The key point, and our main duty, is how best to support people so that they are not in that situation. I very much understand that, and I am keen to respond about how we are trying to do a little more about that.

It is important for Members to understand that the local housing allowance is not intended to cover all rents in all areas. In April 2020, in direct response to the covid-19 pandemic and the influx of new claimants because of the pandemic, we increased local housing rates to the 30th percentile of local market rates, costing nearly £1 billion and giving claimants on average an extra £600 in 2020-21. We have maintained that increase since then, ensuring that all those who benefited from the increase continue to do so.

I recognise that there are circumstances where extra help is needed, which is where we distribute the discretionary housing payments according to local need. Those payments play a critical role in providing support to the most vulnerable households in meeting their housing costs. Since 2010, we have provided nearly £1.6 billion in DHP funding to local authorities.

Of course, the competitive nature of the private rented market is driving up prices, alongside the annual review of LHA rates. I say to the hon. Member for Westminster North and the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham, we are absolutely determined to work around the quality and supply challenges that are ultimately driving that. Overall, the DWP Budget measures today represent £3.5 billion over the next five years to boost workforce participation.

In conclusion—

I will wind up. I take all the points from hon. Members from all around our wonderful nations today, and I am sorry I cannot tell them any more than that this issue is a very strong focus for me, and that we will continue, I hope, to work together for all our communities.

I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate; we have heard some very powerful evidence. I thank the Minister for her replies, as well. We will not let this be. Can I also say that other Members would have been here? I neglected to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) would have been here, but she had to attend a family funeral. There is a great deal more interest than we see here in the Chamber.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(4)).