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Westminster Hall

Volume 741: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2023

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 29 November 2023

[Mrs Pauline Latham in the Chair]

Rural Councils: Funding

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the funding of rural councils.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in the debate.

There is nothing like a bit of competition between North Dorset and West Dorset. I would like to warmly welcome the Sherborne town clerk, Steve Shield, who is in the Public Gallery and is a finalist in the star council awards that will take place later today. I understand that Shaftesbury is also in those awards, so I wish Sherborne Town Council the best of luck; I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), will make the case for Shaftesbury in a moment.

May I take this opportunity to warmly welcome my hon. Friend to his post as Minister for local government finance? I know that he is well versed in the many issues facing us not just in Dorset but across rural Britain. Many, like me, are pleased to see a Dorset MP in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities who is not purely obsessed with the north and urban areas and who can bring meaningful perspective to rural issues, particularly in the south-west.

Ten million people live in rural England. Those who work in the rural economy can expect to earn on average £2,000 less than those in urban areas. The rural fuel poverty gap is double the national average. Rural people pay on average 20% more council tax per head than those in urban areas. My other constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and I both represent the area with the worst social mobility in the country. I have a secondary school in that area that has been partly closed and another school where a third of the classrooms are in disrepair. We also have significant transport issues and social care challenges—in West Dorset, we have a community where a third of the population is over the age of 65.

My constituents are fed up with turning on the telly to hear levelling-up announcements for urban areas in the midlands and the north and hearing nothing about the rural south-west or rural Britain. They want to know, and have sent me here today to ask why rural hardship is not seen in the same way as urban poverty. They expect to see their representatives make the case to change that. That is why other Members and I are in the Chamber today.

It should be no surprise that rural matters are going up the agenda. Yesterday, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) brought a debate to Westminster Hall about rural services. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for chairing the all-party parliamentary group on rural services and my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), the previous Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on all the work that she has done.

I represent West Dorset, which is my home, and I am the sixth generation of a tenant-farming family, and am in the Chamber, almost 10 months on from my last debate, again to champion the cause of millions of people living in rural Britain who want a fairer system of taxation and service provision. Whereas before I focused primarily on the revenue support grant, I am here today to address the funding of rural councils more broadly, and particularly to speak in favour of my own, Dorset Council. That funding is perhaps more important today than it was at the time of the previous debate in January, given that little has changed to improve the situation for rural councils since then. It is nearly a decade since the local government funding formula was locked in. That means it is also a decade since the faulty distribution of the revenue support grant and the corresponding increase in council tax to compensate for the unfair—in my opinion—national distribution of Government resources. As the years have passed, the situation for rural councils, exposed relentlessly to the frozen funding formulas, has deteriorated, and the rural tax burden has increased for millions in England, including my West Dorset constituents.

A recent survey carried out by the County Councils Network and the Society of County Treasurers found that their members face overspending on their budgets by an enormous £600 million per annum. It found that 20 county councils and 17 unitary authorities right across the country will collectively overspend in 2023-24. There is no clear road map for improvement, so those councils are running out of time to find solutions to prevent insolvency. That is one of the reasons why it is important for me to bring this matter to the House.

Against that backdrop, it is a surprise that only one in 10 of those surveyed running well-managed councils are unsure or lack confidence that they will be able to balance their budgets this year—I hasten to remind hon. Members that it is a legal requirement for councils to do so—but without urgent action or reform, that number will increase to four in 10 next year and six in 10 by 2025. That is an unprecedented majority of our rural councils, and the County Councils Network is concerned about whether councils will meet the legal requirements within the next two years.

Why is that the case? What is causing the situation to be so difficult? Why is there an excess burden on rural people? It is due, first, to the formula that dictates the distribution of the revenue support grant from the Government to local authorities; and, secondly, to the corresponding levels of council tax that councils are forced to levy to cover their increasing social and services cost. As the Minister said to the Levelling-up, Housing and Communities Committee earlier this month, the unique characteristics and challenges of each local authority make it difficult to implement a national fix, as they often require bespoke solutions. I fully understand and support that idea.

I have spoken a great deal in this Chamber and on the Floor of the House about the revenue support grant formula and council tax, so I will touch on them only briefly for Members’ information. In 2013-14, we locked in a local government funding formula that distributed an unfairly low proportion of central Government resources and grants to rural councils; today, urban councils receive 38% more in Government-funded spending power per head than rural councils. This year, my local authority, Dorset Council, received just £700,000 from central Government, which accounts for just 0.2% of funding. Although my hon. Friend the Minister, who was on the Back Benches at the time, and I made the case very strongly for Dorset in the local government funding debate, the local council would probably say that other adjustments were made that offset that, so there was little if any net benefit. The rest must be sourced elsewhere—often through the council tax mechanism—or the council will enter an insolvency situation.

As a result, councils in the predominantly rural areas of the country that are overlooked when it comes to Government support must increase the rate of council tax, irrespective of their individual demands on services and demographics. Rural residents across the country pay an average of 20% more council tax. Across the County Councils Network, 68% of funding was received from council tax alone, compared with an average of 56.8%—it is, of course, lower in most urban boroughs. In everyday terms, that means that the typical band D council tax bill for someone living in Dorchester, Sherborne, Bridport or Lyme Regis—or any of the 132 parishes in West Dorset—will be over £2,000 a year.

While focusing on our situation in West Dorset, I should explain why the existing system of rural council funding cannot continue unamended. In West Dorset, a third of residents are over 65. It is a vast geographical territory, covering over 400 square miles of the most beautiful and picturesque part of the country. Although that may sound idyllic, it is tremendously difficult to travel without access to a car or the ability to drive, especially as local public transport options have become more and more restricted. Sixth formers in Dorset— 16 to 19-year-olds—have to pay to get the bus to go to sixth form. Why is that the case, when the Government pump billions into TfL and Londoners get travel for free? That cannot be right.

These three factors—the revenue support grant, council tax and local characteristics—regularly combine to disadvantage rural communities and people, imposing barriers where there need not be any. That can be felt across society. Taking them together, it is fair to say that rural councils continue to be placed under unique pressure.

This has a knock-on effect on households and businesses. We have seen it clearly during the cost of living crisis, where three in four councils, many of them serving rural residents, have increased their council tax by the maximum permitted rate. Accounting for the increase, a typical band-D council tax bill for rural residents is 27.5% higher than that faced by London residents.

It is fair to say that the high rise in energy prices has disproportionately affected rural households and businesses. That is against the backdrop of a rural fuel poverty gap that is already double the national average. In West Dorset, more than half of households are off grid, meaning that they have less access to energy support than people on the mains gas network. This is one of the primary reasons why, when Dorset Council established its household support fund for applications, its funding allocation was gone within a matter of hours.

Business rates are a very topical issue for rural councils. The simple nature of our local economy in West Dorset means that 97% of businesses are small or micro sized. They are not conglomerates; they are not transnational. They are often run by people, perhaps from home or from a small premises at the local trading estate, employing one, two, three, four or five people who are attempting to make a modest living. It means, however, that income derived from retained business rates by the council in West Dorset is 14.5%, whereas Tower Hamlets, for example—to make a comparison with London—receives over 50% from its retained business rates. To put that into financial terms, it is £50.2 million for Dorset, but £176 million for the borough of Tower Hamlets.

We ought not to forget the importance of social care. I recognise that this area is often debated in the Department of Health and Social Care, but the reality is that local government has an important responsibility for delivering social care and services. Residents across the country would be forgiven for overlooking the acronym for adult social care—ASC—on their council tax bill, but rural councils are forced to derive huge amounts of their income from the adult social care precept. In total, people would expect three quarters of the amount they pay in council tax to go towards social care support, simply because older people tend to reside in more rural areas. As I mentioned earlier, a third of our population in West Dorset is over 65, compared with just 10% in some London boroughs. The matter of an ageing population of concern for all rural councils, as rural residents get 13% less per head in social care support overall. That is one of the main drivers for the council tax increase. The matter of social care becomes sharper when we make a comparison between urban and rural. Residents in an average band-E property in West Dorset will pay an annual social care precept of £204.04. For the same property in the borough of Westminster, the precept is a mere £3.20. The difference is absolutely enormous.

The dividends are especially visible in funding for young people’s services and schools. Across Dorset, there is core school funding per pupil of £5,728, which places the council in the upper third of upper-tier local authorities for education spending. Other rural authorities fare just as poorly or even worse. Leicester, Cheshire and Bedfordshire are all ranked in the top 10 upper-tier local authorities for core school funding per pupil. Looking again to the capital for our rural to urban comparison, it is possible to see that London boroughs occupy all 10 of the top 10 spots for core school funding. Islington, Westminster, Camden, Southwark and Hackney all spend over £7,500 per pupil when it comes to education funding. Tower Hamlets is top of the list; it spends £8,122 per pupil. That is 40% more than is spent on a child in education in rural Dorset. That disparity is simply unfair and is not acceptable for those who are being educated in rural Britain.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I am grateful to him for bringing us together on this important topic. On the matter of disparity in funding, does he recognise that, on top of the ludicrously exaggerated funding that London councils get, they each make millions more on parking fines that they are then able to put back into their communities? That is not taken into consideration, so their budgets are inflated beyond even that which we see in the basic figures.

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend, but it is worse than that. One of my asks for the Minister is to take away and investigate this: it is important that we all note that London is getting £236 million a year more of Government grant than the formula says it should, and that £166 million goes to five London boroughs alone. I very much appreciate that my hon. Friend and neighbour is very new in his ministerial post, and I am not expecting him to answer some of these very tricky questions, but I would appreciate it if he would ask his officials to look into that and gain an understanding of some of these matters, because for those of us representing rural constituents this is simply unacceptable. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) again for her kind intervention.

It is not just education, businesses and social care that this unfairness pervades, but transport too. The stark reality is that urban councils are in the privileged position of spending three and half times more on public transport than rural councils. We can see that demarcation clearly between London and West Dorset; I have given enough comparators to make the point. If anything, it should be the other way around, because of the rural disparity.

Something is not right in the formulas and the understanding of them. We do not have a dedicated or overfunded public body to oversee our transport network in Dorset, as other areas do with Transport for London, Transport for Greater Manchester and so on. In West Dorset, unlike many urban areas, further education students do not receive a free or subsidised travel pass to get to their places of study. Residents are not in the luxurious position of receiving eye-watering grants for public transport in rural Britain, and definitely not in West Dorset. Instead, they have to rely on the good will of community operators to keep running. That is not sustainable; I hope that Transport Ministers will consider that point. It is evident that the disparity in national mechanisms for council funding between rural and urban areas is far-reaching, cross-cutting and very difficult for councils on the wrong side of the formulas.

Almost 10 million people live in rural England. Most hon. Members present represent rural constituencies, and many of us are rural residents ourselves. We want action to address the challenges and financial difficulties that our local councils face. It is important that we see the continuation of the excellent Government work across the board to improve the fairness of this crucial aspect of Government policy—something that I, the Minister and others have been attempting for some time. Primarily, we need fundamental reform of the frozen funding formulas, which in my view constitute a levy that penalises rural residents simply for where they live. That strikes at the heart of fairness, which is not on.

This country has moved a long way in the decade since 2013-14. It is fair to say that the funding formulas and the revenue support grant formula were geared to a very different climate in 2013-14. We know that many things have changed; many have improved and some have got worse. Other models such as the Green Book should also be amended to ensure that fairness is realised. If we continue with rural councils not receiving the fairness that they deserve, county authorities will have no choice but to cut back on some of the services that they have to provide. It is important, and only fair, that I let the Government know that that is not acceptable.

I am pleased that my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset is the Minister for local government finance. He brings a level of understanding and insight from Dorset that I do not think we have seen in that role before. I had the same debate 10 months ago with one of his predecessors, in whose constituency council tax was £800 lower than in the Minister’s and mine. It is a difficult situation for an MP to comprehend unless we see it day to day with our constituents, as the Minister and I both do.

I wish the Minister well in making progress. Rural England is crying out for his help. I look forward to him being the messiah of local government finance. The February debate on local government finance is always an interesting one. I look forward to it and hope that we will have a further conversation then, and much more progress in the meantime.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on a well-informed and passionate speech. I am going to talk about local government in Scotland, which is a devolved matter but which I believe impinges on what the United Kingdom Government do in England and Wales.

I had the honour of serving twice as a member of the Highland Council. The word “messiah” rang a bell with me, because there is that wonderful chorus from the “Messiah” about “Wonderful, Counsellor”; I always regard it as my personal tune. The Highland Council is the biggest council in the entire United Kingdom. It is 20% larger than Wales. We have 7,000 km of road, 200 schools—the most of any local authority in the UK—and extraordinary diversity, from the conurbation of Inverness to very remote areas with very sparse populations. These bring particular challenges that all rural Members here will recognise: distance, inclement weather and everything else that makes funding those councils much harder.

In my brief contribution today, I want to highlight a cautionary tale. I am sorry that no Scottish National party Members are present, because this is an issue for them and their Government in Scotland. The Scottish Government in their infinite wisdom have seen fit to impose a council tax freeze. For the Highland Council, that means that £108 million of savings will have to be found over the next three years. That is incredibly difficult for my former colleagues, because £108 million represents slightly more than half the annual education budget for the Highland Council—that is how massive it is. I do not envy those good people of all parties: Conservative, Liberal, Labour, independent and, indeed, Scottish nationalist. I do not know how they will do it.

I believe that there is a cautionary tale here for the United Kingdom Government. We talk about what exactly is meant by levelling up. The first point is that this sort of thing happening in the highlands of Scotland or in other parts of rural Scotland amounts to a form of levelling down. Services will be cut, investment will be cut and—this is my message to the Minister—that sits unhappily with the Government’s policy of trying to ensure levelling up. If we have part of the United Kingdom going in the opposite direction, it makes the equation that much harder for the UK Government to square, notwithstanding the good intention and efforts that might lie behind the initiative.

This is my second and last point. When His Majesty’s Treasury agreed the local government settlement as part of the Scottish Government settlement, was the intention that the Scottish Government would take those resources and decide to freeze council tax? I do not believe that that is what any Treasury of any Government of the UK would see as a worthwhile outcome. Will the Minister be kind enough to convey that message back to the Treasury? As and when it looks at the Scottish Government settlement, it might just want to take a good, hard look at what the SNP Government are doing in Scotland and how it is having a direct impact on my constituents—the children, the old people and the people who need carers and social help in my constituency. I want to say on the record that I very, very much resent that.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) for giving a great opportunity to speak in support of our local rural areas and councils, and for raising this timely issue.

As we have heard, it does not take an economist to recognise that the pressure on Government Departments to find savings in public spending will mean that local authorities do not get what they need to deliver the services that they want to deliver. In that context, it is more rather than less important to distribute the available resource fairly between different areas. I am here to press the Minister and his Department to ensure that the 2024-25 local government finance settlement is fairer for local authorities. I say that as an MP who represents a remote island community with its own unitary authority, the Council of the Isles of Scilly, which has had discussions with Government Ministers and me for every year I have been an MP to try and resolve their funding challenges.

I also speak as an MP who represents a sparsely populated rural area served by the large unitary authority of Cornwall Council. It is a great delight to be joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) to campaign for this together. I also speak as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on rural services.

I remind the House that urban councils receive 38% more per head in Government-funded spending power than rural councils. As we have heard, rural residents will get 13% less per head in social care support. Rural councils have to increase council tax to balance their budgets, and that means that rural residents now pay on average 20% more in council tax per head. That additional tax on rural residents is a result of Government underfunding over many years. The cost of living in rural areas is higher than in urban areas, and that rural earnings are lower. The cost of service delivery is also higher in rural areas.

The Government have sought to address the disparity. Following a campaign by the Rural Fair Share Campaign and the Rural Services Network, the Government accepted that “such a correction”—so that there is a proper recognition of the additional cost of delivering services in rural areas—“is warranted”. Changes were approved and the formula was changed. The new formula is still, by and large, the one in operation today. The problem is that that uplift to rural council funding has not been realised, because on average 75% of the exemplified gains were lost to authorities as a result of damping and other changes. Damping aims to protect councils from volatile changes, which is understandable, but the Government froze the formula so that it was not changed further. As we have heard, there are London local authorities that receive millions of pounds a year more in grant than the formula says they should.

We were not deterred. With the support of the Rural Services Network, many parliamentarians, including me, convinced the Government that a fair funding review was needed. That was in 2016, soon after I became an MP. The Government then announced a relative needs and resources review, which was intended to ensure a fairer formula for the allocation of Government funding, with a new funding formula in place for the 2020-21 financial year. If that had been delivered as intended and as we expected, we would not be having this discussion today, and the councils we represent would not be facing such difficult decisions about how to spend money not where they want to, but where they need to. The review has been delayed over and over again. It has now been seven years since the review was announced, but the formula has not been changed.

It is time to act. The Minister must deliver fairer funding by applying in full, without damping, the effects of the changes made but not fully implemented to the needs assessment component of the formula that was agreed back in 2013. The Minister must ensure that funding for social care reform proposals uses a formula that recognises a whole range of costs faced by rural councils and care providers. The Minister must also address fairer funding through the completion of the needs and resources review for local government funding in the first 12 months of the next spending review period, and fully implement the changes promised in 2021 for implementation in 2026-27. The Minister must also fight for, defend and maintain the rural service delivery grant.

I recognise that that will not be easy. However, we do not go into government for an easy life, but to correct unfairness and inequality. Our Government believe in levelling up, and I am not aware of a better way to level up than to fairly fund the day-to-day public services that our councils deliver, that our constituents depend on and that they have a right to expect.

Order. Because of the number of Members who want to speak, any Member who did not notify me that they wanted to speak will not be called.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder), my neighbour, on securing the debate.

I must first declare an interest as a proudly active Somerset councillor. My colleagues and I at Somerset Council and across local government know how difficult times are for councils right across the country. We must not forget the crucial role that local authorities play. They provide essential frontline services to the residents they serve. To do so, and to survive, they must have the necessary support from central Government. In 2018, when the Prime Minister was Under-Secretary of State for Local Government, he claimed to understand just how important local authorities were, so I have been disappointed that more support has not been forthcoming during his premiership to enable local authorities to deliver services to their communities.

Local authorities need to be able to provide first-rate social care for adults and children. The Conservative former leader of Somerset Council has regularly recognised that adult and children’s social care is broken. He has called for immediate investment by Government in social care. Somerset Council is facing a £100 million black hole in its budget, with a significant overspend in social care. The latest estimates show a £70 million increase in costs for 2024-25. The stark reality is that inaction now will cost lives.

The cost of providing services in rural areas, like the majority of Somerton and Frome, is more than in urban areas, yet rural residents will receive 13% less in spending per head on social care support. As a result of underfunding, rural councils are forced to increase council tax to its highest rate in order to balance their budgets. The system is grossly unfair, as we have heard. An increase of 1% in council tax in a largely rural county like Somerset would bring in only £3.4 million, whereas in Surrey, for example, the figure would be about £8 million.

It is clear that in Somerset the urgent pressures we are facing are in part the fault of the previous Conservative administration, which refused to raise council tax for six years between 2010 and 2017—the longest freeze of any council in the country. That irresponsible move saw a minimum shortfall of £24 million per year, and delivered a total cut to services of £150 million. In the same time, the Government cut council funding by 40% until 2020. Combined, those policies have left it impossible for the council to meet its statutory obligations for funding social care at a time of high inflation, which has forced cuts in services that local people rely on. Somerset Council is also ranked towards the bottom for the Government public health funding that it receives. That is not right, and it is not fair.

We are waiting for the 2024-25 local government finance settlement; I hope that it will be fairer for rural local authorities. As the hon. Member for West Dorset mentioned, the current local government funding formula, which has been largely unchanged since 2013-14, has left rural areas with huge losses, and 75% of the exemplified gains were lost to local authorities due to damping and other changes.

Local government has been waiting for the fair funding review for seven years since its announcement, with several years of delay. If it does not urgently address the issues that rural councils are facing, it is highly likely that many more authorities will go bust and end up issuing section 114 notices. That can and should be avoided, as there are no better bodies to run local services than the people who live in the area that they serve. I hope that the Minister, another neighbour of mine, is listening to the very stark cost of ignoring the bleak reality for local authorities and the communities they serve across the country.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) for securing this very important debate. I could waste time setting out the problem that he has made very clear, but what we should be doing is focusing on the solutions. Some 21% of the population—12 million people—live in rural areas. Too often, they are ignored, forgotten and marginalised. What we really need is a proper strategy for rurality. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Minister responsible for rurality across Government Departments?

Today, we seem to be focusing much more on the exact amount that goes to local government, instead of looking across the piece at the totality of money that goes through the funnel of local government for health, education and transport. What we need is an approach that looks at that in the round. The Government have to accept that the original plan in 2010, which effectively tried to shift the balance of funding away from central grants and towards council tax and business rates, is fundamentally flawed. The problem is that it has baked in underfunding, which has just got worse and worse each year.

A courageous Government would recognise the imbalance and do something that sounds almost impossible: cut what we give urban communities. We all know that times are tough. Asking for more for rural without cutting urban ain’t gonna work. It will be a brave but fair move, and this Government are all about fairness.

Devon is in exactly the same position as has been described for Dorset and Somerset, and the fear of a section 114 notice hovers. It paralyses action. It is not right for our communities, because their lived reality is that the life chances of children are considerably reduced. A primary school in my constituency is looking to lay off six teachers—think what that will do. It is a small school, and children in their first proper year of education are predominantly in nappies; one teacher’s full-time job is changing nappies. That cannot be right. Housing is in short supply, and it is not just the challenge from tourism and Airbnb. Even the Campaign to Protect Rural England launched a cry for help last night —a cry for more affordable housing from an unusual ally.

All the flood plans generally look at value for money in large conurbations, and rural communities get forgotten. The flood money is not ringfenced. In the last storm, one of my villages was under metres of water and there was a considerable amount of sewage. There was no money to put the damage right, and there is no money in Devon County Council to put in place a proper flood prevention plan. People in the village live not with carpets but with concrete floors. They say to me, “Anne Marie, there is absolutely no point in carpeting, because we know that when the next flood comes, we’re going to have to replace it, and it just makes the clean-up much harder.” They live on concrete, and that it is a fairly squalid condition to be living in. It is not right.

On transport, we are lucky if we even get a bus going to and from the same village on the same day. Transport is heavily underfunded, and it is yet another Government Department grant that simply is not fit for purpose.

What are we going to do about this? We need a fair deal for the countryside. I saw the Minister nod his head and say, “Actually, it is me who is looking across all these Government Departments,” in which case I very much look forward to him giving us some answers, because we cannot carry on living like this. It is not right, it is not fair and it is not moral. Why should my young constituents living in a rural constituency have worse opportunities and life outcomes, and why should the older people suffer because the social care is simply not there? It is not right, it is not acceptable and something must be done.

It is an absolute honour to serve under your stewardship this morning, Mrs Latham. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder), who made a very good speech. It is great that he introduced this topic for us to coalesce around, although I will say something that right hon. and hon. Members might not like to hear: I have analysed the 6,366 words that the Chancellor used in his autumn statement last week, and not a single one of them was the word “rural”. That might be an accidental and pedantic omission, or it might tell us more than the Chancellor intended. It certainly rings bells with rural communities in Westmorland, who feel ignored and taken for granted.

I want to make two or three quick points about the formula for funding rural councils. First, authorities such as mine are inadequately funded to take account of the number of temporary residents in our communities. Some 227,000 people live in the area administered by Westmorland and Furness Council, and we have something like 20 million visitors to the lakes and dales every year. Some stay overnight, but most come as day visitors. The pressure they put on the roads and other parts of our infrastructure is significant. Every single one of them is welcome, but it seems wrong that we are not in any way compensated, particularly with highways funding, to acknowledge the fact that we are the biggest visitor destination in the country outside London. I congratulate the council on doing its job and making a methodical, good effort to tackle the state of our roads, but it is not fair that it is not funded for the people who visit.

Secondly, others have mentioned sparsity. I have a mere 130 schools in my constituency, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), but they cover a huge area, with many primary schools with fewer than 20 children and many high schools with fewer than 200. Of course it is more expensive to provide services in such dispersed areas, and sparsity is not a sufficient part of the funding formula. All that is against the backdrop of unfair funding for rural councils in general. On average, a person living in a rural community such as mine receives £105 less in central Government funding than their urban counterpart, and pays £104 more in council tax.

I want to make two points about second homes. First, the people who are lucky and well off enough to have a second home in a community such as mine can come and buy a home in Ambleside, Grasmere or Appleby, and they may turn it into a holiday let for a few weeks a year. They can therefore not pay any council tax, and because they are a small business they pay no business tax either. That means that people on very low incomes in Appleby, Kendal, Ambleside, Windermere and so on are subsidising wealthy people to have a second, third, fourth or fifth home in our communities.

I am pleased that the Government have said that they will allow councils to double council tax for second homes. That is good news. Westmorland and Furness Council reckons that will bring in an extra £10 million to help local residents. The council, which plans to start this scheme in April, has done its duty by giving second home owners the necessary 12 months’ notice. My question is: have the Government got their house in order? Will they be permitting councils to double tax on second homes from April 2024? If they fail to do that, will they compensate the councils that were planning to make use of this new and welcome power?

Let us talk briefly about social care. Rural councils get an average of 14% less funding for social care than urban councils. However, in many rural areas—certainly mine—the number of older people who require that care is much greater. The average age of my constituents is 10 years above the national average. Our area also has a complete crisis in affordable housing for both private and social rented homes, with average house prices about 12 times the average wages. So where do the workforce live? As a consequence of the housing crisis and our older population, we have a serious care crisis in our area. Earlier this year, 32% of our hospital beds were occupied by people who were fit to leave hospital but could not receive a care package. Why? Because there are not enough homes for the people who work in social care. We are not paying those people enough money. The Government have made promises before but have failed to act, letting down our old people and our rural communities.

Let us talk briefly about transport poverty, which is a huge issue that we all have in common in our rural communities. The £2 bus fare is very welcome, but it is of no use whatsoever if we have no bus. We need to fund our younger people to get them into further education—sixth forms and apprenticeship posts—but we need to make sure that there are working buses to do that. One reason that is not the case now is that the Government have not devolved the powers that they devolve to urban areas to rural ones. Why will they not allow communities like ours to have full devolution so we can have our own bus companies and fund rural bus services? They will only allow that for urban areas that have a Mayor, and that is disadvantaging rural communities. I hope the Minister will answer that.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on not only the time we worked together at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but his excellent speech. I have learned that we share a lot of characteristics in our different counties, and many of the same concerns.

Suffolk County Council is a well-run council. It has not gone off speculating about property and other crises that other councils have found themselves in. It has also tried to innovate over the years, recognising the financial challenges that the country was left with in 2010 when the last Labour Government were in power. Suffolk Libraries is an example of that innovation. While many other councils around the country were closing libraries, Suffolk took the opportunity to effectively create a community interest company—or a charity, as it is now. That is an even better service than when it was run by the council, so Suffolk is not averse to innovation and bringing the communities in.

However, from some of my discussions with the county council leader, I am concerned that the basic costs are rising, particularly those associated with special educational needs and disabilities. I can think of several children who, per individual, cost about £1 million a year to support. I know that we have to support those children—of course we do—but this should be recognised more strongly in the local government finance settlement.

Another big surge in costs has been from home-to-school transport. As has been said by many, that is really challenging. One of the costs for people living in these wonderful parts of the countryside that we represent is having to travel much further for services, or it costs more for councils to provide the services directly to the local communities. That issue is worrying not just Suffolk County Council but councils right across the country.

The other big issue is the increase in the national living wage. That is welcome—it is in line with the Government’s policy to keep the national living wage in line with two thirds of median earnings—but it needs to be recognised in the support given to councils. The increase is, I think, 9.6% next April. That is a significant increase to the cost of providing services, so I hope that the Government will look at that.

Rural councils have always been innovative because they have had to be, partly because they need to deliver services in a slightly different way. If I think about what happens here in London, Westminster, Wandsworth, and Kensington and Chelsea all share just one waste and recycling centre, and it is very easy for people to get to. That is not true for rural council areas, where people are driving many more miles to use those services. I welcome the funding—for example, the recent pothole funding—that has been given to councils around the country in recognition of the lengths of roads in their areas, but it is the ongoing, daily element that we must keep in mind when we have the local government finance settlement. I hope that we can consider these issues earlier to try to give certainty to officers and councillors on how they will manage in the years ahead.

Councils have been innovative and there have already been mergers. We have merged several of our district councils. East Suffolk is the largest district council in the country, not necessarily by geography but by the number of people represented, and the current administration has benefited from the good stewardship that the Conservative administration had in the past. There is no doubt that the funding formula needs revisiting to reflect the challenges we face. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister, who I congratulate on his role, will consider that carefully.

There are other aspects of deregulation that we should consider. Take, for example, community transport projects, where willing volunteers help get people to day clubs or other places like that; we need to take advantage of having left the European Union and deregulate things like extending the rights to drive C1 and D1 vehicles— D1 particularly when it comes to community transport. We can do that. It is within our powers. The Department for Transport says it needs primary powers. If primary legislation is what is needed, then let’s go for it, but I think there are other ways.

Overall, unemployment is much lower in rural areas. That is why the proportion of pupil premium and other factors in the school funding formula do not benefit rural communities, despite the national funding that has been put in place. We need to recognise the challenges we face. I look forward to the Minister giving us some assurances later.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mrs Latham. Local councils are the workforces of our communities. They deliver vital services and aim to create thriving towns and villages for people to live in. This is often very serious work, with decisions being taken by people with great skills behind them, but often the officers and councillors are not very well remunerated for the hard work they put in. The changes they make can have a real and immediate impact on people’s lives. Councils are responsible for everything from bins to social care to potholes. Some people in my part of Devon would say that they need reminding from time to time that they are responsible for filling in the potholes, rather than just being responsible for them—but, in short, they do a lot of very serious and important work.

East Devon District Council and Mid Devon District Council are excellent examples of local councils. They work hard to improve people’s lives. But that work has been—to use a word I have heard Ministers use a lot in recent days—fettered by this Conservative Government. They have presided over a 31% fall in grant income for councils during their time in office. For some councils, the situation is worse. The settlement received by Mid Devon District Council last year was, in real terms, a little less than 50% of what it received in 2015-16.

The Institute for Government found that the biggest impact had been to shire districts, which saw their spending power fall by over 20%. That puts them at the bottom of the league for spending power by type of council. District councillors in Devon tell me that what they need from Government is some certainty about the future. They are often offered only one or two-year settlements, the most recent of which was in July 2022 when the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities announced a two-year settlement for councils. That was inferior to the multi-year settlements they are after, which would enable medium-term planning.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Local authorities could deliver much better road improvements if they had a three or four-year plan and knowledge of what the funding would be, because they could make the money go so much further, and it would reassure a lot of local residents.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am hearing—from, for example, the finance lead on my local district council—that because they can only plan one year ahead, they cannot give certainty to providers, such as providers of social care. That is particularly true for councils in Devon that have been forced to make cuts because of funding cuts from central Government. In some parts of the country, we have seen that drive councils to the point of bankruptcy.

Councils are trying to be innovative in how they address these shortfalls and problems and, as I understand it, central Government have been encouraging them to be enterprising in seeking to make money. Some have been successful in that, but we have also seen some shocking failures uncovered in recent documentaries and scandals about solar farms or investments that have flopped.

In my own part of Devon, Mid Devon District Council sought to set up a housing development company—3 Rivers Developments—that is wholly owned by the council. I want my council to be very good at delivering social care and school allocations, and we already rehearsed the fact that it ought to be doing the recycling and filling in the potholes. I do not want it to be learning about how to be a building company because, frankly, we have seen enough building companies struggle to make ends meet; we do not need our councils to be in the same position.

Let me tell Members another anecdote. The former chief executive of East Devon District Council joked with officers and his Mid Devon counterpart that, despite Mid Devon being landlocked, they council ought to put up signs saying, “Beach this way” to enable them to hike up parking charges for the beach—which, frankly, is what enables East Devon District Council to get by right now. I am almost out of time, so my last plea is that the Government consider the fair funding review, which we have heard about from other hon. and right hon. Members. That would address the desperate need for rural councils to receive more money.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) for introducing this important debate and congratulate him on the way he expertly presented his case. I represent three local authorities plus a county council. I will focus mainly on Tewkesbury Borough Council and the county council.

Tewkesbury has been a financially responsible borough over many years and has not borrowed, but because it kept its spending low and under control, and kept its council tax low, it now suffers; a 1% increase to Tewkesbury Borough Council’s income is far less than it would be to an authority that already spends a lot more, so it gets penalised for having been a responsible council for so many years.

I am calling not for greater Government spending—the Government are spending an awful lot of money, and arguably too much—but, along with other right hon. and hon. Members, for a fairer allocation of that money. If any Government say that the allocation given to rural areas is correct, why are other areas getting more? Looking at it the other way, if other areas have much higher levels of spending and the Government say that is correct, how can what rural areas receive also be correct?

SEND children in Cornwall receive just over half per child what those in Camden receive. How can that possibly be right?

It is not right. School funding has been unfair for many years, and that is not just about rural areas. It is down to a complete mismatch in what I think was called the area cost adjustment, which we suffered under for many years, and some areas just do not get the adequate funding or funding comparable with other areas. I am glad to say that my hon. Friend took one of my points, so I will skip on.

In what ways does the underfunding of rural areas manifest itself beyond those we have already discussed? In planning, lower funding means delayed decisions and that some councils and planning authorities are reluctant to turn down inappropriate applications because they simply cannot afford such applications to be taken to appeal. Tewkesbury is the fastest-growing area in the United Kingdom apart from London, so we are not nimbys in any way, but we do need to be able to fund the planning system properly.

Another big problem is coming: I am told that, in Gloucestershire as a whole, up to 200 asylum seekers are to be given a right-to-remain status. At the moment, they are living in hotels, which is of course completely inappropriate for them. They will need to be found housing, but that will cost an awful lot of money. If that is their status, it is correct that they should be found proper accommodation. The decision to grant them that status, which is probably quite right, is for the Government, but money must follow that decision, and we do not see any prospect of that. That is a big worry in our area.

Rural transport has been covered in great detail, so I will not go over all that, but I echo what was said by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) in that the £2 bus fare is absolutely useless if there is no bus. So many areas have seen their bus routes removed. In my village, the bus has been taken away, so if I want to travel to Gloucester or to Cheltenham, as I frequently do, I have to get a car to take me to Tewkesbury town to do so. We are not the only village to have lost our bus; that has happened across the country.

I do not have time to go into the many other details that I was kindly sent by the county council. A real benefit for rural counties would be to put an end to the process of ad hoc competitive bidding for short-term funding and instead to provide longer-term revenue settlements so that they know what they can do and what services they can provide. That is the way forward as they see it. There is no reason why rural areas should be as underfunded as they are. As I said, I am calling not for more Government spending overall but for a fairer allocation.

I am pleased to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) for securing the debate.

When my hon. Friend the Minister accepted his position, he might not have realised that he was essentially agreeing to be hunted down by the Member for Rutland and Melton on a weekly basis. On that, I urge him to open his diary—after my speech, of course—and put in a slot for us to have a private discussion about this matter. I thank him for getting his pen out so quickly. Having set out the ground rules of our relationship, I will not repeat many of the arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset. As we all know, the reality is that it costs a lot more to deliver services in rural areas, and if we are truly to level up the whole country, we need to deal with the funding imbalance.

Rutland County Council and Leicestershire County Council are both severely underfunded. For example, if Leicestershire, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset kindly mentioned, was funded at the same level as Surrey County Council, we would receive an additional £104 million to help the people of Leicestershire. On a similar basis, neighbouring Lincolnshire County Council, which includes Stamford, would receive another £116 million to support its people.

According to Leicestershire County Council, its budget gap is set to grow by £13 million next year and, realistically, could exceed £100 million by 2027-28. Beyond council tax, the east Midlands receives the lowest levels of public investment of any UK region—something that we have to end. I am seeing the repercussions of that low public investment in my constituency. Leicestershire County Council has decided to pull out of the next stage of a bypass. In effect, we will have half a bypass. If the county council had built the north and the south routes when I had secured the money from Government to build the entire bypass, we would not be in this position now. However, due to the fiscal situation that it finds itself in, we will now have just half.

Rutland County Council has been an effective unitary authority for many years and we are very proud of our independence. Indeed, the Minister’s predecessor visited our county regarding this exact topic on my invitation—another invitation will follow—and he found us to be one of the most fiscally responsible and effective councils when we were under Conservative leadership.

However, we are required to raise a shocking 80% of our revenue through taxation, when the national average is just over 60%. That means that for a band D council tax property in Rutland—hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen—the owner pays £2,365. That is the highest in the country, despite the fact that we are in the bottom 10% in the country for social mobility. What does that mean? We receive £331 less per household in Government funding than other councils, we have the highest council tax in the country, and we have some of the worst social mobility.

However, the Minister will be pleased to learn that I have not just come here to tell him that he must fix the problem; I have come with a solution. At the start of the year, I considered how we could bring fairness back to funding. I do not believe that the fair funding review is necessarily feasible, unfortunately, due to the £4 billion cost that it would probably incur, so I considered the most noble of Conservative aims: how do we improve social mobility?

On that basis, I looked, for example, at affluent counties such as ours—Dorset, Rutland and Leicestershire —that look like they do not have deprivation, but actually the pockets of rural poverty within them are something that no MP would ever forget if they saw them, because they are so heartbreaking. We know that it costs far more to deliver services in our areas, but council funding formulas are blind to social mobility, with the Treasury settlement funding assessment targeting only areas with high deprivation.

Adjusting for deprivation, the most socially mobile areas end up with funding allocations that are over 50% higher than the least socially mobile areas. Essentially, if someone is from one of the least socially mobile areas, they receive less funding. Indeed, I have worked out, by going through the figures, that there is actually a penalty, which means that someone’s chances of building themselves up and going where they want are low. I went to Onward and said, “Will you help me work this up into a proposal, to see whether I am mad?” The proposal is not a request for more money; I am asking for us to put social mobility alongside deprivation in funding formulas.

When we do that, we do not see many people lose out. Indeed, the Minister would benefit; his Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Ian Levy), would benefit; the Chair would benefit; and both speakers for the opposition parties who are here today—the hon. Members for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron)—would benefit. This is not a party political solution; this is not about red wall or blue wall. It is about bringing fairness back, and it works. I have met the Chancellor and the Minister’s predecessor and they were both very interested in this proposal. We can do this within the existing fiscal headroom.

By introducing metrics for social mobility, we can target funding at both areas of high deprivation and areas of low social mobility in equal measure, ensuring that we address poverty while also boosting opportunity.

In conclusion, the funding formula has not changed for 10 years; we must change it. Will the Minister kindly meet me and consider our report, which I believe would fundamentally change this situation? I will just repeat this for those listening from the Treasury: I am not asking for more money; I am just asking for fairness and I am bringing forward a solution that will help Rutland and Melton and so many other areas around the country.

I now call the spokesman for the official Opposition. Both Front-Benchers have 10 minutes in which to speak. I am very disappointed that the spokesman for the official Opposition was late to this debate. That was a discourtesy to the Member who moved the motion. I hope that he will take that into account for further debates.

Thank you, Mrs Latham. I apologise to the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) for being slightly late; I was trying to get the printer to spring into action this morning. I congratulate him on securing an important debate on local government funding, and I am delighted to respond to it.

We all know that our councils are at the frontline of public service delivery, improving the lives of millions of people and the places they live, work and holiday throughout the year. They are also often the last line of defence when people fall through the net of other parts of the public sector. We also know that local councils have borne a disproportionate burden of cuts throughout what has been a lost decade of austerity that has seen £15 billion taken from English local government since 2010. Rightly, therefore, communities are anxious for the funding they desperately need. More fundamentally, change is needed in the relationship.

It is worth responding to the debate’s many thoughtful contributions. The hon. Member for West Dorset rightly pointed to the now very fragile nature of local councils. Many are looking at the next year or two and wondering whether they will be able to make ends meet or face insolvency. We have seen some councils already in that position.

There has been a lot of talk about the rural service delivery grant, which has an important role to play, but we need to rewind to the inception of that grant. It was born from the area based grant that was primarily targeted at urban deprived communities to deal with social and economic need. That grant was deleted with a week’s notice by the then coalition Government and was followed by the rural service delivery grant. We saw no new money to deal with the growing need in our society and our economy; there was just a transfer of money from one part of the country to another and from one type of council to another, without there being a proper, balanced assessment of the funding need across the whole of England.

There were many calls for that assessment, and the Minister and I, when we were on the Local Government Association executive together, made the call for an evidence-based approach to how councils are funded. It is not right that we pitch one area against another when, fundamentally, if an old person needs adult social care in any part of England, they ought to get it. If a young person is at risk of abuse, they ought to be protected in every part of England. The same is true of every public service.

The Government’s response in 2014 was to commission a review into the unit costs of service delivery. It was intended to take into account the disproportionate cost in very sparsely populated areas, where it naturally costs more to deliver some types of services. That should have been the evidence base. What we have seen is a gerrymandering of the system throughout the years, whereby the money is always directed for political endeavours. We have seen it with the high streets fund, the levelling-up fund and the rest of it, where the evidence base does not hold up to scrutiny.

Beneath all that, councils are not getting the funding they need to provide even the basic services for the local population.

As a former civil servant, I take issue with the idea that, somehow, civil servants have agreed to a political formula. That is not how it works. Is he really suggesting that Rutland and Melton is a key red wall seat? We received £23 million of levelling-up funding, but I do not remember being at the top of the list of people who needed to be re-elected by being given some kind of handout from the Government. Funding was given on the basis of the best possible applications.

The debate is not about the levelling-up fund as much as about the debate around it. It is not for me to highlight which seats are or are not in scope of the target priorities of the Conservative party, but I do say that we need to move on from a system in which we shift around the country a diminishing resource that does not meet the need and when, one year, one council benefits but the next year, it may be disadvantaged. There has to be a funding formula that shows that every community gets the funding it needs and that takes into account the cost of need, the cost of demand and the cost of delivering those services.

We have heard a range of other contributions that I will not go into because of time, after taking that intervention. However, we must all acknowledge that the system we have is unsustainable. Several Members have said that there is no more money than there is in the envelope, and we have to accept that. The public finances are not in a good position. There is no wand that will magic up new money, but just looking at the local government purse without looking at the whole of the public sector would be an error.

We know that councils are best placed to deliver a wide range of services and that they are absolutely best placed for early intervention. We should not just look at local government; we should ask what we can do for worklessness, transport, and health and social care services, where earlier intervention by a local authority overall would cost the taxpayer far less and deliver a better outcome for local communities too.

There is no doubt that residents in local rural communities acutely feel the cuts that are being borne. That casts a unique shadow on our rural communities. We know, too, that there is hardship in those centres in relation to connectivity, schools and transport. It is not the fault of those councils, which are desperately trying to make it all work; in the end, it is about the overall funding settlement not being fit for purpose. We recognise that different councils have bespoke challenges that we need to address, and we have heard about some of those today: rural housing, social care and the cost of delivering services in very remote areas, whether those are schools, bin collections or public transport and their operations.

What does it mean in practice, if we do not get that right? It means, in the end, that the places that people care about and have invested in are ultimately disadvantaged. It means that town centres and village centres are no longer financially viable, and then we see shops being boarded up because the population cannot afford to stay there. Generations have to move further away, because they cannot afford to stay in their local areas.

The fact is that we have seen a lot of change in Government; we have seen a lot of change in ministerial positions and in the Secretary of State, but councils have just carried on going, waiting for a long-term funding settlement that never seems to arrive. The Rural Services Network found that the local government funding settlement for 2023-24 meant that urban councils were receiving 38% more per head from the Government funding formula than rural councils, which equates to about £135 per person. It is not difficult to see how that is arrived at, and the Government have said that they would fix what they have said was a “broken system”. At the Local Government Association conference in July, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said that the system was “out-of-date” and needed “to be fairer”. We agreed with that, and we also accept that we cannot carry on.

We cannot continue to set one area against another. We see absolute deprivation in our rural communities, although it is sometimes quite hidden. If we look behind the net curtains in pretty, picturesque villages, we see people living in absolute desperation, struggling to make ends meet. We only have to walk across the road from Parliament, in one of the richest capitals in the world, to see people living in absolute poverty and desperation, too. Surely a fair funding formula would follow that need wherever it exists and be agile enough to make sure that it roots that need out. That speaks to a wider issue about the power balance. Far too much of the relationship is one of dependency of local government on central Government, and the funding regime massively contributes to that. The idea that councils are pitched against each other in a format like “The Hunger Games” is not a healthy relationship; it is not one of an empowered local government and it is certainly not very efficient, so we need to change it.

We know that the underfunding of our rural councils stunts growth, and Labour is prepared to sow the seeds of transferring power, so that our rural councils can determine their own fate. What should that look like? It is about local communities deciding for themselves what is right for their area; it is not about Ministers and civil servants in Whitehall, who are often miles away from the real impact. More than that, that new-found partnership with rural communities comes from a mission-led Government; a Government with a purpose, and a determination to see that purpose through.

We want our rural communities to have higher growth, to end the cost of living crisis, to have an NHS that is fit for the future, to have community energy where people have a stake in the future and where we all have energy security, and, of course, to have safer streets, with a commitment to have a further 13,000 police officers, many of whom will be deployed in our rural and coastal communities to tackle crime hotspots, where they exist. We also want our rural communities to have more opportunities for young people in schools in our rural communities, and we have heard much about that today and about how, in many ways, that actually goes beyond local government to the classroom, the local GP and to whether there is a bus service in place at all. That is a partnership that councils will have under a Labour Government.

We have heard a lot about Labour’s plans, our mission-led Government and what we want to do. We do not hear as much about a comprehensive plan from the Government, which I hope we hear in the Minister’s response today. It is a matter of fact that after nearly 14 years of austerity, the system is creaking to the point of being broken.

I thank the hon. Member for his apology for being late; it is accepted. Does he agree that we should not be fooled that Labour cares about rural Britain? Where are they? The Labour Benches are empty. Not one single Labour MP was in this room when I started my debate. I say respectfully to the hon. Gentleman that I have sat here and listened to a lot of what he has had to say, and I am afraid the realities are that the current mechanisms benefit Labour areas far better than they do Conservative, or indeed Liberal Democrat, rural areas. I say respectfully to him that I think some of the points he is making are not well-founded.

If I can say so respectfully, that was a slightly cheeky intervention. The hon. Gentleman may well find that the Opposition Benches are populated by far more Labour rural MPs after the election. I also draw his attention to the Co-operative party rural commission report, in which I suspect there is a lot of common ground. Outside of the politics, the back-and-forth, and the rest of it, I find that we agree more than we disagree on the fundamental issues affecting rural and coastal communities at these times.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. Time is limited, so I will try to canter through as much as I can.

A number of colleagues have raised important technical questions, and if I do not address them, please forgive me. I will certainly write to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) and, with his permission, circulate our reply to those who have attended today’s debate. I think that is only fair.

I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) that it was on the proviso of being hunted by her that I accepted this position. That was one of my key asks, and I look forward to the chase. She referenced the work of Onward, and of course I would be more than happy to meet her and the authors of that report to discuss it still further.

I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for West Dorset for initiating this debate. Since entering the Commons in 2019, he has spoken with huge passion and knowledge about the challenges and tribulations that face councillors and officers in our rural areas, as well as the opportunities available to them. He and I could dilate for about 14 hours on the challenges facing Dorset; it would be of enormous fascination to us, but less so, I suggest, to the wider House. I know that others also face the issues we face in our county. Whether it is helpful or not, I should say that before becoming an MP I served as a rural district councillor and also county councillor, so I understand at first hand some of the issues discussed today.

I welcome the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), who referenced our joint working on the LGA. It was a shame when he had to step aside from Front-Bench duties; it is great to see him back to full health and I look forward to him shadowing me for many, many years to come.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset mentioned the great contest between Sherborne and Shaftesbury to take place later this afternoon; all I can say to him is that I am sure that Sherborne will be a graceful runner-up.

Let us see.

Let me turn to some of the points that were made in the debate. Although levelling up is often portrayed in the media—and, indeed, sometimes in this place—as being something that is solely about the industrial north and midlands constituencies, it is not. There are strategies in place for coastal and for rural levelling up. As a one nation Conservative, I could support nothing other than that. We have to have policies that are of benefit to all our people, irrespective of where they live.

[James Gray in the Chair]

Will my hon. Friend forgive me for not giving way? I am really short of time and want to try to cover as much territory as I can.

Let me turn to some of the principal points. With regard to formula reform, if my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset looks at my last question from the Back Benches to our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and at my contribution to the debate on the King’s Speech, he will recall that I made precisely that point. It is a point that he, I, most people present and others have made throughout our time here: the formula needs reform. My hunch is that we could have done it, and probably would have done it, immediately after the 2019 general election, but along came our old friend covid. As desirable as a fundamental review of the formula would be, I do not believe that trying to ask councillors and their officers, who rose magnificently to the challenge of meeting local demand during the crisis of covid, to turn bandwidth, support and attention towards thinking about solutions to formula questions would have been the right thing to do.

We need to reform the formula, as is recognised, but I suggest to my hon. Friend that now is not the right time. In this settlement, we will have to play the hand of cards we are dealt under the rubric of the formula as it currently exists. I fundamentally agree with the Opposition spokesman and others that this should never be a job of robbing Peter to pay Paul. There are acute and identified needs for service delivery due to geography and sparsity in our rural areas, but there are also acute needs in our urban areas. Deprivation is deprivation; it merely manifests itself in different quantums and different varieties in urban and rural settings.

The Opposition spokesman is absolutely right to say that we do not want some sort of bidding war or competition. Where our people are in need and have a legitimate aspiration for the delivery of quality and reliable services, they should be delivered in a cost-effective way, irrespective of where one lives. If deprivation, poverty and need are blind, so must be those who provide services and the formulas that generate the cash to be able to do so.

We know that rural services are key. We also know, as a matter of indisputable fact, that by definition their delivery costs are higher, partly, although not exclusively, due to both sparsity and geography. [Interruption.] Mr Gray, I have been directing my remarks to Mrs Latham, having not realised that the Chair had changed. My apologies, Sir, if you have taken the Chair and I have transitioned you into something that you did not wish to be.

I take the point about the challenges of an ageing population, home-to-school transport and SEND. All have high demands and all have an irrepressible trajectory, which is why it is so important that His Majesty’s Government do not view these things in silos or, indeed, in isolation. It requires collaboration and close working between my Department, the Department for Education, sometimes the Home Office when it comes to police and fire services, and, arguably most importantly, the Department of Health and Social Care as it relates to the delivery of social care for some of the most needy and vulnerable in our communities. I am lucky that the Department and I have an excellent relationship with those Departments. Conversations are ongoing, and we will work as closely as we can—not out of turf warfare or some sort of testosterone-driven competition whereby people say, “My Department is better than yours,” but focused solely and singularly on how best to use taxpayers’ money to help councils to deliver the services they require.

As Members have mentioned, councils have done the most fantastic work in meeting funding challenges. They have shared back-of-house functions and delivered shared services, and combined authorities have come together to create unitaries, as we did in Dorset. As a result of going unitary—it has not been without problems; let us not be false about that—there have been massive savings and no cuts to any of the services that are delivered to our people by Dorset Council. We have to salute the ingenuity of councillors and their officers, who work tirelessly to meet contemporary needs in challenging times.

I have to say to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) that I am sure his constituents will be fantastically interested in what he said: I was perplexed to hear that councils should be precluded from the delivery of housing in their areas. Many councils ask us to allow them to build social rented properties, affordable housing and the like. I noted his comments with interest, and I am sure his constituents will note them with alarm.

As I say, we should not take the concerns in our rural areas personally, because I hear exactly the same calls for additional funding, changes to the formula, other reviews—

Prisons in Wales

I beg to move,

That this House has considered prisons in Wales.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Cadeirydd—thank you very much, Mr Gray. I am pleased to have secured this debate, which is based on a report by the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. I sincerely thank colleagues at the university, the justice unions and the probation development group for their contributions. I must put on the record my role as joint chair of the justice unions parliamentary group.

Dr Robert Jones of the Wales Governance Centre has told us time and again that Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe. Nothing has changed in the latest set of figures, and I think that matters. When offenders leave prison, they return to our communities, and the criminal justice system has a duty of care to everyone in those communities to reduce reoffending and ensure that returned ex-offenders are healthier and better able to find work, and that they are released from prison to somewhere with a roof over their heads. Too often—I have come across constituents in this situation—ex-offenders are released to live in tents, cars and vans. I think we know how ineffective that is in helping people to rehabilitate and in the prevention of reoffending.

Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in the UK, in terms of both in-country and home-address rates. In-country means, of course, those who are held within the borders of a country. In September this year, 177 people were held in prison within the borders of Wales for every 100,000 of the population. By contrast, the number is 146 in England and Scotland and 100 in Northern Ireland, so there is a striking difference across the four nations of the United Kingdom. It is also striking that we have the England and Wales jurisdiction; in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the management of justice and offenders is devolved.

I commend the right hon. Lady for securing this debate. I spoke to her beforehand, and although I know the debate is about the prison system in Wales, she gave some stats for Northern Ireland. I understand what she is going to ask for, so may I, through her, ask the Minister for whatever is done in Wales to be done in Northern Ireland? I know he is always responsive to requests, and it is important that we have co-ordination of legal systems across the whole of the United Kingdom.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I take the opportunity to welcome the Minister to his place. This may well be his first debate, but I imagine we will be debating issues relating to prisons and to Wales, of course, in the future.

I mentioned the in-country rate, because we know that many prisoners from England are present in Wales. I will come back to that. It is also interesting that per 100,000 of the population, there are 151 people with addresses in Wales in prison, whether in Wales or England, compared with 134 in England. That matters. Something is going on in Wales, and the England and Wales way of approaching justice does not reveal it or seem to be solving it.

The average number of people held in the Welsh prison estate—that is, the five prisons of Berwyn, Cardiff, Parc, Swansea and, considered together, Usk and Prescoed—surpassed 5,000 for the first time in 2022. Berwyn almost surpassed 2,000 for the first time, and answers to my written parliamentary questions show that 2,000 is Berwyn’s operational capacity. I know from contacts there that it is not full; it would be, but there are cells that have been trashed and have not been fixed. Those are the sorts of numbers we are talking about.

Such overcrowding brings problems. There are legitimate safety concerns, including problems relating to prescription and illicit drugs, and failures to provide basic medical care. The number of assaults in the first six months of 2023 were higher year on year—

I thank the right hon. Member for securing such an important debate, which concerns an issue that I have spent a lot of time looking at since my election. I have especially looked at the physical and mental health and wellbeing of prisoners. Does she agree that the provision of healthcare to prisoners in Welsh prisons is inadequate, and that that has resulted in a number of avoidable fatalities? I call on the Minister to deal with that; it is a UK issue that affects Welsh prisoners.

That is exactly why it is important that we have the data that allows us to scrutinise what is happening in Wales, which appears to be different from what is happening in England. We have higher numbers of prisoners and, as I will return to, not surprisingly, Wales operates in a social policy context that is different from that anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Health, housing and much of the social policy framework have been devolved since 1999. This is not just a constitutional anomaly; it is affecting outcomes for offenders in prisons. I emphasise that that then affects our communities: people return from prison to communities in Wales, and if they return less healthy, less able to work and without a roof over their heads, the likelihood of reoffending appears to be higher, as we see from some of the crime figures.

Staff retention is a significant problem in Berwyn. Staff from other prisons as far afield as Swansea and Hull are sent there to make up for recruitment short- falls. Detached duty, as that is known, is expensive and is not a long-term answer. The officers do not know the prisoners they are working with; it is just a matter of people making up the numbers. That is not a sustainable solution, and unless we draw attention to it we will not find a solution.

Staff also complain of an experience gap, because more experienced staff are exhausted and burnt out. Let us recall that the Professional Trades Union for Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers has long said that 68 is too late for officers to retire. We lose people because they cannot take it any more.

Just as Berwyn staff are brought in from everywhere else, so too are the prisoners. Berwyn was meant to serve local populations, including, fairly enough, the north-west of England. We were told that was the intention at the time. However, Berwyn has housed prisoners from 75 English local authorities since it opened in 2017, and 62% of the population came from outside of Wales in 2022. For women, the opposite is true: in December 2022, Welsh women were held in 11 of the 12 women’s prisons in England, and were on average—it would be far further from my constituency—101 miles away from home.

The situation of women is particularly acute. Until 2018, I think, there was no provision whatsoever, so women from Wales are housed in Staffordshire, Gloucestershire and elsewhere. The principle should be that prison is punishment—the punishment is not being able to leave at the end of the afternoon—but it should not be for punishment. Many women from Wales and their families are suffering a double penalty because they are held so far away.

Yes, indeed. Of course, the residential women’s centre in Swansea was first mooted in 2018, but it has yet to arrive. We have concerns about the exact nature of the services: will it effectively be just another prison, or will it be equipped to make a real difference to the lives of women?

Welsh women prisoners are on average 101 miles from home, which makes it difficult for them to maintain contact with families, children and support networks, as well as creating issues related to housing and work upon release. Welsh men struggle with issues including identity, discrimination and access to the Welsh language in jails, and Welsh women have their own distinct set of issues.

As 74% of all women sentenced to immediate custody were given sentences of 12 months or less, and one in five given one month or less, there is a real need to consider these issues and opt for alternatives to custody for low-level, non-violent crimes. When I was in Styal in May, I saw in reception that a woman had been admitted to the prison from Wales on the Friday before a May bank holiday, and was due to be released on the Tuesday. What good was that going to do her, except disrupt her life?

The Welsh Government’s women’s justice blueprint is an attempt to do that but, without the political will of the UK Government, such attempts are doomed to fail. Although the Swansea residential centre is a sweetener from Westminster, there are real concerns that it will become a pathway to conventional custody. Swansea remains, but is far away from home for those in northern areas of Wales, who will still be sent, of course, to Styal near Manchester.

The over-representation of certain groups also underlines the need for alternatives. In Wales, black people represented 3.1% of the prison population in 2022, despite comprising only 0.9% of the general population. Those from a mixed or Asian ethnicity background were also over-represented. The average custodial sentence length, between 2010 and 2022, was 8.5 months longer for black defendants than for those from a white ethnic group.

The link between incarceration and homelessness is difficult to justify, as the BBC alluded to in its recent drama “Time”. Like Orla, the character played by Jodie Whittaker, 423 people were released from Welsh prisons without a fixed address in 2022-23. That is the equivalent—this is striking—of eight people a week. The number of those rough sleeping after release into Welsh probation services more than trebled in a year.

The right hon. Lady is being generous in giving way. Regarding the release of people from prison, the prison date is well known. It is known when the prisoner goes in. To have the prison date but not have a proper plan for that person once they are out of prison seems nothing short of criminal itself. Does she agree?

That is exactly the point. We hear of people being released on Fridays; it is almost a cliché. We must ask why, if we have so many prisoners from 75 English local authorities, what is the connection between their release from a Welsh prison and the question of homelessness, let alone the homelessness of people with Welsh addresses?

A number of those who had recently begun rough sleeping were still rough sleeping three months after release. Many of those—almost one in five—arriving at our prisons are already homeless. There is an obvious connection with reoffending, or that tragic situation when magistrates talk of putting people back in prison because that is the safest place for them to be. That is a grim indictment of the criminal justice system. Almost a third of prisoners arriving in HMP Swansea in 2022 were homeless. Given that homeless ex-prisoners are significantly more likely to reoffend than those in housing, that cycle urgently needs to be broken.

There is a glimmer of hope: 53% of those managed by Welsh probation services went into settled accommodation immediately following release last year. That compares with 48% in England. However, that is short-lived. The number of Welsh prisoners recalled to prison has increased by 58% compared with 2017. It is evidently necessary for dangerous or non-compliant offenders to be recalled. However, speaking to members of Napo Cymru, the Welsh probation union, I was interested to learn of their fear that the increasing recall numbers are not just related to public safety, which is right and proper. They are also related to an understaffed, under-resourced and overloaded service that turns to recall as a first resort, when it should surely be better equipped to engage and assist people who are struggling to rehabilitate.

That is only compounded by the backlog of court cases: more than 64,000 in England and Wales in September, clogging up prison places. Those on remand numbered 14% of the Welsh prison population in 2022. Strikingly, the figure was 52% in Cardiff—half of the prisoners there were on remand. There is a question to be asked when comparing England’s rate of improvement in Crown court sentencing after covid with the rate of improvement in Wales. Again, that is why we need the data, so we can compare what is done and have proper scrutiny of, and a proper debate on, the state of criminal justice in Wales.

Some Westminster colleagues continue to believe and argue that the system is working well for Wales, but I would urge them to consider the data provided to them this morning. The Wales Governance Centre suggests that its data is a direct challenge, and I honestly suggest it is grounds for a complete overhaul. Repeating that argument year on year does not change that call, because the evidence demands it.

That is not just coming from someone like me from Plaid Cymru. It is a call echoed by those working within prisons and the probation service in Wales. Napo Cymru is calling for the devolution of probation and youth justice, as did Gordon Brown in the report of the Commission on the UK’s Future. A devolved national probation service would allow us to start addressing structural issues in the probation service in Wales, and to focus on crime prevention in the first place. It would allow us to work with offenders to improve their post-release life chances, and would be integrated with areas that are already devolved such as health, housing and social policy. Such devolved services are already working with prison leavers, and are integrated with a wider justice and policing strategy. With focused recourses, that makes logical sense.

I will go a little bit broader, because the criminal justice system is not only within the control of the Ministry of Justice. Criminal justice also involves the police force—that is the entire arc. I must touch on this, because it is striking that in Wales we are now contributing more than Westminster towards our four Welsh police forces. Police funding, between the precept contribution and the Welsh Government-directed funding, despite changes in Home Office funding for 2023-24, is now over half-way devolved. Wales is paying more for its policing than the Home Office is contributing.

That is critical. Devolution is happening because the Welsh Government and Welsh politicians want to see a different direction of spend. We are already paying for it. Plaid Cymru is calling for the full devolution of justice and policing powers. I note that all four police and crime commissioners in Wales—Labour and Plaid Cymru—are calling for the devolution of policing.

To close, research shows that disaggregated data is key to understanding the specific complexities of the justice system in Wales, and to any related policy and strategy. I was glad to have a meeting with Lord Bellamy in February this year to talk about disaggregated data. None the less, it remains the case that much of that information had to be gathered through freedom of information requests. That is a labour-intensive and difficult way to access the basic information necessary for the creation of robust and effective policy.

This is public money. We as politicians should be able to scrutinise this; the public should be able to scrutinise this. What is happening in Wales is different from what is happening in England; we should be able to find the line between what the spend is, whether the spend per head of population in Wales is equivalent to that in England, and what the different outcomes are. As things stand, without disaggregated data, what is actually happening in Wales is effectively being concealed from us by the Government. With every year, the information gleaned by the University of Cardiff through these freedom of information requests becomes irrefutably stronger.

In all honesty, if we were not holding this debate formally, I do not think any of us looking at the state of play in the rest of the nations of the United Kingdom would say that justice will not be devolved to Wales in future—it will. It is a matter of when, it is a matter of how effectively, it is a matter of how we prepare and it is a matter of how we work out the funds to do that. This is not a political issue. Unless the party in power, whether Conservative or Labour, chooses to allow nostalgia for the 1536 Act of Union to override 21st-century pragmatics.

The England and Wales structure is an anomaly when we compare it with the way in which justice is done, not just in Northern Ireland and Scotland, but in the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. For some reason, Wales is seen as unfit to do similar. Criminal justice, like crime, happens within a context. The institutions responsible for criminal justice cannot and do not operate in isolation from broader frameworks and institutions of social policy. To state the obvious, these are now almost all devolved in Wales. I await the Minister’s response.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. May I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)? It is always a pleasure to serve opposite her in debates, but there is always a degree of trepidation as to whether I will successfully pronounce the name of her constituency. She will recall that in 2018 to 2019, when I was last at the Ministry of Justice, not only did I have responsibility for female offenders and produce the female offender strategy, I was responsible for relationships with the devolved administrations, including Wales. I have a feeling—a vague recollection—that we may even have debated this in the past in my previous incarnation. It was indeed during that time that we put in place the initial building blocks for the Swansea residential women’s centre. I am afraid I rather selfishly got reshuffled to another Department shortly afterwards, but that is now back under my portfolio, so I look forward to discussing it with the right hon. Lady in future, perhaps outwith this Chamber.

I welcome the focus of today’s debate. It is important that we have these opportunities to debate prison, probation and justice in Wales. I am grateful for the significant contributions the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd has made on issues around justice in Wales over a number of years, and I look forward to continuing that discussion with her. In case time becomes short, I will say at the outset that I am very happy to meet the right hon. Lady, if that would be helpful, to discuss the very specific context in Wales around the prison system, probation and justice.

Could we discuss the need for segregated data in particular? That is a request that is supposed to come from the Welsh Government. I understand that it has been slow in coming forward, but it is none the less I would be grateful if the issue were taken up.

When I meet the right hon. Lady, I am very happy for her to suggest what she might like to discuss in that meeting.

Our six prisons in Wales across five sites play a crucial role in our prison estate. They keep the public safe by providing a safe and secure environment that protects the public from serious offenders and reduce crime by helping to break the cycle of reoffending by focusing on proven interventions. The right hon. Lady highlighted proportions—for example, the number of people per 100,000 of the population in prisons in Wales and the large number of local authority areas they come from. However, I gently say that the same is true of prisons in England, because we treat it as one jurisdiction. Prisoners from England serve in Wales and, on occasion, prisoners from Wales serve in England. Her point about those with an address in Wales, and the higher proportion of such people in prison, is important and worthy of further consideration and discussion.

Moving prisoners between England and Wales creates a cost in Wales, particularly because of health, and there is an additional cost if prisoners remain there. There has never been a discussion on cross-border charging. If we take so many more prisoners into Wales, what does Wales get out of it?

I will turn to healthcare, local authority support for housing and similar in a moment.

We are clear that those who pose a danger to our society must be locked up, with the worst offenders locked away for as long as it takes to protect the public. However, to continue to put the worst offenders away for longer, we must use prisons better so that there are always sufficient spaces to lock up the most dangerous criminals. That is why, last month, the Lord Chancellor gave our commitment to reforming the justice system so that it keeps the worst of society behind bars for longer, but rehabilitates offenders who will be let out and gives the least high-risk offenders a path away from a life of crime. He set out his intention for tough community sentences rather than short stints in prisons. I have to say that I share the view of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd on that, and it was at the heart of the female offender strategy I wrote back then. I recognise that a very short sentence can often be long enough to destroy the bits of life that are vaguely ordered—a job, family relationships, or the property or flat that is rented—but far too short to make any meaningful impact on tackling the underlying causes of the offending, whether that is substance misuse, mental health issues, trauma or a whole range of other things. The right hon. Lady is right to make that point.

I am pleased to be able to say that prisons in Wales are making a significant contribution to the delivery of our vision. They have achieved some of the strongest results in performance across 117 prisons in England and Wales in 2022-23, with all prisons in Wales rated good or outstanding within the HM Prison and Probation Service performance framework. It is important to highlight the fact that credit is due to the hard-working prison officers and the staff who run these facilities in Wales. I want to put that on record.

The Ministry of Justice has a duty to ensure that Welsh prisons maintain their strong performance ratings and operate in a safe and effective way, with offenders being held in decent and humane conditions. That means making sure that no prison exceeds a safe maximum operating limit, which currently stands at 5,592 as of October 2023 across those six prisons in Wales. The largest Welsh prison, HMP Berwyn, which can house 2,000 inmates, does not have any prisoners held in crowded accommodation, as all double cells have been purposely designed and built to hold two prisoners safely and in decent conditions.

We do recognise, however, that in line with the current pressures across our entire adult male custodial estate, that there are relatively high levels of crowding in some Welsh prisons. That is not specific or unique to Wales. That is why the Lord Chancellor set out the decisive action we are taking to alleviate this in his statement to the House last month. Additionally, I am pleased that we are taking action to improve prison safety and security through a range of measures, including supporting those at risk of violence, helping them to move away from violent behaviours and delivering on investments in security to disrupt the smuggling of contraband, such as drugs, mobile phones and weapons—the sort of things that drive violence in prison and undermine safety.

The right hon. Lady mentioned healthcare provision. That is the responsibility of the Welsh Government and the NHS in Wales, and we have an effective working relationship with them on that. The levels in that, as is the case for prisons in England, are the responsibility of the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England. There is always a separation there, we believe that the relationship is a strong one.

The right hon. Lady mentioned that 14% of the population in Welsh prisons is on remand. I would say to her that that is lower than the percentage of the prison population on remand in England and overall across England and Wales, which stands at 15%, but it is in roughly the same space across the country. Different prisons have different percentages, even in England. The remand population has gone up from about 9% of the prison population to about 15% in the past two or three years. It is one of the drivers of capacity challenges across the whole system.

Our prisons in Wales are working hard to rehabilitate offenders, enabling our lowest-risk offenders to turn away from crime and change their ways. The reoffending rate for adult males released from prisons in Wales was 34.7% in 2011. That has dropped to 28.9% in 2021. There is clearly more work to do, but the trajectory is going in the right direction. Wales has been fully committed to delivering the key principles in our strategy to tackle reoffending. Prison and probation colleagues in Wales have worked together to provide an enhanced service to males who receive custodial sentences of less than six months. It includes education skills and a new job-matching service.

HMPPS Wales has successfully introduced employment hubs and prison employment leads in all six prisons and has increased the number of men going into employment on release to 30%. We have innovative housing workshops at HMP Berwyn, rail skills courses at HMP Cardiff, and a vast array of vocational qualifications and training across the estate. For the year ending March 2023, these initiatives have resulted in 29.4% of leavers from our Welsh prisons being employed six months post release, which is an increase from 19% in 2021-22 and higher than the overall national figure of 23.5%. Learning and skills continue to perform well.

On accommodation, the right hon. Lady is right that there is an important partnership with local authorities to deliver on that. Regarding Friday release, yesterday I signed the statutory instrument beginning the commencement of the powers this House passed to stop Friday releases. I am conscious of time, so the last point I would make, as it is central to the point made by the right hon. Lady, is on her call for devolution. I respect the position of her party, but we believe that the single jurisdiction continues to work effectively and is the right approach. I suspect she and I will debate that when we meet.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Section 28 Repeal: 20th Anniversary

[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the 20th anniversary of the repeal of section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.

I can’t tell you how glad we are to see you, Mr Sharma. Thank you for stepping into the breach.

When I became the first openly gay person in Britain to be selected to fight a parliamentary seat more than 27 years ago, my Conservative opponent described being gay as a “sterile, disease-ridden… occupation” and warned that Exeter’s children would be in danger if I won. During that election campaign, the tabloids ran one of their favourite kinds of story at that time, full of concocted outrage about a secondary school teacher in Exeter who was undergoing a sex change. The school was managing the situation perfectly well, but that did not stop my opponent calling for that teacher to be sacked.

When I talk to young people today about that recent history, they look at me aghast. The late 1960s and 1970s, following the decriminalisation of gay sex in 1967, had seen steady improvements in the lives of LGBT people. Prejudice and discrimination persisted, of course, but it was a time of hope and optimism that gave the 18-year-old me the confidence to come out to my friends and family, but there were already stirrings of a backlash as LGBT people began to ask for the same human rights and protections as everyone else. When a tabloid discovered that a school had a book in its library that portrayed parents of the same sex, which by then was the reality for some children, all hell broke loose. Self-appointed family values campaigners, Conservative politicians and much of the media fell over themselves in outrage. They said that that innocuous book promoted homosexuality

“as a normal and acceptable way of life”.

In her 1987 party conference speech, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher claimed that

“children are being cheated of a sound start in life”

due to being

“taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.”

During that 1980s moral panic, public attitudes towards LGBT people, which had been improving for decades, went into reverse. In 1983, the proportion of the public who thought that sex between adults of the same sex was always wrong had fallen to 50%, but by 1987 it had gone back up to 64%. The result was section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which banned the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities and the portrayal of it as a “pretended family relationship”.

Section 28 was never actually used to prosecute anyone, but its chilling effect created a culture of shame and silence, and blighted the experience of a generation of young LGBT people. To my party’s shame, Labour did not oppose section 28 at the time, but by 1997, under Tony Blair, we had a manifesto commitment to repeal it.

The period that my right hon. Friend describes is the period when I was at school, and I am quite ashamed to say that my peer groups and I had fairly homophobic attitudes because of the lack of education. It took us until we went to university in the ’90s, in the period he describes, when the abolition of section 28 was raised, to overcome them. My children, who are at school now, have wonderful attitudes and are very welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people, and in their peer groups have people who have been able to come out at school. They would not have done that when I was at school.

I completely agree, and I will come on to talk a bit more about that in a second. Our first attempt to repeal section 28 in 2000 was thwarted in the House of Lords, but we eventually got it scrapped in the autumn of 2003—happy anniversary, everyone!

Repealing section 28 was part of a bonfire of discrimination and out-of-date laws applying to LGBT people. In my view, that was among the proudest and historically significant achievements of the Blair-Brown Governments. It included an equal age of consent, civil partnerships, an end to the ban on gays in the military, gay adoption, the ban on discrimination in the provision of goods and services, the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and the Equality Act 2010. What is more, those advances were not reversed by the Cameron, May or even Boris Johnson Governments, but in the past year or two there have been worrying signs of a renewed moral panic, fuelled, as in the 1980s, by powerful elements in the media and politicians who should know better, targeted particularly at transgender and non-binary people.

We are not alone. We only have to look at Republican states in America, Orbán’s Hungary or Meloni’s Italy to see LGBT people under sustained attack, but Britain’s fall from equalities leader to laggard has been dramatic. Until 2015, the UK was consistently ranked among the best countries in Europe to be LGBTQ+; this year, we have fallen to 17th.

I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this critically important debate, not least because I, too, grew up under section 28 and was not able to be open about my sexuality. I was an incredibly repressed, closeted young gay man, and I was not fully able to express that. That did huge amounts of harm to me and my peer group. Does he agree that there has not been backsliding in all parts of the UK? In fact, in Wales, where I grew up and where I am proud to represent a diverse community, we have a fully inclusive relationship and sexuality education curriculum that represents the full breadth and diversity of our communities and society and encourages respect in an age-appropriate and culturally appropriate way.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. That is the difference a Labour Government make. I am sure some of our SNP colleagues will be making the same point about Scotland a little later.

The current Westminster Government have repeatedly broken their long-standing promise to ban the psychological abuse known as conversion therapy; they have abandoned the pledge made by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) when she was Prime Minister to reform the gender recognition process; they have used spurious constitutional arguments to block Scotland’s democratically agreed gender recognition reforms; and they have threatened to repeal the Equality Act, in effect, to cancel trans people. Stonewall, our main LGBT charity, which was founded in response to section 28, faces a constant onslaught from the Government and their allies in the press. Unsurprisingly, in this atmosphere, hate crime against LGBT people has rocketed. Britain’s supposedly independent Equality and Human Rights Commission has been packed with political cronies and it is now being investigated by the United Nations. Ministers brief almost every week that they intend to reverse LGBT-inclusive sex and relationship education in schools—their modern-day equivalent of section 28.

Can I say first of all that I understand exactly the need for this debate and for people to make their own choice? However, I do say respectfully—I hope the right hon. Gentleman will understand what I am saying—that there is also a need for parents to have a say in the teaching of their children and what happens to them in school. I say that as a plea. I have had hundreds and hundreds of emails from constituents on this issue. I very much respect the right hon. Gentleman and what he is trying to do, but I just ask for the same consideration to be given to parents and their children.

I take the hon. Member’s point, but parents already have such powers. I gently make the following point back to him: a significant proportion of young homeless people are LGBT people who have been rejected by their families. While most families are affirming and supportive of their LGBT children, not all families are so, while I take the hon. Member’s point, I make that point back to him. It is the interests of the child that should matter to all of us. Whether we like it or not, some parents have attitudes that actually harm and damage their children, and schools need to be able to manage that in a sensitive and professional way, as I believe the vast majority of schools do at the moment anyway.

The policies reportedly being considered by the Government include banning trans young people from socially transitioning at school, banning them from attending single-sex schools matching their gender, forcing schools to out trans and non-binary young people to their parents, allowing teachers to misgender pupils, and blocking trans children from using bathrooms and changing rooms matching their identity.

Like gay, lesbian and bisexual people, trans and non-binary people have always existed. Gender dysphoria has been an internationally recognised condition for decades. Coming out as trans or non-binary is never easy, and often extremely difficult. That is why, historically, so many trans people have suppressed their gender dysphoria, leading to high levels of mental illness and—all too often—suicide. These children are not a threat to be contained; they should be supported and cared for. What schools need is guidance that will keep all young people, including trans and gender-questioning young people, safe and happy and help them to thrive both in school and beyond.

At an exhibition in the Forum at the University of Exeter to mark the 20th anniversary of the repeal of section 28, Melissa, a trans woman, writes of its impact on her as a teenager:

“The biggest effect was me not being able to actually figure out that I’m transgender, that what I needed was actually possible, what my life could have been. I almost took my life at that age. If I had been told that it was a thing that you could do and be, and there was a possibility, then that would have saved me an awful lot of pain. It made me determined to bring up my kids in a different way. They do have an inalienable right to be gay, and an inalienable right to be trans, and they know it.”

Section 28 marked the peak of the last great moral panic about LGBT people, which began in the 1980s and collapsed beneath the Labour landslide of 1997. My homophobic opponent’s campaign in Exeter helped me to deliver the biggest swing to Labour in the south-west. As I prepare to retire at the next election, it feels as if we are in danger of going full circle, back to the dark days of the 1980s.

In 2009, David Cameron had the decency to apologise on behalf of the Conservative party for section 28. I beg the Minister not to let his Government repeat the mistakes of the past. It will damage people’s lives, and it will lose them votes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing this important debate. It is with great sadness that I heard the story of his election and the homophobia he experienced. I am pleased to say that I experienced no homophobia when I was selected as an out gay man, which I take as a sign of the progress we have experienced as a society.

I was a child who grew up in the 1980s. Although I was not aware of the political backdrop to the section 28 debate, being out and gay at school was unimaginable at the time. We are here today to mark and celebrate the removal of section 28. While it was never used to prosecute anyone, it sent a signal to the gay community that we were “others”, excluded and not part of normal society. Thankfully, the world has moved on and my party has many out MPs, out parliamentary candidates and out Government Ministers. Being gay in our party is now, thankfully, no longer a barrier to progression.

However, despite the legislation being consigned to the dustbin over two decades ago, there is not a gay Conservative who does not feel disappointment and anger at how we were excluded, and I am thankful that it is gone. Both main political parties have moved our society on through, among other things, the equal age of consent, civil partnerships—I celebrated my own some 15 years ago—equal marriage, progress on tackling HIV, availability of PrEP, the Prime Minister’s recent apology at the Dispatch Box to our LGBT veterans and his acceptance of the recommendations of the Etherton report.

Although I am full of praise for how much my party has achieved, and for parliamentarians who have helped in these struggles, we should be mindful of the challenges we still face: the need for a full ban on conversion practices, the rising tide of homophobic and transphobic attacks, wider access to PrEP and safer sex messaging for young people, and a continued push for greater opt-out HIV testing. The increasing celebration of LGBT people in our society is positive, but we must not forget that dark forces are still present and oppose further progress—dark forces that, shockingly, still wrap themselves in religion.

Having recently travelled to Ghana, where the dreadful anti-LGBT legislation under consideration is driving the LGBT community underground and offers conversion abuse as a get-out-of-jail option, I know there remains much to do around the world. Given that there are over 70 countries in the world where it is illegal to be gay—in some places, it can result in a death sentence—there remains much still to do. This Parliament, with its out and proud gay, lesbian, bi and trans MPs, can and should continue to be a light to others.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing this important debate.

Section 28 was repealed on 21 June 2000 in Scotland—some three years before England—thanks to the Labour party, which was then in power in Scotland. As a Scot, I am very proud that the Ethical Standards in Public Life etc. (Scotland) Act 2000, which repealed section 28, was one of the first pieces of legislation enacted by the new Scottish Parliament. What I am not proud of is those who campaigned so viciously against the repeal of section 28, and the politicians who sat on the fence. However, I want to take a moment to applaud those who took such a brave stand, particularly the then Communities Minister, Wendy Alexander MSP, and many of my SNP colleagues who supported the repeal. However, what I want to talk about today is the campaign against the introduction of section 28 back in 1988, in which I played a small part.

When section 28 was first mooted in 1988, I was 21 and at university in Edinburgh.

I had just come out as a lesbian and most of my close friends were lesbians and gay men. There was a really vibrant gay scene in Edinburgh and we had hoped that maybe society was changing. Section 28 dented our optimism, but it did not stop us campaigning vigorously against it. The wonderful Blue Moon café set up by friends of mine at the Lesbian and Gay Centre in Broughton Street in Edinburgh was the hub of our activism and a group was set up called the Scottish Homosexual Action Group, or SHAG for short. It organised rallies and a march in Edinburgh, and buses went to London for the mass demos here. We also went to the big demonstration in Manchester in February 1988. I was proud to attend all those rallies and marches with my then girlfriend; I wonder where she is now.

The Scottish Homosexual Action Group also organised a big event in Edinburgh called the Lark in the Park, which took place in the Ross Bandstand in Princes Street Gardens. It was a festival of music and comedy with a political agenda and Sir Ian McKellen, who had just come out in response to the proposal of clause 28, spoke in Princes Street Gardens. That event went on for another couple of years and was the precursor of the first Pride marches in Scotland.

One of the interesting things about the campaign against section 28 back in 1988 was that lesbian feminists played a big role. Many of them had never worked with men before or had not done so for many years. Gay men were sometimes a bit taken aback by all these feisty women, but we worked well together in the end. I want to take a moment to remember that that was going on at the height of the AIDS pandemic when young men, including some of my contemporaries at university, were dying of AIDS. I want to take a moment to remember some of those young men, who had such great promise but who did not make it.

Returning to the involvement of lesbians, many lesbian feminists brought to the fight against section 28 experience of direct action from their campaigns against pornography and violence against women. Some of the lesbians involved had children and they took particular offence at their families being called a “pretended family relationship”. Those who were around at the time, or who have studied the history of the period, will remember the lesbians who abseiled into the House of Lords and who stormed “BBC News” live at 6 pm. I remember I was sitting in my flat with my flatmates watching the news when we saw all these women, who were obviously lesbians, shouting about section 28. One of them even handcuffed herself to Sue Lawley’s chair, which was highly amusing. As my friend Julie Bindel reminded me the other day, lesbians even stormed the Ideal Home exhibition just to remind everyone that, as she said, lesbians make the best families. I mention all that because I fear that lesbian activism is rather frowned upon today, unless it has been approved of in advance by straight people and some men who think they can set our boundaries for us. They cannot and should not try to do so.

I want to remind hon. Members of what section 28 actually said. It prohibited local authorities from “promoting homosexuality” or promoting the teaching of

“the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

It was all about the state clamping down on any support for the idea that it might be normal to be homosexual.

To be homosexual means to be sexually interested in and attracted to members of one’s own sex. That might not always have been popular, but it has been well understood for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Our movement at that time was a movement for lesbian, gay and bisexual rights; the rights of the same-sex attracted. Yes, we had supporters from the trans community, and I particularly remember the wonderful magician Fay Presto, a trans woman who was very involved in the Lark in the Park. However, section 28 was not about an attack on trans people; it was an attack on the same-sex attracted.

When Stonewall was founded in response to section 28, it focused exclusively at that time on same-sex rights. The initials LGBT or LGBTQ were not used until after the CEO Ben Summerskill left in 2014. As a recent survey by my friends at LGB Alliance shows, many lesbians and gays, including myself, do not like being called “queer”. To me, queer is about being bashed. I was queer-bashed in the 1980s and many of my friends have been queer-bashed. I do not accept the word “queer”. If others want to, that is fine, but many of us do not like it.

I want to make it unequivocally clear that I believe in equal rights for everyone and equal rights for trans people, but the protection of gay people is a separate thing. The protection for gay people and trans people that was achieved in the Equality Act 2010 was a triumph for two distinct and different movements that were campaigning separately. If Members want to know whether that is true or not, they can go back to Stonewall’s 2011 guide to the Equality Act for employers, which is 48 pages long and focuses on the rights of the same-sex attracted. It does not use the acronym LGBT. Human rights and equal rights are for everyone but, as my friend Allison Bailey has said, the rights of lesbians and gay men are not dependent on accepting gender identity theory, and many of us do not.

I therefore disagree with the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), for whom I have the utmost respect, that there is an equivalence between the fight against section 28 and the fight that some lesbians and gay men are undertaking to prevent gender identity theory from erasing the notion of same-sex attraction. I know that there is no equivalence between those two fights because, unlike a lot of the people in this room, I was there in 1988; I was out in 1988, and I was part of the struggle against section 28. I know what I was campaigning for; I was campaigning against an attack on the rights of same-sex attracted people, like me, and on our very right to be who we were.

Section 28 meant that many teenage girls were left confused and ashamed of their exclusive sexual attraction to other girls, with no one to talk to about that. I am afraid to say that that is the situation for many young lesbians today. I have been approached by constituents whose daughters are lesbians and have been told at school that, because they are attracted to girls, they must be a boy trapped in a girl’s body. Many young lesbians feel under pressure to deny their exclusive same-sex attraction and are bamboozled by a welter of indefinable niche identities such as bigender, gender queer and demifluid, which overlap and confuse them. The tragedy is that, in both cases—back in section 28 days and now—it is the state that is enforcing an ideology that undermines the rights of the same-sex attracted. Thank goodness we have organisations, like my friends in LGB Alliance, who exist to promote the rights of same-sex attracted people, now that Stonewall have given up on us. The fight against section 28 was a fight against those who wanted to destroy the reality of lesbian and gay lives; they wanted to erase us from contemporary life. That failed, and I really hope that any attempt to do so in contemporary times will fail.

As I have a bit more time than I thought I would, I want to add a few points, picking up on what other people have said. The first is about the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The Equality and Human Rights Commission was reaccredited for five years by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions last October. The only reason why Stonewall and others have tried to get this special investigation into the EHRC is that it wrote to the Government asking them to look at the question of protecting the rights of women and of the same-sex attracted. Stonewall is referring the EHRC to the UN because the EHRC will not accept gender identity theory as the defining belief of our times. The EHRC is there to protect the rights of everyone—the rights of all beliefs and none—not just those who believe in gender identity theory. I think it is a real shame that Stonewall’s antagonism towards the EHRC has not been resolved by democratic debate and discussion here, rather than by referring it to the United Nations. I will be astonished if the EHRC loses its A categorisation as a national human rights institution simply for sticking up for the rights of all, rather than for the rights of just one group and for one group’s way of identifying rights.

On the issue of conversion therapy, of course all of us oppose the idea that anyone should be forcibly made to reconsider either their gender identity or their same-sex attraction, but the conversion therapy that worries me most is the one which I have already described: that of young girls who are attracted to other young women or young girls who are uncomfortable with their bodies and uncomfortable with puberty, and who are being told, rather than being lesbians or young women who are just uncomfortable with puberty, that they must be boys trapped in girls’ bodies. That is the conversion therapy that I am really worried about.

On veterans, I was in the House when the apology was made. One of my ex-girlfriends was thrown out of the Royal Military Police—after very distinguished service—for being a lesbian. An apology is one thing, but what the Government really need to do is give these people compensation. Not only did being thrown out cause people terrible distress, but it undermined their employability, and they lost their pensions. I really appeal to the Government to look at the recommendations of the independent review and to start giving compensation to people such as my friend.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing the debate. I also thank him for his words; some of them meant a lot to me, and I am sure they meant a lot to anybody who was watching as well.

My speech will not be a complete response to everything I have heard, and I will probably reserve my response to some things to a later date. I will just make a few short comments, because I am still figuring out how I want to talk about some of these issues and what I want to say. That is because I am in two minds, and I am struggling with the best approach. On the one hand, I value signals and the things the Government and politicians do to set standards and set the tone. Unfortunately, I have witnessed first hand what can happen when these debates become public and become toxic—what can happen when the less than decent people in our society choose to take things from the words that are spoken. I have personally felt what happens when people feel empowered to target people and to go after those they feel are different and vulnerable. It is not pleasant, it is not nice and we should all work to stamp it out, no matter where it is and no matter our political views.

It is also important to have role models. Some hon. Members here today are the first LGBT person to be selected, to be elected or to serve—whatever it is—in their part of the country, and that it is extremely important. I speak to a lot of young people, and it is so important for them to see us simply being there and to know that we are there.

I do think it is a valid point that we should ensure that our set standards and ways of talking about things are rigidly stuck to. To pick up the point the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) made about Wales, he is absolutely right—and I will, hands down, say this every day of the week and twice on Sunday—that the Welsh Labour Government have done some terrific work on LGBT, which I thank them for. However, he should also look at the hate crime numbers in Wales, because although the Government and what is going on in the Senedd might be great, what is going on in the streets and the valleys is not necessarily anywhere near that, and it is certainly a far cry from where we want it to be.

One reason for that is that we have to take the public with us on this journey. While it is important to have role models, to set the standards and to have signals, I value the words that other people say—however hard they sometimes are to receive—because it is important that we know what the public are saying. Members may think what they will about my hon. and right hon. colleagues on the Conservative Benches, but they are nothing if not prolific vote-garnerers. If they say something, take a view and represent a perspective, it is because it is out there. Whether we like something or not, we sometimes have to hear it, listen to it and respond to it in as constructive a way as possible.

I have no qualms, and absolute confidence, that our side of this argument will win out—whether I will be an MP when that happens is probably a lot less likely. It will win out, because the one thing that will always be outed is the truth. The right hon. Member for Exeter is right: we have always been there—homosexuals and trans people have always been there. Whether it is the Romans, the Assyrians or the Babylonians, they are there in the historical texts.

We just need to find a way to talk about the trans issue and gender identity and to get the balance right between what parents might want or feel at the time and what is needed to push society forward. All I can say is this: right now, things are so toxic and so bad that it is an incredibly miserable time for a lot of people out there. We should all reflect on that for a short while. Hopefully—fingers crossed—we can all be in the same Lobby one day getting that ban on conversion therapy and getting this legislation through. We can have the society we know we can have—one that is fair, equal and prosperous.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma. I am very happy to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) for bringing it forward and for sharing his own experience. Even though I was an adult at the time and do remember it, it is almost impossible to think that, only 27 years ago, he had the experience that he outlined as a candidate in an election—it is horrific, and it is probably difficult to imagine because it is so horrific. That was not very long ago, and I am grateful that we are not in that place any more; the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) obviously had a very different reality, and we can all applaud that.

We need to think back to how things were and to remember that it would, unfortunately, be very easy to find ourselves in that position again. The right hon. Member for Exeter talked about LGBT people simply asking for the same human rights as others and about how that caused a bit of a furore. Again, that is incredible, and it is difficult for us to comprehend. It is not much to ask, is it, that people should have the human rights that we all take for granted? That, however, is not what happened at the time, and public attitudes went into a swift reverse.

From listening to the other contributions, it seems that quite a lot of us in the Chamber are of a reasonably similar vintage. I have said before that there were no gay people at my school; obviously, there were, but it was not okay for anybody to say that at the time. That is a terrible thing. It is very different now, and my own children have a very different experience at their school. The public outlook, the outlook among young people and the way we talk about these things is very different. Not so long ago, that would have been impossible, and it would have been absolutely out of the question for their experience to have been anybody’s reality.

I think the statistic is that 75% of the public surveyed at the time said that it was “mostly or always wrong” to be gay. That is a pretty astonishing statement for people to be agreeing with in such numbers. We heard about the memorable episode of the storming of the news studio; I was watching the television that night—I was a schoolgirl—and it really did make an impression on me. This issue was not talked about, and we did not hear about it or really know what was going on—but we certainly did after that happened. I am not suggesting that we all go and storm news studios—not just now—but I am pointing out that it was very difficult for people to get into the news agenda and into the media to explain what these changes meant in reality. Again, I suspect that that is quite difficult for us to comprehend now.

We know that section 28 was never used to prosecute anyone, but it none the less caused horrendous harm, but I am worried about the way these issues can still cause people significant harm. I know that the Minister responding is very thoughtful on these issues, and I appreciate that we have travelled a distance, but I worry about some of the issues the right hon. Member for Exeter talked about, such as conversion therapy and gender recognition. It is very unedifying to think that deliberate culture wars and constitutional game playing can sometimes be fostered on some of these issues, which should not be played with like that—people’s lives are affected when politicians behave that way. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) eloquently pointed out that, whoever a person is and whatever their views, it is never acceptable to abuse others. If we take that thought as widely as possible when discussing these issues, we will all be in a better place and better able to make sensible progress.

Like my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), I am really proud that the repeal of section 28 was one of the first actions of the newly devolved Scottish Parliament. It is incredibly powerful to know that, because at the time we were in a very different place.

I looked at some interesting information from ASLEF, and one of the statements it made really struck me:

“In this 21st century, there was still a piece of legislation that made it illegal for any local authority department—including schools—to say it was okay to be lesbian or gay.”

Members should think about that: that was almost yesterday—it is a really short time since that changed. I also found a quote in the ASLEF information from someone who had been badly impacted. He said that he was made to feel he was “abnormal and inferior” and that he had been left with mental scars that he would carry forever. This issue has had a significant and profound impact on people.

It is important that we have noted that this all happened when the AIDS epidemic was all over the television—I am sure we all remember the public information films. Every single household got one of those “Don’t die of ignorance” leaflets. That all fed in, in a very unfortunate and deliberate way, to the terrible narrative the public were fed, stigmatising people with HIV and AIDS and promoting hatred of people who were gay or lesbian.

The hon. Lady just touched on an important point, which I omitted from my speech for time reasons. One of the great damages caused by section 28 at the time of the AIDS pandemic was that it prevented schools from giving vital public health information to young people about sexual relationships. That was probably the most heinous impact of it, because it had life and death consequences.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The impact that that had, including on the wellbeing of young people, should not be underestimated. There was absolutely no way that schools could possibly deal with homophobic bullying, because they were not able to deal with this issue at all. From whatever angle you look at the wellbeing of young people, there was a huge issue, and its impact continues to this day. We should not pretend that no homophobic bullying goes on now, but we are in a very different climate, and it is at least possible to deal with it. That is profoundly important.

I would like to talk a bit about education and the “Time for Inclusive Education” campaign, which is a very positive education initiative in Scotland. It is vital that all our young people are afforded the opportunity to have proper, appropriate and wide-ranging inclusive education. It is part of who they are, and part of who everyone in the community is, that they will have relationships, and all those relationships need to have a grounding in being safe, being well and looking after one another. If we exclude parts of our young people’s communities from that, we are not doing the right job, because there is no place for homophobia, biphobia, transphobia or any other kind of bigotry in our schools—or anywhere else in society, for that matter. I therefore very much applaud the TIE campaign. I note that the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) talked about his children’s attitudes to LGBT education; we are in a different place, and their world outlook is very different from the outlook he experienced when he was at school. That is very much my experience as well.

Some of the information I saw from the Law Society was very interesting. It was fascinating to look at some of the challenges its members had pointed out in terms of the impact the regulations had on their mental health and their professional development. This issue followed people beyond school and caused significant fear among many people about the impact it could have on their jobs, their family and their friendships, because it enabled the atmosphere to be so toxic. As we look at the way things are now and at how things have moved on, it is certainly to be applauded that we are in a very different place. It is important for all political parties to realise that we need to be clear and to be strong on these issues, and I am very proud of my party for taking a strong line on them. We need to have equality and we need to work for that.

Although we have that progress to be proud of, I do have concerns. Some of the narratives and some of the storm clouds that are gathering should cause us to worry. It is our job in Parliament to speak up and speak out to make sure we do not allow troubling and hateful attitudes to take hold. Although I am pleased with where we are, I would be grateful to hear where the Minister thinks we are. I am also keen to hear where he thinks the Conservative party is going on conversion practices and whether he appreciates the responsibility all of us here have to speak out without fear or favour.

Thank you, Mr Sharma, for coming to our rescue and saving our debate this afternoon—we very much appreciate that.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing this debate marking the 20 years since 18 November 2003, when the repeal of section 28 came into effect. It is very fitting indeed that he should lead the debate: as many Members here will know, and as he referenced in his speech, he was brave enough to stand as an openly gay parliamentary candidate in 1997 and endured a vicious and abusive campaign.

I pay huge tribute to my right hon. Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle), Lord Cashman and others who did so much to pioneer gay rights—leading the way, speaking out when it was much more difficult to do so, taking risks and campaigning ceaselessly to create a society in which no one is disadvantaged because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Of course, they are still campaigning.

My right hon. Friend described in detail the build-up of negative views and attacks on gay people in the lead-up to the introduction of section 28. He set out clearly that we are, worryingly, hearing echoes of the section 28 times from the present Conservative Government, leading to fear and prejudice, particularly against trans people. He detailed clearly the tirade of attacks that make things ever more difficult for young trans people.

The hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) described the change we have seen in society, but noted that further action is needed and spoke of the challenges across the globe. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) described her campaigning against section 28 and reminded us of the toll that the HIV/AIDS epidemic took on the gay community. She also reminded us that the Labour Government in Scotland repealed the Scottish equivalent of section 28 three years before the UK Government did.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) mentioned the dangers of toxic speech and its effect on people, including himself, as well as the importance of role models. The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), speaking from the Scottish National party Front Bench, mentioned how easy it would be to allow backsliding and how our job is to speak up and not allow hateful attitudes to take hold. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who is a good friend, reminded us of the common-sense approach of the Welsh Government, who insist that all children should have fully inclusive LGBT education because that is the society we live in.

On a personal note, celebrating the repeal of section 28 brings back some awkward memories of 30 years ago for me. At the time, I was teaching in a large comprehensive school and in a relationship with another female teacher. Same-sex relationships were little acknowledged, and we knew very few other same-sex couples, so we were already quite isolated. Then, in 1988, the Thatcher Government introduced the homophobic law, section 28, which stipulated that local authorities must not “promote homosexuality” or

“promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

That language was hateful, threatening and intimidating, and I was conscious that the force of the law could be used against me. Back in 1988, there were no anti-discrimination laws that covered a person’s sexual orientation, meaning that they could be fired just for being gay. All of that made it difficult for gay teachers to be open about their sexuality, thus taking away valuable opportunities to provide positive role models for young people. It undoubtedly delayed my own coming out, and I just got into the habit of never mentioning anything at all about my personal life to anyone at work. In fact, it was not until 1995 that I came out to my friends and family, and I was very conscious that, standing for town council in a multi-member ward, I would be putting my fellow Labour candidates in a position of having to defend me. But they were great about it.

Perhaps the worst thing about section 28, and the fear that it instilled in gay teachers like me, was that it made it very difficult to challenge homophobic bullying effectively. At the time, homophobic insults in the classroom were commonplace, thus making the lives of many students a misery. If we had called out those comments as homophobia, we risked being accused of promoting homosexuality. When a pupil made a homophobic remark, I did not want it to go unchallenged, but all I could manage was something feeble, like, “Don’t you think that could be a bit hurtful to some people?”

If the classroom was hard, the staff room was even worse, especially when trying to challenge male teachers exchanging homophobic banter. Some colleagues were already quick to mock me as a lefty feminist, so could I risk the suspicion of being gay, when that could be used against me in my employment? I am ashamed to say that I did let comments go unchallenged. I could and should have spoken up, and I am immensely grateful to all those who were brave, who did speak up and who helped society to become more accepting of LGBT people.

We owe it to today’s young people and the teachers who are delivering LGBT education to give them our full backing and ensure that there is no backsliding in this important step towards creating a genuinely inclusive society. But, of course, it was not just teaching that was affected by section 28. It set back local council initiatives and fomented prejudice and hate, and who knows how much misery, how many additional suicides, how many late diagnoses of HIV and how many additional deaths it led to?

Thankfully, the Labour Governments of 1997 to 2010 faced down fierce opposition and championed LGBT rights, including by repealing section 28. Not only did Labour repeal section 28, with the repeal taking effect on 18 November 2003, but we achieved an equal age of consent; ended the ban on LGBT people serving in our armed forces; ended discrimination against lesbian and gay partners for immigration purposes; created civil partnerships, allowing same-sex couples to have the same rights as married couples; gave LGBT individuals and couples the right to adopt children; awarded statutory rights to fertility treatment on the NHS for lesbians; banned discrimination in the workplace and vocational training; outlawed discrimination in goods and services; included homophobia in the definition of hate crime; brought in the Gender Recognition Act; and brought in the Equality Act.

By 2010, it was encouraging to see a growing acceptance of LGBT issues by the Conservative Government. We were pleased to support their legislation for same-sex marriage, although far too many Conservative Members voted against the Bill, some of whom, it must be said, have since apologised. Sadly, as Opposition Members have already said, LGBT+ people have been badly let down by the recent Conservative Government, who killed off their own LGBT action plan, disbanded their LGBT advisory panel, cancelled their international LGBT conference and have still not honoured the promise to ban the insidious practice of so-called conversion therapy. Instead of standing up for LGBT+ rights and bringing people together, the Conservatives have stoked a culture war and pitted different groups against each other.

Hate crimes against LGBT+ people have soared in the past decade. In 2022-23, almost 30,000 hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity were reported. It is not difficult to see the connection between that shocking increase in hate crime and the bandying about of LGBT-phobic remarks, particularly transphobic remarks, especially by people of influence, including, sadly, Conservative Members.

Hate crime figures are not just statistics. Behind each number is a real person who has been attacked or even killed, and many more who live in fear. Not long ago, I was speaking to a trans woman in my constituency, and this is what she said to me about the debate on the Equality Act that we had in this very room:

“As a transwoman I find the idea of this change to the equalities act terrifying. The change that has been suggested is purely out of contempt and malice.”

May I just finish the quote from my constituent? She went on to say:

“I have been a patient with the NHS for my gender affirming care since 2017-18. The soonest I will be offered surgery is still at least 12 months away. Despite being fully transitioned in all but 1 final surgery, this will segregate me and make me vulnerable to violence. This isn’t moving goal posts to protect cisgender women: this is just cruel.

Every time politicians open their mouths to peddle hate to stoke up a culture war, I become more afraid to open my door for fear of the people they have riled up. You do not protect anyone by taking rights away from minorities.”

I take issue with the hon. Lady on that point. I am one of the people who support amending the Equality Act to make it clear that sex means biological sex, and it is not because I have any hatred against trans people—it is because I want to ensure the rights of women to safety, dignity and privacy and the right of lesbians and gay men to freedom of association. Does the hon. Lady oppose those rights?

As the hon. and learned Member would acknowledge, there is already provision in the Equality Act for specific spaces for biological women, where that was deemed appropriate. She knows that perfectly well. Things like women’s refuges provide one of the obvious examples of a biological single-sex space—

That is not the case. Many once single-sex women’s refuges now have male-bodied individuals in them. That is why some other people have set up women-only spaces. Equally, lesbians are now unable to run lesbian-only events without men insisting on being admitted. As a lesbian, does the hon. Lady not find that concerning?

The point is that we know perfectly well that there are one or two extremely far-reaching and far-thinking women’s refuges that have a very inclusive policy, but the vast majority are very aware of the importance of that single-sex space. I think the hon. and learned Member knows that. I am sure she understands why we want to make sure that trans women feel fully included and fully accepted in our society. We can manage to find a way to do that without prejudice and hate and without whipping up hate against each other. I hope she would agree with me on that point.

Thank you. I would like to leave the Minister some time.

I say to the Minister that if the Government have the will, it is not too late for them to act. The Minister, a fellow Welshman and a fellow member of the LGBT community, will be taking the flak, but I am sure he would like to do some of the things we are going to suggest. We would like him to be able to push hard with his colleagues to carry this out. I say to him that it is not too late for the Government to act.

Will the Minister’s Government now make time to bring forward legislation for an outright ban on all forms of so-called gay conversion therapy to protect all LGBT+ people from this abhorrent practice, or agree to give full support and speedy passage to a private Member’s Bill to do the same? Will he also push his Government to move forward on the consultation that they held back in 2018 on the reform of the Gender Recognition Act to modernise the law on gender recognition by removing the futile indignities that people currently have to go through to obtain a gender recognition certificate, which do not contribute to the integrity of the process? Will the Government also do more to tackle LGBT hate crime as a matter of urgency? Finally, and very importantly, will the Government ensure that the rhetoric they use is not in any way homophobic or transphobic? Action on those four fronts would be a fitting tribute to mark 20 years since the repeal of section 28.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) for securing today’s debate. I listened to what he said about his election campaign with regret and, for what it is worth, I apologise.

Unfortunately, I am. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. We are marking two decades since the repeal of section 28, and even though there have been differing views, the tone of the debate has been respectful. I wish there was more of that when we have debates about this area of policy.

I, too, speak from personal experience as a gay man. The Britain of the ’80s and ’90s is a world away from the Britain we call home today. There is no way I would have come out in school in Anglesey, but it is great when I go round the constituency today and see young people proud of their sexuality and their identity.

I stood for election in Wrexham in 1997. Unfortunately —I have spoken about this before—just before the election campaign I was beaten up, and the press got hold of the story. I remember being frightened to admit that it was a gay bashing, and I tried to hide it. It was only a year later that I had the courage to stand up and say that it was because of my sexuality.

In 1988, when section 28 was introduced, only 11% of the public approved of same-sex relationships. Anti-LGBT sentiment was rife across society, schools and the workplace. LGBT people were all but invisible in the media, and I am sad to say that our politics harboured a great deal of the same prejudices.

The Britain of today is a nation transformed. Our cities, towns and counties annually play host to the colour and sounds of a hundred Pride parades. We are a nation of all kinds of families, of out and proud LGBT pupils and teachers, and of inclusive businesses. Our media, from sport to family programming, not only includes LGBT people but celebrates them. I take pride in the fact that this Parliament is the most LGBT Parliament in the world.

And yet, despite those great strides, the harmful legacy of section 28 lingers on. Through a combination of silence and fear, young LGBT people were denied knowledge of what healthy same-sex relationships looked like. They were denied information about how to keep themselves safe when embarking on future sexual relationships. Perhaps most painfully of all, everyone who was part of the LGBT community was marked as “other”. Teachers prohibited from discussing LGBT issues were themselves stifled and negatively affected by the policy, as we so movingly heard from the hon. Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith). Some were forced to remain in the closet for fear of the impact on their careers and others felt they had no choice but to leave education behind altogether.

The bullying of LGBT people all too often went unchallenged because of the chilling effects of section 28. Compounding that problem further was the lack of positive role models for young people. All but a handful of celebrities were closeted, and LGBT people were confined to the fringes of our media. I am glad to say that that has changed for the better in recent years. LGBT characters and stories are prominent across TV, streaming and books, and the impact of such stories on young people can be profound. To see your own journey and hopes reflected back at you in shows such as “Heartstopper” is both comforting and empowering.

But television is no replacement for formal education about healthy, consenting relationships and sex education. As a society, we have long understood that education is empowering and equips our young people with the tools to succeed, but it is vital that we also instil in them our values of tolerance and acceptance. In 2020, the LGBT-inclusive relationships, sex and health education was introduced in England, and in the vote on that a significant majority was in favour: 538 for and only 21 against. Today, primary-age students are taught the reality of modern Britain: that families come in all shapes and sizes. Some children have two mothers, some children have two fathers. This is a reflection of our diverse society, and of the importance of tolerance and respect in binding our nation together.

The Minister is helpfully describing the type of inclusive education that we all want, but does he agree that there is a significant problem with groups—often some religious fundamentalist groups and others—spreading misinformation about what is actually taught in schools? Teachers do an excellent job in ensuring, in an age-appropriate way, that young people understand the inclusive society that we all live in.

The hon. Gentleman is right. We have to make sure that what we are talking about are facts, not descriptions of things that are not happening just to try to advance a fear.

Older students in their final years of secondary education are also taught the importance of healthy relationships and of consent and safe sex, ensuring that all our young people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are given the knowledge they need to keep themselves safe and healthy. As colleagues will be aware, a review of the statutory guidance on relationships, sex and health education is under way. The review is looking at whether the coverage of the statutory guidance is right, in terms of ensuring that teaching is safe and age-appropriate, making sure it is based on the facts and seeing whether it can be strengthened on certain topics such as suicide prevention and the dangers of vaping.

We expect to release the draft statutory guidance as soon as possible. It will then be open to a public consultation. Following the consultation, a decision will be made about any new or revised contents to be included in the guidance, including the use of resources and whether any further action would be appropriate, with revised guidance to be published in 2024. It is important that all material is factual and age appropriate.

The UK is concerned by the introduction of any legislation that restricts the teaching of the aforementioned age-appropriate relationship and sexual education. The UK deeply regrets introducing similar discriminatory legislation in the form of section 28 in 1988. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now. It is clear that such legislation had a profoundly negative effect on the physical and mental wellbeing of LGBT people, and it was rightly repealed across the UK in 2003. We encourage other countries not to repeat the mistakes of history.

In addition to ensuring that future generations are well equipped with knowledge, we must ensure that they are also safe to be themselves. We believe that no one in this country should be harmed or harassed for who they are. Attempts at so-called conversion therapy or conversion practices to change someone else due to a wrongful belief that a certain identity is preferable are, frankly, abhorrent.

The Minister is a huge advocate for our community represented in this debate today. May I put on the record my frustration, anger and disappointment that we have had repeated promises for almost 11 months now? We have heard “nearly”, or “just soon” or “coming around the corner”. We need to see this ban. Many Conservative Members have campaigned vigorously on this issue since we were elected in 2019, and I hope the Minister can say something positive to leave us all with some hope today.

In due course, indeed. I remain deeply committed to tackling these issues. I hope that that is known. I promise that work is still going on in this really complex area. We will be setting out further details in due course. I know that that is frustrating— I get it—and I am aware that the uncertainty around next steps in this space and how this has been reported in the media and on social media will have been really difficult for some. These sensitive issues must be discussed in a respectful and tolerant way, in line with our shared values. But I do absolutely accept the point that colleagues are making.

One of the arguments that has come back when I have lobbying on this is that such a ban or Bill might not be used. In other countries, for example, they have brought in Bills to ban such practices but they have never resulted in prosecution. We have learned today that section 28 never yielded a prosecution either, yet it was an incredibly significant piece of primary legislation. Will the Minister please use what we have learned today as a counter-argument, because although it may not result in many prosecutions, as a signal and a marker for our culture, it is incredibly important, and its value will be felt for generations.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. He will probably not be surprised that I share that view.

It is important that we continue to fund support services that are open to all victims of conversion practices and those at risk, regardless of their background or circumstances. Operated by Galop, the UK’s leading LGBT anti-violence charity, the confidential service combines decades of expertise with patience and empathy. It is open to anyone who is currently or was previously at risk of experiencing conversion practices, and I encourage those affected by such abhorrent practices to contact the service as soon as possible.

More widely, in recent years the Government have taken a number of actions to improve outcomes for LGBT people and to understand past wrongs. As we have already heard today, in July we saw the publication Lord Etherton’s independent review of experiences of LGBT veterans during the ban on LGBT service personnel between 1967 and 2000. The review brought to light the shocking and tragic experiences of many veterans through their personal testimony, and made clear its recommendations for rectifying past wrongs. In July, the Prime Minister made an apology to those veterans and their families, and stated his hope that

“all those affected will be able to feel part of the proud veteran community that has done so much to keep our country safe.”

Those are sentiments that I and all Members present share. Although the Government response to the review is currently being considered, I note that today LGBT service personnel serve their nation proudly in the armed forces, helping to keep us safe during troubling times, and I pay tribute to them.

I made a point earlier about compensation. Yes, LGBT people do serve proudly now, but many people, such as my friend who served proudly before, and lesbians and gay men, were humiliated and thrown out of the Army, and they lost their livelihoods. Are the Government giving active consideration to the recommendation of the review that these people should receive financial compensation?

Like the hon. and learned Lady, I was in the main Chamber when the Defence Secretary made his statement, which he did extremely well. Yes, all the recommendations are being actively considered, and I hope we will be able to provide an update in due course.

As World AIDS Day approaches, it is right that we consider the great strides made and the continued ambition of the Government to end new infections and improve HIV/AIDS outcomes. As the hon. and learned Lady mentioned, it is also right, as this day approaches, that we remember the lives that were so full of promise but which were cut far too short. I am pleased that the Government remain committed to ending new HIV transmissions and HIV/AIDS-related deaths in England by 2030, and our HIV action plan from 2021 sets out how we will achieve our interim ambitions by 2025. As part of that, the NHS committed £20 million to expand the opt-out of HIV testing for emergency services in areas with an extremely high prevalence of HIV, and we look forward to some further announcements, hopefully in the next couple of hours.

As we have heard today, the impact and legacy of section 28, though fading, remains, but we have moved forward in leaps and bounds as a society. Today, LGBT life is visible and celebrated, with our contributions noteworthy and valued. Our young people are provided with the opportunity to learn about who they are and how to be safe as they enter adulthood. Although the question of what to teach and when will always be debated, it is important that that is done in a respectful way and with the inclusion of all our young people foremost in our minds.

Personally, I am driven by the fact that we have come a very long way, with equal marriage, gay men being able to give blood, and IVF treatment, among other things. But I am spurred on by the fact that there is much more to do. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) said, our society will be much better when it is equitable, fair and prosperous. Today’s debate has shown that, when we treat each other with respect and compassion, we can build that better, fairer and more prosperous society.

Thank you once again, Mr Sharma, for stepping into the breach, rushing over here to save this important debate. As I said at the beginning, the fact that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Equalities is on the side of the angels has made my job a bit harder, because I could not be as rude about the Government as I would otherwise have been. I think he got the message on a number of points.

I am incredibly reassured to hear what he said about inclusive sex and relationship education and the guidance that the Government keep saying is about to come out, though it still has not. There was a briefing again this week in The Times, saying that it was coming next week, including some very worrying suggestions of what it might contain. To hear from a live Minister that he is absolutely committed to inclusive education and guidance is really important.

At the risk of embarrassing the Minister, it is no secret that he is on the side of the angels but he works for a Secretary of State who, certainly on trans issues, is not in the same place. That is apparently one reason why this guidance has not come forward up until now. Let me make a suggestion through the Minister to his Back Benchers. I know what he wants to do about conversion therapy but, if Ministers cannot agree, I suggest to colleagues that we can help them from the Back Benches. During this Parliament, the Minister should not be surprised to see amendments coming through, with cross-party Back-Bench support, to deliver on conversion therapy and the changes required on hate crime. I hope those amendments will gather as much support as possible from Members of all parties. If the Government are not capable of doing this stuff, they should let Parliament do it for them, in their dying days before the election. At least we will have some legacy to say we achieved in this Session, before, as I hope, we have a change of Government that will deliver on these things.

I will leave it there, Mr Sharma. It has been a constructive debate and a refreshingly civilised one. As we know, in the past some of these issues have caused toxicity in this Chamber and elsewhere. I thank colleagues very much for their contributions and their kind words about my speech. Let us hope that we can move forward with mutual respect to progress to a future where everyone is treated equally and with respect.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the 20th anniversary of the repeal of section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.

Hospice Services: South Devon

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for hospice services in south Devon.

It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. It is probably worth saying in my introduction why I brought forward this debate. At its root is a subject we often do not want to talk about: the end of life, and death. It can be uncomfortable; there may be people listening to this debate who are facing a difficult illness, whose prognosis is uncertain, or for whom discussion of hospice services brings up memories of the loss of a loved one. This is never a subject we can discuss without doing this, and this effect includes me.

My mother, Linda, passed away in St Luke’s Hospice in Plymouth back in January 2014. This week would have seen my parents mark their golden wedding anniversary. My step-daughter, Anne, was also supported by both a hospice and NHS palliative care services prior to her death. These experiences are why I want to be sure hospice services will be there when they are needed, at what will be the most difficult time in anyone’s life, ensuring that not only the patient is supported, but their whole family is, too.

Debate on hospice services in south Devon must start with mention of the services provided by Rowcroft Hospice in Torquay. Established on 4 May 1982 and located in 23 acres of beautiful gardens, it delivers specialist palliative care, free of charge, to more than 2,500 adult patients each year, across 300 square miles of Torbay and south Devon. It does this 24/7, 365 days a year, with a clinical and professional staff supported by a small army of volunteers who give their time simply with the aim of helping others in need. The hospice is also innovative in its approach to supporting our whole community, having recently launched a new project to support homeless communities across south Devon. Funded by the Masonic Charitable Foundation, the project is a collaborative initiative working in partnership with other charities and organisations that support homeless people in the region, with the goal of improving access to end of life care and palliative care for them.

A debate on hospice services in south Devon should also include a mention of the vital support provided by Children’s Hospice South West, one of the largest children’s hospice organisations in the UK, which provides vital support to children with life-limiting diseases across the whole of the south-west peninsula. The charity, which Eddie Farwell and his late wife founded in 1991, offers care and support to around 600 children from their three hospices located in north Devon, north Somerset and Cornwall. They are currently supporting 29 children from Torquay postcodes, and a further 63 from the EX and PL postcodes, which cover south Devon.

I thank my hon. Friend not only for calling this debate but for his wise speech on an important subject that is often not talked about out in the public. I commend him for his reference to Rowcroft Hospice and the services that are provided across the south-west. He may intend to do so, but I encourage him to ensure that a collaborative approach is also supported by Government funding, and that we can bring Ministers down to see what is going on in the south-west and how our services are actually leading the charge in the UK in terms of high-quality hospice care and supporting those most in need.

I always welcome an intervention from my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right that we are seeing leading work. He will be unsurprised to hear that later in my speech I will refer to some of that and invite the Minister to see for herself what is being done.

Hospice services provide vital support to those with life-limiting conditions, but they do face challenges themselves. In terms of their income, a Hospice UK survey in March 2023 revealed that 96% of hospices were budgeting for a deficit. While some of this confirms planning based on the likelihood of receiving bequests from wills, which for obvious reasons cannot be specifically predicted, it reflects the way hospices must continually look for support to maintain their services. There is also strong regional variation in the percentage of statutory funding; to be clear, this is a balance between NHS funding, contract funding and the fundraising income they receive. The variation in the percentage of support provided through statutory funding is significant: for example, in London this accounts for an average of 43% of funding, whereas in the south-west it accounts for just 24%—the lowest overall percentage rate, which it shares with south central and Wales.

The range of statutory funding percentages for individual hospices is worth noting, with 23 getting over 50%, while 85 get less than 32% of their funds from statutory sources. I accept that fundraising abilities vary depending on the community and the type of services, as well as the type of services being contracted, but these figures are very stark in their difference.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on hospice and end of life care, the opportunity to highlight the wonderful work that our hospices do is really incredible; we should all take the opportunity to do that.

My hon. Friend mentioned the challenges about funding from statutory sources. I wonder whether he agrees with me that, now that we have the statutory obligation to commission palliative care in the Health and Social Care Act 2012, our integrated care boards need to step up to the plate and properly commission these services universally across the country, ending the postcode lottery.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and for the work that he does as the chair of the APPG. I could not have put it better myself; he is absolutely right that there can be postcode lottery. Also, the variations are quite significant; I accept that some areas may have different types of services and some may have a greater ability to fundraise, but we should certainly seek a level of consistency across the country, to ensure that people have access to that service when they need it.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. Hospice care is important for us all, but I want to note Horizon House in Belfast, which is a children’s in-patient unit. It is the only service of its kind in Northern Ireland. There are 10 cots and beds available in Horizon House, but it does not have funding for clinical care. Does the hon. Member recognise, as I do, that it is not just about the clinical funding that comes in, but the voluntary and charitable work that volunteers do to make it happen?

I must say that that is slightly far away from south Devon, but the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) always manages to find a relevant point in his interventions. The nub of his point is rightly received, although he will, of course, recognise that there is devolution of healthcare responsibilities to Northern Ireland, which makes that slightly different from the responsibilities of the Minister who is here today.

Like other public services, businesses and community organisations, hospices have faced increase costs. For example, Rowcroft Hospice outlined to me that the cost pressures that they face include a 30% increase in total staff costs and a 52% increase in utilities bills, and yet NHS funding—what they receive for contracts—has only increased by 8% in five years.

Alongside these pressures, demand is growing. We should never talk about what I am about to say as if it were a problem: more people are living longer, in good health, well into their 70s, 80s and even 90s. That is the biggest and most positive achievement of modern science, healthcare and public health measures implemented since 1948. It is not a problem, which is how we sometimes talk about it. Many conditions that once cut lives short can now be cured or no longer circulate, yet there remain conditions that are likely to affect us later in life that will require palliative care. According to major study published by BMC Medicine in 2017, if age and sex-specific proportions relating to palliative care remain the same as in 2014, the number of people requiring palliative care will grow by 25% from just over 375,000 to just over 469,000 by 2040, but if the upward trend observed between 2006 and 2014 continues, it will increase by 41.2%, with the biggest drivers being conditions such as dementia and cancer. In south Devon, those estimates would see the demands on Rowcroft Hospice grow from 2,500 patients per year now to over 3,500 by 2040. The pressures outlined above apply not only to those working with adults, but also to children’s hospices where funding from local integrated care boards can be patchy—it actually fell on average between 2021-22 and 2022-23.

I note that the Department for Health and Social Care and NHS England have provided vital centrally distributed ring-fenced grants to children’s hospices since 2007. As the Minister will be aware, NHS England initially indicated to hospices that 2023-24 would be the final year of that grant, but I am pleased to note that, after a campaign by the group Together for Short Lives, it has been confirmed that NHS England will be renewing £25 million of funding for children’s hospices in 2024-25. That is excellent news, but I note that it has not yet been confirmed how children’s hospices will receive that funding or how much each of them will receive. I am sure the Minister does not need reminding of the potential impact on vital services if such funding is not available in future. Initial indications from hospices are that they will see a range of services reduced.

It is easy to outline problems in any debate, but there are also great opportunities to provide solutions, the greatest of which could help transform our view of the role of hospice care in south Devon. The Ella’s Gardens project is a transformative vision of what high-quality palliative, nursing and residential care should look like in the middle of this century. At its centre is the construction of a new in-patient unit and the remodelling of the existing hospice building to provide the very best specialist palliative care for generations to come. The proposal is to enhance hospice care for patients and their families by increasing the number of single beds from the current two to 14 to further support the local population and help to meet future demand for specialist palliative care, giving hospice patients and their families even greater independence and choice during those vital moments together. It also aims to enhance the level of care to ensure that patients’ physical, emotional, social, psychological and spiritual needs are being met, while enabling family and friends to stay overnight to be near loved ones.

Rowcroft’s vision is also to build greater financial resilience by reducing the reliance on current income streams such as retail and fundraising. A core part of that is the creation of a 60-bed, purpose-built specialist dementia and complex care nursing home, designed on the leading model of dementia care—I hope I pronounce this correctly—called the Hogeweyk, with six households of 10 residents. Alongside that is a 40-bed assisted living complex, with a proposal that would enable Rowcroft to meet the wider care needs of the local community, as well as providing an invaluable income stream to support the hospice’s ambitions.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for securing the debate. I wish him condolences for his mother and stepdaughter. He talks about physical space. Seaton Hospice at Home currently works out of the Seaton and District Hospital League of Friends, and relies on that physical space. I know that at Rowcroft, four out of five patients are treated at home. Does he agree with me that palliative care nurses, after working with patients, need somewhere to come back together and operate as a team?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point in highlighting hospice at home. The service is growing because many people do not want to be in a hospice or a hospital, and if given the choice, they would rather pass away at home surrounded by their loved ones. My stepdaughter was supported to do that. It is quite an experience when it happens, but it was what she wanted.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a need for those groups to have the type of facilities they require and be supported in that. I accept that, given the sheer area that some hospices cover for that service, they may have to have some form of remote working arrangement for most of the day, but certainly, I see how Rowcroft provides that facility and it works well. There is that balance of the hospice for those who need it and are at that stage in their treatment and care, and the hospice at home to try to give people the choice they deserve at the end of their lives.

The plans have been developed in a way that allows residents to live in a caring, nurturing and vibrant home that supports as much independence, mobility and inclusion as possible. The Ella’s Gardens vision is not just one for patients and families, but one of being a hospice that is part of the community. Rowcroft’s large gardens are open to the public and are a popular community facility. There is never a sense of hiding away or being something that people only talk about when affected by it. The plans therefore include community facilities, a village hall and a day nursery. That creates opportunities for recreational activities and intergenerational connections, effectively making it a facility for the whole community with a unique side to it, and not just a hospice that people only attend if they need to be with a loved one.

Unsurprisingly, the plans have been widely acclaimed across our bay and have already received planning permission from Torbay Council. They could be under way in just over 18 months, providing support to our wider healthcare services, from a formal commission agreement with the integrated care service. The Minister will be pleased to hear that this is not a direct pitch for Government capital funding, although obviously if there were funding available, it would certainly help. That said, I would be delighted to welcome the Minister to Torquay so she can see at first hand the transformation the project will bring, not just to hospice and palliative care but to the future for that kind of care. A future that is about being not just part of the health and care system but at the heart of our community’s life, as well as being there when needed at a time when a loved one is passing away. I hope the Government will see it as a model for the future and one they want to get behind.

Given what I have already outlined, I would appreciate hearing the Minister’s responses to some specific points. As a matter of urgency, will she confirm how much of the £25 million children’s hospice grant each children’s hospice will receive in 2024-25, when they will receive it and how?

What assessment have Ministers made of the impact of integrated care board funding on children’s hospice care, and the risks of withdrawing the ringfenced grant? These services will work across regions; to ensure a more planned approach, will the Government direct ICBs to work with their neighbours on planning and funding children’s hospice and palliative care services?

More widely in the hospice sector, the variation in statutory funding between regions and hospices is stark. What thoughts have the Government had on ensuring a more consistent approach? Some hospice costs, including NHS pay rates, are decided by the Government. Would the Minister consider implementing a funding formula that would allow cost increases that are out of the hospice’s control to be reflected in local service contracts? Given the increase in costs this year, could the Government supply a simple fixed amount per hospice that forecasts a deficit? How do the Government see the future needs of palliative care being met? I am not requesting that hospices be publicly funded; the charity model offers many advantages and flexibilities. However, hospices must have predictability when planning for the future.

There is much more that I could say about the opportunities, challenges and pressures on hospices in South Devon, but I should draw my remarks to a close to allow the Minister adequate time to respond and perhaps take interventions. For families across South Devon, Rowcroft Hospice is a service that is not just valued, but treasured. It is a place where memories are made, conversations had that bring peace after a dispute that now seems petty, family events are held, news is shared and smiles may be raised, even as the end nears. In short, a hospice is a place where life is added to days, when days can no longer be added to life. We need to ensure that Rowcroft continues to be such a place for decades to come.

Before I ask the Minister to respond, I point out that there might soon be votes in the Chamber. There will be multiple votes in the next debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing this debate about hospice care in South Devon. Like many of us, he has personal experience of the wonderful work of hospices. He spoke of his mother Linda and his step-daughter. I remember my grandmother being cared for in a hospice that was also in the south-west, just outside Yeovil. It made such a huge difference to the end of her life, not only for her but for family members like me. I remember going to visit her there. Whether the care is given in the hospice or at home, hospices are so important to our constituents.

Even though the debate was short, we had contributions from other Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall). He asked that Ministers come to the south-west to see hospice care for ourselves. Perhaps slightly ironically, today I was meant to be visiting a hospital in Devon, but instead I am responding to this debate. I will reschedule the visit, and will see what more I can do in the area at the same time. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), who is chair of the all-party parliamentary group on hospice and end-of-life care. He does important work lobbying on behalf of the sector in that role. He spoke of the importance of ICBs effectively commissioning end-of-life and palliative care services.

It was wonderful to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon); it would not be a Westminster Hall debate without a contribution from him. He spoke of the importance of the work of fundraisers and volunteers in hospices. That clearly applies in Northern Ireland, but it is also important in England. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) referred to hospice care at home, and made the point that although the traditional hospice model involves people being cared for in a hospice building, a significant and increasing proportion of what hospices do involves caring for people in their home.

Taking a step back from the situation in south Devon, thousands of people across the country are receiving palliative and end-of-life care at the moment. We have an ageing population, and many people live with complex health conditions. Around 600,000 people die every year in the UK, so it is a demographic fact that the number of people who will need palliative and end-of-life care is likely to increase in the years ahead. That care is so important; care during the hardest times makes an unquantifiable difference. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay said, it is not necessarily about extra days of life, but adding life to the days. It can make what seems to be unbearable somehow bearable, and it makes a difference not only for the individual being cared for, but for all those around them.

The majority of palliative and end-of-life care is provided by NHS staff and services, but hospices are an important part of our end-of-life and palliative care system; they support over 300,000 people with life-limiting conditions each year, in addition to providing bereavement support. As hon. Members have said, hospices are independent, charitable organisations that generally receive funding not only from statutory sources but, substantially, from communities and charitable donations. That range of funding, and the important role that hospices play in communities, are real strengths. As a Minister with hospices in my portfolio, I strongly support that, and want hospices to continue to play that important role, which gives them such strong local support.

In south Devon, the services reflect the national picture: there are significant NHS palliative and end-of-life services, including a specialist NHS team, community nursing care and a Marie Curie night care service. There is also Rowcroft hospice, which my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay mentioned. Given that my portfolio includes the oversight of dementia care, I was interested to hear about the hospice’s ambitions to develop its services further into dementia care; that sounds like a truly exciting proposal. Department of Health and Social Care officials are due to visit Rowcroft in the coming weeks to find out more, so I look forward to hearing from them. My hon. Friend also invited me down to see it for myself.

My hon. Friend mentioned the role of integrated care boards, which are responsible for commissioning end-of-life and palliative care services to meet the reasonable needs of their local population. In the Health and Care Act 2022, palliative care services were added to the list of services that an ICB must commission to ensure a more consistent national approach, and to support commissioners in prioritising palliative and end-of-life care. Back in July 2022, NHS England published statutory guidance on palliative and end-of-life care to support commissioners with that duty. The guidance refers to the need to ensure sufficient provision of specialist palliative care services and hospice beds, and to ensure future financial sustainability.

On financial sustainability, I acknowledge that, as my hon. Friend mentioned, hospices contend with significant financial pressures, including rising energy costs. Charities, including hospices, have already benefited from the energy bills discount scheme. Furthermore, hospices may be entitled to a reduction in VAT from 20% to 5%, and to exclusion from the main rate of the climate change levy on the energy that they use for non-business purposes, should they meet the scheme criteria.

On the question about the funding for pay uplifts for staff on “Agenda for Change” contracts, as my hon. Friend will know, his hospices are independent, charitable organisations that employ their staff themselves. They have the freedom to set salary rates and other terms and conditions at a level that reflects the skills and experience of their staff. Given the difficult economic context, the Government are providing additional funding on this occasion to support one-off payments to eligible staff employed by non-NHS organisations, where those organisations employ their staff on dynamically linked “Agenda for Change” contracts. Details for hospices that believe themselves to be eligible for that scheme are outlined in guidance published this week by NHS England. I encourage hospices in the south-west—and in fact around the country—to consider whether they are eligible, and to apply for the scheme if they are.

I will keep it fairly brief. I welcome some of the comments made. It is worth remembering that while the hospices are independent, paying a nurse or qualified medical personnel less than the NHS would is clearly not going to work. Rowcroft is one of the best sponsors of skilled worker visas, but of course, as the Minister will know, it is obliged to pay the equivalent of the NHS rate if it recruits internationally via that route.

I cannot say, as I stand here, whether Rowcroft would be eligible for the support that I mentioned, but I would encourage it and others to look at whether that route would help it to address the point raised by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend spoke about hospice care for children and young people. NHS England recognises the importance of quality palliative and end-of-life care for children and young people; it has already confirmed that the £25 million children’s hospice grant is being renewed for 2024-25. I can assure him that NHS England will communicate details of that funding allocation in the coming weeks; that is far as I can go on that point. I cannot comment on the future of the children’s hospice grant beyond that financial year, but I can pick up briefly on my hon. Friend’s broader question about the future of palliative care. We recognise that demand for it is expected to grow. I reiterate the point about ICBs’ responsibility to plan to meet the needs for the local population’s palliative and end-of-life care.

At the national level, our NHS long-term workforce plan sets out how we will ensure that we have the necessary healthcare workforce for the future. For the first time ever, it looks 15 years ahead. It also recognises that we will need an increasing number of staff in community settings, providing people with care out of hospital and helping people with long-term conditions to live more healthily and independently. The plan recognises that people want to live in their own homes for as long as possible, and we know that many people would much rather die in their home as well.

To sum up, as I watch the clock, I fully agree with my hon. Friend on the important role of hospices in our community in palliative and end-of-life care. I can assure him and other hon. Members that I will continue to work closely with NHS England to ensure that ICBs deliver on their responsibility to commission palliative and end-of-life care in every area of the country. I thank my hon. Friend for his invitation to see the hospice care in his constituency for myself. As I will be rescheduling my Devon visit, I will do my very best to see if I can come his way.

Question put and agreed to

Sitting adjourned.