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Westminster Hall

Volume 734: debated on Wednesday 14 June 2023

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 14 June 2023

[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]

Hospice Services: Support

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for hospice services.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. You are intrinsically linked to the Mountbatten hospice, which I will speak about this morning, in your role as the Member of Parliament for Romsey and Southampton North.

I thank the all-party parliamentary group on hospice and end of life care and its chair and co-chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), who is here today, and Baroness Finlay, for their work in promoting and championing the hospice sector. They have a lot of experience in the sector and I am grateful to them for lending me their support in this important debate.

The hospice sector in this country does incredible work for thousands of families and individuals every day. It is a fact of life that we all experience a bereavement at some point, and some of my colleagues know that we recently had the very sad task of saying goodbye to my office manager, Sue Hall. Sue was not just an employee of mine; she was my friend, confidante, an incredible wife and mum, and a friend to all. She was a magnificent woman—a local hero who helped people every day. She never baulked at a challenge or missed an opportunity to show people how much she cared. I am sure many, if not all, of those here have had that special support in their lives from someone they rely on. For me, that person was Sue. I never thought I would have to make do without her by my side.

Sue left us peacefully, surrounded by her family and friends on 30 March. She was comfortable and well looked after, and for that I will ever be grateful to Mountbatten hospice in my constituency, which cared for her at the end of her life. It made her final days and moments a special time for her family and friends. We can all hope at the end of our time on this earth to have an opportunity to say, “Thank you, I love you, and goodbye.” That is a truly special and incredible moment for everyone—one that the hospice Sue stayed in provides for people every day.

Sue’s journey had a profound impact on me as I spent time with her in the hospice learning about the work that it does and the struggles it faces. In a moment of weakness, her son-in-law, Miles Rogers—a good friend of mine—and I agreed to do a charity skydive for Mountbatten hospice on 24 June. The fundraising page is available on my Facebook page if anyone wants to contribute.

Mountbatten Hampshire is a hospice in my constituency that provides 24/7 in-patient and community domiciliary and palliative end of life care services to people across Southampton city and large parts of Hampshire. It also provides rehabilitation and enablement services, as well as psychological and bereavement support to parents and their families. Sue’s family and I will forever be grateful to it for its kindness during Sue’s last days. Having had the pleasure of meeting the hospice’s chief executive officer, Nigel Hartley, and the fantastic staff who work there, I know that their passion and commitment to providing the best possible care for all their patients is their top priority, and they give that care with skill, tact and grace every day.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Rowans Hospice does great work in the Havant constituency, and as a result it engenders a lot of loyalty, including from fundraising and support groups. Will he join me in thanking such groups for their contribution alongside the full-time staff at hospices?

I pay tribute to Rowans Hospice and to all the hospices that we will no doubt hear about this morning, given the number of people attending this debate.

As I say, I had the pleasure of meeting the CEO of Mountbatten hospice. Its work does not come without cost, but, as a charity, its services are provided free of charge to all who need them, thanks to the generosity of its amazing community and incredible volunteers, who give their time to support the best possible care for local people during the last years and months of their lives. Mountbatten currently supports around 1,000 families every day, and demand for its services is predicted to rise by 40% in the next 18 months. It costs £11.5 million a year to keep the services running, and the hospice relies on charitable support to fund its 24/7, 365 days a year services to people who need them.

St Christopher’s Hospice in my constituency is widely regarded as the first modern hospice, and it is still pioneering today, but it has to fundraise £15 million a year. The cost of living crisis means that its costs are going up and its donations are at risk of going down. Does the hon. Member agree that the Government must review the current funding model?

The hon. Lady tempts me to come to content that I will cover later in my speech, but for now she can take it that I wholeheartedly agree, as do many Members here, I suspect.

No one will contest that our health and care staff deserve to be well paid for the incredible work they do, and in an ideal world we would see our life savers and carers never have to worry about their finances and pay, but it would be deeply irresponsible to facilitate pay rises without giving due consideration to the dramatic impact that rising wage costs have on these essential services. To give some specific context, Mountbatten Hampshire took over management of the hospice from the NHS in 2019. It has a contract with the NHS for roughly 35% of its costs, of which about £3.8 million comes from the local NHS commissioners in the form of an outcome-based contract. The hospice follows the NHS pay award each year to remain competitive and to retain and hire staff for its services, which means that the hospice has seen a 4.8% rise in costs this year and will see a further 5% next year, with no corresponding change in its NHS contract, leaving an increasing and worrying financial gap that the charity will find very hard to reconcile without public funding.

I am spoilt for choice! I give way to the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier).

It is interesting to hear about the Mountbatten, which I spent many years at when it opened, when I was a child. The hospice in my constituency, St. Joseph’s Hospice, is really cutting-edge, but the retrospective payment for nurses will cost it £470,000, and it cannot apply that yet because it has no certainty from commissioners about its funding. To keep it up will be another half a million a year, and it cannot afford that without certainty of funding. I am sure the hon. Member agrees that we need to press the Minister for some clarity on this.

I agree with the right hon. Lady; we do. In my experience, the uplift that has been given to local NHS commissioning groups is simply not making it through to those end of life services. I hope we will see some recognition of that from the Minister, and I am sure she will enforce this, to ensure that the funding to local commissioning groups gets through to these services.

I do not want to be harsh, but I have been warned by the Chair that I should get through my speech. I will make some progress and then give way shortly.

Written evidence submitted to Parliament by Hospice UK records that hospices across the UK employ 12,000 nurses, with 8% of the nursing workforce drawn from bank or agency, which make up a 9,400 full-time equivalent nursing establishment, but they are struggling to recruit registered nurses. A clinical survey in 2021 found that there was an 11% vacancy rate in community-based hospices and a 7% vacancy rate in hospice-based nursing roles in adult hospices, with 16% vacancy rates for hospice-based nursing associate and community-based healthcare assistant roles. The written evidence states:

“Since this data was collected, between March and May 2021, the sense on the ground is that these figures have increased and workforce shortages in UK hospices and across other providers that deliver palliative and end of life care have worsened.”

This is clearly the tip of the iceberg, and further pressures are to follow. Hospices are desperate for more support from the Government. The Mountbatten will end the year with a £1.4 million deficit, with no foreseeable change in the financial forecast with the current funding arrangement. The impact will be felt not only in the care sector but throughout the whole NHS.

My hon. Friend paid a fantastic tribute to his office manager, Sue. Rowans Hospice in my constituency is thinking about increasing its number of beds from 19 to 22, but that will cost an extra £130,000 a year, and the trust is nervous about making that commitment. What he is saying is very important. Does he agree that the Government need to give more money to this valuable service?

I suspect that I will be in constant agreement with interventions this morning. My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour makes an astute point, as usual, and she is right to pay tribute to the hospice in her constituency.

Communities such as mine in Eastleigh will suffer as hospices such as Mountbatten have no choice but to reduce their services and the extraordinary high-quality care they offer, and this comes at a time when demand is only growing. As if that were not enough, staffing costs are but one consideration that care providers are having to take into account. As we all know, the soaring price of energy has hit businesses, families and individuals all over the country, and none more so than those in the charity care sector.

Acorns Children’s Hospice in the Walsall borough supports families and children in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in these challenging times when energy prices are on the rise, we want any additional help to include the hospice sector?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her intervention. She tempts me to talk about issues that I will come to later in my speech—it is only a couple of pages away, I assure you, Ms Nokes. She is right that hospices have not been included in the energy support given to other charities, even though their services are energy intensive due to the equipment they use. Her point is well made and will be recognised in her constituency.

The energy bill for Mountbatten has risen by an eye-watering £250,000—a fivefold increase—and there has been no additional financial support. One might think that that is surely as high as prices can go, but a London-based hospice has forecast that its energy costs will increase by almost £300,000 a year due to inflation pressures. A north London hospice told Civil Society Media that it faces an energy bill of £433,000 in 2023-24, based on predicted energy costs.

Adult hospices are not the only ones affected by this issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) said in his letters to the Department of Health and Social Care, there is also uncertainty about the children’s hospice grant—a vital source of funding that represented an average of 15% of children’s hospices’ income in 2021-22.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the pressures on the sector, which also affect St Raphael’s in my constituency. The Government have been generous with the children’s hospice grant, but it runs out next year, and the lack of certainty is the problem. We would really like the Minister to stand up and say that she will renew the grant after 2023-24, which would provide a huge amount of certainty for the sector.

My hon. Friend, who is my past employer, makes a good point—although not as good as when I wrote his speeches. He is absolutely correct that there is uncertainty about that grant, and about how it is handed out by local commissioning groups. It is not getting through to children’s hospices, and I hope the Minister will have something to say about tweaking the way that grant is allocated to local areas.

Sixty-six per cent. of adult hospice income and 80% of children’s hospice income is raised through fundraising—bake sales, charity shops and marathons—and Marie Curie depends on that more than others. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should put on the record our thanks to the volunteers who make the effort and get the money in?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. I only have to see Mountbatten local networks of fundraising and charity supporters, whether in charity shops or in fundraising roles. I am honoured that I may become part of that community—if I land on the ground safety, alongside Miles—but it will not end there. I will carry on fundraising for a fantastic cause.

When Mountbatten hospice wrote to me in January to outline those extraordinary energy costs, I was happy to write on its behalf to the Secretary of State. Unfortunately, the energy bill relief scheme and the later energy bills discount scheme did not ease the pressures, as the hospice was not eligible. Mountbatten still faces unsustainable pressure, as do hospices across the United Kingdom.

Of course, there are some people who ask whether a charity should not take the majority of its funding from its local community—from donations and contributions, rather than from Government funding. That is a fair question, but unfortunately it does not provide a solution, especially considering that community donations already support 70% of Mountbatten’s funding, which it has calculated to be the limit of what it can ask from people.

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. He is right about donations, but my local hospice, Teesside Hospice, is really struggling. I congratulate the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) on his work in that respect. Is the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) not describing a perfect storm? There is a statutory obligation on the NHS to fund hospices for medical care, but the NHS is entirely strapped. Can I divert him away from the solution of asking members of staff to tighten their belts even further? That is not an option. When we cannot recruit and retain, that is not the solution. We need a fundamental reset of the economic settlement.

I hope the hon. Gentleman has not taken from my speech that I am suggesting that staff tighten their belts. In fact, I am advocating that hospices be allowed to follow the NHS pay settlement model, and be funded properly to so do. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that the Government have put their hand in their pocket through the £1.5 billion uplift, although that is simply not getting through from the Department of Health and Social Care and local commissioning boards to the hospices. That is where the Government need to step in to a greater extent. Therefore, I ask the Government to take the issue seriously and to continue to treat the charity care sector with the priority it deserves.

Hospices do incredible work, and they represent spectacular value owing to the services they provide. We cannot allow that vital link in the care chain to be broken, or even weakened, particularly at this time. Evidence submitted to the all-party parliamentary group on hospice and end of life care’s report detailed how the covid-19 pandemic made fundraising even more challenging for hospices. Hospices experienced a massive decrease in income while facing unprecedented demand for their services. One hospice’s overnight sitting service had to end due to lack of funding to sustain it, which highlights how dependent those services are on charitable donations.

It is important to highlight the fact that the sustainability of the hospice sector continues to be tested due to the cost of living crisis. Some sort of long-term funding settlement for hospices would be in the interests of all concerned because 160,000 more people each year are expected to require palliative care by the end of 2040. Having sufficient staff and volunteer resourcing in the specialist palliative care field is essential. An ideal outcome would be the Government and the NHS working with the hospice sector to provide an ongoing financial settlement, with regular contractual reviews to ensure that the support that hospices receive is at least the minimum they require to keep services running. That should be directed to cover both staffing and energy cost rises.

Doing that would be in the best interests not only of hospices, because hospices play a vital role in reducing pressure on NHS services by providing bed space and crucial care capacity. The NHS can scarce afford to lose such space and capacity, particularly in the light of the current waiting lists, but lose them it may if action is not taken.

Order. Members will see that a lot of colleagues want to get in. I will do my best to call as many Members to speak as possible, and that will require a three-minute time limit from the start. I call Kate Hollern.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) on securing this important and timely debate.

I begin by paying tribute to East Lancashire Hospice, and the staff and volunteers who deliver exceptional services to people in difficult family circumstances. You will excuse me if I get a bit emotional, Ms Nokes, because my family benefited greatly from East Lancs Hospice, and I could not have come through a very difficult time without its support.

Sadly, many hospices are facing an existential crisis. Unlike big business, as energy and food prices rise, hospices cannot pass the cost on to their customers. In fact, the opposite is true, because as the cost of living increases, donations invariably decrease as individuals on whose generosity hospices rely feel the pinch. As a result, hospices have less money available for paying staff, who themselves are struggling to make ends meet.

It is vital that the Government address that unsustainable situation because the care provided by hospice services cannot be replicated elsewhere within the NHS. Indeed, hospices take a burden off the NHS. Let us be honest: a reduction in hospice services would result in increased hospital admissions, higher costs and bed shortages, all of which would further stretch our already overwhelmed health system.

According to Hospice UK, hospices are collectively budgeting for a deficit of £186 million. Therefore, Hospice UK is calling for the Government to take action to help hospices with rising costs, and asking for £30 million of Government funding for hospices to offset the cost of increased energy bills in the year ahead, as well as £102 million for hospices in England to help them to keep pace with NHS pay rises.

In April, I visited East Lancs Hospice. I met the chief executive and staff, and I had the pleasure of observing the remarkable care provided by this wonderful team every day. I was in awe of the diligence with which staff supported patients and their families, but I was also reminded me of the support and care given to John, my partner, in the last days of his life.

Back to business. The hospice does not receive full funding from the NHS; apart from its core grant, it must fundraise in order to make ends meet. Like most hospices, it is very creative in that fundraising. The turnover of the East Lancashire Hospice is £4 million, but the core grant is only £1.6 million. That means that they must find £2.4 million. I beg the Minister to address the funding for hospices urgently.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) on securing this important debate, and I extend my condolences to him on the loss of his office manager. I draw the attention of the Chamber to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, particularly as a trustee of North Yorkshire Hospice Care, and to my co-chairmanship of the APPG on hospice and end of life care. I put on record my thanks to everybody in our hospices—the nurses, the doctors, the trustees, the volunteers and the fundraisers—for all that they do.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the APPG recently published a report entitled “The Lasting Impact of COVID-19 on Death, Dying and Bereavement”. I know that the Minister has received a copy of that report, because I personally handed it to her. One of the key points in it was about sustainability of funding for end of life care and bereavement services, and about the need for funding to them to provide their care confidently, commissioning for the years ahead, not just the year ahead.

I recently convened a meeting of all the MPs and hospices in the Tees valley, and there is a very sad picture. In Darlington, St Teresa’s Hospice is posting a £541,000 deficit this year. Teesside Hospice is posting a deficit of £400,000 this year, and Alice House Hospice in Hartlepool has had to close a unit. It does not have to be this way. Ask anyone where they want to die; they will tell you that they want to die at home, surrounded by their loved ones. Our hospices provide support to enable that to happen. Given a choice between a hospital and a hospice, people will choose a hospice.

We know that deaths in hospital are costly, blocking beds and often giving people a less than good death. I want to see everyone have access to a good death, and I want the NHS to save money and unblock beds. That can be achieved with proper commissioning and support for palliative care, as required by the Health and Care Act 2022, not just in Darlington, Teesside or North Yorkshire, but right across the country. We would not, in this day and age, fund maternity care by running bake sales, skydiving or wing-walking, but it seems perfectly acceptable to many that that is how we should fund palliative care. It is not right and it is not fair, and the time for dealing with it is now.

UK hospices are budgeting for a deficit of £186 million this year. Our integrated care boards must step up to the plate, commissioning and paying for the hospice care that their community needs and, at the same time, safeguarding these institutions that are so integral to our communities, saving the NHS money and reducing bed blocking. It really has the potential to be a win-win situation. I implore the Minister to do everything in her power to get this sorted, once and for all.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) on securing this important debate.

As we have heard, hospices provide compassionate care and support for more than 300,000 individuals a year who are facing life-limiting illnesses. They offer a place of comfort, dignity and peace not just for their patients, but for families and loved ones. May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the incredible staff at hospices around the country, in particular the Hospice of the Good Shepherd in Backford in my constituency, where members of my own family have received care in the past? We should also thank the wider palliative care workforce, who work extremely hard to provide good care for so many.

Unfortunately, as we have heard, the reality for so many hospices is becoming increasingly bleak. Collectively, they are budgeting for a deficit of millions due to rising costs, with high energy bills and rising staff costs hitting hospices at a time when donations have dropped as a result of the cost of living crisis. I applaud the trustees at the Hospice of the Good Shepherd, who have taken the decision to match NHS workforce payments—an important step to establish the workforce and continue as a going concern. However, they are facing energy consumption that is going through the roof. They cannot reduce it, because they need to keep machines running and keep the in-patient unit warm or cool for those who need care.

As we know, the majority of hospices rely on charitable funding for a significant part of their finances. When I visited the Hospice of the Good Shepherd, the staff told me about the brilliant ways people raise funds. They include the corporate challenge, where local businesses grow £50 into £20,000, the Chester Sparkle Walk on 16 June, and local people holding individual events—my friends Steve and Zena held a garden party on Saturday and raised £800.

Those imaginative initiatives are essential for hospices to keep a good connection with their communities, but with costs increasing, Government must do more to lend support to hospices and their staff so that they can continue to provide their essential work.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Ms Nokes. I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes): judging by the attendance at this debate, he has struck a chord.

I would like to pay tribute briefly to two hospices in my constituency, St David’s and Tŷ Gobaith, which is Welsh for “Hope House”, and particularly to the clinical teams there. The UK has a reputation for having some of the best palliative care in the world, but it is not appreciated as much as it might be. I thank healthcare workers, the volunteers, who have such a critical role to play, and those who donate: donations provide up to 70% of Tŷ Gobaith’s income.

It is true indeed that hospices play a key role: 90 children a year are looked after by Tŷ Gobaith, which has the effect of reducing pressure on the NHS and delivering end of life care within homes across north Wales, as my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) mentioned. The hospice faces record numbers of referrals, as increasing numbers of babies and children in Wales are living with complex life-limiting conditions. It forecasts a deficit of £1.3 million this year and will not be cost-neutral in 2026.

As the chief executive of St David’s has said, part of the problem is that awareness of the role and value of the hospice does not come until the point at which it is needed. My point is not to talk about how we have a perhaps fading Christian message in our society of a God who walks with us through troubles—through that valley of the shadow of death. It is not about a fading tradition in which the body of the deceased was once laid out at home, or about the trend in science where we are now able to extend the life of the body beyond sentience. It is more that it is the hospice that is in that space, very often helping us and walking through it with us. That role and the excellence of palliative care are crucial and must not be neglected. Beyond the care itself, it is about research into and understanding of that support.

On the point about finance, it is clear that across Wales £4.4 million is needed from the Welsh Government. The pressures on finance from that most pernicious of taxes, inflation, are incredible, but staffing is the biggest cost: 71% of hospice costs are related to staffing. In Wales in particular, there is pressure through the NHS pay deal. Hospices must compete for the staff that they have in their care homes. If I had time, I would talk about the challenges of energy supply costs: St David’s has had an extra 50% on its heating and energy bill as a result of price rises.

Hospices have earned our respect. There is no doubt that their staff and teams have also won our deep gratitude. Now they must have our support.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) on securing today’s important debate. It is personal to me, as I know it is to many parliamentary colleagues here. My mother died recently, and then my brother died about 11 months ago: the very least we can do for those who have been given a terminal diagnosis is to ensure that they die with dignity, surrounded by loved ones. Hospices are there to help and to alleviate physical, emotional and psychological suffering. Their work ensures that a dying person’s final days are made as peaceful as possible.

Bolton Hospice, which serves my constituency, has a reputation for providing outstanding care to its patients, but it is expensive to run and gets minimal Government support. A constituent recently wrote to me to praise its work, telling me that her husband had been given just months to live:

“The ‘hospice at home’ team supported me and the girls to make unforgettable memories from the comfort of our living room…later he was admitted to the inpatient unit at Bolton Hospice where he passed away with his loved ones at his bedside.”

Even beyond his death, the hospice continued to support her and her young daughters through those very difficult times.

Bolton Hospice needs to raise over £4 million each year to be able to provide its specialist services. It is an independent charity; it relies solely on the generosity of donations and fundraising from the people of Bolton. The cost of living crisis has tipped its financial difficulties from a challenging position to crisis point. In the current climate, it is £457,000 worse off than in 2008. Hospice care, as we have heard, is an intensive user of energy, because of the need to maintain temperatures as well as extensive electrical equipment, from oxygen pumps to ventilators. Rising food prices have also meant that the cost of feeding patients has increased by 10%, while the cost of transporting patients has gone up by 44%.

Like other hospices, Bolton Hospice has worked hard to improve its fundraising, but it is running at an operational deficit of £1.2 million. Unless the Government intervene with an uplift of funding for 2024, it will have to reduce beds by 40% and reduce its care or end other vital services. The Minister must acknowledge that if hospices have to reduce or close down, that will place pressure on the NHS and our hospitals. At this time, because of the rising cost of living, the local community is not able to give as much money. I ask the Minister to make an exception in the case of hospices, and grant them the money.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and to follow my constituency neighbour the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), who champions the cause of Bolton Hospice so effectively. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) on securing this timely debate; the fact that it is so well attended demonstrates how important the hospice movement is, right across the land.

The service that Bolton Hospice, Wigan and Leigh Hospice and Derian House Children’s Hospice provide to my constituents is an immensely important part of the community. The charitable and fundraising aspect represents their importance to so many people in the community. When we are going through very difficult economic times, whether they are caused by war in Europe, by covid or by lockdown restrictions, that makes it very difficult to fund hospices, so they have relied for many years on simple things such as sponsored walks and other events and activities. They value that relationship with the community. I have never had a sense from the hospice movement that it wants to be dependent on the national health service. They need that healthy relationship, but they also need certainty of funding from the national health service.

My principal question to the Minister, because so many of the key arguments have been made so compellingly, is what she can do with the integrated care systems and integrated care boards, as well as with the national health service, to maintain and shore up their relationship with their local hospices. That point is not necessarily recognised, because the hospice movement is independent of and separate from the national health service. When the NHS is going through a difficult squeeze, it is perhaps those other services, which are so important to the local community and which have such fantastic staff and so many superb volunteers doing amazing work, that are not necessarily recognised by the local system in the way they should be. The Minister must encourage and support integrated care systems and integrated care boards to deliver.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) on securing this debate and on volunteering to join the community of those of us who do daft things to fundraise for our local hospices.

Lancashire and South Cumbria hospices have been informed that our ICB has offered them a 0% uplift on their 2022-23 funding. Following on from last year’s 1.7% uplift, that results in significant pressure, with the cost of living crisis and the need to retain doctors and nurses and be competitive with the NHS.

People often do not realise that our hospices rely on the good will of local communities and on fundraising. On average, two thirds of adult hospice income and four fifths of children’s hospice income is raised through fundraising. St John’s Hospice in Lancaster costs more than £5.1 million a year to run, and only about a third of that is provided by Government funding. That is why I decided two months ago that I would run the 26.2-mile London marathon to try to plug that gap, but I only managed to raise £1,500.

Hospice funding has never been a sustainable model. The crisis, rising energy costs and inflation are creating a perfect storm. The cost of living crisis is putting pressure on charitable donations. Hospices cannot simply reduce their energy use, and they need to remain competitive with NHS pay to recruit and retain staff.

Trinity Hospice in Blackpool’s hospice-at-home service directly supported 70% of all those who died at home on the Fylde coast last year. The Minister will also be aware of Brian House Children’s Hospice, which is part of the Trinity service. For many years, it has served families on the Fylde coast who have the joy, but also the challenges, of raising and loving a child with a life-limiting diagnosis.

I want to press the Minister on the issue of children’s hospices. I have visited the hospice on many occasions and have seen the amazing work to support so many of my constituents living in the most unimaginable circumstances, yet Brian House has seen a huge challenge to its funding, with its grant cut by £50,000. It is already one of the children’s hospices with the least Government and health authority funding in the country: only 14% of its expected £1.6 million annual operating costs. A further loss of £185,000 next year is unimaginable.

I thank the Minister for meeting my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), and me. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman cannot be here today, but he shares my concerns about the funding for Brian’s House Children’s Hospice. Can the Minister reassure him and me that this issue is on her radar and that she is doing all she can to ensure that no children’s hospice loses out on funding because of changes to formulas?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) on securing this debate.

Like many Members in this debate, I have seen at first hand what it means to be supported by hospice services. Back in January 2014, my mother Linda was entering the final stages of her battle with bowel cancer when she was cared for by St Luke’s Hospice Plymouth. The staff there helped create some very special memories, which made her passing easier for all of us, especially my mum. Similarly, the support for my family from the local hospice and palliative care teams in Tameside two years ago as my stepdaughter Anne approached the end was significant to us all.

Colleagues have expressed and described the challenges facing the sector, but I also want to add a note of optimism to the debate. Rowcroft Hospice in Torquay marked its 40th anniversary last year not just by looking back over those 40 years, but by firmly looking to the future, unveiling a multimillion-pound investment and development programme that includes a new 60-bed specialist nursing home centred around a village green. A village hall, restaurant and allotments would also be part of the development, as well as a children’s nursery and estate workshop. The plans are very welcome, as they will be a boost not only for Rowcroft but for Torbay’s entire health and social care sector, with the hospice facility at its centre.

I am conscious that time is limited, but I have a couple of specific points on which I want to hear the Minister’s thoughts. First, even though it is clear that the hospice movement does not wish to become a fully publicly funded healthcare service, what further options may be provided for support with some of the costs they face? Secondly, what support will be provided to hospices that are looking to expand their services and develop new integrated care offerings, as Rowcroft Hospice seeks to do?

Hospices are a unique place where life is added to days when days can no longer be added to life. They provide a service not just to in-patients, but to a whole community. I hope we can support them to continue doing so.

I thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) for securing this important debate. I extend my condolences to him for the loss of his manager Sue.

I start by giving my heartfelt thanks to all those who work in hospices. Ensuring that people can pass away in comfort and dignity is an extremely honourable profession, and it means a great deal to people, as we have heard. The cost of living crisis is affecting hospices up and down the country, and we need to take it seriously. Even before the cost of living crisis began, working in a hospice was challenging. The Government should not be making it harder.

The Minister should be concerned by what hospices such as the brilliant St Cuthbert’s Hospice in my constituency are saying. Inflation, for one, is a real concern. What St Cuthbert’s is receiving from the integrated care board does not even come close to either wage inflation or general inflation. It is seeing a massive rise in its energy costs, by tens of thousands of pounds. As we have heard, a care home cannot reduce its energy consumption.

The marketplace for specialist staff is currently extremely competitive. The absence of a proper workforce plan from the Government is not helping. It should be noted that despite the challenges it is facing, St Cuthbert’s Hospice continues to run at 100% satisfaction. I know the Minister will mention the £100 million announced in the spring Budget, but that falls short of what is really needed. Hospices are collectively budgeting for a deficit of more than £180 million this year.

Where is the support for energy bills? Hospices need to be able to offset their costs. After all, it does not reflect well on a society when the Government do not prioritise end of life care. Patients require the utmost dignity, and the Government should be ensuring that their dignity is prioritised.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) on securing this important debate. It is timely for me, as on Friday I visited the Norfolk Hospice Tapping House in my constituency to talk to the staff and volunteers who provide the care, comfort and compassion for people living with life-limiting illnesses.

Tapping House is rightly a valued part of the west Norfolk community, supporting more than 1,000 families each year. At the heart of that hospice, and all hospices, are the incredible staff who provide high-quality care and go above and beyond to make people’s final days as comfortable and memorable as possible—even, I heard, providing virtual reality headsets so that patients can imagine being on a tropical island and enjoying a cocktail from their bed. The brilliant team at Tapping House is supported by hundreds of volunteers, and it is testament to the great care provided there that many of the volunteers and fundraisers are family members of people who spent their last days in the hospice. We have heard about the escalating costs in Tapping House, as energy costs have risen by 36% in the past year alone.

That brings me to funding. Only 30% of Tapping House’s services are funded from the NHS, with the rest coming from donations. Despite the challenging economic backdrop, Tapping House just held one of its most successful events, Tulips for Tapping, at which people could go into tulip fields near Sandringham and experience their great beauty. That event raised more than £140,000. However, the NHS funding received for in-patient units has not increased for the past two years, and community-based services have not seen an increase for several years.

I would be grateful if the Minister could say how much of the £1.5 billion for additional costs has actually flowed through to hospices. Along with other MPs, I have previously called for additional support for hospices, and the Government responded positively. The sector needs urgent support now; I hope the Government will carefully consider the requests that have been made and provide that additional support.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) for securing this important debate.

St Mary’s Hospice at Ulverston, St John’s Hospice at Lancaster and the Eden Valley Hospice at Carlisle provide tender, professional and specialist care for people with life-limiting conditions and their loved ones—something we are so grateful for. They prove that life has dignity from beginning to end. Hospitals, however marvellous they are, do not have the resources to replicate the care that is provided by hospices.

The costs of running a hospice have gone through the roof in recent times. Val Stangoe, the chief executive of St Mary’s, one of our three local hospices, said to me:

“The recent settlement by the NHS Lancashire South Cumbria ICB of 0.0%”—

as pointed out by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith)—

“has left our hospices in a state of financial deficit, with potential loss of hospice beds and services.”

She went on:

“Your local hospices”—

our hospices—

“are now operating on a deficit budget, have received the lowest settlements in England. The proposed 0.0% uplift equates to almost 10% in cuts, significantly impacting delivery of services. This stands in contrast to other regions, where hospices have received an average uplift of 2.7%”—

which is not enough. She continued:

“The disproportionate treatment faced by hospices in Lancashire South Cumbria is unfair and must be addressed.”

My fundamental ask of the Minister is this: will she directly involve herself in that situation to stop our hospices in Cumbria suffering? I have been asking the Government for months to come up with a scheme to help hospices that are struggling with their energy costs, which have gone up three times in recent months. There are lots of promises and no action.

There is a cost to meeting the NHS pay settlement. There is a cost to ensuring that hospices are paid properly so that they can pay their staff, keep them, and recruit them in the first place, and so that they can pay their energy bills. But the cost of not doing that is far greater, not only in terms of the health damage and people’s pain and suffering, but for the hospitals that have to pick up the pieces when hospices are not able to meet people’s needs.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) on securing this debate, and everyone who has spoken. We have heard some fantastic speeches.

Hospices provide a vital public service, but it is important to recognise that they are not, and do not want to be, part of the publicly funded NHS. Their flexibility as independent organisations helps them to meet the many and varied needs of people at the end of their life and with life-limiting conditions. They do a fantastic job of fundraising to support their activities so that they can deliver impact way beyond the value of the small public contributions they receive.

I am fortunate to have two brilliant hospices in my patch—St Richard’s Hospice and Acorns Children’s Hospice. I remember the first time I visited St Richard’s, and there was a sense of trepidation. It is a place where people go to die; would it not be a sad and depressing visit? Not a bit. I was amazed at how uplifting and positive it was. A few months later, I sadly got to know the hospice much better. Just a month after I was elected, my father was admitted to St Richard’s Hospice, and it provided amazing care and incredible support to my family. I echo the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), who talked about people dying with dignity with their loved ones around them. That is what the work of adult hospices should be, and is, all about.

St Richard’s tells me that only about £700,000 of its £12 million income comes from the NHS and the public purse. It has been offered an uplift of 1.8% by our local ICB, which would be worth about £40,000. A 1% pay rise for its staff would cost about double that, and matching the NHS 5% increase would cost about 10 times as much. I will not ask Ministers to take over funding for hospices, or the NHS to take a much larger share of hospice funding, but it is fair to ask them to provide help when inflation and the Government’s own pay increases are driving up costs for hospices. The ask from Hospice UK is for £30 million of Government funding to offset the increase in energy bills and £102 million for hospices in England to help them to keep pace with NHS pay rises in the next year. That is not unreasonable.

Children’s hospices also do an amazing job. They are also uplifting and inspiring places, as we have heard from many Members. I am fortunate to have Acorns in my patch, which has already been mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton). It has a new CEO and it is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary. I want that to be a successful moment, and certainty about the children’s hospice grant would be incredibly helpful in that respect. The grant has sustained children’s hospices—it has kept them going year after year—but its short-term nature has become a problem for them.

We recently saw some welcome news from the Government about sports funding in schools—they have finally provided a multi-year settlement after many years of not being able to do so—and I hope they consider doing the same for children’s hospices. A multi-year settlement would make a massive difference, and giving some certainty that the grant will be renewed is essential.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) for securing this important debate and for his incredibly powerful speech; I pass on my condolences. I also pay tribute to Barnsley Hospice and Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice in South Yorkshire, which I want to focus on.

Six-year-old Daniel from Darfield in Barnsley has been receiving care at Bluebell Wood for mitochondrial disease and cerebral palsy. He struggles to sit, eat and stand, and his family simply do not know how long they have left, but they treasure every day despite facing many challenges. Daniel has received excellent care, and his family are grateful to Bluebell Wood for all that it does, but they want greater security for hospices and they want to speak directly to the Government to ask for it, because they do not know whether Daniel will be able to receive the end of life care that he might need at Bluebell Wood. I have raised this issue at Prime Minister’s questions and I was grateful for my discussion with the Minister when I met her a few weeks ago.

Last year, Bluebell Wood hospice was forced to close because of staffing pressures. It is now open again, but only to 90% of its capacity. When I visited a few weeks ago, the staff spoke about not only how they are of course there to provide end of life care, but how they do so much more. They provide respite care and support for parents, siblings and families. They try to provide fun and happiness, to make memories at what is an incredibly difficult and traumatic time. I saw that work at first hand. It was incredibly moving also to see at first hand the hospice’s end of life suite. The staff took me into what they call the cold room, which is where families will spend their final time together at the very end of the life and after passing. Often, it is where the larger family can say their goodbyes.

The staff told me that there is nothing they can do to prolong a child’s life at the worst moment in a family’s life, but what they can do is do everything they can to support families, which is often so important to the grieving process. That is the most powerful case for the provision of greater support and security for hospices—for all the different things we have spoken about today, including the continuation of the energy support grant, particularly for children’s hospices, and of course the provision of a longer-term and more secure model.

I conclude by thanking the amazing staff, medics and volunteers who continue to do all the work that they do at Bluebell Wood, at Barnsley Hospice and at hospices across the country, so that Daniel and all the children and young people in a similar situation receive the care they deserve when they need it.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Nokes, and I thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) for securing this timely and important debate.

For children in York, hospice care is provided by Martin House, and for adults by St Leonard’s. I pay tribute to all the staff at both hospices for their services and their love, care, professionalism, sacrifice and dedication for their patients and the families they serve. Where would we be without them? I will never forget the doctor, who had experience right across the NHS, who told me that before she came to St Leonard’s she had never seen care like it. That is what people across this country experience as they pass from this world.

Hospices are special places, as we have heard at lot in this debate, but they are also important places whose funding we cannot just leave to the rattling of tins. That is why it is so important that we focus on their funding, which is the call from today’s debate that the Minister must hear loud and clear. It is not good enough just to say that ICBs have the money and it is their decision, because ultimately hospices need funding from the Government. Now that the Government have put it on the statute book, thanks to the Lords, they need to make sure that they put the money behind this service.

Let me talk about St Leonard’s, which this year faces a £1 million deficit. It has not received the increase in funding to cope with the pressures of inflation. It received just £340,000 from the better care fund, which is the same amount as in 2016. There has been no increase, despite the fact that there has been an increase in the number of patients, moving from 200 back then, with the hospice-at-home service, to 700 patients a year now. St Leonard’s provides excellent care in the home, allowing people to choose where they die and the support they receive when they die.

The hospice faces fuel costs that are up by 180% for that hospice-at-home service. Of course, the in-patient service has seen energy costs rising, alongside the rising cost of food and so many other things. Indeed, staffing costs have also increased and are up by 31% over the last three years. We cannot just keep rattling tins when the cost of living crisis is impacting on everyone; we need to find a secure, assured and long-term funding solution for the services we are talking about.

Less than 30% of St Leonard’s funding comes from statutory sources. That situation cries out to this Government: “Surely, ensuring that people have a good death is worth finding the money for.” That is why I call on the Minister to think about what this means not just for NHS budgets but for families, carers and all the people who depend on hospice services. We need to move urgently to find that security, just as people find that security at the end of life.

This is one of those occasions when being called last means I gain a minute, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to do just that—thank you, Ms Nokes. I thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) for setting the scene so well, and for giving us the chance to participate in a debate that moves us all. Some Members have told very personal stories.

I put on the record my thanks to all the charities, groups and staff who give hospice care, and give families, and us in this House, so much across this great United Kingdom. Our NHS is under immense strain, and we completely understand that there is a finite budget, but questions have to be asked about the use of funds when we look at those at the end of their lives living in conditions that are not acceptable. Rising costs from energy, food prices and staff costs, which are required to meet expected NHS pay rises, mean that hospices across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are collectively budgeting for a massive deficit of £186 million this year. Unless we are going to understaff, under-feed, under-medicate or under-heat our dying patients, more money is needed—that is the bottom line.

It is always a pleasure to see the Minister in her place. She grasps the situation very well. She is a lady well known for her compassion and understanding, and I look forward to her response. I agree with Hospice UK, which says that hospices need financial support to continue to offer their essential services. Government funding of £30 million for UK hospices to offset the increased cost of energy bills in the year ahead needs to go beyond the energy bills discount scheme. Additional funding for hospices from the Department of Health in Northern Ireland is also needed; I do not know whether the Minister has had a chance to consider that. The fact is that funding for hospice care is unsustainable. By the end of the year, 86% of hospices will be impacted by increasing energy prices. They need to keep medical machines running and their in-patient units warm for those in their care. Some 71% of hospice expenditure is on staff, which is a massive issue. As I referred to in an intervention, charities and volunteers run 66% of adult hospices and 80% of children’s hospices.

Over the next few years, I and others, as we often do, will help those hospices. Marie Curie, based in Knock Road in Belfast, is a hospice that I have visited to see people who have now passed away. I understand what such hospices do. The facts are clear: savings can always be made with improvements, but on nowhere near the scale that is needed. I therefore believe, with respect, that the Government and the Minister must man the breach. We regularly prioritise human rights in other nations, and the most basic right to a good death must be prioritised in the United Kingdom. That is what we want. It is a very simple request, and I hope the Minister can answer in a positive fashion.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) on securing the debate, and echo the tributes and condolences that have been paid to his chief of staff, and all those who knew her.

Many, if not most, people will know, or know of, someone who has passed away in the care of a hospice. The hon. Members for Blackburn (Kate Hollern), for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Worcester (Mr Walker) all spoke of their personal experiences. I have spoken previously of Liz Quinn, a long-standing activist in Glasgow Kelvin SNP, who spent her final days in the Marie Curie Hospice in Glasgow shortly before the 2017 election. In a debate in March I spoke about my good friend Melanie, who at that point was receiving care from the wonderful and dedicated staff at the Highland Hospice in Inverness. That care continued right up until the end, about a month or so later.

In many ways, that care provision has not stopped, because the hospice is still there to support Melanie’s husband, their son, and other family and friends. The compassion and support shown by the hospice movement, both before and after bereavement, is another of the aspects that make it such a special and valuable service. For that, we thank all those who work and volunteer for our hospices. The wraparound care—from the respite, which is beneficial to both the patient and their family, to ongoing support for their emotional wellbeing, practical advice for families dealing with finances, and signposting to other more specialised services, especially helping younger people and children to come to terms with trauma and loss—is all part of the service.

As we have heard, that incredible work is mostly done without reliance on public funding. Hospice UK estimates that up to two thirds of adult hospice income, and four fifths of children’s hospice income, derives from fundraising. Much like the hon. Member for Eastleigh, I hope to contribute in a small way by running the Loch Lomond 10K on Saturday for the Highland Hospice in memory of Melanie—perhaps we can swap JustGiving pages. We can aim to the heights of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) by running a marathon eventually.

As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, we ought to express our thanks to all the people who have raised funds in so many ways; whether that is through runs, bungee jumps, skydives or marathons, it is admirable and inspiring. But increasingly it is not enough. The cumulative impact of energy, food, staffing and other price rises have left the hospice sector across the UK budgeting for a deficit of around £186 million this year. It is becoming a literally existential crisis for many individual hospices. In particular, we should recognise the work of the all-party parliamentary group on hospice and end of life care. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) for the report that was produced early this year.

Perhaps in some areas of the public sector, maybe even in health or wider services, there are possibilities to cut costs, but that is much more difficult for hospices. Medical machinery must be able to run 24/7 and 365 days a year. Temperature control—usually that means heating, although in the current season it may mean a little bit of cooling—is vital because maintaining comfortable temperatures for patients is a key aspect of palliative care, as is the provision of wholesome nutritious and tasty food.

The Government may have a target of reducing energy and food inflation, but that does not mean prices reducing; lower inflation just means prices rising a little slower. All that is driving wage inflation. Of course hospices want to be able to keep up with NHS pay rises. The better pay and conditions are for staff, the better level of service they in turn will be able to provide for those in their care.

We must acknowledge that there are staff shortages across the health and care sector as a result of the Government’s decision to force through a hard Brexit. We will never know how many trained and talented health and medical workers arrive here on small boats because the Government refuse to ask them—they would prefer to put them up in hotels or deport them to Rwanda than let them put their skills to use in hospices or hospitals.

The risk of all those challenges is a reduction in a service that everyone who has spoken in this debate agrees is of immense value on so many levels, but reduced provision is not going to mean that there is reduced demand. In fact, Sue Ryder has calculated that demand for palliative care in England is likely to rise by 55% in the next 10 years. If the hospice sector cannot provide the care, the costs will still have to be met from somewhere, either by the NHS directly, by other social care providers, by local authorities or ultimately by the families of the people who need the care themselves. They will have to take time out of the workforce to become full-time carers or pay emotional, psychological or even physical costs to their own wellbeing as they try to cope without professional support. That in turn simply increases costs for social security or the NHS. Therefore, in a way, providing adequate support for palliative care now also has longer-term preventive effects in the future.

The sector has made its funding requirements clear to the UK and Scottish Governments. Those include at least £30 million to offset energy costs above and beyond what is provided through the energy bills discount scheme. Sue Ryder sees the need for a step change in the funding approach, saying a commitment to fund 70% of total palliative care costs is the minimum required to ensure the sustainability of the sector in the medium term. In his intervention, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) made an important point about budgeting certainty.

The Government must take this seriously. Access to care and compassion at the end of life should not have to be fought for or seen as some kind of luxury. If Westminster Hall debates are to have any kind of impact, it should be to give notice to the Government of the challenges that lie ahead and an indication that our constituents are paying attention. Sixteen Back Benchers in a Westminster Hall debate—it is a pretty good show these days. That is to say nothing of the eight different interventions. That suggests the seriousness with which the Government must take this issue.

Many people in Glasgow North are thankful for the support that the hospice sector has provided to their loved ones. I hope the Minister, when she responds, will agree that a cost of living crisis should not be allowed to turn into a cost of dying crisis.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. This has been a really important and good debate; we do not always say that about debates in this place. I thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) for securing it. He spoke with great passion and personal insight, and I am sure Sue’s family and friends will thank him for what he said. I also thank all hon. Members who spoke about their personal experiences. It is not always easy to do that here, but they have shown great courage.

Many Members thanked the amazing hospices in their constituencies. I hope they will forgive me for also paying tribute to LOROS Hospice in Leicester West, which I have visited many times. I am blown away by the care and compassion there, and the complete humanity shown to others. I am very grateful for that.

The argument I want to make today is that we need a much bigger, more serious debate about what makes for a good death, in the words of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Policy really needs to change across the board. When the welfare state and the NHS were created, average life expectancy was 63. Now it is over 80, and one in four babies born today is going to live to 100. Back then, most people died of infectious diseases or accidents. Now, it is long-term chronic conditions. That means we are now experiencing death in a very different way. Often, death is not sudden; it may be long and difficult, both physically and emotionally.

Hospices—including hospice at home, because that is where many people want to die—need to be seen as an essential part of our health and care system, not an optional extra, a luxury or an add-on, as part of that much bigger debate about what makes for a good death. “A good death” is not perhaps a great campaigning slogan for any political party to focus on, but it is the truth of what we face, and politics needs to keep up with the changes in society. We need to start looking at that. The vital role of hospices and the need to properly plan a funding system, our workforce, training and how we link services and support is the context within which I see today’s debate. Quite frankly, people do not want to die in hospital. They want to die in the community and at home, with integral support for family and friends. That is our vision; that is what we need to deliver.

I thank the shadow Minister for giving way. I completely agree with the points she has raised. I thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) for bringing the debate forward and for sharing his personal story, as have others in this room. It is not easy to share those stories, but it is important that we do.

I have seen first hand how hospices play a vital role in communities. They go over and beyond, and are truly heroic. I am patron of Greenwich and Bexley Community Hospice in my constituency; I have seen how they provide compassionate end of life care. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that the Government recognise the issues hospices face, particularly during the pandemic and with the cost of living crisis?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and will come on to many of the points she raises.

I want to touch on about five issues, as part of shifting us to a different position on how we ensure people have a good death in the 21st century. The first issue, which I hope the Minister will comment on, and which all right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about, is the real need to review how hospices in England are funded, so that this absolutely critical sector has certainty and security in the months and years ahead. That was a key recommendation of the all-party parliamentary group for hospice and end of life care.

Many Members have spoken about the huge financial pressures on hospices: food prices, energy costs, the costs of NHS pay settlements. As Sue Ryder says, most hospices have seen a 10% increase in their costs, but only a 1% increase and in some cases no increase at all in NHS funding from integrated care boards, creating a perfect storm. ICBs have a statutory requirement to meet palliative care and end of life needs of their populations, but where is the funding? I hope the Minister will say whether the Government will institute the review because, without that, we will not have security for the future.

My second point, which has not been discussed in this debate but which I care passionately about—I would like to hear the Minister say something about this—is inequalities in access to hospice, end of life and palliative care. We know from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology that the pandemic exacerbated inequalities in accessing good palliative and end of life care for minority ethnic groups, and there are also socio-economic inequalities in access to hospice care. We know from Sue Ryder that there are also inequalities in access to bereavement support. We want to see everybody have fair access. Will the Minister say something about that?

The third issue relates to help to die at home, something I have campaigned on for many years as a Member of Parliament. There are still at least 10,000 people a year dying in hospital when they want the choice of dying at home. They are not getting the fast track NHS continuing healthcare support that they are supposed to get within 48 hours so that they can die at home. Our brilliant hospices have all sorts of support that they want to give, so I ask the Minister: why is that still a problem and what are we doing about it?

My next issue, which has been raised by many Members, concerns children’s hospices. Rainbows, the sole children’s hospice in the east midlands, wrote to me to express its concern about the children’s hospice grant potentially being wound up. As recently as 22 May, the Government replied to a written question:

“Funding arrangements for children’s hospices beyond 2023/24 have not yet been agreed.”

We cannot have children’s hospices not knowing what is happening to their grants. We have to be able plan ahead better.

Fourthly is something that my hospice, LOROS, has raised with me, but also lots of care homes. Bear with me on this. Many care homes are now essentially providing a lot of end of life care because the level of need that people have when they go into a care home is so great that that is what they need. But the staff might not be properly trained, and LOROS has said that it could work with care homes to make sure the staff are trained. That is one specific ask, so perhaps the Minister could meet me and LOROS to look at what hospices could do to better support our care homes.

Last but by no means least is workforce shortages. Sue Ryder stated:

“The Government must plan for the workforce as a whole system across health and social care”

and charitable providers. That is really important. We have to stop seeing all those different bits of the system as separate. We Labour Members have set out our plans for the biggest expansion in the NHS workforce’s history and for fair pay agreements and for social care staff. We urgently need to see the Government’s workforce plan, and I would like to see that covering all the issues.

In conclusion, we have heard today about the manifold pressures on hospices. I do not think I have ever been in a debate where so many Members have spoken so powerfully and positively about a part of the health and care system and what it does. It shows the strength of feeling and support, but I ask everyone here to think about how we as a Parliament can put achieving a good death as a big thing that we can make progress on and continue this campaign in future. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) for securing this debate on hospices, and I thank all hon. Members who have contributed. Both the number of colleagues in the room and the passion of so many contributions show the strength of feeling and level of support for hospices in all our communities.

We have heard from so many colleagues this morning: my hon. Friends the Members for Darlington (Peter Gibson), for Aberconwy (Robin Millar), for Bolton West (Chris Green), for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for North West Norfolk (James Wild) and for Worcester (Mr Walker), and the hon. Members for Blackburn (Kate Hollern), for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), for York Central (Rachael Maskell), for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). In addition, many other hon. Members have contributed by intervening. In the course of today’s debate, many fantastic local hospices have rightly been praised for what they do for our communities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh spoke about the Mountbatten hospice in his constituency and how it cared so wonderfully for his friend and colleague Sue Hall. Many hon. Members spoke about their personal experiences, which often involved family members, and the amazing ways that hospices have helped family members and themselves through difficult times. I, too, remember the amazing care that my granny received in her local hospice in Dorset when I was in my twenties. I still hold in my head the experience of visiting her there—the tranquillity of the hospice and the amazing care that she was clearly receiving, which made the last weeks of her life as bearable as possible. I remember the kindness and peace that I felt there in that hospice. I, too, have that personal experience and appreciation of what hospices do.

A theme of this debate has, rightly, been the importance of dying well—dying with dignity and dying with the right care in the place where a person wants to die, which is very often at home. Dying well depends on good end of life care, for which we in this country rightly have a good reputation. Most end of life care is provided through NHS services, but hospices are an important part of end of life and palliative care in our communities. As we know, hospices provide care in their facilities, but increasingly and very importantly they provide care to people in their own homes towards the end of their lives, and also support families through those difficult times and through bereavement.

The end of life care that I spoke about in my contribution, which is so important, remains closed at Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice; it is the one part of the hospice that has been unable to reopen. Will the Minister commit to doing everything that she can to support the hospice to reopen, so that it can continue to provide end of life care, and not just all the other services it provides to families that need them so much?

As the hon. Member mentioned earlier, we have indeed met and spoken about the hospice to which she refers. I have also met with several other hon. Members. I am grateful to them for coming to me to talk about the specific difficult situations faced by some of the hospices serving their communities.

That brings me to exactly what I was coming to talk about: the financial pressures on hospices, which have been a strong theme of the debate. I know very well, not just from this debate but from conversations with hospices, about the financial challenges that hospices are facing. In fact, financial challenges are being faced by many organisations that provide care in our communities, whether NHS organisations or care homes, as the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) mentioned. In particular, there are the extra pressures of energy costs—such organisations often use substantial amounts of energy—and the higher costs of staff pay. We know that many hospices pay their staff in alignment with the NHS agenda for change pay scales.

An additional difficult context for hospices at the moment is fundraising. That was clearly hard during the pandemic, but since then many households have been affected by the higher cost of living and therefore have found it harder to contribute to fundraising efforts in their communities, including those organised by hospices. I know how hard that context is for our hospices.

On energy costs, many hospices have been able to benefit from the Government’s energy bill relief scheme, which ran to 31 March. Eligible organisations, including hospices, will continue to get baseline discount support for gas and electricity bills under the energy bills discount scheme, which is running from 1 April 2023 to 31 March 2024. In addition, last year NHS England released £1.5 billion of extra funding to integrated care boards in recognition of the extra costs arising from inflation in the services they commission. ICBs have been responsible for distributing that funding according to local need, including to palliative and end of life care providers in our communities, whether they are NHS organisations or hospices.

Of course, ICBs are not elected, but the Minister is. She heard what the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) and I had to say about the 0% increase that the Lancashire and South Cumbria ICB has granted—or not granted—our hospices. Will she directly get involved in that to fix it so we do not have to have the 10% cuts that St Mary’s Hospice thinks we will have to deliver?

I will not commit to getting involved in a specific conversation between a hospice and an ICB. That would not be the right thing for me to do as a Minister. The hon. Gentleman and I have had several conversations over the years that I have been a Minister, so he will not be surprised to hear that I have been seeking transparency about the extent to which the funding has or has not gone to hospices. I have been seeking data on whether the rates being paid to hospices have or have not gone up so that we have transparency about the extent to which the funding that has gone to integrated care boards to support with inflation is getting through to the services that need support.

Although I acknowledge and appreciate everything the Government did to support hospices during covid, it is simply not the case that every ICB across the country is passing the right amount of money to the hospices from which it commissions services. Will the Minister commit to publishing information about which ICBs are stepping up to the plate and fulfilling their statutory obligations, and which are not?

I commit to continuing to dig into getting visibility on the extent to which extra funding is going through to hospices. Of course, there is a balance to be struck when giving integrated care boards the freedom to do what we want them to do, which is to understand fully the needs for care in their populations, and make good decisions about how they fund care for their populations. None of us believes that a Minister in Westminster has the answers about what should happen and exactly how funding should be distributed in every single one of our communities. I will continue to get that visibility, because it is important that we know the extent to which our hospices are getting support for the extra financial pressures that we have been discussing.

I will make a bit of progress, because I am conscious that the clock is ticking.

Integrated care boards are responsible for ensuring the provision of the end of life and palliative care that is needed in our communities across England. In addition to the funding, I am working with NHS England to ensure greater visibility relating to what that means in practice and what is being commissioned.

The shadow Minister’s point about inequality of access was very important. We know that there is inequality of access to palliative and end of life care. Some communities are much better served than others, in part due to the fantastic legacy of our hospices: where there is a really good hospice, there is often much better access to end of life and palliative care around it. We want to improve equality and reduce some of the disparities in access to end of life care. As part of that, people should be able to do what most people want—to die at home with the right support in place.

I want to talk about the funding for children’s hospices, which several hon. Members brought up. Recognising the importance of palliative and end of life care for children and young people, NHS England provided £25 million specifically for that, via the children’s hospice grant during this financial year. I have, of course, heard the calls for that grant to be continued, and for greater continuity and visibility of funding further out. I cannot say more on that today, but I can assure hon. Members that I have been speaking to NHS England about that funding beyond this year. I do expect further new to be communicated about that shortly, appreciating the level of concern among hon. Members and children’s hospices in their communities.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. The Health and Care Act 2022 put a responsibility to fund palliative care on the statute books. Will the Minister set out what has changed, to enable that funding to come forward? We know there are people in our communities who are not receiving that care, although they need to now under the law. The funding needs to be in place for them to receive the care that they need at the end of life.

That alludes to exactly the point I made a moment ago. As flagged in that 2022 Act, ICBs have responsibility for commissioning that care, using the budgets they receive through NHS England. I am working to ensure the visibility of the commissioning, to be assured that that is taking place, so that we can be assured about the availability of end of life and palliative care for our communities.

I want to make a final point as I close; I am looking at the clock ticking. Against the backdrop of financial concerns, which I of course recognise and which we are discussing, is the strength of hospices in their communities, and the importance, as mentioned by hon. Friends, that they are not solely financially dependent on the state and the NHS for funding. They receive some NHS funding, but it is important that hospices are successful in fundraising and gaining support from our communities. That is one of the strengths of their model, and I want to continue to support that.

I pay tribute to all the volunteers and those involved in fundraising, including many hon. Members this morning who mentioned the fundraising efforts that they are personally making for hospices in their communities. I wish very good luck to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh for his forthcoming skydive. All credit to him for having the courage to jump out of an aeroplane. I sincerely hope that he is successful.

I wish him very good luck; it is fabulous that he is doing that for his own hospice. I also commend the efforts of many other hon. Members. I conclude by thanking all hon. Members for coming today and for their contributions to this important debate.

Thank you, Ms Nokes. I will briefly wind up by saying thanks to all hon. Members for the heartfelt contributions that they have made. It has been incredibly humbling sitting here. If my career does end on 24 June with my skydive, and this is the one thing I have managed to do, it will be entirely worth it. I thank the Minister for responding. I also thank Sue’s family—her husband Jerry and her girls Rosie and Phoebe—who have been immensely strong over the past year or so.

I hope the Minister has recognised that there are serious concerns about the funding of hospices. In the environment she set out of the ICBs being given the money, she should take credit for the uplift they have been given. I hope that after this morning’s debate she will take a stronger line in holding those ICBs to account because, frankly, that money is not getting through when it should.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered support for hospice services.

Bank Closures: Stoke-on-Trent North

I will call Jonathan Gullis to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. As this is a 30-minute debate, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to make a winding-up speech.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered bank closures in Stoke-on-Trent North constituency.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for permitting the debate, and I thank right hon. and hon. Friends, including the Minister, for attending. There is one Member who would like to be here—my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), whose constituency is also suffering a closure—and he is hoping to join us later, and I place on the record my thanks for my hon. Friend’s support.

Banks are at the very heart of local communities, and they provide the most vulnerable people in society with vital services and support with their money. Banks have been at the centre of high streets up and down this great country for generations, drawing people to the local area, which has the added benefit of increasing footfall for local businesses. In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, we have a Lloyds in Tunstall and a Barclays in Kidsgrove, but constituents tell me that they feel there is already a significant lack of access to in-person banking services, which impacts the most vulnerable in our communities—the elderly and the disabled—disproportionately.

According to Which?, 86% of banks have closed in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke since 2015, which in my opinion justifies my constituents’ concerns. At the national level too, there has been a significant number of closures: between June 2015 and January 2023, 5,391 bank branches closed in the United Kingdom, which is a shocking 54 per month. This year, regrettably, the pace of closure has not relented, with 114 HSBC, 95 Barclays, 52 NatWest and 23 Lloyds branches closing their doors, leaving gaping holes in local high streets and local communities.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter forward. My constituency has had 11 banks close, which is similar to the experience in Stoke. When it comes to closing banks and the effect that has, does he agree that there never seems to be any consideration given to elderly people who depend on the old system of using cash and cheque books, face-to-face interviews and talking with bank staff?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right not only about the elderly, but about people who do not have online access, or have no desire to have it, or who do not understand the modern technology about which we have the benefit of learning in this day and age. Such people have a natural mistrust of online banking because they are fearful of scammers and the online hoaxes that have sadly become all too apparent in our criminal justice system. If the Barclays closure goes ahead, Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke will be left with just one high street bank, which is simply not good enough.

I am pleased to have secured the debate given the terrible news that Barclays has announced its intention to close the Kidsgrove branch on 11 August. That decision will leave that great town without a single bank and leave the community isolated from vital in-person banking services, which provide local people with reassurance and confidence with respect to their money, particularly during a cost of living crisis.

It is right to point out that digitalisation has transformed the way that families and businesses deposit, withdraw and save their money, and in Stoke-on-Trent we have been rolling out brand-new 5G broadband, which is increasing our connectivity, and which will undoubtedly make online banking more effective. The digital revolution means that banks are innovating, and Barclays points out in its argument for closing the branch that

“the way people bank today is unrecognisable from 50 years ago”.

However, it is of paramount importance that we do not let digitalisation exclude people in our community from banking services.

The services that bank branches provide are most important for vulnerable members of society, and closures impact them the most. One of my constituents, Dawn from Kidsgrove, told me that her father, who is an elderly customer, would find it “impossible” to travel to Crewe or to Hanley to visit a Barclays branch, that his deafness means he cannot use telephone banking, and that he is not confident enough to use internet banking.

As the Chief Secretary to the Treasury pointed out in the 2020 access to cash call for evidence:

“exclusion from banking services can have a detrimental impact on people’s lives. Whilst card payments and other payments services are becoming increasingly popular, the evidence shows that a significant proportion of the UK population continues to rely on cash in their day to day lives.”

The Financial Conduct Authority states that banks are expected to carefully consider the impact of planned branch closures on the everyday banking and cash access needs of their customers, and to take particular care for their most vulnerable customers.

I have launched a petition to save Barclays branch from closure, and it has nearly 450 signatures already. That shows the strength of local feeling that Barclays is not upholding its responsibility to look after its most vulnerable customers.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. We are also facing the closure of a Barclays branch in Wombourne, which is going to have a devastating impact on the village, and on the access to banking facilities for many elderly people, as well as for businesses. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is time for Barclays to rethink? It is often the last bank in town, and we need that in order for our communities to thrive.

My right hon. Friend and Staffordshire colleague has been a fantastic champion for that great country for many years. He is entirely correct that there needs to be a rethink. It is starting to feel, albeit unintentionally, like Barclays has something personal against Staffordshire, with Kidsgrove, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Wombourne all facing branch closures. This has not been well thought through, particularly as residents may have to travel to Crewe or Hanley. That is not an easy journey for the constituents of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson), as I am sure public transport connectivity is not what he would desire.

A journey to Crewe is a significant one even from the place I am proud to serve, particularly if households do not own a vehicle and rely on public transport that is not well connected to the surrounding north Staffordshire area and the Cheshire boundary. I hope that common sense will prevail here, and that Barclays will engage with my right hon. Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and myself to talk about what can be done to help protect its customers in these difficult times.

One of my constituents, Ms Green, told me that

“many disabled people and pensioners will suffer”.

That makes me question whether Barclays is even complying with the FCA’s guidance. Crucially, 40% of over-65s—over 4 million people—do not manage their money online. That is because online banking is difficult to navigate and automatic telephone responses are monotonous and impersonal. A constituent wrote to me to say that they found telephone banking

“confusing and difficult to hear.”

A recent survey by Accenture illustrates that point, finding that 44% of over-55s would rather visit their branch. It also showed that in-person banking was also popular among over 20% of younger people.

Alongside the impact the branch closure will have on vulnerable people, it is impossible to underestimate the financial security implications of a lack of in-person banking. Since Barclays announced its closures, I have been inundated with correspondence from local people outraged that Kidsgrove is losing its last remaining bank. One constituent told me that they are “appalled” at the announcement, and that it will put the elderly

“at greater risk of getting scammed.”

Dr Daniel Tischer of the University of Bristol noted that,

“the danger of mass cyber-attacks... looms ominously”.

He also noted that there is a genuine risk of cyber-crime, scams and fraud. I am certain that the precedent set by bank closures will put people at greater risk, especially the most vulnerable in our society, who lack the digital awareness younger people have to spot clear signs of illicit financial activity. For those people, in-person banking with specialist advisers is crucial. By closing the branch, Barclays is putting people whom it has an obligation to support and protect at a much greater risk.

I apologise for being a little late. I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour on his campaign for the Kidsgrove Barclays branch. As he knows, Barclays has closed the branch in Newcastle-under-Lyme as well, and I too have been inundated with correspondence. My constituents have the option to switch, and I am encouraging them to do so. That option is there because of Government measures that were put in place to make switching easier. My hon. Friend is a superb champion for the people of Kidsgrove in the north of the borough, but they do not have the option to switch. Barclays should think again about both closures—but especially about his.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign and petition, and on guiding those customers of Barclays to other local banking providers that are proudly remaining in the centre of Newcastle-under-Lyme. It is a shame that the decision was made to close both the Kidsgrove and the Newcastle-under-Lyme branches within a two-week period. Ultimately, had a decision been made just on Kidsgrove, at least there would have been some justification for residents of Kidsgrove, Talke and Newchapel to go to Newcastle-under-Lyme, Hanley or Crewe—but Barclays took both branches out.

Local transport is not necessarily the best and not everyone has access to a motor vehicle. The longer journeys make in-person banking services simply not accessible for many. It is therefore wholly appropriate that customers vote with their feet and that people are made aware. There is a Lloyds bank branch available in Tunstall and there are other banking providers in my hon. Friend’s local town of Newcastle-under-Lyme, and I will join him in directing customers to places where they can still access that face-to-face service within a five-mile radius of where they live. My constituent Ms Birchall told me that she feels that older generations are being marginalised. Barclays’ decision undermines its commitments to the Financial Conduct Authority’s guidelines, and it does not do enough to care for the most vulnerable, as the closure clearly increases their exposure to fraud.

Small and medium-sized businesses rely on local banking services to deposit their cash and rely on in-person infrastructure to deposit their earnings and savings. One local business owner told me that they were devastated by the proposed closure of Barclays in Kidsgrove. They said that the queues are so long because some customers had difficulties in using online facilities, and that it will now be far more difficult for those businesses to deposit their cash and earnings, especially after NatWest, TSB and Britannia’s closures.

Not only will Barclays’ decision to close its branch have an impact on local businesses that use the local bank’s services, but the closure may drive people away from the local high street. Over the past 10 years, 10,000 shops, 6,000 pubs, 7,500 banks and more than 1,100 libraries have closed. The impact of closures has been felt especially in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Without doubt, the covid pandemic exacerbated some of the problems local high streets face, with more people than ever before turning to online shopping. Local bank branches incentivise people to visit high streets, with constituents telling me they shop, eat and drink after going to the bank. If the local branch goes, people will be less likely to visit small businesses and help the local economy to grow.

I am passionate about fighting for the health and vitality of the local high streets I am proud to serve. They are the focal point of local communities and a source of immense civic pride. That is especially true in Kidsgrove. With the £17.6 million Kidsgrove town deal—a once-in-a-generation investment in our local community— the new BMX pump track at Newchapel Rec, the 3G astroturf pitches at The King’s Church of England Academy, the newly reopened Kidsgrove Sports Centre and the plans for the shared services hub in the town centre, as well as investment in Kidsgrove railway station, we are attracting more outsiders to visit our local area.

I accept that digitalisation is transforming the way we access banking, but we should do more to explore how we can incorporate banking hubs into our system and into local communities, such as in Kidsgrove. Banking hubs are shared services where customers from almost any bank can visit their local post office and withdraw cash from the counter. Both the Access to Cash action group—CAG—and LINK argue that banking hubs are extremely popular, and their use has doubled since they opened. However, we need to roll out far more of those hubs more widely if they are to negate the demonstrable impact of bank branch closures.

Shared service banking hubs have the potential to be highly valued facilities at the centre of a thriving town centre. I am certain that having banking hubs with specialist advisers from all major banks present in a new and permanent feature on our high street, such as the shared services hub in Kidsgrove we propose to build in the not-too-distant future, would go a long way to not only delivering on the levelling-up agenda that is so important to my constituents, but giving them the reassurance they rightly deserve about having that access.

The Barclays bank closure in Kidsgrove threatens to limit the local community’s access to cash. More than 10 million adults in the UK need access to cash, and this is especially pressing since our most vulnerable constituents rely on cash more and more for things such as budgeting. The independent 2018 access to cash review found that as many as 8 million adults would find a cashless society difficult, and Barclays’ decision to close its branch in Kidsgrove will exclude many people in the local community even more from getting the cash they need to get by on every day.

The impact of irresponsible closures of local bank branches is exacerbated by the decline in the total number of ATMs. A report by Which? found that between January 2018 and September 2019, the number of free-to-use ATMs went down from 54,500 to 47,500, representing a 13% reduction in the size of the free network. As of 2023, there are 3,431 ATMs in the west midlands. The great town of Burslam was the first in the UK with a population of more than 20,000 without either a bank branch or an ATM. We tested an access to cash scheme run by Sonnet in Burslam in 2021. While the pilot found that local people were largely supportive of the cashback services in convenience stores, the free educational services offered over a significant period, aimed at people with poor digital skills, were deeply unpopular and failed to give people the confidence to transition to online banking.

It is undeniable that Barclays’ decision to close its branch in Kidsgrove will leave a gaping hole in our local community, but I want to take the time to point out the measures that Barclays is taking to help the community transition. Barclays has assured me that face-to-face banking continues to play an important role for some of its customers in Kidsgrove through a continued presence in the community via new alternative physical touchpoints in retail outlets and community spaces. I believe that one is planned for the local library. Barclays is introducing specific, targeted support for vulnerable and elderly customers who have been identified as needing additional help. The offering includes one-to-one “tea and teach” sessions to support digital skills capabilities, alongside sharing the services available at the nearby post office and, in due course, at the alternative community banking presence we are seeking to put in place.

Yesterday, Barclays informed me that it will have a team at Kidsgrove Sports Centre for three days a week, offering face-to-face financial support on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. However, that fails to match the services offered from its traditional branch and, crucially, the access to cash pilot in Burslem demonstrated that the educational services were deeply unpopular, with low attendance figures. As such, I am sceptical of the precautions that Barclays has put in place to support local people in the community in Kidsgrove to transition from a physical branch.

Bank closures have a demonstrable impact on local communities like Kidsgrove. My constituent, Ms Leake, wrote to me saying that her mother visits the branch religiously, and I know that Ms Leake’s mother is not alone. As we have discussed today, the closures have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable in our society, with the elderly and disabled facing financial exclusion, as it is far harder for them to use online banking services or travel further afield. Leaving Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke with just one bank on the high street will also put my constituents at greater risk of fraud. Lack of access to in-person banking will put more people at risk of cyber-crime and, once again, the impact will be felt more by our most vulnerable constituents.

Bank closures also disincentivise people from visiting high streets in places like Kidsgrove, which will lead to decreased footfall and have a knock-on impact on small businesses. Banks are at the very heart of communities, and we need to explore how we can expand banking hubs more widely to ensure that people still visit the high street.

With more than 10 million people in the UK needing regular access to cash, further bank closures such as those we are seeing in Kidsgrove exclude my constituents from their money. Given that those from disadvantaged backgrounds rely more heavily on cash, Barclays’ decision impacts our most vulnerable constituents. Ultimately, we need banks in our local communities, and the people who make communities like Kidsgrove great need banks. I urge the Minister to do whatever he can to support areas like Kidsgrove to keep banks on their high streets, as they are so important for economic vitality and as a focal point of support for our most vulnerable constituents.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this debate on a very grave matter that faces his constituents and many others across the country. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) for their contributions, which shows the depth of concern about this significant change.

There is strong feeling here. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North talked about his incredible 450-strong petition from local residents, which demonstrates the real concern of people in Kidsgrove, as well as his formidable capability in representing them and bringing the issue to the national stage. As a fellow local Member of Parliament, I have also focused on helping small high streets in my constituency. I understand the real concern that when an amenity such as a local bank branch closes, there is more jeopardy for the high street. My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight that. It is a credit to him and to Members who have supported him that he has secured that commitment from Barclays for a Barclays Local, which will be just a three-minute walk away from the current branch, offering the face-to-face service that people value so much, three days a week at Kidsgrove Sports Centre. That comes on top of the three free-to-use ATMs at which his constituents will continue to have free access to their cash, and the Post Office, which is doing a valiant job. As consumer patterns change, we often see the Post Office stepping in, and that is one of the things underpinning the continued fortunes of our post office network.

Although it is uncomfortable and difficult, we are seeing a very rapid change in consumer patterns. Local bank branches across the nation are getting fewer and fewer visitors. That does not mean that face-to-face banking is not vital, which is why there are so many regulations in place, administered by the FCA. It is also why it is so important that we all remain vigilant to ensure that the FCA does its job of challenging and pushing back when communities such as Kidsgrove are threatened by the loss of a bank branch, and why it is imperative that adequate alternatives are in place. I fall short of the Government stepping in and making commercial decisions for firms, and I think Members broadly understand why that might be the case.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) set out the interesting idea of hubs working together, which is already being trialled. The Minister rightly says that there is commercial pressure on banks, and they are looking at a different model, but Government have a great ability to act as a convening power, bringing the major high street banks together to look at how they can co-operate and work together to ensure that communities such as those in Kidsgrove, Wombourne and Newcastle-under-Lyme are not excluded.

My right hon. Friend, who exercised his great convening power and delivered great service to the nation, makes a very good point. This agenda is never far from my mind. Only last week, I visited the new banking hub in Acton to see how the Government and the sector are working together to bring forward viable alternatives, and it was impressive to see the range of services offered in a new community hub. I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North all the best with the regeneration project, and perhaps there could one day be a banking hub. For the time being, Barclays is seeking to mitigate the change that is happening.

Members may know that the Financial Services and Markets Bill, which has had its final day of debate in the House of Lords, will shortly be coming back to the Commons for a final time before being put on the statute book. I hope, that will happen within a matter of weeks, if not days. The Bill enshrines for the very first time a statutory right of access to cash—free cash, no less—working with the LINK network and with UK Finance, convened by the Government. That is one of the ways that we seek to underwrite this, and I understand that it is underwriting; it is not the full provision that every colleague seeks.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said, we have to be very mindful of the vulnerable. The Government are committed to cash. It is not the Government’s policy to seek to extricate cash entirely from the system. It is very important to underwrite it for those who are vulnerable, those who have some sort of impairment or simply those who manage their finances through cash.

We have made significant interventions through that Bill—the great clunking force of law—to ensure that our constituents can continue to have access to free cash and, potentially more importantly, although it does not show up as much in our inboxes, that businesses can continue to have access to deposit cash. If they do not have that really important part of the supply chain, businesses will find it more onerous to accept cash, and we will not have the ability to pay with cash.

There is a range of alternatives in place. My hon. Friend is right to have secured this debate on behalf of his constituents and others.

I am pleased with the Minister’s kind words about the importance of this debate. Before the bank is closed, there is due to be a Kidsgrove town deal board meeting, where we will discuss the planning for the shared services hub we hope to create. Could the Minister find time—perhaps just five minutes—to pop in to hear about how this could be a building that fits in with the banking hub being created, and whether, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said earlier, he is convening power to encourage those banks to consider moving into the new facility being created?

I will give that due consideration. I do not want to make a commitment from the Dispatch Box today, in part because we operate a federated tapestry in financial services regulation. The FCA has the primary duty of regulating the banks, and that includes regulating the conduct of bank closures, but it is also the case that there are organisations such as LINK and Cash Access UK, which recently opened the excellent banking hub in Acton—the model to which my hon. Friend perhaps aspires. Rather than the Minister trampling incautiously into that tapestry, I will give consideration and write to my hon. Friend with my suggestions for the best course of action he can take on behalf of his constituents. If a banking hub is the course he seeks, I will of course try to do all I can to support him and his constituents on that journey.

These are not easy matters. We are seeing a significant transition, but I reassure my right hon. and hon. Friends—and you, Ms Nokes—that this remains a point of intense focus for us. It is something we have taken action on, even in legislation going through Parliament right now. I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North and all his constituents, whom he represents so ably in this House, the very best as they seek to do everything they can for their community.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Insolvency Law and Director Disqualifications

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered insolvency law and director disqualifications.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. Thank you for making time for this important debate.

Five years ago, Carillion collapsed in one of the biggest corporate scandals seen in recent years. Millions were racked up in debt, tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs and pensions, and thousands of supply chain businesses were put at risk, all because the auditors failed to hold Carillion’s board to account and a blind eye was turned to poor corporate behaviour. Five years on, have changes to the UK corporate governance regime been made to ensure that such a scandal cannot happen again? The answer, sadly, is not encouraging.

As the Unite the union has stated,

“In the end, four Carillion executives were fined £870,000 in total – a mere slap on the wrist given the hundreds of millions of pounds the company lost and the thousands of lives they ruined.”

Former BBC investigative journalist Bob Wylie, who wrote the Financial Times book of the year “Bandit Capitalism: Carillion and the Corruption of the British State”, summed up the present position perfectly when he said:

“The sad truth is they get away with it because they know they can.”

The most recent figures by the Insolvency Service for 2022-23 show that almost half of disqualifications were because of misuse or abuse of the bounce back loan scheme, rather than more robust action being taken against directors for unfit conduct prior to insolvency. I suggest that that is because the bar for disqualification for unfit conduct is very high and often difficult to prove, particularly where a director can claim to have relied on the advice of external advisers when making decisions. Further, the law surrounding whether directors have acted inappropriately in an insolvency situation, and specifically the point at which directors should begin to consult on redundancies and prioritise payments to creditors prior to insolvency, is ambiguous to say the least.

The Supreme Court recently affirmed that ambiguity in the case of BTI v. Sequana, noting that company directors are only required to begin prioritising creditors if it is probable that their company will plunge into insolvency. The problem is that no one knows what “probable” actually means. As the London Solicitors Litigation Association noted,

“the precise point in time at which the duty will be triggered and how to balance creditors’ interests with other competing interests of the business remains relatively elusive.”

It is that elusiveness that continues to allow some directors to act in a way that is detrimental to workers and other creditors.

The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union highlights the cases of Dawnfresh Seafoods and Orchard House Foods, which it says

“raise significant concerns about the ability of business owners to abuse the process around administration and insolvency, leaving workers in the lurch and denying them the full value of their outstanding pay and redundancy monies owed—whilst Directors walk away with impunity, often with enormous levels of wealth intact.”

In the case of Dawnfresh, the union reports that the director allowed workers to carry on overtime shifts in full knowledge that he was about to bring in the receivers. He also took the opportunity before insolvency to rescue his own private art collection from company premises. The workers were left waiting for weeks without any source of income, obliged to depend on family and friends or use food banks in the resulting emergency, and they included one who was fighting leukaemia. A not dissimilar instance occurred at Orchard House Foods in Gateshead, with redundancy negotiations over the site’s closure seeing the company fail to pay workers ahead of the Christmas period.

Sadly, that practice does not just plague the food sector; it is increasingly evident across the wider economy. Thomas Cook, for example, also failed abjectly to consult over redundancies prior to insolvency, when it was known for some time that the company was in trouble. In a more recent case, journalists at Vice UK faced statutory redundancy terms, with many having to leave with almost nothing because the company filed for bankruptcy, while its recent global CEO was on an annual salary of $1.5 million. It is not just workers who lose out in these situations. Figures disclosed in response to written parliamentary questions tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) indicate that over the last two years alone statutory redundancy payments cost the taxpayer around £300 million.

If the law is not clear enough on the point at which creditors’ interests in an insolvency should be prioritised, what other mechanisms are there to sound the alarm?

I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate. I would like to be here for the whole debate, Ms Fovargue, but I have another event to attend at 3.30 pm. I apologise for not being here for the whole debate. Nevertheless, I would like to make a contribution.

There is another factor as well, which I would just like to outline for the record. Does the hon. Lady agree that in many situations the big businesses that she is referring to have the ability to use accountancy in their favour, by going insolvent and trading under different names, which too often has left those on the bottom of the ladder, such as suppliers and sole workers, with no option other than to swallow the pill and even go bankrupt themselves? Some of my constituents have experienced this. It is difficult to watch directors move on with impunity, while other people have to sell their homes to cover their costs. In other words, the small person at the bottom or the back of the queue always suffers and the big boy gets away.

I thank the hon. Member for his comments and I agree completely. There are huge issues surrounding the area of pre-pack administrations and the issue of phoenix companies, whereby directors are allowed to reappear in another form with the same kind of company structure with complete impunity. This certainly needs to be addressed by the Government.

Other mechanisms exist to sound the alarm on poor corporate governance. That is usually when the role of auditors should be key, but in recent years the unhealthy structure of the industry has been widely criticised, as well as the market dominance and conflicts of interest of the big accountancy firms. In this dysfunctional culture, firms must win and retain engagements from companies in order to generate revenue, but simultaneously they must objectively scrutinise the company reports of the very people they are trying to win business from. Indeed, the symptoms of this flawed culture are clear. The Financial Reporting Council has stated that 29% of the audits delivered by the seven biggest accounting firms fail to meet UK standards. It is abundantly clear that the UK corporate governance regime is in urgent need of reform

What actions have the Government taken so far? In his response to the debate, the Minster will no doubt refer to the Government’s White Paper on reforms to the UK corporate governance code, which the FRC is consulting upon as we speak. However, it is important to note that although the code is underpinned by listing rules that require premium-listed companies to “comply or explain” if they have not complied with a code provision, there is no strict legal requirement to comply with the code at all. It is merely a guidebook, and the lack of legal enforceability is clear. The Financial Times reported only last month that the FRC has reported falling levels of compliance since 2020, suggesting that boards are willing to risk avoiding the “comply or explain” requirements, particularly as the ultimate threat is simply to register dissatisfaction in a non-binding shareholder vote, or one that historically the company has a vanishingly small chance of losing.

Secondly, what is glaringly absent from the Government’s White Paper proposals so far is a statutory and enforceable Sarbanes-Oxley equivalent, which would make directors legally responsible for financial reporting governance. Instead, the White Paper opts for the fluffier “encouragement” of boards to include in their annual reports declarations about whether internal risk management and internal controls are effective or not. Similarly, the provisions that recommend that certain minimum clawback conditions or “trigger points” are included in directors’ remuneration arrangements are welcome in principle, but the reality is that these employment contracts are not publicly available so as to enable enforcement, and annual financial reports rarely provide comprehensive information.

Sadly, even the chief executive of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales believes that the Government’s White Paper proposals on reform of the audit industry do not go far enough, stating:

“Taking these measures as a package with the draft audit reform Bill outlined, the government's approach has a half-hearted and lopsided feel to it… Lessons from Carillion and other recent company failures have been ignored, with little emphasis now on tightening internal controls and modernising corporate governance.”

A further five years on from Carillion, we are no closer to the creation of the Government’s long-promised audit, reporting and governance authority, or the passing of the Government’s promised audit reform Bill. When we can expect legislation on audit reform and the creation of ARGA?

Given these glaring deficiencies in the law, I will be grateful if the Minister considers some simple legislative changes that would provide much-needed clarity and protect workers, creditors, and the long-term health of companies. First, will he widen the scope of directors’ duties in section 172 of the Companies Act 2006, so that a duty is not owed solely to shareholders, as at present, but is owed to workers and other stakeholders as well? That must sit alongside a clear duty to prioritise the long-term welfare of a company, rather than simply the short-term maximisation of shareholder dividends.

Secondly, with regard to the duties of directors prior to insolvency, will the Government legislate to set clear definitions and parameters for when insolvency is deemed to be a “probable” event? That would provide much-needed clarity on when a duty to consult on redundancies is triggered, and when payments to workers and creditors need to be prioritised over shareholder dividend extraction.

Thirdly, will the Minister comment on why the Government proposals made in recent years to introduce workers on boards have been shelved? Will he commit to examine and develop policy in the light of the experience of other European jurisdictions, where direct representations of employees on both unitary and two-tier boards has actually helped to improve corporate performance and success, for the benefit of all stakeholders? Last, will he introduce clear Sarbanes-Oxley-equivalent legislation that would finally make directors legally responsible for financial reporting governance? If not, can he explain clearly the Government’s reasons for avoiding that in favour of more diluted and legally unenforceable guidance?

It is clear that the current UK corporate governance regime has become dysfunctional, ambiguous and unenforceable. Despite numerous scandals, it still has no room for the protection of employees and other stakeholders. I hope the Minister can reassure me today that things will change. Thank you for the opportunity to hold this debate, Ms Fovargue.

Thank you, Ms Fovargue—I always find the pronunciation difficult. That is my fault, not that of the spelling. I do not have a lot to say, other than to compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on her speech. To be frank, I am here to listen to the Minister’s report on progress to date.

I believe that in 2018-19, my hon. Friend was involved in work with Lord Prem Sikka on the development of a report on regulatory structures and standards overall. Having identified that my hon. Friend had obtained this debate, I looked back to her work with Prem Sikka on that regulatory regime. To be frank, I am looking forward to the Minister’s response, because it seems not an awful lot has moved on.

That report came out of Carillion and a number of other cases. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made the point that a number of companies went into insolvency and left behind large-scale debts, large numbers of workers laid off and contracts not fulfilled. In Liverpool, the collapse of Carillion meant that a hospital would not be built in the required timescale, causing considerable distress at the time.

Prem Sikka produced a comprehensive report. So that people are aware of Prem Sikka’s background, he is a professor of accountancy. He became an adviser to Select Committees and Government about 30 years ago and went on to advise on the appalling Bank of Credit and Commerce International banking scandal. He demonstrated his expertise and as a result was regularly called to advise Select Committees when different issues arose. He then set up a group of lawyers and accountants to examine and explore corporate abuse. They published a book about 10 years ago, if I remember rightly, and I brought together his group to take advice on where we went from here. That is how the connection was made. When Carillion happened and we desperately needed someone to advise us—he was already advising Select Committees—he came on to advise us.

What was startling about Prem Sikka’s report was his description of a maze of regulatory bodies—the chaos of the regulatory bodies. They all had a particular role to play, but none of them played the role effectively, and those who had committed what I think were economic and financial crimes during that period walked away without any loss to themselves. The report identified extraordinary and bizarre issues. Among the financial sector regulators, he identified 41—I think he gave up after No. 41—different agencies involved in financial regulation, which bizarrely included the Faculty Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, which had a notarial professional role.

All of those bodies failed to address the real issue, which was inadequate supervision and accountability in the operation of the individual companies, particularly with regard to insolvency, where the audit companies seemed to be asleep at the wheel, particularly with regard to Carillion. The audit companies consistently produced audits that could be described as not just inaccurate, but almost deceptive in the way that they portrayed the state of the company, which allowed it to keep operating and employing contractors and so on while knowing that there was an issue. Prem Sikka went on to look at the role of the audit companies in advising companies and selling them products on tax avoidance as well. That is why he argued that there needed to be a reform of audit, possibly introducing a form of public audit into the sector.

On the insolvency role, Prem Sikka has consistently argued that there are no supervisory committees for the companies, as there are in the German economic system, where representatives supervise the decision making of companies. There are representatives in the workforce, as well as the recipients of particular services, or the consumers. Because we had no supervisory committees, companies became reckless in their endeavours. We had almost a moral hazard developing because a large number of the companies were often able to walk away from the liabilities that they had incurred.

One issue that Prem Sikka raised in his report was the offloading of pensions. We saw that with Carillion and elsewhere, when pensions were offloaded on to the public and the taxpayer had to step in to protect the rights of the workers who held pensions with those companies. Yet again, no one seemed to be held liable for the way in which they had either deliberately or recklessly put the companies into a situation where they were offloading their responsibilities.

I am particularly critical of the Financial Conduct Authority. I have said this publicly in debates before. I was critical of the FCA during the period in which Andrew Bailey was its chief executive. Before he was appointed Governor of the Bank of England, I urged the Chancellor of the Exchequer to delay his appointment because we were awaiting a number of reports of scandals with regard to investment bodies that should have been properly investigated by the FCA. What was generally identified, by not just me but other commentators, was that the FCA under his directorship was consistently asleep at the wheel on a number of individual instances.

Going back to Prem’s report, what he was identifying was a huge panoply of regulators, all of which seemed to be failing. Secondly, a large number of them were subject to corporate capture by the very sectors that they were meant to be regulating. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, the small people lost out badly as a result of that. They always lost out, and the people responsible often gained. As yet, I have not seen radical proposals from the Government to address that.

Prem Sikka did two reports. One was on the regulatory architecture of the financial sector overall, and the other was on audit. He put forward the establishment of an overall business commission, which brought together the various regulatory bodies under one structure. That included supervisory committees that would enable all stakeholders to be involved in the development of regulatory rules and the implementation of regulation much more effectively. That would at least be more open and transparent than the existing system.

I hope that the Minister will tell us, but I cannot see what has changed between now and back in 2018-19 when Carillion and other scandals were happening. I fear that those vulnerabilities still exist because we have not seen the radical reform that is needed. We need to integrate the whole process of regulation and to make it more independent, open and transparent. I hope the Minister will tell us that is the direction of Government.

We have had reports on this particular issue for a long time; I think the Cooke report was in the 1960s. It brought forward proposals but never really established independent regulation and handed it back to the industry itself. There has been a long history of corporate capture when it comes to financial regulation over successive Governments; I am not particularly blaming this one. The basic questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles could provide us with more clarity on the Government’s sense of direction on some of these issues.

I feel there needs to be a sense of urgency about action. I understand why the Government want to consult thoroughly, but consultation is beginning to result in delay as far as I can see. Vulnerabilities still exist; we will be back here again, maybe in six or 12 months’ time, with yet another scandal, asking why action was not taken and why redress was not available to people who suffered as a result.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on securing the debate. Given its title, it could have gone in many directions, but I think we are coalescing around a theme.

Directors clearly have important duties to their companies and their shareholders, whether in good times or bad. They have legal duties, including the duty to promote the success of the company for the benefit of the shareholders. However, when a company is in financial difficulty and there is a risk of insolvency, another set of responsibilities kick in. There is a duty to creditors to minimise losses.

As each speaker has highlighted, the regime appears to be letting far too many people down, and it is often those who can afford to lose out the least who end up losing out the most. Our view is quite simple. The UK Government must ensure robust supervision. Proper deterrents should be in place to ensure that those responsible in cases of negligence, or where economic crime has been committed, can be held to account.

The organisation openDemocracy estimates that fraud costs the UK about £290 billion a year in total and, in recent years, high-profile corporate scandals such as those at British Home Stores and Carillion raised serious questions about the level and quality of corporate governance in the UK and about the ability of those charged with supervising that governance to spot the obvious danger signs. In particular—I think it bears repetition—the collapse of Carillion in 2018 led to the loss of thousands of jobs and delay to many hundreds of infrastructure projects, while the directors walked away with their pay and bonuses intact. Those who had worked for them were left to suffer without.

Not only that, but a number of small companies suffered. People with their own businesses had to sell their properties and businesses, because they honoured the debt while others did not.

The hon. Member makes an extremely powerful point, which gets to the heart of the issue: those responsible for the waves of financial chaos that result from a corporate failure are not the ones who pay the price. Often, those who can afford to lose the least end up losing the most, whether that is their homes or their livelihoods. In 2020, two years on from the collapse, the assistant general secretary of the trade union Unite said that the UK’s accounting and audit system was clearly “not fit for purpose” and accused the Government of failing, even then, to demand reforms, because of their “many friends” among the major accountancy firms.

While the recent launch of the Financial Reporting Council consultation on its proposed changes to the UK corporate governance code was welcome, serious questions need to be asked about why that has taken so long so far. Frankly, the Government must get a move on with the reforms to ensure that they lead to a prompt, substantive and enforceable change of the landscape, so that the culture of corporate backscratching —if I may put it that way—that led to the Carillion collapse is left as a dim, distant and not-too-pleasant memory.

Robust deterrents are also required to ensure that where criminality is involved, those responsible—whether they are company owners or directors—and enablers are caught and receive proportionate sanctions for their actions. Culpable directors, senior managers and other enablers of economic crime need to face proportionate sanction, and the rules on anti-money laundering supervision need to be applied consistently.

The hon. Member mentions criminality. I am flicking through Prem Sikka’s report, and I forgot to mention the section on Companies House. Previously, in the exposure of Magnolia Fundaction UK, an Italian fraudster who was one of the directors had registered himself—hardly fraudulently—as the “chicken thief”, with his occupation as “fraudster”, while another officer gave his address as the “Street of the 40 Thieves” in the town of “Ali Babba”. The issues at Companies House need to be addressed. I am interested to hear how much that will be addressed by the Minister.

I thank the right hon. Member for highlighting a particularly egregious example of hiding in plain sight. I will come on to mention some of the reforms that need to take place at Companies House.

To go back to the anti-money laundering supervision, there are clearly some significant holes in the AML framework, as well as a pretty patchwork approach to supervision, which varies significantly across companies and sectors. The non-governmental organisation Spotlight on Corruption noted that some 22 industry bodies oversee anti-money laundering compliance across the legal and accountancy sectors, which seems far too many to be doing the job effectively. With 22 supervisory organisations, a few gaps are bound to creep in somewhere.

In 2021, the Office for Professional Body Anti-Money Laundering Supervision, or OPBAS, found that only 15% of supervisors were effective in using predictable and proportionate supervisory action. OPBAS also found that only 19% had implemented an effective, risk-based approach to supervision, so the system is clearly not working. In the UK, an estimated £88 billion of dirty money is cleaned by criminals every year, compared with £54.5 billion in France and £51.3 billion in Germany. I know money launderers are consistently evolving their practice and that pace needs to be kept, but trying to supervise it across 22 bodies with those low levels of effective frameworks in place does not seem to be making the best impact possible on that trade and the other criminal activities that it promotes. Putting adequate resources into tackling economic crime not only pays for itself, it provides additional resources for public spending and reduces criminality across a broad spectrum of activities.

On Companies House specifically, Transparency International recently found that 14% of all LLPs incorporated show money laundering red flags. The Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill had the opportunity to be a strong first line of defence in tackling that at the earliest opportunity, but unfortunately it did not provide the scale of reforms needed to ensure that the registrar could effectively tackle economic crime. Low registration fees in the UK and the quick turnaround clearly do not lend themselves to robust scrutiny by the registrar, as we heard in the example given by the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). It is exemplified by the inclusion of a warning at the top of the Companies House website that states that it does not

“verify the accuracy of the information”

filed. Well, it seems to me that that is something it very much should be doing.

The SNP tabled amendments to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill that would have introduced more stringent requirements for company directors, including one to limit the number of directorships that an individual could hold. We put forward amendments for directors in breach of duties, which would prevent directors who failed to comply with their tax obligations from being able to receive public funds, except for the purpose of paying staff. We were vocal on the issue of phoenixing, where directors of companies that go insolvent then open up a new company that is effectively the same as the one that went under.

We are used to amendments to Bills falling flat on their face. That seems to be the fate of Opposition parties who table amendments, whether they are the third party or the official Opposition, but it was particularly disappointing that nothing to pick those ideas up was reflected in what came through in the Bill, because ensuring that information is correct at that early point would ultimately help to prevent companies from engaging in money laundering, other forms of economic crime and other dubious activities or from evading their corporate governance responsibilities, which causes the damage we have heard about. With adequate resourcing, that is a task that Companies House is more than capable of fulfilling.

To draw my remarks to a close, we need robust supervision of directors and proper deterrents in place against negligence and malfeasance. We need further reform and increased resourcing for Companies House. Above all, we need to create a culture of honesty, transparency and compliance, which in good times and especially in bad is as fair and beneficial to all as it is possible to be. I very much look forward to what the Minister has to say about those points when he takes to his feet.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on securing the debate and on her excellent opening speech. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) for their important contributions on the chaos of regulatory bodies, and what really came through was the ongoing lack of a culture of challenge, and the links to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, which—I will speak to this later—we were keen for the Government to move much further on to tackle some of the weak areas, particularly phoenixing.

It is worth referencing that rising insolvencies, if we are talking about insolvency law and director disqualifications, also show an environment in which businesses are being hit hard. Many businesses are under strain due to the way in which they have been hit by the cost of doing business crisis, the supply chain crisis, the cost of living crisis, late payments and rising inflation and interest rates, with a Government that many businesses tell me is not on their side.

Monthly insolvencies hit record levels earlier this year in February and March. In March, there were almost 2,500 insolvencies, setting new records. However, alongside companies and directors who find themselves subject to insolvency despite their best efforts to survive, we know that there are business owners who abuse the process around administration and insolvency, with poor governance and stripping of assets. They incur high levels of debt and then dissolve the company, leaving workers and creditors in the lurch, and even denying workers the value of their outstanding pay and redundancy.

I thank the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union for its briefing and the caterers of Dawnfresh Foods and Orchard House Foods, which my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles also spoke about.

We have had several representations from the bakers union over a period of time. It looks as though it is a sector where the strategy of insolvency has been used consistently. I wonder whether there could be a specific examination by the Government of this particular sector, because over the past eight or nine years we have had a pattern of behaviour, and it is one that is becoming almost endemic in the baking industry.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution. I agree with putting that question to the Minister and asking for a specific response.

The other issue is that rogue directors are able to walk away with seeming impunity. Some Government steps have been brought forward, and they have been important, but clearly they have not been enough—certainly not for the scale of the challenge. Recent public cases have highlighted the need for urgent action, but where steps have been taken by the Government there seems to be a lack of will to really grasp the challenges. I make reference to insolvency powers and audit and corporate governance reform here.

As one example, in 2021, clauses 2 and 3 of the Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Act 2021 introduced powers to enable the Insolvency Service to investigate directors of dissolved companies—measures that were first proposed in 2018. The Government’s main policy objectives were, first, to ensure that public concerns that rogue directors who abuse a company and insolvency law can be investigated and held accountable and, secondly, to provide a deterrent for company directors who may use the dissolution of the company to evade their responsibility to repay bounce back loans. Since the Bill became an Act, data showed to the Insolvency Service has focused mainly on the second policy objective, a point made effectively by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington. In December ’21, the Insolvency Service gained powers to disqualify directors of dissolved companies, and, since 2022-23, just 25 directors of dissolved companies have been disqualified.

Many of the issues being talked about today were laid bare for all to see during the Carillion collapse in early 2018. Carillion had ostensibly been financially healthy. Its collapse saw more than 3,000 jobs lost, 450 public sector projects, including hospitals, schools and prisons, plunged into crisis and a company in billions of pounds of debt. In Hounslow, our leisure services were affected, and saved only by the council stepping in. Approximately 11,000 employees lost their jobs at British Home Stores, with a pension deficit of £571 million. These issues not only affect those close to the cases but cost the taxpayer, too. The National Audit Office reported that the Carillion affair cost the taxpayer at least £148 million, including £65 million in redundancy payments. Since the Government promised action on reforming corporate governance in the wake of the Carillion collapse, it took until May 2022 for a White Paper to emerge, and only in the past few weeks has the Financial Reporting Council issued its own consultation in response to the White Paper.

Let me say a few words on audit and corporate governance reform. This is an important policy space, in which reforms need to be robust for red flags to be seen early. An annual audit is a statutory requirement for listed and large companies. The purpose is to provide assurance to shareholders that financial statements give a true and fair view of a company. Good audit protects not just shareholders, but employees, pension holders, suppliers, customers and the wider community. At the broadest level, it serves the public interest by underpinning transparency and integrity in business.

Reform of the audit sector is clearly necessary and long overdue. The scandals we have heard about have damaged the reputation of the audit sector and the professionals who work in it. The Financial Reporting Council’s finding in December 2020 that over 80% of audits reviewed in the previous two years required improvement indicates the scale of the challenge. It also raised the issue of the importance of a challenge culture. Despite some improvements, there is still huge urgency, and it seems that the Government are dragging their feet. We are still waiting for legislation. The accounting and audit professions, the business community and the trade unions are all clear that change must come, and that the new audit, reporting and governance authority, which will step in when directors breach their duties, must be put on a clear statutory footing and given new powers that can only be conferred through legislation. I would be grateful for the Minister’s response to questions about plans for reform of section 172 of the Companies Act 2006 and directors’ duties.

I have some final remarks on the effectiveness of insolvency law and the director disqualification framework. R3 members note that for many years, regardless of the number of insolvency appointments and the number of reports submitted highlighting director behaviours that could warrant disqualification, broadly the same number of directors seem to have been disqualified each year, though there was a notable drop post pandemic. Are those numbers driven by resourcing constraints in the Insolvency Service, rather than assessment of director conduct?

Secondly, the annual enforcement statistics published this year indicate that there have been no disqualifications for phoenixing or insolvent trading. I would be grateful for the Minister’s view on enabling greater use of section 216 of the Insolvency Act 1986, so that it can be applied not only to companies in liquidation, but also to those that enter insolvent administration or are dissolved while the balance sheet is insolvent. That would accord with the Government’s recent extension of the director disqualification regime to dissolved companies.

During the recent passage through the Commons of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, we tabled amendments that would have improved the insolvency regime, including by tackling the practice of phoenixing, but the Government voted against them all. I hope that we can come back to some of those measures.

There is not just a failure to take this issue seriously, but a broader pattern of failing working people, who are so often left in the lurch. For too long, our economy has been ravaged by dire productivity, insecurity and stagnant pay. Government and business need to work together on a proper, pro-business, pro-worker, long-term plan for industry and the economy. Labour is committed to creating jobs that provide security, treat workers fairly and pay a decent wage through our new deal for working people—the biggest upgrade to workers’ rights in a generation. I would welcome assurances from the Minister that there will be progress on audit and corporate governance reform, and a further strengthening of the insolvency and director disqualification regime—two vital tools for keeping enterprise, employment and the economy protected from rogue directors, and for preventing the huge scandals that we have seen from ever happening again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I add my grateful thanks to the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) for bringing forward this important debate. Members may know that I spoke out on this subject a lot from the Back Benches, and my appetite for change in this area—when parliamentary time allows—remains the same.

There is no doubt that the Government absolutely believe in strong corporate governance and an effective insolvency regime. The hon. Lady rightly referred to the demise of Carillion. Years have passed since that happened, but it is very important that we do not forget the lesson learned from the impact that had on all stakeholders, including employees and small and medium-sized enterprises in the supply chain.

I have great sympathy for those affected when companies declare themselves insolvent or go through insolvency in any circumstances, including the SMEs in those companies’ supply chain. The hon. Lady referred to the case in her constituency of Orchard House Foods; the redundancy protection service stepped in rapidly after the insolvency to make sure that people were properly compensated. Nevertheless, it was a worrying time for many people. Clearly, it would not be appropriate to talk about any ongoing investigations, but it is important that the Insolvency Service follows through on these matters and ensures that proper procedure is followed.

Given the comments made in the debate, it is important to say that most directors and businesses are bona fide and do the right thing. Of course we are concerned when companies go into insolvency, for all the reasons that have been outlined in the debate. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is no longer in his place, commented on cases in his constituency. Such cases have immense knock-on effects for stakeholders in our constituencies. Indeed, this is one of the issues on which I get the most letters from colleagues.

We must consider any changes we make to the regime in the light of the fact that most directors and businesses do the right thing. It is important to recognise that our economic system is not a zero-failure system. Failure is part of the process, and unfortunately many bona fide businesses that seek to do the right thing and invest their hard-earned money enter insolvency—in many cases through no fault of their own. We need a regime that reflects that context.

I think that most people accept that the FRC has significantly improved its oversight of the sector in recent years, particularly under the stewardship of Jon Thompson. There have been significant improvements. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) referred to the regulator as being asleep at the wheel. That may have been a fair accusation years ago, but it is probably inappropriate now. However, when parliamentary time allows, it is right to replace the regulator with a new one—the audit, reporting and governance authority.

The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles referred to the US’s Sarbanes-Oxley system. Should we adopt that kind of system? We believe that there is a balance to be struck. We do not want anything that would be counter-productive to our economic system, in which competition is ultimately the best outcome for consumers. High competition drives down prices for consumers and drives up service. It is therefore important that we do not move to a system of a new generation of professional directors. It is important that our system is entrepreneurial, encourages investment, and encourages people to start up and expand businesses. We are, however, planning new corporate governance rules, which I will talk about in a second.

A number of hon. Members asked whether we will reform the Companies Act 2006 duties. The Act already requires all company directors to have regard to employee, consumer, environmental and other interests while pursuing the success of the company. Since 2019, large companies have been required to report annually on how those wider interests have been taken into account in boardroom decision making. I think the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) made a point about reform of those duties. It is important that we parliamentarians are cognisant of the burden on businesses; I applaud her for referring to that. Many businesses are under significant pressure right now from a number of angles, and it is important that we do not add to the burdens on them.

The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington raised the issue highlighted by Baron Sikka. I have worked very closely with Baron Sikka on economic crime and money laundering, and on the fact that there are 41 regulators in the financial system. It is important that we have straightforward corporate governance reform, so that we can hold people to account on their duties under the Companies Act 2006 and other requirements.

The Government response in May 2022 to our consultation on the “Restoring trust in audit and governance” White Paper confirmed plans to require very large companies to provide targeted new annual reporting on their management of risk and certain other matters. The new reporting will apply to UK-listed and private companies with more than 750 employees and an annual turnover of more than £750 million. Crucially, it will consist of four new statements in those companies’ annual reports: a resilience statement setting out how the company is managing significant risks over the short, medium and long term; confirmation that the company has sufficient realised profits to pay out any proposed dividends, and a statement about the company’s approach to profit distribution; a statement on the directors’ actions to prevent or detect material fraud; and an audit and assurance policy setting out how the company is assuring the quality of non-financial information that largely lies outside the statutory audit.

The new reporting requirement responds to concerns identified followed the sudden collapse of Carillion and other very large companies. Shareholders and other stakeholders need more information to understand the steps being taken by directors to ensure the future prospects of the company. We are developing secondary legislation, which we hope to lay before Parliament soon, to implement those new measures.

I often spoke about insolvency reform from the Back Benches; indeed, I co-authored a report called “Resolving Insolvency” on behalf of the all-party group on fair business banking. That relates to a point raised by the hon. Members for Feltham, and for Strangford, about insolvency reform. The Insolvency Service primarily investigates company directors and corporate misbehaviour. That includes investigating trading companies, and taking court action to wind them up when they have been acting against the public interest—for example, when there is evidence of fraud or corporate abuse. About 150 companies are investigated each year for that reason. The Insolvency Service also works collaboratively with other enforcement agencies to ensure the public are protected.

The bulk of the Insolvency Service’s enforcement work relates to investigating the conduct of directors of companies that are subject to formal insolvency, such as liquidation or administration. If an investigation finds evidence of misconduct by a company’s directors, the Insolvency Service may bring disqualification proceedings where that is in the public interest. Disqualification can be for a period of up to 15 years, and breach of a disqualification order is a criminal offence. Disqualification is therefore a significant interference with a person’s rights, and the courts take it very seriously. High standards of evidence are required. If a disqualification order is made, in certain circumstances there is the option to seek a compensation order against the disqualified director, who is personally required to pay back the losses they caused.

Having said that, we can go further on insolvency reform. It is the Government’s intention, when parliamentary time allows, to move towards a system of regulation with a single independent regulator, and away from the recognised professional bodies that we see today. I am very keen to take that forward when parliamentary time allows.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) spoke about money laundering, the number of supervisors who act in that space, and the need to streamline that regime. His Majesty’s Treasury is looking at that, and is due to report on how we do that more effectively. I do not recognise his comments about the changes we are making as a consequence of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill. That is the most significant change to Companies House in 170 years, and I look forward to the Scottish Government introducing a legislative consent motion so that Bill is fully effected in Scotland. Some of the hon. Gentleman’s comments, such as those on verification , were about the situation today, rather than the situation as it will be. We are all on the same page on the need to replace the dumb register with a database with integrity. That is one of the registrar’s four main objectives.

On fees, we are keen to make sure that it is quick, easy and affordable to start up a company in this country, but we recognise that fees need to increase to make sure that Companies House, and potentially the Insolvency Service, have the resources to do their work. We will therefore bring forward plans to make sure that those resources are there, through increases to the incorporation fee and the annual fees for registration.

On the hon. Member for Gordon’s points about directors’ limits, we do not feel that is a key issue. Setting an arbitrary limit on the number of directorships would not be the right way forward. I was the Minister responsible for taking the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill through the House, and if I remember rightly, the SNP suggested a limit of 20 directorships. I had more than 20 directorships at any one time in my past business life, so that limit would have restricted me from making some investments in the economy that created jobs and raised taxes. I do not think those kinds of arbitrary limits are right; instead, we see the regime working on the basis of red flags. If a high number of directorships is connected with other potential issues, we expect the registrar to investigate.

The hon. Member for Gordon raised an important point about phoenixing. That has certainly been of concern to many hon. Members, and we are keen to act on it. We have made significant changes around phoenixing. Individuals who have acted as a director of an insolvent company at any time in the preceding 12 months are prevented from forming, managing or promoting any business, including a company with the same name as, or a similar name to, the liquidated company for a period of five years from the date of insolvency. There are both criminal and civil penalties for a breach of that restriction, including director disqualification proceedings.

The Government strengthened the law in that area in 2021 by introducing changes to the disqualification regime to make sure that directors cannot avoid investigations by simply dissolving their companies. That point was also made by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston. Twenty-five directors have been disqualified under that legislation. None of those disqualifications would have happened without the Government’s legislation in that area. We want to make sure that legislation goes further, and more investigations are ongoing. I will not specify the numbers, but it is fair to say that when the IS looks for cases of phoenixing, that is not the only misconduct identified. Often, those cases are dealt with as more serious offences that it is more important to prosecute. The hon. Lady gave a figure of 25, but that does not reflect some of the detriment and misconduct that we have identified.

We absolutely think there is a case for reform, and we are determined to take reforms forward quickly, as soon as parliamentary time allows. We also want to make sure that the UK is the best place in the world to do business, and that we do not interfere with people’s ability to start up and scale their business; however, we also want to maintain proper fiduciary responsibilities and have a system that properly oversees the conduct of directors. We will bring forward the legislation that strikes that balance as soon as parliamentary time allows.

I thank everybody for taking part in the debate, which has been wide-ranging; a lot of interesting points were raised. I thank the Minister for his lengthy response. I welcome a lot of the comments he made, and I followed his work as a Back Bencher on this issue, so I know we are on the same page on many issues, but I am saddened that he did not go into the level of detail that many of the questions asked by myself and colleagues required.

The vast majority of directors do the right thing—we wholeheartedly agree on that point—but the problem is that when the minority do not and it goes seriously wrong, the Insolvency Service and the UK corporate governance code only work to a certain point, because the enforceability just is not there. I applaud the work of the Insolvency Service, but it can only examine conduct as determined under the current law. Take a situation where directors could have consulted on redundancies prior to an insolvency event but did not. The law is very weak and ambiguous on that, which is the point I was trying to make in my opening remarks.

As the Sequana case clearly shows, the point at which an insolvency becomes probable is not defined in law. There is a point in time when directors should be, on a sliding scale, prioritising the interests of creditors prior to a probable insolvency. Defining that is crucial to providing the protection that workers and creditors deserve in situations where some of the money they are owed could be paid back to them.

On the issue of Sarbanes-Oxley, the Minister said that there is a balance to be struck, and he implied that by introducing legal requirements on directors in the style of Sarbanes-Oxley, we would in some way restrict entrepreneurship. That has certainly not been the case in the United States. I was reading a Harvard law report this morning that suggested the opposite—that providing certainty to shareholders and investors would actually encourage future investment. Directors should be able to say, “Yes, all the financial statements we are making are 100% correct. We are categorically supportive of the work that our auditors have done, and we’re happy to provide those reports to our shareholders.” If they cannot do that, we have a serious problem with our UK corporate governance regime. I do not think it is unreasonable to expect directors to have that legal liability.

Finally, on the audit system, the Minister has not provided any clarity about when ARGA will be set up, when audit reforms will be forthcoming or how extensive they will be. We got a taster in the Queen’s Speech, but as I am sure he agrees, reforms need to go a lot further than what the Government have put forward, because issues arise time and again. If we look at the dysfunctionality of the audit industry, KPMG was fined £14 million for not auditing Carillion’s company accounts correctly, and that was not a one-off. Prem Sikka referred to the case of Silentnight, in which KPMG—again, in the pursuit of a coveted client—did a pre-pack administration and sold a company to that potential client at an undervalue. It was fined £13 million for its role in that. That shows the dysfunctionality and the unhealthy nature of the audit industry as a whole.

I worked for Silentnight as a youngster, but one of the other issues is the distressing of assets by the accountancy firms, so that they can get sold on. We have seen case after case of that.

My right hon. Friend is 100% right. I hope the Minister will come back with plans for more detailed reforms of the audit industry in due course.

I will finish on the point about the three reports that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) mentioned. Lord Sikka provided three incredibly detailed reports a few years ago: one on the reform of regulatory architecture, one on reform of the audit industry and one on reform of the UK corporate governance regime. He did that along with a whole team of accountants and industry experts. The points made in those reports are as valid today as they were then, and they are non-partisan. I hope the Minister will take time to read those reports when he is bored over the weekend, and will take some pointers from them that he can take forward in Government policy.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered insolvency law and director disqualifications.

Sitting suspended.

Publication of Claimant Data in County Court Judgments

I will call Janet Daby to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention in 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the publication of claimant data in county court judgments.

I begin by informing the House that one of my first jobs as a young person, before attending university, was at the Mayor’s and City of London county court, as an administrative officer. During that time I handled many thousands of claims, so I bring some knowledge and experience to today’s debate.

Turning to the debate, I want to make it clear how easy the solution to this problem can be. My ask is simple and straightforward: will the Minister agree to rectifying an omission in the Register of Judgments, Orders and Fines Regulations 2005, so that claimant data is published? I am not asking the Government for funding, and there is no need for primary legislation. Instead, the issue I am raising today requires only a small adjustment, which will have a big impact, thereby underpinning the principles of justice, which are rightly celebrated in our country, tackling inequalities that are too often shouldered by those who have the least, and saving resources in our already stretched justice system.

The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. I rise simply to express my full support for the proposed change for which she calls. This is a sensible tidying up of the legislation, and I urge the Minister to crack on.

I thank the hon. Member, and I absolutely agree with him.

The regulations were created in 2005. They allow for the sharing of specific civil court information with the registrar. However, that information does not include the name of the claimant in a judgment. That means that a defendant can obtain every other piece of information they might need, but not the name of the claimant who took the judgment out against them. That is a problem for several reasons.

Our justice system is world renowned. One of its key principles is that individuals should know who is taking them to court. That is a fundamental principle of natural justice—one that I am proud to champion, and one that I hope the Minister is, too—so it is ludicrous to discover that defendants in these cases do not know who is taking them to court. Indeed, it seems unreasonable and unjust that the claimant’s name is not published in county court judgments, and it creates something of an unbalanced system. It goes against the fundamental principles of natural justice that underpin our justice system. Again, I hope the Minister shares that concern.

To look at this on a more practical level, the omission of claimant data can have negative consequences for some of the most financially vulnerable in our society—for example, those wishing to settle and repay debts, or to come to an agreement with their creditor, who are unable to obtain the information they need about who is pursuing a claim. Instead, they must embark on the lengthy and convoluted process of seeking the judgment case number, via TrustOnline, and then making phone calls or writing letters to the courts to access claimant information.

The average waiting time for income inquiries to the courts often peaks at approximately one hour. That makes it likely that individuals will have to make repeated attempts to reach the courts, which further swells an already bursting administrative system. These delays in getting their calls or correspondence answered put individuals at risk of passing the 30-day window that they are given to settle their debt. If they miss the 30-day deadline, the judgment can be left to sit on their credit file for up to six years, at which point people will no longer be eligible for mortgages and may have further rent applications rejected, and insurance policies may lapse. That creates many problems.

Publishing claimant data would eliminate that. It supports both the claimant and defendant by making it easier to settle their debt, and it gets rid of an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, which stacks the system against those who fall into debt. It seems archaic, ineffective and inefficient that individuals have to make endless calls or continually write to the courts to find out such a small but important piece of information. Neither side of this House would disagree with the assessment that our court system is currently beset with severe backlogs, and the Minister, alongside his departmental colleagues, has said repeatedly in the House and elsewhere that the Department is committed to cutting those backlogs. Therefore, it is in everyone’s interests that they succeed.

Today I offer the Government an easy win. Every week, it is estimated that the courts field 2,000 inquiries related to claimant information, which adds up to 100,000 inquiries a year—a colossal and unnecessary figure. Imagine what court capacity might be freed up if our courts were handling 100,000 fewer inquiries every year. Publishing claimant data will do just that: free up capacity and help to cut the court backlogs. I remind the Minister that that is without additional Government spending and without the need for primary legislation.

If I have not yet been persuasive enough, let me share with the Minister some of the other potential benefits of making this change—I think I probably have, as I can see some nodding in the Chamber.

I will share a bit more anyway. Policymakers would be better able to understand what is driving problem debt and so would be able to develop better policy solutions. Regulators such as the Financial Conduct Authority or Ofwat would be better able to identify which firms are treating customers fairly by proactively supporting those who fall into difficulty. The Government would also be able to better target funding for debt advice services exactly where it is most needed.

Analysis by the Registry Trust, an organisation that I will talk about in more detail as I bring my speech to a close, found that 25% of all claimants in county court judgments are utility companies or parking companies. Unfortunately, in recent months Members of this House have become all too familiar with some of the poor practices deployed by energy companies in relation to the forced installation of prepayment meters. I know that is something that the Minister has engaged on with various Select Committees. Rightly, the actions of those energy companies have been condemned on both sides of the House.

Nevertheless, the fact that claimant data is not ordinarily published means that those energy companies can remain anonymous. Meanwhile, the people who the companies have registered a claim against are left blindfolded in terms of knowing who has taken out a judgment against them. That is wrong and a clear imbalance of justice, whereby our society’s most financially vulnerable people come second to energy giants who rush warrants through the courts, break into people’s homes and force-fit prepayment meters without proper regard for their customers’ welfare. Surely the Minister is not satisfied with this situation and wishes to rectify this inequality.

Let me reassure the Minister that I am not here to point the finger; I am here to help him put a solution in place that will actually work out in practice. The register of judgments, orders and fines has been run by the Registry Trust on behalf of the Ministry of Justice since 1985. The data managed by the trust supports millions of lending and credit decisions across the UK and Ireland every year. The Registry Trust provides services to Government bodies, regulators, credit reference agencies and many other organisations. On average, it processes over 130,000 records each month—vital work that helps our economy to keep moving. Before this debate, I shared with the Minister the news that I have been liaising with the Registry Trust for some time on this matter. The Registry Trust could not be clearer: it has the capacity to manage the addition of claimant data to the register.

If the Minister takes on board the arguments that I have laid out, goes back to his Department after this debate and drafts a statutory instrument so that it can be laid before Parliament at the first opportunity, I can assure him that he would not face opposition from the Registry Trust. Quite the opposite—the Registry Trust is leading the campaign for the publication of claimant data. If the Minister wants reassurance from the trust, I know that it would be only too happy to meet him and put their case forward.

Let me conclude by saying to the Minister: please do not look a gift horse in the mouth. This proposal requires no primary legislation, as I have already said. It does not add to Government spending. It promotes fairness and efficiency in our justice system. It is even being asked for by the organisation responsible for administering it. I therefore hope that the Minister will confirm the Government’s intention to update the 2005 regulations and publish claimant data.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Fovargue.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) for securing this debate. I am tempted to say, “I agree”, and sit down again. Sadly, there are a few things that I have to put on the record first.

I genuinely welcome the hon. Lady’s focus on this issue. I have heard her set out how enhancing the data that the Registry Trust holds could help protect households facing financial difficulties. I can confirm that the Government are considering whether we can support the proposal by the Registry Trust to allow claimant data to be included on the register of fines, orders and judgments in England and Wales, as articulated so clearly by the hon Member.

I want to commend the Registry Trust for the valuable service it provides to consumers, businesses and the wider economy. Access to data it holds supports millions of lending and other business decisions each year. The register holds more than 6 million records of fines, orders and judgments. Ordinarily, if a debt is not paid within one month of the court order, an entry will remain on the register for six years, as the hon. Lady set out.

Currently, entries on the register in England and Wales include the name and address of the judgment debtor, the amount owed and whether the debt has been satisfied. Every day, His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service provides the Registry Trust with a secure data feed of new or amended entries to the register. Once the Registry Trust has reviewed and processed the data, it is uploaded to TrustOnline, which provides members of the public and businesses with access to search the public registers. TrustOnline has enabled more than 100,000 customers to check county court judgments registered in the courts. It also provides organisations or individuals with bulk data, which is typically used to support lending and other types of business decisions.

The hon. Lady clearly set out the benefits of including the name of the claimant on the register in England and Wales, as happens in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Reflecting on the proposal, I note that that could benefit households in two ways. First, it would provide greater transparency about the use of the county courts by creditors. It would shine a light on the businesses and institutions that most frequently bring county court claims against consumers.

When we first started to discuss the topic of the debate, I tasked officials to see how we could start publishing the top 10 or 20 users of the data, so that we could shine that light as fast as possible. Because the data could help regulators to monitor how firms treat their customers in vulnerable financial positions, and it would help to identify which firms are the most aggressive in using enforcement action. The data could also be used by the regulators of utility and telecom providers to monitor the effectiveness of policies intended to support consumers in financial difficulty. Data could also provide an indication of the credit controls that lenders have in place to prevent irresponsible lending.

Secondly, the Registry Trust states that the addition of claimant data on the register could help academics and debt advice providers obtain better insights into the source of problem debt in the economy. As the hon. Lady said, the Government do provide a lot of support to debt advice. If this would make debt advice more effective, she is quite right that we should proceed.

There is a benefit to HMCTS, as well, as the people and businesses who find out that a court order has been made against them. Often they find they are in default without having received the claim, and transparency would help in that case. That can happen sometimes because, although the court rules require claimants to take reasonable steps to ensure that they have served the claim to the right address, they are not required to prove that the claim forms have been received. These rules seek to balance the rights of claimants to recover debts and the rights of debtors to be informed of the claim against them. As the hon. Lady said, that lack of transparency as to who is making the claim, sometimes means that people do not find out in time or are unable to satisfy within that 30 days. That is an incredibly powerful point. As she said, it could save the courts time, and lead to a quicker resolution of the debt, which would help restore the person’s business credit rating.

As the hon. Lady set out, the change would require the Government to amend the Register of Judgments, Orders and Fines Regulations 2005. It would also require HMCTS to update its existing digital systems to implement it. I would like to reassure the hon. Lady that we are carefully considering Registry Trust proposals. We agree it could bring several benefits to consumers.

We also want to ensure it does not expose consumers to any risks. For example, we are aware that criminals seek to exploit publicly available data to extort money from vulnerable people, for example by impersonating enforcement agents. We also need to consider where to focus the Department’s efforts to modernise many of the back-office systems that we are currently grappling with. I can reassure the hon. lady that this is, as she says, a gift horse, and something that I am keen to deliver as fast as I can.

In conclusion, I am grateful for the opportunity to support and respond to this debate, to the hon. Member for Lewisham East for securing it, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) for his support. I have the found the debate and reading around the subject in preparation incredibly helpful in finding out how we can address what sounds like a simple solution, for the benefit both of businesses and of those who find themselves in difficulty. I give my commitment that I will do my best to move this forward at pace.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail

I beg to move,

That this House has considered progress on delivering the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. Reform of our railways has long been a contentious issue. There are countless opinions on the best way to run the rail system—from 100% nationalisation to 100% privatisation, with a plethora of views in between—but one thing the House can agree on is that rail is a good thing. Passenger rail can unlock economic growth across Britain’s regions; it connects communities, and is the greenest form of public transport. There is an ambitious growth target to treble rail freight by 2050, which will deliver huge economic and environmental benefits to Britain. The rail sector is a force for good. It ought to be obvious to anyone that we need more of it, not less.

We can also agree that the status quo is not working. We have an unhappy halfway house between privatisation and nationalisation, which clearly is not working as intended. Across much of our rail network, fares are high, services are poor and passengers are unhappy.

Some elements do work well. One example is open access: on the east coast main line, a public sector operator is competing with private sector open access operators on full revenue risk, which are able to make the best offering to the customer. That has boosted competition, lowered fares, increased the quality of services and created greater innovation. Operators on the east coast main line have recovered beyond pre-pandemic levels, proving that competition, not over-centralisation, is in the customer’s best interests. If we had open access across the network, I am confident that we would be in a much stronger position.

However, open access alone is not a silver bullet that will solve all the problems. Unfortunately, as the Secretary of State for Transport illustrated in his Bradshaw address in February, Britain’s railways operate on

“a broken model…unable to adapt to customer needs and financially unsustainable.”

That is sadly true. The modelling produced during the pandemic was appropriate in a crisis, but is now stalling recovery and pleasing no one. The key to creating a successful railway is correctly diagnosing the problems that the industry currently faces, and prescribing the right solution.

Opposition Members would attribute the woes that the railway faces to the fact that it is not entirely in public ownership. However, that is simply not the case. A perfect storm of factors has converged to create the levels of turbulence that we have become used to. The pandemic disrupted long-established travel patterns, causing passenger numbers to drop as low as 4% at one time. In 2023, they have recovered to around 90% of pre-pandemic levels. However, revenue levels are at around 85% of pre-pandemic levels, with costs fixed at 100%. That is financially unsustainable and needs to be changed.

The temporary contracts introduced during the pandemic are blunting operators’ abilities to attract passengers back, with such contracts making the railway effectively quasi-nationalised, with operators’ hands tied. The Department for Transport has never been so involved in the running of the railways, not even in the British Rail days. The operator of last resort now commands four former franchises, as well as a rolling stock company. Those services are afforded significant freedoms in comparison with normal franchises, and they compete with open-access operators on full revenue risk.

Then there are the Department for Transport-contracted operators, which are on a quasi-nationalised contract with their hands tied and must look to DFT officials to get the most basic things approved. There is also an unacceptable lack of transparency around OLR funding, which ensures that organisations are not operating on a level playing field. The OLR has stated that it

“maintains constant readiness to take responsibility for other train companies…as required”,

but we must implement the reforms required to ensure that that is not necessary. The last thing we need is nationalisation by stealth.

I reiterate that we have a broken rail model with unsustainable finances and restrictive contracts. Further to that, we have industrial action on certain routes, with the public left feeling frustrated and rightly demanding improvement. What is to be done? The nationalised models are supposedly a panacea, where high-quality trains run at cost price for the greater good, never cancelled or delayed, and tying together communities that would otherwise rely on gas-guzzling cars to keep connected.

So we are told, but the reality is the opposite. Bean counters at the Treasury keep a hawkish eye on operations. Their chief concern is the revenue produced by the network. At the first sign of difficulty, revenue has flatlined at around 85% of pre-pandemic levels. Remember: they order the Department for Transport to make savings. They, in turn, have little option but to cut services, staff and customer benefits. This further reduces revenue, compounding the problem, which then spirals out of control. If hon. Members do not believe me, they need only look at a real-world example, not from some far-flung socialist country but from here in the UK. What was the result of British Rail’s reign over our railways? Huge operating deficits, lines starved of investment, and dire need of modernisation, culminating in the Beeching cuts of the 1960s. I fully accept that privatisation is not entirely perfect, but I will not take lectures from the Opposition about the fairy tale of nationalisation.

The other thing everybody hated about British Rail was that it was monumentally disliked by its staff. Staff morale was at rock bottom and industrial relations were not great. It was not a worker’s paradise either, even while it was awful for customers.

I entirely agree.

I concede that even under the current system, the separation of cost and revenue across two departments creates perverse incentives. No business that wanted to grow would structure itself in that way. Only with major reform can we break a cycle of decline.

I hope we can agree that the solution will utilise a public-private partnership to bring train and track back together and provide strategic leadership of the railways. The Conservatives, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats have all identified the need for a body to oversee track and train, and the rail industry has long called for a guiding mind to co-ordinate the network. That is why the Government are creating Great British Railways, which will be responsible for both track and train, as well as revenue and cost.

My hon. Friend’s analysis of what the Government are creating is correct, in that it would be very good if Great British Railways were to be the guiding mind. The trouble is that it looks as though there will be centralised control of the system, driving out private sector initiative, driving out investment and underpinning the underperformance of Network Rail, to which at least 78% of the current delays on our railways are directly attributable.

My hon. Friend the former Minister identifies some of the downsides, although, as I mentioned earlier, there is no perfect solution. My next sentence was going to be that creating a big, monolithic public body will not solve all the problems unless there is a mix of public and private working together. The private sector has more than doubled passenger numbers in the past two decades, has increased services by more than a third since 1997, and has increased jobs by 27% since 2011. The private sector must have a role.

I recognise that the private sector has not got it all right. There are significant concerns today around particular services linked to industrial action and rest-day working agreements. I was a keen advocate for TransPennine Express to lose its franchise and for the service to be taken under the wing of the OLR until a new private operator could be found. But colleagues across the House must look to pragmatic solutions to fix the railways, with the private and public sector working together. We need to create a market in which the private sector can deliver for customers. We need to let customer-facing operators act in the interests of the customer, not constantly seek permission from the centre. That is not an ideological argument, but one based on reality: command and control from the centre is not helping the sector to bounce back after the pandemic. If we get the balance right, a public-private partnership will enable operators to deliver for customers.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for rail, I hear from all manner of stakeholders in the rail sector, including operators, trade associations, those involved in the supply chains, community action groups, industry journalists and, of course, passengers. It is clear that the vast majority agree that legislation is required to make the public body a legal entity and give it the powers necessary to be truly effective. In November 2019, the all-party group published a report, “Rail Reform: A Guiding Mind”, which called for a similar body. The report was presented to the then Rail Minister. I recognise that the next parliamentary Session will be tight, but a Bill to establish GBR would be relatively thin and ought not to be controversial. I urge the Minister to lobby within his Department to ensure that a Bill appears in the King’s Speech.

Having said that, and without wanting to give the Minister the impression that anything other than a Bill is the preferable way of underpinning the long-term success of the railways, some important reforms can be done in the meantime without legislation. The national rail contracts are one of the last vestiges of the pandemic. They were right in a crisis, but now they need to evolve to provide operators with more flexibility to use their commercial nous and attract customers back. That would restore some financial sustainability and allow the Government to spend more on other priorities.

The independent economic expert body Oxera estimates that the Treasury is missing out on as much as £1.6 billion over two years because of restrictive contracts for operators. That reduces operators’ ability to drive the recovery of passenger numbers. Money is also being lost through the lack of ticket checks on board. Many commuters will be aware of journeys on which their tickets are checked once in a blue moon. That means they could travel for free, knowing that if they did happen to be caught, the savings they would have built up would vastly outweigh any fines they might have to pay. However, at present there is no incentive for rail operators to ensure the collection of fares.

Beyond reforms to the current National Rail contracts, we must look ahead to the end state, as envisioned by Keith Williams, and the passenger service contract, which must be flexible enough to reflect the varying rail market. The public instinctively understand that when they book a flight earlier, the ticket should be cheaper than if they were buying it closer to when they travel. That approach needs to apply to longer-distance rail journeys.

For shorter commuter journeys, we need to introduce more turn-up-and-go services with tap-in, tap-out technology and some degree of flexibility for operators to entice customers on quieter days. I was delighted that in the George Bradshaw address, the Secretary of State signalled that this anti-one-size-fits-all approach is being adopted for future contracts. As a key principle, the future passenger service contracts should be developed to reflect the geography and markets that they serve. They should incentivise operators to use all their creativity and capability to deliver the best possible outcomes for taxpayers by growing revenues and reducing costs.

The Government also need to drive forward fares reform, which the public rightly and understandably care greatly about. Why has it been 18 months since the Government announced the tender for the consolidated online retail solution to deliver radical and long-awaited fares reform? Can we get on and start the tender process? As the Minister knows, it does not need legislation. The prior information notice for CORS was published in December 2021.

The Government have announced one measure relating to fares: a single-leg pricing trial extension on LNER. That is something that should be rolled out more widely to private sector operators. The use of single-leg pricing removes the anomaly of some single tickets being almost as expensive as a return ticket. It means passengers can more easily choose when to travel in the knowledge that the fare offers value for money. For example, if someone commutes in at peak-time in the morning, but then attends an event after work and comes back off-peak, why should they pay for a peak-time return? This is a good step forward that ought to be utilised more widely.

Moving on to freight, I had the pleasure of hosting a cross-party parliamentary reception on this issue in March. Freight makes sense for the environment and the economy. The longest freight trains can ease road congestion by removing up to 129 heavy goods vehicles from the road. If the Government set an ambitious target to treble rail freight by 2050, the sector would deliver nearly £5.2 billion in economic benefits as a minimum. The freight sector would flourish by setting a supportive policy environment and also by opening the east-west freight corridor, which, as I have pointed out on numerous occasions, would be beneficial to industry and the development of the Humber freeport, and would take a significant number of HGVs off the M62.

I want to highlight the Luxembourg rail protocol, which is making progress internationally and is expected to come into force towards the end of the year. However, the UK is yet to ratify it. There has been extensive engagement with the DFT and the Great British Railways transition team, with the DFT including it as part of a consultation last year. Will the Minister confirm today the Government’s position on the protocol? Is he still supportive in principle, and when will the Department issue a response to the consultation? Is there a particular legislative vehicle envisaged to see it implemented? Those involved in the protocol from the UK perspective would appreciate clarification.

The rail model is broken, and both legislative and non-legislative reform is crucial. Misdiagnosing the problem will not make it any better; it will make it worse. Over-centralisation is not in the interests of passengers, the economy or the environment. All parties have identified the need for a public body, but it is important to get the design right and ensure that the private sector is allowed to do what it does best with the package of reform I have outlined today. Along with much-needed changes to ticketing and fares, the Government can deliver rapid and much-needed improvements for passengers, trade customers and the taxpayer.

I know the Minister would be disappointed if I did not raise a couple of local issues, which I have spoken to him about on many occasions. One such issue is the return of the direct train service from Cleethorpes to London King’s Cross. Perhaps he could update us on that. Another issue, which I have not raised with him previously, but perhaps he could look into for me, is that for the past 30 years there has been a Saturday-only train from Sheffield via Gainsborough and Brigg to Cleethorpes, with three trains each way. A few weeks ago, Northern announced that it would make that a daily service, which on the face of it is welcome, but it appears to be more for the convenience of the operator than the passengers, because the one train to Cleethorpes arrives at 11.14 am and the return train is at 1.20 pm. An hour and a half in Cleethorpes is simply not good enough; people need at least a week there to enjoy all the facilities. More seriously, one train arriving mid-morning with a return train at, say, 6 pm would be sensible, but allowing people 90 minutes in Cleethorpes or Grimsby is not ideal if they want to do some shopping.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on securing this timely debate. I concur with much of what he said. The desirability of the amount of time to spend in Cleethorpes I will leave to him to determine, but otherwise it was a powerful speech. He referenced the Bradshaw lecture that the Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), delivered a few months ago. That was very well received and warmly applauded by the industry as a direction of travel from, not the paralysis, but the uncertainty that the covid period delivered. That appreciation has waned and has been replaced by a deep concern that what is happening with GBR is starting to drift.

There is a strong call for the legislation to be included in Parliament’s next Session. I understand that the Bill is drafted and has been consulted on. It is a small Bill, so it could be introduced fairly quickly, however as a former Government Whip and Minister I know that it is not necessarily in the gift of the DFT to set the legislative slots, and that all sorts of considerations must be taken into account. I urge the Minister to argue as strongly as he can for that Bill to be included, because it would provide the certainty that we need.

In the absence of that legislation, there is a lot that could be done to give reassurance and certainty to the industry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes has pointed out, there are simply too many decisions that have to be made by the DFT and the Secretary of State himself on the day-to-day operations of the railways and that they should not be making. That level of command and control is not conducive to developing the railway. The single biggest problem, as has been identified, is this split of responsibility between cost and revenue, with the Department for Transport responsible for cost and the Treasury getting the revenue. No business would operate that way, and it has to be ended as quickly as possible.

Industry needs certainty to invest for the long term. That applies not just to the operators, but also the supply chain for engineering and procurement—all the different parts of industry need certainty. They also need the flexibility to respond to post-pandemic patterns of travel, which have not settled down. I do not think that the business world has yet settled on a final mix of home and office working. Just in the last couple of weeks, we heard Google urging more and more of its employees back into work. We will probably not get back to the traditional levels of commuting into the office in the morning and the going home peak in the evening, but the industry needs to have agility to respond to the changing demands.

What can be done in the interim, in the absence of legislation? I strongly urge the Minister to look at the suggestion made recently by Nigel Harris, editor of Rail Magazine, that GBR could be set up in shadow form, in the same way the Strategic Rail Authority was set up back in 2000. It could do work such as developing new passenger service contracts itself, with the Secretary of State only coming in to do the legal bit—the signing—and then it can proceed. I think that is worthy of consideration. Similarly, it could progress with the ticketing reform that is much overdue. It is a thorny issue, because as soon as we reform something we create winners and losers in that model, but it is long overdue. I am not just looking at ticketing reform within rail itself, but rail as part of the wider transport ticketing strategy, so that multimodal tickets can be more easily introduced.

GBR must also not become a heavy command and control body. It has to be the guiding mind, but in a light-touch way. It needs to work with the sub-national transport bodies, the mayoral combined authorities and others so that there is flexibility geographically as well as in the types of service. There is not a plan B. For this work to happen in the absence of legislation, there needs to be a will in DFT and more widely in Government, at both ministerial and official levels. There is an appetite there. I met recently with Lord Hendy and others from the GBR transition team. They want to get on with the work, and they can do it, so I hope the Minister can give me some assurance that that work will progress and the industry can get the certainty it needs.

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate; I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on it. I am delighted to follow the chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), and I am even more delighted to have the Minister here, so that we can have this discussion.

The Great British Railways initiative emanated from what was nothing short of a timetable disaster in May 2018. It affected large parts of the country significantly, and it led my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) to take that first step and say, “Actually, this does not work. This system does not click together, and it needs proper reform.” Of course, that led to the Williams review. If I recall, that piece of work commenced at the beginning of 2019, and we are now four years on. Admittedly, we have had covid in the middle, which has made things more difficult, but the progress has been unclear.

In the Bradshaw lecture mentioned by the Chair of the Transport Committee, the Secretary of State described the railway system as broken, and I agree with him. There are many reasons why it has become so fractious. We have allowed the trade unions to have much more influence than they should have. During covid, trade unions told train companies they would not allow the training of train drivers. That generated a deficit in the manpower requirement, and it meant that many train companies—including TransPennine Express, I suspect, and many others—have to cope with fewer train drivers than they require, and therefore have a requirement on overtime. That has meant that the influence and power was with the trade unions, particularly the train drivers’ union. We know that that is the case even today.

Having been a member of the Transport Committee since 2020—indeed, under the then chairmanship of the Minister—we have had much debate and discussion about this with successive Ministers, commencing in May 2021, March 2022 and October 2022, and with senior officials, including the permanent secretary. We have got to a place where the industry, as well as the passenger and taxpayer, now needs to see real progress on what can and will happen to improve our railways rapidly. We have talked a little this afternoon about the need for legislation. That is one way, but—not to be too sceptical—I do not think we will see the legislation immediately. Even if we did, with the timescales we have to contend with before the end of this Parliament, its impact would be limited.

I will focus my remaining remarks on what is actually feasible to do, rather than being concerned too much with what is unfeasible or unlikely to take place in what remains of this Parliament. We know very well that the DFT is able to specify the core timetable that operators run today. That is part of the contractual arrangements. I am a huge advocate of releasing some of that specification to allow the private sector to bring back to our railways the innovation and commercial capabilities that we have seen previously. We see it currently; I recall reviewing the statement by FirstGroup that its open-access operations, such as Hull Trains and Lumo, have performed very well. I am a huge advocate of enabling that to happen because my great concern, as someone who worked in the railways for 20 years before I was elected to this place, is the enormous uncertainty in this huge industry, which affects both the economy and the passenger experience.

In my own constituency, I have two operators, South Western Railway and Great Western Railway, both of which have had extended management contracts from the Department to deliver train services. It is of great regret to me and my colleagues locally that there was no consultation about the needs of the community when those contracts were leased. When the current contracts come to an end—if it is in this Parliament—I hope we might have that discussion.

However, in the absence of that consultation, I have an ask for the Minister to consider. Once upon a time, we ran summer Saturday trains, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes mentioned, from the Salisbury-Sherborne-Yeovil line down to Weymouth. That service was removed without consultation, and I would be very appreciative if the Minister would ask his Department to consider putting it in the service specification for South Western Railway.

The county town of Dorset—Dorchester—has suffered terribly over the last two or three years. The whole county has been cut off from London on numerous occasions for a number of reasons, whether it was covid or otherwise. The journey time to London from Dorchester is almost three hours; if I recall correctly, it used to be two hours and 15 minutes in years past. I would very much appreciate it if my hon. Friend the Minister would consider such improvements to the railway and ask Network Rail to consider them.

It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on securing this much-needed debate. It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder).

I very much supported the enthusiasm of the former Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), when he launched the Williams-Shapps plan. I particularly supported the commitment to ensure that we saw a reversal of some of the damage done by the Beeching mindset. That was why I was somewhat concerned that a Beeching-esque mindset could see some revival under William-Shapps, although it is not inevitable that that will happen.

The Beeching mindset is that where there is a bus, there is no need for a train, and that where there is a train, there is no need for another train in competition. Beeching called competition duplication, as though a competing service and consumer choice were redundant or inefficient. He was wrong, and the nationalised railway continued to decline. However, thanks to privatisation, we have seen competition return, and record numbers of passengers with it. For example, Birmingham New Street to London Euston faces excellent competition from Moor Street to Marylebone, which has helped to keep fares low on those routes, while other places—such as Stoke, unfortunately—face disproportionately higher fares. On the road, there is also the National Express service from Digbeth to Victoria and of course the soon-to-open service from Curzon Street to Euston or at least Old Oak Common.

That is competition, convenience and choice, not duplication; it puts passengers first, and we need more of it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes said, it is noticeable that, where we have seen more effective competition, with open access on the east coast, performance has been better and fares have remained more competitive. Unfortunately, following the pandemic all risk and reward now rests with the Government. With our railways put on life support, they are more nationalised than ever before, with zero incentive for operators to grow revenues or deliver for passengers.

Our railways are facing an acute revenue crisis, but not really a passenger numbers crisis. The Office of Rail and Road’s estimate of 1.4 billion journeys for the financial year 2022-23 is historically high—it is not back to the 2018-19 peak but, mainly due to increased leisure travel, it is well above 2010 levels, and it has increased to where it has been for all but half a dozen years in the post-war era.

Season ticket sales unfortunately plummeted with lockdown and have not recovered. People who previously would have travelled at peak times, paying the highest fares for business meetings, now find it far more convenient to move to Zoom or Teams. It is good, then, to see operators such as East Midlands Railway introducing a new form of season ticket that allows eight days of travel within a four-week period. I just wish that EMR would restore all the services it cut during the pandemic, particularly on its route through Stoke-on-Trent, and add more to serve revived passenger numbers, which, on EMR, are now at 101% of pre-pandemic levels. There is certainly a demand that is not being effectively met by the barely hourly service throughout the week between Crewe and Derby, with only an afternoon service on a Sunday.

Across the national network, the latest quarterly figures, published last week, show that passenger numbers are 88% of what they were in the same pre-pandemic quarter four years ago, but revenue is only 70%. The rail plan needs to inspire innovation and incentivise operators to win back fares. It also means our railways need to up their game in winning an increased number of lucrative freight contracts.

When it comes to the make-up of GBR, there must be the flexibility for operators to provide services over and above the contracted minimum in response to consumer demand. It would be a mistake for the whole timetable to be decided centrally and inflexibly by the Department in London. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) said, we cannot just see a transfer of all the bad practice and cultural problems we have seen in Network Rail. The headquartering of GBR in Derby is therefore welcome, as is the commitment in the plan for more regionalised management. We must see a much lighter-touch and decentralised GBR that allows the needs of local economies and communities to be properly reflected.

However, those regions must be got right. Currently, Stoke-on-Trent endures being split over two Network Rail areas, in a farce that has forced us to seek intervention from the ORR and No. 10 to compel Network Rail to engage with the transforming cities fund projects as a single organisation and to stop dragging its heels over the TCF infrastructure works that had already been agreed. Even now, I await the unacceptably overdue progress on improving access to Longton station in my constituency. At the very least, having GBR in Derby would put it on the same line as Longton—the Crewe to Derby line—which would hopefully focus minds on improving services in stations through north Staffordshire, including reopening a station in Meir, in my constituency. Indeed, it would be a great commuter base for GBR staff working in Derby, adding urgency to getting the TCF programme delivered.

GBR will need to make serious studies of the Crewe to Derby route and the impact of High Speed 2. Unfortunately, current designs for Crewe threaten to take away capacity for local trains rather than opening up the promised capacity for more local trains. More capacity was supposed to be the rationale for the whole upheaval that HS2 is causing. What is the point of having HS2 services that no one can get to or use if local and regional services are completely hollowed out as a result? We should use the pause of phase 2 to look again at whether money could be far better invested in upgrading existing rail infrastructure to better provide the enhanced connectivity that is needed.

In conclusion, delivering the rail plan urgently requires more detail of what the plan actually is. It needs opportunities for open access to be prioritised. It needs to enable tangible benefits for passengers and to bring back the intangible glamour of rail travel that helped make it the preferred mode of transport, adding to revenue by adding consumer value. The focus has to be more competitive services to drive up standards for passengers, support economic growth and put our railways on a much more stable footing for the long term.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on securing this debate. We have heard from colleagues, and indeed a former colleague, on the Transport Committee. I agreed with much of what they said, but not necessarily the conclusions they drew.

We are two years on from the publication of the Williams review, and in that two years we have seen any prospect of high-speed rail serving north of Manchester removed completely. Even the remaining parts of HS2, when opened, will now terminate near Wormwood Scrubs rather than travel into central London to Euston. That is a boon for prison visiting, but hardly useful for connecting to the centre of the city, which was one of the original points of HS2.

Cities such as Leeds and Bradford have been kicked off the HS2 map and offered trams in return. Like Scotland, they will be stuck at the end of what, in high-speed rail terms, will be branch lines. Even the crown jewel in the review—the formation of GBR—has been kicked into the long grass, as if the Government here have an exhaustive and time-consuming legislative programme to get through in this place, and days were not collapsing early, which we frequently have.

Answers to my written questions published this week show that £64 million has been spent over the last two years on the GBR transition. If GBR is being mothballed until after the election—if there is a change of Government, we will be looking at long after that for any action—those costs will continue to accrue and we will be left with a bill into the hundreds of millions for an organisation that, essentially, or officially, does not exist.

The former Secretary of State intervened at the last minute to slap his name on the front of the report. Given that he is now firmly in the sidings and stuck with no route in sight, I wonder whether he regrets his burst of self-publicity, although I think we all know the answer to that. It has been left to his successors to pick up the pieces and make the case for the review and its recommendations, but No. 10 and the Chancellor are clearly not listening, because by their actions—and inaction—they are showing just how low down rail and transport more generally is on their list of priorities. I feel for the Minister because his Department is being targeted by the Treasury for swingeing cuts. The Williams review called for a 30-year strategy for the rail network, but that simply cannot happen when the Treasury sees transport as an easy target for cuts.

Williams ruled out public ownership and public control, yet as we have seen with ScotRail and the Caledonian Sleeper, the Scottish Government disagree. The UK Government insist that the private sector railway works efficiently, but it clearly does not. The review said:

“Simplification is more important than nationalisation”,

but while the rest of the UK continues to have passenger services under private operation, that simplification cannot happen. Those who receive the new passenger service contracts envisaged by Williams will still extract profit from the system, and the profit will still come from the public one way or another, whether it is from unregulated fares or direct via the DFT contracts. It is not simplification; it is just a tweaked continuation of the present system.

Scotland was the last part of the UK to see its railways privatised and the first to bring them back under full public control. We have heard many times in recent years that Scotland’s railway and the partnership between ScotRail and Network Rail in Scotland has provided much of the template for the GBR operation—if indeed it comes to pass. However, the semi-integration of track and train is despite Westminster, not because of it. Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government are, as per, trying to operate with one arm tied behind their back, with the operator being fully devolved but the track and infrastructure network still reserved.

What is needed now to complete the integration in Scotland is for Network Rail to be brought under the control of the Scottish Parliament, with a Government that are committed to rail in the long term, regardless of the mindset of the Treasury. That is in part being driven by the target to decarbonise Scotland’s railway by 2035—a target that we are well on the way to meeting, showing how a Scottish Government with control over services are marrying their policy objectives with that of the railway.

Thirty years after the Railways Act 1993, which began the privatisation of the system, we are still seeing the same mistakes repeated and the same political ideology standing in the way of a real plan for our rail network over the next 30 years. The truth is that, while Williams-Shapps may have offered the possibility of a sea change on the network down south, we are now likely to see its demise by a thousand cuts, with its core ideal delayed for who knows how many years.

To conclude, we have GBR on the back burner, possibly indefinitely; HS2 curtailed; the north of England bearing the brunt of cuts yet again; a Treasury on the warpath ahead of any election promises; and no end to the fragmentation and profit-driven structure that has demonstrably failed over the decades. It is time the Government went back to the drawing board, looked again at Williams’s integrated rail plan and their 13-year track record of cuts and more cuts to improvement programmes—cuts that never seem to affect Greater London to the same extent as they affect everywhere else—and started building a railway fit for the future, rather than patching up the work of the great engineers of the Victorian era who built our railways.

It is a pleasure to serve once again under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) for securing this important debate on the future of our railways. He eloquently explained that the status quo is not working: fares are high, services are not running, and passengers are not happy. The rail model is broken.

Whenever someone puts their name to something and is then no longer there to lead it, the project is usually destined for failure, as was the case when the then Transport Secretary, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), decided to append his name to the long-awaited Williams review, calling it the Williams-Shapps review, and was then unceremoniously moved out of office to be replaced by another Transport Secretary. I knew straightaway that the review was doomed to be discarded and dumped, which is the situation we now find ourselves in.

It has been two years since the Williams-Shapps plan for rail was published, promising the biggest shake-up of our railways in three decades. We certainly have seen a shake-up, including three Prime Ministers and as many Transport Secretaries, two failing train operating companies put under the operator of last resort, endless strikes, and nearly one in 20 services cancelled in the third quarter of 2022-23. As the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) remarked, the Government are ideologically opposed to taking rail back into public ownership, as the Labour party has proposed. Great British Railways was hailed by the Government as the solution—a guiding mind with clear, central accountability. That means nothing if the status quo remains and progress continues to stall.

As the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) explained, the path ahead of us is unclear. There is enormous uncertainty in an enormous industry. If Great British Railways is the Government’s flagship rail policy, it has certainly run aground. As explained by the Chair of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), there is Government drift on GBR, especially on the legislation. Just a few weeks ago, it was reported that officials were told that it would not be a priority and would not appear in the King’s Speech. GBR has been taken out of the transport Bill, and it may have only a fraction of the powers first proposed. A new headquarters has been announced amid much fanfare and videos produced at taxpayers’ expense, but concrete proposals for it are nowhere to be seen.

I look forward to the Minister providing some clarity. Perhaps he can tell us whether the Government even remain committed to delivering Great British Railways in full. If they are, will he use this opportunity to outline exactly what non-legislative steps will be taken by his Department to move forward with Great British Railways, and when? It cannot become an expensive vanity project, with taxpayers footing the bill. They have spent £50 million and counting on the transition team, and £20 million on consultants alone.

Worse still, the Government forced local authorities into a protracted competition for the opportunity to host Great British Railways’ headquarters, on a promise that it would bring jobs and opportunities. Now, after spending its precious time and resources, Derby is stuck in limbo—a fitting metaphor for the Government, who cannot help but over-promise and under-deliver. I urge the Government to get on with it. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) highlighted, the Government must stop dragging their heels, but they have been too busy lurching from crisis to crisis, while rail operators’ poor performance has gone unpunished or, even worse, been rewarded. In April, the Transport Secretary authorised a £65 million reward payout for First Group, the company that ran two of the worst-performing operators last year. It is absolutely absurd. Passengers deserve better.

We have years of missing annual updates on the rail network enhancements pipeline, which is vital to industry stakeholders. We have had consistent industrial action, which Ministers admit is costing much more than if they had agreed the pay rises for rail workers. We were promised simpler fares; instead, we get a 5.9% increase. We were promised net zero; instead, we got only 2.2 km of rail electrification in 2022. We were promised centralised timetabling; instead, we got service reductions and cancellations. We were promised devolution; instead, we got disparity, with the north left in the lurch.

Our railways are on a downward turn, despite journeys returning to pre-pandemic levels. Passengers and the industry feel as though they have been abandoned. Unity, vision, leadership—that is what our railways need, and what stakeholders and passengers want, not this broken system under this broken Government.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue, and to reply to this debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). I thank him for his work as chair of the all-party group for rail.

Given my former role as Chair of the Transport Committee, it is also a pleasure to be surrounded by former Committee colleagues, including the shadow Rail Minister, the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who cannot stand to be Chair. We also have two former Transport Ministers. I welcome all continued liaison with the Transport Committee—a great Committee with great members.

In his Bradshaw address in February, the Transport Secretary set out his vision for rail: a customer-focused, commercially-led industry with Great British Railways as the guiding mind for the sector. I welcome the supportive comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes about the Bradshaw address and the need for a guiding mind. I agree and, to answer my shadow, we still support it and will still deliver it.

The case for rail transformation is now stronger than ever. As many have said in the debate, the railways are not delivering the services that customers deserve. The industry remains fragmented, which limits effective decision making. The existing commercial model is not sustainable, with the cost to the taxpayer remaining too high, and the structure does not provide adequate opportunity for private sector investment or initiative. Like my hon. Friends, I fully support the private sector in what it does and what it has done in the past; we need it now more than ever, following the pandemic and the reduction in passenger numbers. We need to put customers at the heart of what we do.

By establishing Great British Railways, we will enable a single guiding mind to co-ordinate the network, bringing infrastructure and operational decisions together, and planning coherently for the future with robust levers of accountability. It will develop local partnerships to bring decision making closer to the communities that the railways serve. Importantly, Great British Railways will enhance the role of the private sector, developing a new commercial model that focuses on operators competing to deliver high-quality, punctual services and excellent customer service.

New passenger service contracts will balance the right performance incentives with simple, commercially-driven contracts. Those will not be one size fits all. I want the private sector to play its part in reinvigorating the rail sector, driving innovation and attracting customers to rail. We are now working with industry on how we can introduce more private sector risk and reward into existing contracts.

On the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes about open access, I too want to see more open access where it benefits passengers and taxpayers, with a more level playing field in track charging. As part of rail reform, we want more competition to drive up quality and choice. We look forward to working with existing open access operators, as well as new entrants to the market such as Grand Union Trains, which will shortly introduce new services between London and Carmarthen, to maximise benefits for passengers. Legislation is needed to take forward some of the structural elements of reform, but we will ensure that customers feel the benefits as soon as possible, ahead of the introduction of such legislation.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Luxembourg rail protocol. The Government signed it in 2016 and remain committed to unlocking the benefits of greater private sector financing of rolling stock, which the protocol aims to support. The Government intend to implement the protocol, and we will continue to explore all suitable legislative opportunities to do so.

Let me turn to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes about lowering barriers to entry to create a more competitive retail market. As set out in the plan for rail, we recognise that there is a multitude of train company websites with different standards of service, which is confusing to passengers. We are looking and working closely with industry partners to review the best way to address that. Reform is not something that can be completed overnight, but delivery is well under way. We have launched national flexi-season tickets, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), and over 700,000 have been sold since launch. We have delivered on our commitment to extend single-leg pricing to the rest of the LNER network from 11 June. That delivers simpler, more flexible tickets that are better value. In March, we announced Derby as the winner of the GBR HQ competition.

The accessibility audit of all 2,572 railway stations in Great Britain is complete and work is under way to ensure that data is kept up to date and made available to the public. In response to the points on rail freight, the rail freight growth target call for evidence will be published shortly, and we remain committed to introducing a long-term rail freight growth target towards the end of this year.

The transition team at Great British Railways has analysed hundreds of responses to the first-ever long-term strategy for rail call for evidence. The plan will be published later this year. In response to the complex rules and industry processes, the Great British Railways transition team, with the support of the Office of Rail and Road, will identify and recommend such rules and what can be done.

We continue to press ahead to deliver reforms and tangible benefits, including publishing the Department’s response to the rail reform legislation consultation this summer, taking forward workforce reform, developing the new commercial model, and continuing to simplify fares and roll out pay-as-you-go ticketing, ahead of legislation. I was asked many questions about legislation in the debate; I can only say that we will deliver legislation when parliamentary time allows. Such decisions are made collectively across Government and can be confirmed only during the King’s Speech in autumn.

I heard the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), Chair of the Transport Committee; Nigel Harris is indeed an influential figure who has a lot of good ideas. With regard to the suggestion of a shadow body, I am working with my Department—I had meetings in the last week—to try to escalate and set up more of the teams, so that rather than waiting for matters to be transitioned over, they can take those matters and come up with ideas. I am not saying that our idea is exactly the same as the one put forward, but we are looking to create the very same culture. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: so much can be done without legislation, and so much is being done. Since the end of last year, I have met weekly with the team that is transitioning everything to Great British Railways to ensure that whatever can move without legislation does move. The reality is that this change project is more about getting the change delivered than, ultimately, about legislation; legislation delivers paper and powers—it does not actually deliver the change, which is what I am working on.

To the point made by my shadow, the hon. Member for Slough, it is deeply regrettable that today ASLEF has balloted its members to continue strike action. It has balloted to ask for a continuation of strikes, but it has not asked its members whether they would like to take up the fair and reasonable pay offer put forward by industry, which would take average pay from £60,000 to £65,000 for a 35-hour week. That is on the table, but it is not being put to members. We remain committed to that offer, but we ask the unions to do their part and ask their members to give their view on it. I hope that the hon. Member would join me in welcoming that stance, which could bring an end to strikes rather than seeing the unions continue to put this country and rail passengers through absolute misery.

To conclude, nationalisation is not the answer. We need simplification and modernisation. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes: privatisation has been a success story. The new model will take the very best of the private sector—innovation, an unrelenting focus on quality and outstanding customer service—and fuse it with a single guiding mind to drive benefits and efficiencies across the system as a whole. I look forward to working with all my colleagues across the House to make this reform work.

I think it is fair to say that it has been a lively debate, with contributions from many colleagues. That shows how rail issues always arouse the passions of hon. Members. In contributing, they highlight the interests of their constituents. It has been a helpful debate. I thank the Minister for his response, which I think continues the debate. I hope that as we move forward, the guiding mind, which of course is the Minister, will produce some results.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered progress on delivering the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail.

Sitting adjourned.