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Westminster Hall

Volume 732: debated on Tuesday 2 May 2023

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 2 May 2023

[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

Marine Protected Areas

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Marine Protected Areas.

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I am grateful to have the opportunity to debate this issue again, which is one that I feel passionately about and I intend to keep pushing on.

This is not the first time I have pursued this matter on the Floor of the House. Two years ago, I brought forward a private Member’s Bill, the Marine Protected Areas (Bottom Trawling) Bill, with the objective of banning bottom trawling in marine protected areas. Since then, I have been pleased with what the Government have done. They have taken the first steps in the right direction by banning bottom trawling in areas that are particularly important. We were not able to do that when we were part of the common fisheries policy. That Government have made a good start, but while the intent is good, progress is not yet rapid enough and planned measures not extensive enough to provide adequate protection to key species around our shoreline.

I want to set out the measures that are essential if we are to protect and restore a thriving ecosystem around our shores. I do not believe that this needs to be done at the expense of the fishing industry—indeed, it must not be done at its expense. I see no reason why fishing boats from ports around the UK cannot continue to do the important job that they do today. What must stop is the situation where large, industrial-scale boats are able to scalp our seabeds, towing huge mechanisms behind them to hoover up marine life, without regard to what gets trapped in their nets. That is what has got to stop.

Outside the EU, we have a chance to pursue a different course. As we approach the review of the post-Brexit arrangements—that is not too far away now—we need to make sure that we do not leave nature behind when planning the future of the industry. The starting point is our marine protected areas. I have said it before: most people would be astonished to discover that marine protected areas are not really properly protected at all.

Despite measures to protect marine protected areas from damaging fishing gear, ecosystems were subjected to more than 130,000 hours of industrial fishing in 2022; 7,000 of them involved the use of destructive bottom-towed fishing gear. Does the right hon. Member agree that current Government measures are not sufficient to protect MPAs from detrimental fishing practices?

The hon. Member makes an important point about the nature of the equipment and the damage it does to the seabed. I think the Government have made a good start in the process, but there is a way to go.

I want all our marine protected areas to have the same protections that have been introduced to the Dogger Bank. I hope that, after this debate, the Minister and officials will get a move on. The job is not nearly completed. We now have the first four or five areas protected. The Dogger Bank is particularly important, and that is a good start, but every day of needless destruction in other marine protected areas causes more damage to our ecosystems, which will take years and years to restore.

My message to the Minister today, first and foremost, is that we need to get on with stopping these destructive practices altogether. That is why I have particularly focused on bottom trawling. If we destroy the seabed and the habitat of the creatures that live on it, we also deeply damage the food chain for the fish who live there. In doing so, we compound the problem for our fish stocks. To my mind, there is a benefit to the fishing industry in sorting out adequate, proper and appropriate protections for marine life. I do not believe that there are any fishing communities around the UK that want to destroy our fish stocks and create a situation where fishing is unsustainable.

We must prevent the most damaging practices—big industrial trawlers, often coming from continental ports, towing vast mechanisms behind them—simply scalping the seabed and leaving a trail of destruction. We have to take a wholly new approach to managing fish stocks and supporting the industry. As stocks diminish, the industry has had to go further and further afield to stay in business. Our focus therefore must be on helping our fish stocks to recover. Proper protection in marine protected areas is an essential part of that.

If people do not engage in damaging fishing practices and there is only limited scale local fishing, marine protected areas become a breeding ground for new fish. Those fish will spread outside of the protected areas. Fish stocks have shown signs of really recovering in the small number of highly protected marine areas around our shores, and in the waters around them. That approach is beneficial to the fishing industry as well as being of absolute importance to our natural ecosystems. We must step up our approach to restoring the marine environment and managing it well so that both nature and fishing can flourish.

My first ask of the Minister—it is one of a number—is to drive forward with bans on damaging fishing practices in marine protected areas. There really is no reason why that cannot be done in the current Parliament. Let us take responsibility. We have done some great things in government, including taking the legislative framework for nature protection further than it has ever been before. Before we get to a general election, let us be able to say to the country that we have completed the job, that we have provided those protections in the MPAs and that we have done what we started out to do. My message to the Minister is: please, let us get on with it.

We must also take a further step forward and provide even greater protections for our most important waters. As recommended by the Benyon review, I want to see highly protected marine areas around our shores. In such areas, no extractive activity is permitted, and nature can be left to its own devices. In the few areas around the UK where really tough protections have been put in place already, there has been a resultant rapid increase in local marine populations. That has happened only on a very small scale in the UK, but the results have been dramatic. It benefits the surrounding fisheries because if an area’s nature, fish stocks and ecosystems are given a chance to recover, surrounding areas have better fish stocks and healthier marine life. If we look after nature, the benefits work for everyone.

My second request to the Minister is this: let us move to designate our most important ecological areas as highly protected marine areas. If we ban all extractive activity in those areas to help them to recover, we will provide a real boost to the surrounding seas too. I say that fully in the knowledge that we must find a balance for the fishing industry; we cannot just close the fishing industry off from large areas of the waters that it has fished for centuries. However, it is also in the interests of the industry that there are patches where we provide complete protection.

The right hon. Gentleman is being sufficiently general in his terms that I do not think that anyone, even from the fishing industry, would disagree with him. However, he may want to look northwards to the experience of the Scottish Government with their consultation on highly protected marine areas. There is a great deal of advantage in hastening slowly in this area. The right hon. Gentleman really must bring fishing, coastal and island communities with him. Otherwise, he will end up doing something that is ultimately counterproductive to fish conservation. If the right hon. Gentleman can demonstrate the benefits in a small number of areas first, there will be more support from coastal and island communities.

I absolutely take on board the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the need to do this in stages. It is still more important to do this in partnership with the fishing industry and with fishing communities as well. Where there are highly protected marine areas, communities are seeing the benefits. I am not in favour of barging in and saying, “This area of sea that you currently use is closed from tomorrow.” Let us talk to them and work with them to designate areas in a way that works for those communities and for marine life. Let us not approach this on the basis that there should be no more marine protected areas or highly protected marine areas. This can be made to work for both sides.

The right hon. Gentleman has to bear this point in mind. He wants to exclude fishermen for rewilding purposes, but fishermen find themselves excluded from other fishing opportunities as well because of cables, pipelines, aquaculture and offshore renewables. It is a salami-slicing effect. Does he agree that if we are to be effective in creating marine protected areas, or highly protected marine areas, we have to look at it in the round, and not just the HPMAs in isolation?

I accept that we need to look strategically at all our waters to see what the right approach is, but I do not think this is something we can simply not do. The need to protect and restore the ecology around our shores is such that we must take bold steps, although we should take those steps fully aware of the potential impact on coastal communities, and work in full consultation with those communities to identify the best places on which to focus. This is not something we can avoid doing, or even try to avoid doing. We need to step up the pace to provide protections where it is appropriate and most important to do so.

I thank the right hon. Member for being generous and giving way again. The 2015 figures show that 341,000 people were employed full time in the marine economy, with sectors such as marine transport, defence and oil and gas among the largest employers. Does he agree that the Government must balance employment and environmental concerns to ensure that the UK marine economy moves forward in a sustainable manner?

I do not think that there is any contradiction between high-quality environmental protection and employment, and indeed the welfare of communities. It is paramount that we get the marine ecology piece right. We have done so much damage to nature in this country that, frankly, it is to our benefit and our children’s benefit that we start to turn back the clock.

I will touch on another area where there has been a loss that needs to be restored.

The right hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. Before he moves on to another point, I want to follow the previous interventions by accepting that the development of protected areas has to have the support of local fisherpeople. That was the experience of the sites off Lyme Regis and elsewhere in the country.

I am a member of the Science and Technology Committee. From time to time we and other Select Committees have called on the Government to be quicker in their implementation while consulting. Will the right hon. Gentleman, who is experienced in government, give us any insight as to why it has taken more than 10 years to develop the sites this far?

Most immediately, we are only recently free of the common fisheries policy, so it was never that straightforward. We now have the opportunity to get a move on, though. That is why I set a goal for Ministers for this Parliament. I see no reason why we cannot provide, in the course of this Parliament, a ban on bottom trawling in marine protected areas. It does huge damage to the seabed and to ecosystems. Most members of the public in this country, and frankly most people in coastal communities, will be amazed to discover that a large continental fishing boat dragging huge amounts of equipment behind it can scour the seabed. To my mind, that is the first priority. The second is to start looking at additional areas, as the Benyon review recommended, where localised no-take areas can be put in place to help the ecology recover.

My next point is about the seabed itself, which is crucial. We hear a lot about the need to plant trees and reforest degraded areas. As hon. Members know, I am passionate about my view that deforestation is a blight internationally and needs to be reversed. However, the loss of seabed habitats—kelp and seagrass—also has a big ecological impact, and we must deal with that as well. We have seen huge loss of seagrass beds around the world and around this country. Restoring and expanding the seagrass and kelp beds on our shores and under our waters is important because it helps local marine ecosystems and is a rather quicker way of absorbing carbon than planting a tree. The Government and all those who work in this field should be eagerly pursuing the opportunity for this country to contribute to our 2050 net zero goal by restoring the traditional kelp and seagrass beds around our shores.

My third request to the Minister is, therefore, for regulatory and financial support for those working to restore seagrass beds and kelp forests. We have lost 90% of our seagrass beds, with a corresponding loss of small marine creatures; many species are vulnerable to disappearing altogether. That would be a sensible, logical part of the good Government strategy over the coming decade of turning around the loss of nature in this country. Of course, there is a financial benefit too, and groups that work in this field have highlighted a number of areas where the UK can benefit financially from a smarter approach to marine protection, but it is not about money. It is just the right thing to do. It is also necessary to protect our future.

I very much hope that the Minister will follow up on all three of those requests, but I also want to touch on an area outside the United Kingdom: the future of the marine areas we do not control around the world. I pay tribute to the UK team that played an active part in the recent negotiations to secure the international agreement on the future of our oceans. As they did at the COP summit, the Government have continued to play a leading role internationally in seeking better protection for and the recovery of nature. That is clearly a very good thing, and Ministers and officials should take credit for it.

I commend the ethos behind the blue planet fund and the Government’s commitment to aid developing countries in protecting marine environments, but it is vital that the many workers in the microplastic industry are given the opportunity to transition into alternative jobs. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the blue planet fund must be inclusive and sensitive to the economic realities of developing countries?

We clearly have to be sensitive to the issues in developing countries, but they do not benefit from a damaged environment. I see this proposal as beneficial to everyone on the planet. I do not see any downside to living on a cleaner, greener planet. It will bring different kinds of job opportunities. There are many opportunities across the developing world—renewable energy is an opportunity in parts of the world that are hotter and windier than the UK—so it is not an either/or. There are benefits to pursuing an environmental strategy and an economic strategy.

International agreements are all well and good, but to make those strategies work, it is action that matters. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing around the world remains a huge problem, despite the international community’s readiness to talk positively about growing the number of marine protected areas around the world. That is a good thing, but those areas have to be protected. Illegal activity is doing real damage around the world. It is making fish stocks much less sustainable, and is having a big negative impact on smaller coastal communities. One of the key steps to deal with that problem and to protect our marine protected areas is to require every fishing vessel around the world to have satellite monitoring devices on board and to keep them switched on. Even in our own waters, boats occasionally go dark, but elsewhere it is a particular problem. I will be grateful if the Minister touches briefly on what the Government are and will be doing to address this issue.

There is also a job to be done onshore. I have long argued for a system of food labelling in this country that indicates clearly how sustainable the product and its supply chain are. A lot of the focus has been on products such as palm oil from south-east Asia and soy from Brazil, and we need to keep pushing on those issues. It is very much a current problem: recently, beef from deforested areas of Brazil ended up on Tesco shelves. We in this House should clearly keep the pressure up, to ensure that we bring about the right international pressure against deforestation, and that the Government do what they can to move us in the right direction.

We really have to step up progress on food labelling. When the Environment Act 2021 was before Parliament, I pushed the issue of moving towards a system of sustainable food labelling. Ministers made encouraging noises, and committed to doing work on that, which I know they are, although I want to see it happen straightaway, or pretty much straightaway. May I ask the Minister to give the Chamber an update on that work and on when we can expect a proper sustainable food labelling system to come to fruition? Unless and until we can demonstrate to consumers that the products they are buying are from sustainable sources, or that they are not, so consumers can take a decision not to buy them, we will not bring to bear the full weight of consumer power on this issue.

There are always limits to what Governments can do, but consumer power, harnessed in the right way, can probably make a bigger difference than any politician can. We need to bring the full strength of consumer power to bear on marine protection, environmental protection, combating deforestation, and creating a greener, more nature-friendly world. That is basically my message to the Minister. Let us get on with completing the work on banning bottom trawling from all marine protected areas. Let us start the process of going further in expanding highly protected areas, though not in a way that completely cripples the local fishing industry. Let us work with the industry to do that, but let us get a move on to make it happen. Let us do what we can around the world to turn the recent international agreements on illegal fishing into action.

Let us move to bring in sustainable food labelling in this country, and let us continue to focus, on both sides of the House, on the protection and restoration of nature, whether it is seagrass beds, kelp forests or the things that we need to do on land. This is an agenda that the nation increasingly feels passionate about. There is a real need for action before further damage is done, but the opportunity is enormous. We can make a real difference over the next decade, so my message to the Minister and the Government is please get on with it.

As always, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing the debate. I know that he is passionate about this issue. I agree with everything that he said, except the little blip about the common fisheries policy being responsible for everything; he would not expect me to agree on that.

It has been a long time since the last Labour Government drew up plans for an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas around our coast. Since then, I have served on the Environmental Audit Committee. We did really good reports into the fact that what we really had was a system of little more than paper parks, where protections were not properly enforced. It was far from coherent. Obviously, the Benyon review was important, but it seemed to me yet another way of kicking things into the long grass. We are still nowhere near the position in which we need to be.

I will focus on one specific point, and suggest one way of ensuring that marine protected areas are genuinely protected, not just now but in perpetuity, and not polluted or plundered for the sake of short-term gains. Rather than looking at what we should not do in those areas, I will look at positive interventions—what we can do to create more value in these areas and give more people a vested interest. I hope that people would be motivated by the need to protect the planet and a love of biodiversity and our marine environment, but we know that financial interests can be powerful, too. We heard in some of the interventions a worry about the economic impact of marine protected areas. I will talk about how they could attract financial investment. In doing so, I will talk specifically about seagrass, which the right hon. Member touched on.

At the moment, we do not really value seagrass. The UK has lost nearly half of our seagrass beds since the 1930s. Globally, they are declining by 7% a year. They are the fastest disappearing habitat on the planet. We hear a lot from climate campaigners about rainforests, because we can see them—they are not hidden under water—but seagrass is just as, if not more, important, and I will come on to say why. Boats anchoring, fishing activity and sewage are all damaging seagrass. One problem is that boat users do not actually know where the seagrass beds are, which is another point I will come on to.

We think that 98% of carbon stored in the UK’s seafloor is in areas with no trawling restrictions, and the right hon. Member focused on bottom trawling. I come back to the value of protecting our marine environment, in terms of carbon sequestration and the importance of nature-based solutions to climate change, and creating nature markets.

Seagrass is 35 times more efficient at absorbing carbon than rainforest, alongside its biodiversity benefits. The Marine Conservation Society says that the UK’s salt marshes, which are very much part of the mix, and seagrass beds have

“the carbon storage potential of between 1,000 and 2,000 km2 of tropical forests.”

Damaging that habitat comes at a huge environmental cost. According to the Climate Change Committee, the organic carbon stored in the soils of marine ecosystems is equivalent to around 17% of the UK’s total emissions. That was calculated in 2020. Damaging those ecosystems risks releasing all that carbon into the atmosphere. We need to protect our seagrass meadows and our seabeds, and we need to enhance them.

During the Easter recess, I went down to Plymouth and met the Ocean Conservation Trust at Plymouth’s National Marine Aquarium. Two weeks before that, I went to an event hosted by the Crown Estate on the launch of the blue carbon accelerator programme, which is really interesting. I met the Ocean Conservation Trust to hear about its seagrass programme, and what is needed to scale it up. It nurtures the seagrass plants onshore and then plants them on the seabed. Investment of around £5 million is needed to scale that up, of which the trust has raised £1 million.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) told me that a self-planting, self-replicating seagrass meadow has been discovered near his constituency, but the general feeling is that there is a need for onshore growing, followed by mechanical planting on the seabed—when I say mechanical, I mean divers going down and planting by hand.

In the first instance, creating more seagrass meadows would be about nature, such as creating breeding grounds for fish, and creating more biodiversity. That ties in with the points made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). We will not have a fishing industry if we take all the fish out of the sea. That is common sense; the debate in the past has been quite frustrating. We have to fish sustainably. Seagrass meadows are a wonderful breeding ground for the fish stocks of the future.

In the short term, seagrass meadows are about nature and biodiversity. In the longer term, the carbon sequestration benefits could also be huge, but there is a difficulty in evaluation at the moment. The Climate Change Committee has said that there are currently no estimates of carbon accumulation rates in UK seagrass ecosystems, and that UK-specific data is urgently needed. We also need a seagrass code, so that it can be properly accounted for.

Last month, we heard about the discovery of one of the UK’s largest seagrass beds off the coast of Cornwall, in St Austell bay. I was surprised—the seagrass bed is absolutely massive, it is not that far out from shore and it is not that deep; this is not like not knowing what is at the bottom of our very deepest oceans. The fact that it has remained undiscovered for so long shows how little we know about our marine environment, as opposed to what is on land.

Now that we have discovered that seagrass bed, we need to protect it. According to the joint report from the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Natural England, St Austell bay currently benefits from only one formal marine protected area designation, a special protection area. The report notes that:

“Understanding the current legislative processes and that further formal designations are unlikely to be assigned to this site in the near future, Cornwall Wildlife Trust recommends that a whole site approach for the management of the SPA is considered thus protecting the associated habitats, in this case the seagrass and maerl, from damaging marine activity, such as bottom-towed fishing.”

The authors of the report said that a lack of funding limited their survey work, so what support can the Minister give people who are carrying out valuable work such as that and trying to discover exactly what we have around our shores? There is potentially a really big benefit from making the initial outlay, finding out what we have and then being able to place a proper value on it.

The Office for National Statistics conservatively valued the annual carbon sequestration of our marine and coastal ecosystems at £57.5 billion, which means that the UK seabed is more valuable as a carbon sink than as a source of fossil fuels and fishing.

A report by the Marine Conservation Society, Deloitte, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation—[Interruption.] I have a very on-brand cup here, from Surfers Against Sewage—contrasts the mechanisms and voluntary carbon markets that support investment in terrestrial nature solutions, not least the woodland code and the peatland code, with the

“significant lack of existing or scalable mechanisms…to incentivise or mandate private sector investment in ocean restoration.”

That goes back to what I said about the need for a seagrass code and the progress being made on the saltmarsh code. I have been told at events such as the one at the Crown Estate, which I mentioned, that there is plenty of private sector financing available for blue carbon projects. The problem is a lack of projects to invest in, a lack of data and a lack of certainty. We need to improve monitoring, verification and reporting. As the MCS report said:

“Without robust scientific data, creating investable ocean projects and markets is problematic.”

Last year, the Climate Change Committee recommended that saltmarsh and seagrass be included in the greenhouse gas inventory, and called for a roadmap to identify the additional data required to enable that to happen. In response, the Government accepted that there were

“significant data gaps surrounding emissions from coastal wetlands (including saltmarsh and seagrass habitats), activity data regarding extraction activities, and habitat extent which hinder the accurate reporting of emissions from these habitats.”

The Government said that such information must be collected before a decision on inclusion in the greenhouse gas inventory can be made.

As I understand it, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has established a cross-Administration UK blue carbon evidence partnership to make progress on the evidence base for blue carbon, and I hope that the Minister can give us an update on how that is going. I also remind her that she promised me a meeting when, at DEFRA questions, I asked how the Department was working with the newly created Department for Energy Security and Net Zero on nature-based solutions. I would like to gently chase her up on that, because it would be really useful to see how we can make progress.

I have talked about the positive side—the potential—and now I want to flag up something that is very worrying. This was contained in the briefing sent to MPs today by Uplift, an organisation that provides the secretariat for the all-party group for climate change. Some 900 locations in the UK’s oceans have been offered as sites of development for oil and gas extraction in the latest offshore oil and gas licensing round, and more than a third of them clash with marine protected areas. I do not expect the Minister to comment on the Government’s dash for more fossil fuel extraction—I know that is a matter for another Department—but she should be very concerned about the overlap with marine protected areas.

If this is approved by the Government, the UK’s largest undeveloped oil field, Rosebank, will have a pipeline through the Faroe-Shetland sponge belt marine protected area, potentially harming this fragile ecosystem. It is a shame that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is not still present, because he might have wanted to intervene on me on that issue. This habitat is already assessed as being in an unfavourable condition, and efforts should be under way to recover it, not to approve a new oil and gas development. Modelling shows that a major oil spill from Rosebank could risk serious impact to at least 16 UK marine protected areas, so I hope that we can hear something from the Minister on how the desire to protect marine protected areas—which I am sure she will tell us all about—squares with what another Government Department is seeking to do in terms of our future energy use.

It is a real pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. It is good to be back in Westminster Hall to discuss such an important topic, and I thank the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for his interest in this matter and for bringing it before the House. I am pleased to see his progress—I hope that he will continue his journey of enlightenment and that we will see him on our Benches before too long. 

This is a busy week for many across the House who represent communities who will be exercising their democratic right on Thursday. I am sure that if this debate was on at any other time, we would have seen a lot more Members taking part. Mindful of parliamentary convention, and the visit that Parliament received this morning, I extend my best wishes, and those of the Opposition and the people of Newport West, to all those involved in the coronation.

We are an island nation, and our seas, oceans, rivers and lakes have been at the core of what we are as a country for generations. As well as their economic power, our seas and oceans support a range of diverse marine ecosystems. They provide rich biodiversity and act as important carbon stores, as has been made clear this afternoon.

It is a matter of no surprise to anyone sitting here, or any of the millions of people throughout our country, that our marine environment and the creatures and species that call it home now face innumerable threats from human activity. That is made worse by inaction when it comes to cleaning and protecting our waters. We can all see the damage caused by waste and toxins from dredging and dragging the seabed, which also destroys corals, maerls and sandbanks. I suspect that all colleagues across the House will agree that marine protected areas are an important tool in safeguarding our ocean’s future. It is important that we are focused, committed and ambitious in how we protect our natural waters.

In advance of this debate, I received a very helpful briefing from the Marine Conservation Society, and I pay tribute to it for all the work it does to raise awareness and campaign to secure real policy change. In the briefing, it was noted that on the 28 February 2023, DEFRA announced three new highly protected marine areas: Allonby bay in the Irish sea; Dolphin Head in the channel; and the north east of Farnes Deep in the North sea. That is to be welcomed, but, as ever, it is simply not enough. Those sites represent less than 0.5% of English seas, and I urge the Minister to break the 13-year-long habit and show the ambition needed to respond to the climate and nature crises that we see all around us.

Marine protected areas play a vital role in combating climate change. We know that healthy seas enable the sequestration and storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide, as I touched on and as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) expanded on eloquently—I do not propose to go over what she already said. When blue carbon habitats, such as seaweed and seagrass ecosystems, are degraded and the seabed is disturbed, stored carbon is released back into the water column and could re-enter the atmosphere. By protecting and rewilding our marine environments, we can keep carbon locked in the ocean through increased numbers and biomass of marine species and healthier marine habitats.

Marine ecosystems will play a key role if the UK is to meet its ambitions for net zero by 2050, particularly as the UK has one of the world’s largest exclusive economic zones and governs substantially more marine territory than terrestrial. The area of UK MPAs is 27% greater than that of the entirety of the UK land area. As such, by making MPAs rich with life, we will materially help carbon storage on a massive scale.

I would be grateful if the Minister outlined where discussions regarding the UK’s largest undeveloped oil field, Rosebank, are now, as the hon. Member for Bristol East asked. I suspect the Minister will share the concerns that, if approved, a pipeline will be installed right through the Faroe-Shetland sponge belt marine protected area. That would potentially harm an already fragile ecosystem and the creatures within it, such as quahogs—who knew there was such a thing?—a type of clam that can live for hundreds of years. The area is visited by numerous species of dolphin and whales, as well as multiple species of seabirds, and commercial species, such as haddock. The habitat is already assessed as being in an unfavourable condition, and efforts should be under way to recover it as best as possible.

Climate change is already having severe impacts on the world’s oceans, but oil and gas developments can have direct impacts, including: pollution from oil spills; the release of toxic chemicals through exploration, drilling and infrastructure decommissioning; the release of microplastic waste; and noise from seismic blasting. Will the Minister outline what safeguards will be put in place to mitigate any negative impact?

The matter of marine protected areas is an important one, so I thank the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell for bringing it before us today. I want to be clear that Labour wants to see—and we will deliver—a bold and comprehensive plan to protect and clean our waters. We all know that healthy seabeds are home to many species, and we need to see a broader programme of ocean and sea renewal. Will the Minister outline in clear terms her policy on ocean and sea renewal? I am happy for her to write to me, if she would prefer to do that.

I would also be grateful if she could outline what discussions—and when they took place—she has had with the First Minister and the Environment Minister in Wales, the Cabinet Secretary and First Minister in Scotland, and officials in the Northern Ireland Office and Northern Ireland civil service about her proposals for ocean renewal. As all parts of our United Kingdom are bordered by sea, it is vital that comprehensive discussion takes place across devolved Governments.

Globally, saltmarsh and seagrass beds alone can store up to 450 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. That is almost half the emissions of the entire global transport industry. Imagine what more we can do to preserve our planet and protect our environment by doing just a little bit more and going a little bit further, faster. Restoring and protecting key marine ecosystems can lock up billions of tonnes of carbon each year—as much as 5% of the savings needed globally. A sustained programme of ocean renewal must be part of any plan to tackle the climate emergency. It is time the Minister started to implement this plan, and fast.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Mr Sharma. Although this topic does not fall under my brief at DEFRA, but rather that of my noble Friend Lord Benyon in the other place, I am pleased to represent his responsibilities today and to respond to a real champion for the environment in Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) has spoken on this subject and submitted parliamentary questions many times. I pay tribute to his advocacy for the marine environment in particular.

Marine protected areas are of particular importance to DEFRA because we recognise that they are one of the many tools in the toolkit to protect the wide range of precious and sensitive habitats, which all Members have recognised the importance of. We have created more than 100 MPAs since 2010, and now have 178, covering around 40% of English waters. MPAs protect specific habitats and species within the designated site, so that those features can recover to a favourable condition.

As set out in the environmental improvement plan published on 31 January, we have targets to ensure that percentages reach those favourable conditions. We are focusing on MPAs because we recognise that they are a vital part of the story. It is essential that they are robustly protected, as has been eloquently said today, otherwise they will do no good at all. I hope I can set out how we are protecting them, outline the progress that has been made, answer Members’ points and possibly commit to writing to hon. Members where more detailed responses are required.

The EIP—environmental improvement plan—describes how fisheries byelaws in the first four offshore MPAs came into force last year, providing protection from bottom-towed fishing gear. The Marine Management Organisation is working speedily, has consulted this year on protections for a further 13 MPAs and is now analysing responses to that consultation. We aim to have all necessary byelaws in place in our MPAs to protect them from damaging fishing activity by the end of 2024. Since we are no longer bound by the common fisheries process, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell rightly pointed out, we will be able to make more progress. The Marine Management Organisation and the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities have engaged fully with the fishing industry and other stakeholders, and will continue to do so. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) rightly referred to the importance of working with the fishing industry, and all Members agreed.

I will set out some of the financial support that has been given to the fishing sector. We have allocated £32.7 million a year to support the UK seafood sector through to 2024-25. That settlement enables each of the four fishing Administrations of the UK to invest in their industries by delivering financial support schemes tailored to the specific needs of their sectors. In addition, the £100 million UK seafood fund was announced on Christmas eve 2020, following the conclusion of the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU. The fund was set up to support the long-term future and sustainability of the UK fisheries and seafood sector.

I will give just a couple of examples of how the fisheries sector is being supported to transition. As I mentioned, the targets set out in the environmental improvement plan are published, and we have a statutory target to have 70% of designated features in MPAs in a favourable condition by 2042, with the remainder in a recovering condition. Our analysis shows that by putting in place by 2024 the MPA byelaws that I have mentioned we will be able to meet our interim statutory target of 48% of designated features in MPAs being in a favourable condition, with the remainder in a recovering condition, by 2028.

I thank the Minister for giving way; I am very grateful for her time today. She has talked a lot about the targets, and we all agree that we need to have objectives, but what about enforcement? I am listening carefully to her speech. What enforcement will be done? How will the enforcement be undertaken? I am not clear at the moment how we will protect the MPAs. Having them on paper is great, but we need to protect them.

Earlier the hon. Member mentioned a potential oil and gas project. This is one example of how we will ensure that environmental concerns are fundamental to any approval. Clearly, that will be the responsibility of the Scottish Government, but the assessment is being done by OPRED, the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning, which is part of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero. In response to the hon. Member’s specific question about the regulation and perhaps any penalties that will be enforced, I would appreciate it if she would allow me or my noble Friend in the other place to write to her. We use a mix of strategies. The MMO ensures compliance by desk-based reviews of fishing vessel trackers and also site-based inspection, but I recognise that the hon. Member really wants to understand the regulatory and penalty process.

Following the work of my right hon. Friend Lord Benyon and the consultation last year, we have announced that we will be designating the first three pilot highly protected marine areas by 6 July and will explore additional sites later this year. These are areas of the sea that will allow for the highest level of protection in our waters and full recovery of marine ecosystems, and will exclude all fishing. For highly protected marine areas to be successful, we will need to work hand in hand with the fishing industry, other marine industries and sea users in designating, managing and monitoring them. I hope that that demonstrates the Government’s ambition to restore our marine environment with strengthened protections.

We need to do all we can in a way that helps to deliver a thriving and sustainable fishing industry alongside a healthy marine environment, as set out in our joint fisheries statement. We recognise that there are growing spatial tensions between industries such as fishing, the renewable energy sector, dredging, and the oil and gas industry, alongside the need to conserve and enhance our marine environment.

“Bottom trawling” is a broad term describing methods of pulling fishing gear along the seabed to catch fish and/or shellfish. Bottom trawls are used by all parts of the fishing fleet, from small day boats to large offshore vessels. It is important to recognise that approximately 30% of the tonnage and 45% of the value of fish landed by UK vessels in 2021—that includes cod, plaice and scallop—came from bottom trawling.

Bottom trawling and other fishing methods will be stopped only where they are having a negative impact on the habitats or species protected by each MPA. For example, netting and potting are allowed to continue in many MPAs, including Dogger Bank—which has been discussed today—given that they do not have the same impacts as bottom trawling. Bottom trawling can continue in parts of the Inner Dowsing, Race Bank and North Ridge MPA, which does not contain protected features such as Sabellaria reefs, which are sensitive to bottom trawling.

A blanket ban on bottom trawling in all MPAs, which some are calling for, has the appeal of simplicity, but in some cases would involve unnecessary restrictions. We are determined to protect our MPAs as properly as possible, but want to do so in ways that will not involve unnecessary impacts on activities such as fishing. Ensuring that all vessels, including those under 12 metres in length, have inshore vessel monitoring systems installed will enable more efficient decisions on local and national management measures and policies.

The Marine Management Organisation and the inshore fisheries and conservation authorities have embarked on a programme of detailed site-by-site assessments of each MPA. Each assessment is informed by scientific advice on what types of fishing can take place. Byelaws are then designed accordingly, restricting those types of fishing found to be an issue in each site. I recognise that this detailed approach takes more time than a blanket ban, but it is well worth it to avoid unnecessary impacts on our fishing industry.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell referenced illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. That provides me with an opportunity to provide an update on the situation. We stand proudly on a global stage; my right hon. Friend mentioned the COPs, and a number of global collaborations and agreements. At the 2022 United Nations Ocean Conference, the UK, US and Canada launched the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Action Alliance, which brings together state and non-state actors to tackle the illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing of which my right hon. Friend spoke. Through committing to implement international agreements, promote active monitoring, control and surveillance, and encourage transparency and data sharing, the IUU-AA—a mouthful, Mr Sharma —is growing in momentum, and it has recently welcomed the EU, Chile, Panama and New Zealand to its membership.

The UK’s blue belt ocean shield aims to tackle the challenges of IUU fishing and unlawful marine activities around the UK overseas territories, using innovative technology. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell said, that technology will be critical in this fight. Through surveillance techniques, alongside comprehensive compliance and enforcement frameworks, territories are ensuring that over 4.3 million square kilometres of ocean are protected under this measure.

We will continue to work with the industry to ensure it meets the requirements of the regulation and avoids those illegal, unreported and unregulated methods, as my right hon. Friend set out. The Marine Management Organisation and IFCAs have embarked on that programme. The site-based protection does not mitigate potential impacts from these vessels on the targeted, highly migratory stocks. Although most of what those vessels fish is covered by coastal state quota allocations, the Government are looking closely at what our policies for them should be. It is important that those decisions are based on evidence and that we work with the fishing sector.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell also asked me for an update on labelling. I am afraid I do not have specific information on the sustainability of seafood labelling, but will happily write to him on that point. He is correct that we are taking action under the forest risk commodities provisions to ensure that products bought in this country have not contributed to illegal deforestation. That same kind of sustainability must also be in place for seafood and the like, so I will endeavour to provide that information.

We do have seafood labelling that means that seafood must be traceable from catch—or harvest—to the point of retail sale. In England, the MMO is responsible for ensuring seafood traceability from catch to first point of sale. That is currently achieved through a range of controlled measures requiring the submission of data by both fishers and merchants. Traceability provides assurance to consumers and associated benefits to all fully compliant agents within the industry supply chain.

Finally—I hope that I have covered all points so far—we have taken huge strides in protecting and recovering precious marine life. I would like to be able to say more about seagrass and kelp, which the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned, but I am afraid that I will have to write to her because I do not have the information to hand. I was particularly interested to learn about her examples off the shores of Cornwall and Plymouth. When we arrange the meeting I promised a couple of weeks ago—which I will absolutely ensure happens—perhaps she could be bring me further details, as I would certainly like to understand more about the benefits of seagrass and how we can support those organisations.

Highly protected marine areas will ensure that the UK plays its part in achieving the global 30 by 30 target. More broadly, we are also taking steps outside of protected areas, such as our consultation on banning the industrial fishing of sand eels and our progress on our six frontrunner fisheries management plans. I have set out the impressive rate of progress over the 178 marine protected areas, but there is always more to do. For further reading, I always recommend the environmental improvement plan—all 262 pages of it—which covers the 10 goals across DEFRA to ensure that we leave this environment in a better place than we found it in.

This has been a helpful and informative debate. As the Minister said, the noble Lord Benyon holds this portfolio, but she will no doubt be assiduous in communicating the nature of what has been said to her colleague—as I am sure the officials will too—so I am grateful to her for stepping in and making some very helpful points.

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones); I am not on a journey. Conservatives are, by nature, conservative, and I do not think that there is much contradiction in being Conservative and being focused on conservation—they do rather go together.

Since 2010, this Government have been to places that no previous Government have been, by putting in place measures that will be needed to reverse the loss of wildlife in this country. However, as the Minister says, although it is a good start, there is a long way to go and there is always more to do. The purpose of this debate is really to give DEFRA a hefty nudge. I know that officials like to take their time to go through the responses and work thoroughly to prepare the strategies, but we do need to get on with this. Of course, there is likely to a major political event next year, and it would be very nice, by the time that we get to that, to be able to point to some real further steps in marine protected areas.

When arguing for change, I have always been careful not to say that a ban on bottom trawling in MPAs should be absolute; there will, of course, be localised exceptions for small boats—DEFRA can work with that—but I do not buy the argument that a blanket ban is wrong. I would prefer a blanket ban with some thoughtful exceptions rather than a whole paraphernalia of stuff that eventually, step by step by step, gets to something approximating a ban. Let’s do it the other way around: let’s look at where we need the exceptions and get on with it. Every week or month that goes past sees a continued degradation in too many areas, particularly from large industrial ships.

I agree with the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Newport West, on enforcement. We really need to get that right. I would like to see some measures to ban from UK waters all together vessels, such as big industrial trawlers, that break the rules when the ban is in place. I hope we will see proper enforcement and real consequences, so that people do not break the rules.

As I have said, this has been a good start—with a long way to go. We need a bit of a foot on the accelerator, as we cannot afford to wait longer for the measures that need to be taken. I have set out today some things that I want to see happen, but my message to Ministers is this: thank you for listening, but please accelerate now, because, both politically and naturally—in conservation terms—time is not on our side.

Question put and agreed to. 


That this House has considered Marine Protected Areas.

Sitting suspended.

Vaping: Under-18s

I beg to move,

That this House has considered vaping among under-18s.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and it is great to welcome many colleagues from across the House to this important debate. I completely recognise that vaping has a vital role to play in supporting adults to give up tobacco smoking. However, vaping is a public good only if it is helping people to end addictions that they already have, not creating new ones, especially in our vulnerable young folk.

It is not an exaggeration to say that we are seeing an epidemic among our young people, which can be attributed to an increasingly popular and powerful market for disposable vapes. Action on Smoking and Health—ASH —said in its survey of 11 to 17-year-olds in Great Britain that 15.8% of 11 to 17-year-olds had tried vaping in 2022, up from 11.2% in 2021. It also said that in 2022, 7% of 11 to 17-year-olds were current users of vapes, up from 3.3% in 2021.

It is currently illegal for young people under 18 to purchase vapes. Does my hon. Friend agree that we have a problem implementing the existing regulations, rather than anything else?

I completely agree, and I want to stress that key point: it is illegal to sell vapes to under-18s. I will be asking the Minister about that. I know that the Government are moving on it, and we need to address it going forward.

Similarly, an NHS survey in 2021 said that 9% of 11 to 15-year-olds, and 18% of 15-year-olds, had used vapes. Those are alarming statistics. ASH England also noted that the most frequently used e-cigarettes among young people are disposable vapes, with an astonishing increase from 7.7% in 2021 to 52% in 2022. Although this is not the main focus of my speech, I will point out that, quite aside from the health concerns associated with such a marked rise in the sale and consumption of disposable vapes, they are a major environmental concern, with over 1 million of them thrown away every week. It is estimated that the lithium used in those batteries equates to about 10 tonnes of lithium per year, which is equivalent to the lithium used in approximately 1,200 electric vehicle batteries.

My hon. Friend will be aware of my ten-minute rule Bill to ban disposable vapes for exactly the reasons he has described: the effects on children’s health particularly, and on the environment. Does he agree that the Government should support the Bill?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I thank her for intervening and I welcome her medical expertise in this debate.

I have touched on some of the environmental concerns, and there are also concerns about fires related to disposable vapes. However, at the heart of my speech is the impact that such a frightening level of vape use is having on our young people, even as young as primary age. I urge our policymakers not to underestimate it. There are increasing reports suggesting that the use of vapes has negative effects on heart and lung health, and may be associated with tooth and gum disease. Other issues reported include coughs, shortness of breath and headaches. Nicotine, which these products often contain, is highly addictive with potentially harmful effects on the adolescent brain, which is still developing.

Enforcement is absolutely vital in this industry, but does my hon. Friend agree that there is a danger of demonising vaping for adult smokers? Vaping is 95% risk free, according to ASH, which he has mentioned, the British Heart Foundation, the British Lung Foundation, Public Health England and so on. It is therefore a vital part of a smoker’s ability to come off tobacco use. It quite literally saves lives, and therefore should be promoted to smokers.

I totally agree. As I said, the use of vaping to help adults get away from tobacco smoking has significant health benefits, but today we are talking about stamping out its use by people who are not trying to give up smoking. We are trying to protect our young people, but I totally concur with my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend is being very generous in taking interventions. I concur with his last point, but does he agree that one of the issues that we face is advertising? Vapes are stacked up like sweeties in all sorts of outlets, which presents them as rather benign and makes them attractive to younger users.

I totally concur. My hon. Friend has read my mind: I am about to talk about the advertising, the colourful labelling, the fruit flavours and so on, which draw in young people.

I have asked a number of parliamentary questions about vaping, and the recurrent theme in the Government’s answers is that they acknowledge that vapes are not risk free, and that nicotine is highly addictive and can be harmful. Some studies suggest that vaping among young people can be a gateway to risky behaviour such as drinking and tobacco smoking, which would be a perverse thing to happen. Vaping is supposed to get adults off smoking, but if it is leading young people into smoking, that is not a good thing.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech about the detriment to health of vaping for under-18s. He mentioned a study, but does he agree that there is not sufficient research on under-18s, so we do not know exactly how safe or unsafe these products are?

I agree. That is exactly right: there is a paucity of data. I will ask the Government and the Department of Health and Social Care to create the datasets so that we can make evidence-based decisions.

Concerningly, ASH Scotland suggests that children with mental health issues including mood disorders and eating disorders, who are among the most vulnerable people in society, are potentially more likely to use vapes. That is a real concern. I am passionate about mental health, especially among our young people, and I urge the Government to continue to protect the most vulnerable. That has been the hallmark of this compassionate Conservative Government.

Anecdotally, we hear much about the impact of these products. We hear reports of children’s sleep patterns being disrupted. They set their alarms for 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock in the morning so that they can vape in the middle of the night to avoid withdrawal symptoms the next day. At school, there have been reports of students leaving lessons and even walking out of examinations because they simply cannot last without the use of a vape. If vaping is having a detrimental impact on our young children’s life chances, this is a matter not merely of health but of social and educational development. One teacher in my constituency noted that the issue is so widespread that vapes are being illicitly traded in the school playground.

I want to touch on the marketing of vapes to under-18s, as colleagues have done. A particular issue with the vaping market is the flagrant targeting of under-18s as potential consumers through trendy advertising on social media. Products are promoted with bright colours and inviting fruit flavours—sweet flavours such as mango, bubblegum and cherry ice.

The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities annual review of vaping reveals that 39% of ex-smokers use fruit-flavoured vapes, against 17% who use tobacco. There absolutely are issues with marketing, advertising and presentation to young people, but does my hon. Friend agree that an overly simplistic blanket ban of flavours might have the serious unintended consequence of preventing some potential vapers from vaping, meaning that they would carry on smoking and thus massively increasing their chances of an early death?

Again, this is about the differentiation between adult use of vaping products and young people’s use of vaping products.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for making such an excellent speech. Does he agree that recruiting a new generation of addicts is the business model that the industry has forever driven, no matter whether the product kills or harms? The industry itself needs to be tackled on the issue.

I agree with the hon. Member. The industry needs to take a close look at itself, but it is also the case that a lot of the vapes that are ending up with children are coming through illicit means. We need to have a targeted approach to look at how best we can prevent our young people from accessing those products.

My hon. Friend made a very good point about advertising. We need to get across the nuanced message that vaping may be beneficial to people who want to quit smoking—although I would argue that it could become an alternative addiction rather than a stop-smoking aid—but we must also prevent children from using vapes. In the past, nuanced advertising for formula milk stated that breast milk was better at the beginning but that formula milk was a reasonable alternative for six month olds. Could a form of words be used in vaping adverts to make it clear that the products should be for people who smoke, not for those who do not?

I agree with my hon. Friend that if we can get more nuance into the advertising and labelling of vapes, that would help articulate to people the benefits of using them for the legitimate purpose of getting off tobacco smoking. It could also serve as a stern warning that young people should not take the products, because of their significant health risks. As ASH notes, 57% of e-cigarette use among 11 to 17-year-olds involves fruit flavours. Clearly and deliberately, the marketing of fruit-flavoured and trendy products is driving demand among our young people. We need to be very careful.

Aside from the nicotine, there are questions over whether the flavourings and chemicals inhaled also impact on the health risks to people who vape. For instance, in 2019 The American Journal of Physiology: Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology reported that the flavouring chemical cinnamaldehyde was associated with decreased mucociliary clearance in the respiratory tract due to dysregulation of mitochondrial function. That presents a compelling case to treat this issue as an urgent priority and, as the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) has said, to gather much-needed data in the area. We can then demonstrate the reality of what dangers our young people are potentially being exposed to in the long term.

As one teacher in my constituency has noted, the prevailing view seems to be that the use of such products is completely harmless. As the evidence I have mentioned suggests, however, that is very much not the case, as has also been acknowledged by health experts and, indeed, the Government.

Worse still, the potential impacts assume that the products are being sold in accordance with Government regulations. However, we have seen an increase in illicit and non-compliant trade of e-cigarettes. Checks on imports of these products find that regulations are regularly flouted, including higher numbers of puffs per vape and higher nicotine levels than those permitted. That also demonstrates that any Government action needs to remember online trading as well, not just physical sales in shops.

The Government are tackling the problem. I welcome the recent announcements by the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), but I believe that the emerging reality of the dangerous effects that vaping may be having on our young people presents a compelling case for Government to act and move forward on the issue. His intervention on the subject last month was a welcome and major step, and a clear signal that this Government recognise the severity of the issue.

To successfully tackle a failure in any market, a holistic approach focused on both supply and demand needs to be examined. I am, therefore, heartened that that is exactly the line of travel that the Government are taking in their call for evidence on vaping plans. They are focusing not just on illegal sales, which is vital, but on what is driving up demand among our young people, such as the influence of advertising and social media. I strongly encourage those who are watching this debate, and people at large, to take part in that call for evidence, so that we can collate more data. I am thinking in particular of those who are seeing the impact at first hand, such as those involved in schools.

As I have raised with the Ministry of Justice, it is imperative that unscrupulous sellers of vapes to under-18s should feel the full force of the law if they break it. I therefore welcome the Government’s announcement of £3 million for an illicit vapes enforcement taskforce to tackle those who are illegally selling vapes to our young people, but also to look out for products that should not be on our shelves. It is an important reminder that laws are effective only if there is the determination and resources to enforce them.

To summarise, although vaping has an important part to play in supporting adults to quit tobacco smoking for good, it must not come at the cost of creating new addictions and health issues in our young people. I am very pleased that the Government recognise the severity of this issue and are acting with compassion by acting for those most vulnerable to serious harm. It must be a priority for our health policy, and in fulfilling our commitment to young people we must tackle this real threat to them and to gather information on the potential long-term effects of these products.

I know that my hon. Friend is nearing the end of his remarks. Everybody in the Chamber acknowledges that the problem he has identified is that these products are getting into the hands of young people. He has already praised the work that the Government are doing, but what more should they be doing to prevent these products from getting into the hands of the wrong people?

I look forward to hearing from the Minister what he and the Government are going to do. Calling for evidence and having a taskforce is a good starting point, but I think that is just a staging post. We need to do more by tackling the advertising and making sure that the labelling is sufficient. The health warnings on cigarette packets are quite alarming now, and tobacco products are kept behind closed cabinets in outlets. We need to be moving in that direction, so that vapes are not like sweeties on shelves for our young kids. That is the real issue: they are appealing, colourful and fruit-flavoured products, and people think, “Do you know what? I’d like to have a try of this.” That is where people are slipping into this problem.

I fear that our young people face a public health ticking timebomb, and we as a Parliament and as a society must address it as a priority. I welcome colleagues’ interventions today, and I look forward to hearing more from the Minister about what steps the Government are going to take to tackle this very important issue.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) for securing this very important and timely debate on youth vaping, and for his excellent speech. Lots of Members have made important contributions to policy in this area, and I pay tribute to them for that, as well as for their contributions today.

Until recently, our regulations—including on the minimum age of sale, advertising restrictions and the cap on nicotine levels—have been reasonably effective at keeping the rate of vaping among under-18s low. However, over the last 18 months we have seen a surge in the use and promotion of cheap, colourful products that do not always comply with our regulations, and there has been a sharp increase in the number of children vaping. NHS figures show that 9% of 11 to 15-year-old children used e-cigarettes in 2021—up from 6% in 2018. That is a big concern, because there is every reason to think that the rate has continued to go up.

We know that vapes are not risk-free. Nicotine is highly addictive and can be harmful, and there are unanswered questions about the effects of long-term use, as the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) pointed out. Our message is very clear: vapes should not be used by people under the age of 18, or by non-smokers. That is why I announced on 11 April that we are stepping up our efforts to stop kids getting hooked on vaping. First, we launched a call for evidence on youth vaping to identify opportunities to reduce the number of children accessing and using vape products, and to explore where the Government can go further. That call for evidence explores a range of issues, including how we ensure regulatory compliance, the appearance and characteristics of vapes, the marketing and promotion of them, and the role of social media. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) rightly talked about them being stacked up like sweeties, and that concerns me, too. On the other hand, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) warned that this is not a straightforward matter to regulate, and pointed out the need to avoid counterproductive changes that stop people swapping from smoking to vaping.

Our call for evidence will also seek to ensure that we understand the vaping market better. It will look at such issues as the price of low-cost products. The call for evidence also considers the environmental impact of vapes, particularly the disposable ones that have become so appealing to young people.

The Minister is talking about the environmental impact. How closely is he working with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs colleagues to ensure recycling, and to ensure a circular economy in the precious metals mentioned, which must be brought back into the economy?

Closely. I am also listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson), who has led discussion on the subject through her ten-minute rule Bill. She is right to be concerned about the environmental impact of disposable products. The proportion of young people using those disposable products has gone up from 8% in 2021 to 52% by 2022. Clearly, they are an important part of youth vaping.

We have heard a few calls for vaping products to be placed with tobacco products. Does the Minister agree that there is a danger in connecting vaping with tobacco to such a degree? It is not surprising that a disproportionately high number of people in this country believe that vaping is just as bad as smoking. People are put off going from smoking to vaping as a consequence. Should we not separate vaping from smoking wherever possible?

My hon. Friend is right, and I will come to that in a moment. The call for evidence that I talked about will be open for the next eight weeks, and we hope that everyone concerned will take the opportunity to share their views and put evidence in, to shape our future approach.

Absolutely, and I hope people will put in evidence on that. I will touch in a moment on something else we are doing. In the speech I mentioned, I announced the new specialised illicit vaping flying squad, a team to tackle under-age vape sales and illicit products that young people are accessing. It will hold companies to account and enforce rules.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for vaping (e-cigarettes), said that we must enforce the rules, and he is absolutely right. That is why we are providing £3 million in new funding to Trading Standards, which will help share knowledge and intelligence around the country. The squad will undertake test purchasing, so that we find out who is selling to young people. It will disrupt illicit supply, and will also do work on organised crime gangs. It will remove illegal products, not just from our shelves but at our borders. It will undertake more testing to ensure compliance with our rules, bolstering the capacity of Trading Standards. Companies that fail to comply with the law will be held accountable.

It is important that we teach young people about the risks of vaping. That is why we have published new content on the potential risks of vaping for young people on the FRANK and Better Health websites. We have also provided extra input into educational resources produced by partners, including the PSHE Association.

The Government has an objective to be smoke-free by 2030—that is, to get down to 5% of people smoking. Is the Minister concerned that if we continue to talk about the dangers and harms that may be associated with vaping, we are in grave danger of providing a disincentive for smokers to switch to a much safer alternative?

My hon. Friend has pre-empted my next paragraph almost perfectly. I was about to say that although we want to ensure that children do not take up vaping, vaping can play an important part in achieving our ambition of a smoke-free England by 2030. Vaping is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we do not want children to develop an addiction to any substance at a young age, but on the other, it is substantially less harmful than smoking, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) said. It is 95% safer than smoking.

Will the Minister also put in place services, similar to smoking programmes, to support people who are now addicted to vaping, to enable them to come off vaping?

I think I should try to answer the last intervention before taking another one; I will come back to my hon. Friend in a second. Vapes are not yet being used widely enough to reach their full potential as a quit smoking aid, so on 11 April, I announced new funding for a new national “swap to stop” programme—the first of its kind anywhere in the world. We will work with councils and others to offer 1 million smokers across England a free vaping starter kit. Smokers who join the scheme, which will run initially over the next two years, will join on one condition: they must commit to quitting smoking, with support. We will provide additional support to help them quit vaping after they have quit smoking. We will target the most at-risk communities first, focusing on settings such as jobcentres, homelessness centres and social housing providers. I do not know whether my hon. Friend still has a burning question.

Yes, and I thank the Minister for giving way; he has been extremely generous with his time. He has talked about the importance of educating children about the risks. Does he agree that a key problem is that many young people and children who use vapes do not believe that they are harmful at all?

My hon. Friend is quite probably right. There is a lack of understanding of some of the risks, and of the effects on mental health and wellbeing. I am very, very worried when I hear about young people at school smoking, and about the disruption that various hon. Members have raised in this debate.

I conclude by thanking all Members here for highlighting concerns about these issues, and for their contributions, not only in the debate but over a longer period. That has had an effect on Government policy, and will continue to. The Government are committed to doing all we can to prevent children and young people from vaping, while also ensuring that we use the full potential of vaping as a tool to help smokers quit.

Question put and agreed to.

Terminal Illness: Early Access to Pensions

I beg to move,

That this House has considered early access to pensions for people with a terminal illness.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. In the United Kingdom, it is not possible under any circumstances to access a state pension before retirement age—not even if a person has paid national insurance contributions for the full 35 years, is terminally ill, and have less than a year to live. The purpose of the state pension is to support all of us towards the end of life, at a time when we are less capable or incapable of work, yet people with a terminal illness, who are nearing the end of life and, in the majority of cases, are no longer able to work, are not entitled to draw on their state pension, regardless of their contributions, financial difficulties or personal or family situation.

Terminal cancer patients who have surpassed their life expectancy have been told by firms such as Legal & General that they are ineligible to access their pension early because they may live longer. People are being punished for defying their life expectancy. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that people with a terminal illness should be given the dignity and respect of being able to access their own pension early?

I absolutely agree. Dignity and respect is at the heart of that ambition, as she so clearly articulates.

I start the debate with an appalling statistic. More than a quarter of people who die before retirement age spend their final days in poverty. In my Angus constituency, that figure is 24%. It is awful to think that for so many people with terminal illness, their last days are filled with worry and fears that go beyond the illness with which they have been diagnosed. Marie Curie reports that many terminally ill people feel stress about keeping a roof over their head, paying for their children’s school uniform or the energy use of their specialist medical equipment. As far as possible, the last days of life should be spent surrounded by friends and family, making happy memories in comfortable surroundings.

My constituent Ian Bain, from Forfar, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2014. Mr Bain worked his entire life. He started work in 1977, and accrued 41 years of national insurance contributions—six more than necessary to entitle him to a full state pension on retirement. When he stopped working due to illness, there was no way for him to access his state pension, because he was not yet 65. Due to Department for Work and Pensions delays, he also did not receive any social security payments until nine months after applying. Mr Bain was not entitled to claim under the special rules, as he had been advised that he had more than six months left to live. When he did eventually start receiving payments, he received them only at the lower rate of the personal independence payment and employment and support allowance.

Although Mr Bain had been diagnosed as terminally ill by a medical practitioner, he was required to return annually for follow-up assessments to see if his incurable degenerative condition had improved. He was even informed by one assessor that he “looked well”—cold comfort if ever there was. It was only in 2021 that Mr Bain started receiving the higher rate, when he was moved to the Scottish Government’s adult disability payment. Mr Bain can no longer speak to me on the telephone and has to use a single finger to email me. He should not face the indignity and stress of continually having to jump through bureaucratic hoops for a pittance, while the pension that he has so completely paid into for decades is denied to him by the tightest of all fists.

Sadly, Mr Bain’s situation is far from rare. Another Angus constituent, Ross, told me that his father

“died of cancer in 2019 just 2 days before being able to draw on his pension, he had spent his whole life working. He paid his contributions religiously from the day he was able to work and got nothing back.”

My constituent Malcolm advised:

“When you hear someone tell you that you have cancer, you immediately think you are going to die. That thought automatically triggers the need to make sure for the provision for your loved ones. The only thing we should have to deal with is building up happy memories for those left. This is more difficult when money is in short supply due to escalating costs.”

Another Angus constituent said that her husband died of a glioblastoma

“4 months before he retired. He worked his entire life and was never off sick or claimed benefits once. Once he was diagnosed I had to battle to get assistance. He should have been able to access his state pension early.”

It would have made all the difference. She continues:

“it would have helped with the financial strain.”

Access to funds for the terminally ill is a problem across these islands. People are twice as likely to die in poverty if they are terminally ill and under 66 years of age. The reasons for this poverty are well understood. People with terminal illnesses very often cannot work. Two thirds of terminally ill people rely on benefits as their main or only source of income. At the same time, costs can often increase dramatically at the end of life. The additional cost of terminal illness can reach up to £16,000 a year. There is often a need for energy-intensive specialist medical care in the home. Many people need to keep their home warmer, and their energy bills increase dramatically. All of us in the United Kingdom are exposed to inflationary pressure and sky-high energy costs, but for the terminally ill, the situation is permitted to become even more dire.

The Scottish Government have acted to mitigate some of the financial and bureaucratic pressure on those experiencing terminal illness. Scotland is introducing its own extra costs disability assistance benefit, having already introduced the child disability payment and adult disability payment, which replace the disability living allowance and personal independence payment. It is working towards the introduction of a further payment to replace the attendance allowance.

The Scottish Government have also changed the definition of “terminal illness” used to allow access to benefits from the 12-month special-rule definition used in England to an indefinite definition that includes all people diagnosed with a terminal illness. This allows people to be fast-tracked to receive the highest rate of payment as quickly as possible, and for longer. The central principle of the approach is to ensure that terminally ill people are provided with the support that they need, when they need it. That approach represents nothing more than the dignified acceptance of a terminally ill person’s circumstances. It is simply doing the right thing. Those changes are welcome and will do much to improve the experience of those with a terminal illness living in Scotland, but the fact remains that their state pension is kept from them, no matter how long they have paid into the system. The Scottish Government have no power to intervene when it comes to that injustice.

People with terminal illnesses have often paid enormous amounts of national insurance. On average, people aged 20 to 64 who are in their last year of life have accrued 24 years of national insurance contributions, and will never see the benefit of that investment, yet the path to improving the situation is straightforward and affordable. France, Germany, Italy and Spain all provide for early access to the state pension in the event of disability, and for those found to have a terminal illness.

Research conducted by Loughborough University found that giving working-age terminally ill people access to their state pension could almost halve the rate of poverty in that cohort, lifting more than 8,600 people a year out of poverty at the end of their life. That change would be not only effective but extremely affordable. It is estimated to cost £144 million per year—just 0.1% of the annual state pension bill—and would make an immeasurable improvement to the dignity and life of some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, and their families. It is also fair. People pay into a state pension their whole life to ensure a comfortable end of life, but when they reach end of life, the UK Government tell them that they will keep the money. How can that be? To put it another way, the UK Government are saving £144 million per year by withholding access to state pensions from terminally ill people. That is unconscionable.

Members not just from my own party but from across the House have asked the UK Government to consider permitting terminally ill people to access their state pension, regardless of age. Many Members in this debate and beyond fear that the Minister’s response will echo previous Government responses—that she will say that terminally ill people already get access to benefits, or that those in their final years of life will have their applications fast-tracked. Those measures have failed to avoid the extraordinarily high rates of poverty among the terminally ill, they do very little for those diagnosed as having more than 12 months to live, and they are clearly insufficient in supporting people during what can be one of the most devastating and frightening periods of anyone’s life.

I hope that the Minister will give this humane and decent aspiration the due consideration it deserves, and that the Government will change the rules for terminally ill people not just in Angus but across these islands.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I wish that more Members had attended this very important debate so that I could sum up some more contributions, but I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) for securing it and delivering a powerful speech in which he entreated the UK Government to act with compassion. It is vital that terminally ill people are finally given the respect they deserve in UK Government circles.

When terminally ill people get their diagnosis, they are absolutely devastated, and so are their families. It is a situation that none of us wants to face, and nor do we want members of our family to face it. It is absolutely devastating, and grief kicks in immediately. That is just one of the pressures facing terminally ill people and their families, which my hon. Friend laid out.

Terminal illness puts an emotional, mental and financial strain on the individual and their family. More than four in five families living with advanced cancer face income losses as a result. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that allowing early access to pensions will enable people with terminal illness and their families to focus on the quality of their end-of-life experience and not worry about money?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. This should be about making the people who are facing this most dreadful situation and their families as comfortable as possible and helping them to move forward. The cost is small, although as my hon. Friend the Member for Angus said, by not paying out the £144 million a year, the UK Government are running a lottery; they hope to get that dividend in from people. That is a small amount for dignity and fairness for the people in that situation and their families.

My hon. Friend shared the damning statistic that terminally ill people are twice as likely as others to die in poverty. They have bigger costs; it costs more to be terminally ill. For a start, they are ill, and most are homebound, which increases energy costs. There is the cost of the adaptations that they have to make, and increased costs for their families, who have to visit more to provide support.

The issue should be very simple for the UK Government. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for terminal illness, and although our entreaties about the six-month rule were listened to—on every occasion, Ministers said, “Yes, we must do something about this”—the change to 12 months took years in which thousands of people died waiting. I welcomed the change from six months to 12 months because it made life marginally more easy for people, but the fact that the effect is marginal—the very minimum that could be done for terminally ill people—is the most damning thing about this. As has been stated, this is about fairness and dignity, and people’s ability to have a quality end of life. The power is with the UK Government to make a very simple and fair adjustment. As has been underlined, in the scale of things, the cost is small, but the scale of the impact on the lives of people who are terminally ill and their families is enormous.

Nobody is asking for things that people have not earned; these pensions are something that people have earned throughout their lives. The Government can look at it this way: when someone gets that devastating note that says they are terminally ill, the Government know they will save money from the fact that that person is not going to be around for years collecting their state pension. Therefore, the Government can at least make this gesture towards making people’s lives easier. Why do we not see more compassion from the UK Government over this very simple matter? People are dying; why not treat them the way they should be treated? Why not strain every sinew and make every move to ensure that people in this situation have the best possible end of life? It is one thing that all of us could achieve by working together, and that the UK Government could commit to.

We heard about the tragedy of Mr Bain, a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Angus, who spent 41 years paying into his pension. He earned it but he is not going to get it. Think of my hon. Friend’s other constituent, Malcolm, who is quoted as saying when his diagnosis of cancer came in, “You immediately think you are going to die.” Of course he thought that, with that diagnosis. People are going to die; the problem is that, with the best will in the world, doctors cannot put a definitive timescale on when. However, they can often say that, “You are going to degenerate and your life is going to get more difficult as you go towards the end of life.”

This is a simple act. State pensions are reserved to the UK Government, so only they can act on this for people in Scotland and the other nations of the UK. Other nations can, as we have heard, make provisions like this; they can do the right thing for people. My hon. Friend the Member for Angus laid it out very clearly, but I will say it again: this is not a mammoth choice, and it is not going to destroy the UK budget. It is a small step that, along with other measures, should be taken to assist people who are terminally ill and their families.

When the Minister sums up the debate and answers our questions, I ask her not to just give out platitudes and promises of long-term action, as we have heard so many times before from so many other Ministers in the UK Government. I am not saying she will do that, but I believe the debate deserves answers on how she will take the issue back to her Department and work out a proper plan for people who are terminally ill and their families, so they can have the dignity, respect and fairness they deserve. She can give a reassurance that she will fight tooth and nail to get state pensions released for people who are terminally ill.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) and colleagues from across the House who have contributed to this important debate. I hope the Government will take this issue seriously and find ways to improve the lives of people with a terminal illness.

I am pleased that legislation was passed last year to support people with a terminal illness in having fast-track access to benefits. I hope that we can develop a consensus on other matters, including the related issue we are discussing today, but I would sound a note of caution following on from the debate last September on the Social Security (Special Rules for End of Life) Act 2022, where the House worked together to allow people in the last years of life to receive increased benefits. One of the challenges raised at the time was whether the Government were able to deliver on their promises, given the series of failures over the last decade. I hope that the Minister will ensure that DWP runs smoothly and that the errors we have seen in some aspects of the pensions and benefits system will be addressed, so that the people in that greatest need are protected. I ask the Minister to reassure Members that the Department will be able to provide individual pension savers and people in need with the level of service they would expect.

On the substance of the debate—early access to pensions—I want to cover two aspects in my speech: the issue of occupational pensions, and then the issue of access to the state pension, which the hon. Member for Angus mentioned. Occupational pensions play a very important role in allowing constituents to save for their retirement, and it is only right that people who have saved all their lives and contributed to the system should be able to access the money that they have saved. I understand that people with less than a year to live are already able to withdraw their entire pension in some cases, and a substantial amount in other cases, and even those who are younger may be able to take advantage of that facility through the pension freedoms that are normally available at the age of 55. I ask the Minister to reassure Members about her work with the pensions industry to develop this further, so that we can have a further discussion and perhaps gain further understanding of the possible ways to support people. Given that a great deal of many constituents’ income in retirement does not come from money that is saved through occupational pensions, it is very important that the money that people have saved is available to them at their time of need.

On the state pension, I want to put on the record my thanks to Marie Curie and other campaign groups for raising this issue. It is very important that we listen to the voices of those campaigners, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Angus for securing the debate so that we can discuss them. I understand that the Government’s current position is not to allow early access to the state pension. I would be very grateful if the Minister confirmed that that and set out the evidence on which the decision is based. I am sure that the Department will have explored the issue in detail, and I ask her to consider publishing some of the research carried out by the Department on this matter, so that we can understand it better and have a fuller debate in future.

I want to take this opportunity to raise some other points that have been made by campaigners. I am worried by some of the research that outlines the scale of the problem that energy bills can cause those facing the awful diagnosis of terminal illness, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Angus for mentioning that point. For example, research by Marie Curie explains that after a terminal illness diagnosis, energy bills may rise by as much as 75%. I think I heard the hon. Member refer to some of the additional medical needs, the need for greater home heating and sometimes the need for expensive equipment, such as oxygen tanks, in a person’s home. It is very important that we understand that, take it into account and see the wider needs of somebody facing an awful diagnosis and suffering a terrible challenge.

There is a lot of independent research on the consequences of living in damp, under-heated properties, which we should also bear in mind when we consider this issue. For example, the World Health Organisation estimates that about 30% of excess winter deaths are directly attributable to living in cold, damp environments, and we have to take that point into account, as well as the additional cost of heating for medical reasons and of paying for additional energy to support machinery. That is why it is really important that we take steps to reduce energy bills in a sustainable and long-term way. As the official Opposition, we are calling for energy bills to be cut for good, which should obviously start with a proper windfall tax on oil and gas giants, continuing with our long-term mission to make Britain a clean energy superpower by 2030.

Campaigners have highlighted other financial and family impacts of having a terminal illness diagnosis, and one difficult challenge faced by some families is that other forms of support may not be available to them. For example, access to paid childcare may diminish as a result of not being able to work, although a family may still need it.  I would like the Government—I hope the Minister will address this in her speech—to look at not only reforming the childcare system in broad terms but addressing the specific issue faced by those who have a family member with a terminal illness diagnosis. They should look at the need for childcare at that difficult time and at the unintended consequences of some aspects of Government policy. There is a need for wider reform because, sadly, families, children’s education and our economy are paying the price for our current childcare system.

To conclude, I hope the Government will respond and continue to work with the pensions industry. I look forward to the Minister answering my questions about her work with the industry, confirming Government policy on the state pension and committing to publish suitably informative material about the research carried out by the Department.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. We have been discussing a very sensitive issue, and I thank the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) for bringing forward the debate, and all hon. Members for their contributions.

The Government remain committed to ensuring that all citizens can live with the dignity and respect they deserve. I think it would help if I first set out the principles behind the state pension, which is the foundation of state support for older people. In 2016, the system was reformed, with the introduction of the new, simpler and more straightforward state pension as the basis for private saving, to which people can add throughout their lives.

The state pension is a contributory social benefit, financed through the national insurance fund. The national insurance system operates on a pay-as-you-go basis, meaning that today’s contributors are paying for today’s social security entitlements and pensions, while those who paid contributions in the past were paying for the pensions of that time. In other words, the contributors to the national insurance system do not accumulate an individual pot of money that is personal to them.

People’s national insurance contributions do not just pay for the state pension. They also entitle them—or, in certain circumstances, their spouses—to contributory social security benefits such as unemployment and bereavement benefits, which are available on the basis of the rules applicable at the time the claim is made, and about 20% of national insurance contributions are paid into the NHS. Therefore, it is a question not so much of a person paying for their own benefits, but of a general pooling of resources to meet current benefit claims for all those covered by the national insurance system.

A person’s contributions are geared towards liability to pay rather than any likelihood of future benefit entitlement. In that sense, it is similar to income tax rather than a private insurance or pension scheme. It has always been an overriding principle of the national insurance system that liability to contribute exists, whether or not those contributions will eventually give entitlement to a particular benefit. That is very different from private pensions, where a person builds up a pool that is specifically theirs, and where different laws rightly exist.

Therefore, early access to a state pension would not be appropriate in the case of terminally ill people, but there are a variety of other benefits available to them. For those nearing the end of their life, significant support is already available through the welfare system. Hearing that an illness cannot be cured must be a frightening and devastating experience, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) for all his work on that with the APPG. Our priority within the DWP is providing people with financial support quickly and compassionately. The main way we do that is through the special benefit rules, which have been mentioned today and which are sometimes referred to as the special rules. They give people nearing the end of their life faster and easier access to certain benefits, without their needing to attend a medical assessment or serve waiting periods. In most cases, people will receive the highest rate of benefit.

Changes to the special rules mean that thousands of people nearing the end of their life will be able to claim fast-tracked financial support from the benefits system six months earlier than they were able to previously. Historically, people had to be assessed by their healthcare professional as having six months or less to live. That is known as the six-month rule, which the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey referred to. In July 2021, the Government announced that they intended to replace the six-month criteria with a 12-month, end-of-life approach. Last April, the Department made those changes to the special rules for eligibility for universal credit and employment and support allowance. In April 2023, the Department made similar changes for PIP, disability living allowance and attendance allowance. Those changes have been welcomed—as they have been today—by the key charities active in the area, by the public and by parliamentarians.

I will now expand on my earlier remarks on early access to state pension. Unlike a personal or workplace pension, which can potentially be drawn earlier, it has always been the case that nobody can claim their state pension before they reach state pension age. There are a wide range of working-age benefits available to support people who are below state pension age . Removing the clear boundaries between working-age and pensioner benefits would create complexity and confusion. This is not simply a monetary issue.

As an example of the complex issues relating to early access, the value of an individual’s state pension is based on their contribution record. Is the intention here to base it on the contribution record of those who are, sadly, at the heart of today’s debate? If the value of that state pension, based on the person’s record, is deficient, would they be entitled to means-tested pension credit? If they took their state pension early, would it need to be actuarially reduced to reflect that? Early access actually means lowering the age of entitlement to state pension. At what age would it be set for this group? Would it be 16, in line with the age—

I appreciate the Minister’s position, but I am not sure that many people who are terminally ill, or those who work with them, will be comforted by the technicalities she is laying out. She is laying out the rules as they stand, but does she see no opportunity for things to be adjusted so that the entitlement age for those who are terminally ill could be adjusted, as it is in other countries? Is there no opportunity or intention for the UK Government to look at that?

The Department’s position is that help is available through benefits other than the state pension. The state pension is not an entitlement pool that exists; it is done on a pay-as-you-go basis. Of course, it is different from private pensions, which I will come to in a second, and there is more that we could do on that front to make the situation easier and more straightforward.

I of course accept the sentiment on which this proposal is based—that those who are terminally ill should be financially supported—but grounding this support on the state pension system, because it is there, does not make for a practical proposition, and that is in addition to my earlier points on the nature of the state pension.

Hon. Members will be aware that the second Government review of state pension age was published on 30 March 2023. The Government noted the independent report’s recommendations on the rise from 67 to 68, but highlighted that Baroness Neville-Rolfe was unable to take into account the long-term impact of recent significant external factors, bringing uncertainty to the data on life expectancy, the economic position and labour market.

I raise that point because, as part of that process, independent reviewers looked at early-access policies that would allow variation in state pension age for certain groups. John Cridland covered that in his 2017 independent review of state pension age. More recently, Baroness Neville-Rolfe, in her independent review, recommended that the Government should look at such a scheme for people who had spent long periods of their lives doing physical work.

However, both reviewers recognised the real, practical difficulties of designing and delivering such a scheme. We are aware that when and why people leave the labour market will vary and will be affected by a host of factors, including their national insurance record, savings, health, caring responsibilities and other factors. It would be impossible to take account of all those factors in setting the state pension age or to create rules for one particular group that would be fair to others. In addition, the Government are mindful of the fact that a universal state pension age has many benefits, including giving a clear signal to those planning for retirement.

Private pensions are very different. Through automatic enrolment, we have extended pension saving, so more individuals will have access to choices at retirement, with more than 10.8 million people automatically enrolled into a workplace pension as of March 2023. If someone has a defined benefit private or workplace pension, they may be able to begin taking an income and/or lump sums from their pension at any age due to ill health. That provision is dependent on the rules of the scheme.

In addition, the generous tax benefits of saving into a defined contribution pension provide individuals with the ability to accrue savings for their retirement and provide them with freedom and choice about how they access them. Individuals can normally access those savings, without penalty, from age 55. However, to address the point made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), they may be able to access their pension as a lump sum from any age if the scheme administrator has received evidence from a registered medical practitioner that the member is expected to live for less than one year.

The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) raised a specific example of where there were difficulties. I would be grateful if she would write to me about that, and we can see whether there is anything we can do to help.

The hon. Member for Reading East raised some points on energy. The energy price guarantee has been extended for an additional three months at its current level, from April to the end of June. That will bring a typical household energy bill for dual-fuel gas and electricity down to around £2,500 per year in Great Britain and around £2,109 per year in Northern Ireland.

In conclusion, I have set out the range of support that the Government provide for people with terminal illnesses. Although I of course have the greatest sympathy for anyone in that position, the Government do not believe that adjusting the state pension system to support that group is the right approach, although early access to private pensions is obviously a different matter.

Thank you very much, Mr Sharma. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to this important discussion. I am disappointed, if I am honest, that so much of the oxygen in the room has been devoted to private pensions. There is a fundamental—and, dare I say it, fundamentally clear—distinction to make between private pensions and state pensions. People in the workplace have a choice over whether to take out a private pension or not; they do not have a choice over whether to pay their national insurance contributions. I would suggest—respectfully—that that is a fundamental, fairly obvious difference between private and state pensions.

In her summing up, the Minister talked about the pay-as-you-go nature of national insurance contributions. I think that most of us, as Members of Parliament, already understand that there is no national insurance pot and that national insurance is, in effect, a distinct version of general taxation.

My hon. Friend is making a point about the state pension and the mechanics that have been described. However, this situation—where there is no specific pot—is the same in other countries, such as Australia and Canada, which do allow early access to the state pension. There is no difference in the mechanism for it, or indeed the principle behind it; they have just applied the compassion that is missing in this situation. Does my hon. Friend not agree?

I agree entirely. A narrative has been advanced this afternoon that, because this does not happen, it cannot happen. But, of course, if we want to make it happen, it can happen. As my hon. Friend points out, that is the case in other jurisdictions that have more cognisance of, and respect for, not just the fiscal elements, but the social contract that exists between society, individuals and the Government that seek to represent them.

I think the point the Minister made in her summing up was that it has never been possible to draw down a state pension early. Well, I think we know that too. What we are seeking to debate here is that that is not a cogent or sustainable position and that the Government should therefore introduce legislation that makes it possible—in very distinct and challenging circumstances —to draw down that state pension early.

Of the range of reasons or excuses for not doing what has been proposed, I would suggest that “introducing complexity to the system” will fall on fairly stony ground with people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness. I am sure they would imagine that a bureaucracy the like of which the UK has at its command could sufficiently marshal the resources to tackle the complexity of a very distinct change to the state pension regime to allow them the dignity they sorely deserve.

The benefits system was also talked about a lot this afternoon. Well, again, a bit like private pensions, that issue is distinct from this one. Those state benefits—whether personal independence payments or employment and support allowance—are a function of the person’s or underlying health, whether or not they have been diagnosed with a terminal illness. As every hon. and right hon. Member can attest, many case studies show that those lumbering regimes take a long time—too long—to come to fruition, and they do not recognise the fact that, whether there is a pot there or not, those people have substantively contributed to a system that, in their time of need, has abandoned them. I respectfully suggest to the Minister that she and the Government really should think again.

Question put and agreed to. 


That this House has considered early access to pensions for people with a terminal illness.

Sitting adjourned.