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Westminster Hall

Volume 741: debated on Thursday 30 November 2023

Westminster Hall

Thursday 30 November 2023

[Sir Robert Syms in the Chair]

Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the work of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I am here today because the reputation of Parliament matters, and how we conduct ourselves here matters. Like many workplaces, we are grappling with issues around bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct, and we are looking for ways to not only give people routes to redress but change the culture of our organisation to ensure that such issues do not find any solace in our midst.

I stand here today representing a number of colleagues who, through the establishment of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, have become Ministers but still have very strong opinions on this issue and want to see it dealt with in the right way. I refer in particular to the pivotal role played by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), who introduced the ICGS in July 2018. She has recently taken up a ministerial position and is unable to take part in the debate, but I note that she is here in body as well as in spirit.

I also note that I was a member of the recent Speaker’s Conference on the employment conditions of Members’ staff, and the excellent report which came from that underlines the importance of the changes recommended for the ICGS, some of which have not yet been carried through in full but were part of the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference.

This is a timely debate, because there is an independent review under way into how the ICGS has developed over the last five years. The review issued a call for evidence on 22 November, and I know that a number of colleagues will want to provide feedback through that. Because we are midway through a review, the Minister responding to the debate will inevitably be somewhat curtailed in what she is able to say. I hope that this debate gives some individuals the opportunity to recognise that they can contribute through the review and to hear from the Minister the Government’s support for this important programme of work within Parliament.

The vision of the ICGS, introduced in the wake of the #MeToo scandal, was to ensure that everybody who works in or visits Parliament is treated with dignity and respect and to underline that there is absolutely no place for bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct in any workplace, including Parliament. The scheme is there for all current and former members of the parliamentary community, not just MPs, and it is the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

The initial working group, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire, was made up of Members of all parties in this place, noble peers from the other place, members of staff of both Houses and trade union representation for House staff. It was a thorough piece of work, embracing a huge range of views, and it demonstrated the importance of not only enshrining those views in the process that was developed but getting their support for the recommendations.

The research into the problem and the possible solutions was incredibly detailed, taking advice from legal experts and employment advisers. A number of hearings were held, to hear the sometimes shocking stories of colleagues who work here. The result was widely consulted on with Members right across the House and was agreed on the nod; there was no dissent to what was put forward. It is important to note that the House chose to vote on the specific processes to be followed because of the possible serious sanctions involved and the nature of the allegations. When we come to review this, it is important that we also look at the fact that the process needs to closely echo what this House agreed to and ensure that there has not been any mission creep along the way.

The ICGS proposals took a holistic view, looking at change processes, and, importantly, changing the culture of the organisation—as I say, as many other organisations are doing across the country. The key features of the scheme as it was originally envisaged were: the development of a behaviour code that would apply to everyone; the development of new training to support continuous professional development; the maintenance of respectful behaviour, proper induction courses and exit interviews to identify bad practice wherever it occurs; and, of course, the independent scheme itself. Again, that is very much what other organisations are doing to try to address these sorts of problems.

The scheme was designed to enable any complainant to call a strictly confidential helpline with their grievance and have it assessed in a timely fashion by an independent case examiner, who would also invite the complainant and respondent to give their sides of the case, with witnesses if necessary, and provide for the appropriate mental health support for all parties. The issues are difficult.

Should the independent case examiner find that there was no case to answer, the matter would be dropped with no publicity or consequences. Should, however, the case be upheld, the findings would be escalated to the employer or manager of the person accused and the ICGS would identify appropriate sanctions, which would include written or oral apologies, training, a requirement to prohibit contact, and, in serious cases, dismissal of the respondent.

In instances where an MP was the respondent, an escalation through the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to the Committee on Standards, which could recommend perhaps a suspension, including potentially allowing for a recall vote if that was triggered. The House had to agree the scheme and the process to be followed because of the implications of the sanctions. More recently, for sanctions against MPs the Independent Expert Panel was introduced as an extra layer in the process. That was not originally considered necessary by the working group, but has been put in place subsequently.

Were the complainant to report an issue that could break the law, the ICGS case examiner offers support and guidance to the complainant to go to the appropriate police force. Should the complainant not wish to do that, the ICGS has a protocol with the Met police to enable anonymised reporting to take place to ensure safeguarding of the wider public.

The right hon. Lady has put forward a very detailed and constructive case that needs to be looked at. Over the years, lots of constituents have come to tell me about issues to do with workforce bullying in the constituency. They tell me that their biggest concern is the time it takes for things to happen. Frustratingly, it means that sometimes they almost give up. Can the right hon. Lady confirm for all of us here, but for me especially, that the timescale will be sufficiently fast to ensure that the complaint, if upheld, can be dealt with within a 28-day timescale? Is that possible?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his timely intervention. I will come to the specifics of that point later in my remarks. One reason for calling the debate today is that there is not that surety. The cases go on for months, not weeks, because of the number of cases that are being referred to the ICGS. There needs to be a review of how the organisation operates to address the very remarks that the hon. Gentleman has made. He is absolutely right to say that if there are allegations of serious bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct, they need to be dealt with in a timely manner. Delay helps no one—not the accused or the victim.

One working group recommendation was that Members’ staff should have access to proper human resources support and advice, which is not routinely available in Parliament at the moment. That recommendation has not been implemented, despite it being one of the important recommendations from the working group. That means that Members’ staff with a complaint have nowhere to go other than the ICGS, which is unsuitable if their complaint does not relate to harassment, bullying or sexual misconduct.

The report from the recent Speaker’s Conference has also highlighted that issue. Its recommendations recognise that if staff have concerns about their employment or if their relationship with their Member of Parliament starts to break down, there are few routes through which they can seek support. The ICGS may be the only route they are aware of, even though it may not be appropriate for their complaint. Unfortunately, that means that a significantly higher number of general complaints on issues such as working conditions or contractual disputes are being reported to the ICGS helpline, because staff have nowhere else to go.

The fifth annual report of the ICGS was published last month. It stated that only 31 of the 479 contacts to the helpline—under 10%—were about bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct. Any complaints are distressing and unacceptable in a modern workplace, but the ICGS helpline is getting clogged up by the many complaints that are outside the remit of the ICGS.

With that in mind, the Speaker’s Conference recommended that the budget of the Members’ Services Team be expanded to hire more HR professionals to deliver an HR service to Members’ staff. The ICGS was set up to deal with bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. The lack of a clear pathway for issues that would normally be dealt with by an HR department has inundated the ICGS throughout its life so far. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, that means that the grievances of many complainants are not tackled swiftly enough, which results in further distress.

The 31 serious cases in the ICGS report show that the average time taken for a serious case to conclude is not a matter of weeks, as the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned in his intervention, but 184 working days. That is far too long for someone who has been subject to bullying or sexual harassment in the workplace. For the benefit of both sides, these things need to be dealt with swiftly.

The new director of the ICGS, Thea Walton, is committed to reducing that time, but the system has been working in that way for the past few years. We should fully implement the initial proposals that Parliament agreed when it established the ICGS. The Speaker’s Conference supported many of those recommendations, particularly the creation of an HR department for Members’ staff. That will provide a swift and timely service, and lead to the sort of culture change we all want to see—whereby people who work in this place feel valued, heard and supported if need be.

First, the review must prioritise the improvement of the timeliness of investigations through ensuring that cases are dealt with in the appropriate way and that the ICGS is not inundated; secondly, we must set up the HR department; and, thirdly, we must implement the other elements of the ICGS programme that was agreed in this place, including the establishment of induction courses for new joiners. To reiterate, I am not talking only about Members of Parliament, but the whole parliamentary community. There should also be exit interviews for those who leave abruptly, and we should promote the take-up of training courses to upskill team managers and staff more generally.

The review must consider the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in the ICGS. The commissioner was specifically identified as the individual to whom MPs could appeal should they be subject to allegations and the case find against them. That was to ensure the possibility of an independent review of the case, and therefore to take into account the level of public of scrutiny when an accusation of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct by an MP is made public. That appeal process meant that there was an additional check, which was capable of ensuring that decisions had been taken fairly and correctly, and had been based on evidence not bias. Should the PCS uphold a case against an MP, the process is now that the case is sent to the Independent Expert Panel, which investigates the findings and makes a recommendation. That then goes to the Committee on Standards, which will bring a recommendation to the House. That process is different from other investigations by the PCS—such as those in relation to the misuse of stationery or other more day-to-day matters—and reflects the sensitivity of these complaints about bullying and sexual harassment.

The nature of the sanctions also needs to be considered, particularly given the possibility of further appeals and the complexity of what we are talking about. The Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme deals with some of the most difficult complaints. It does matter not only to those complainants who are reporting abuse, but also to the reputation of Parliament, that we have an effective system by which to deal with those sorts of allegations. In having an effective system, we do not only have sanctions in place; we create an environment that will enable the culture of our organisation to evolve. Too often, the ICGS is seen as being there just to punish MPs, but it is actually there for the whole parliamentary community, and there are around 14,000 non-MPs working in and around Parliament and across the country who rightly want an effective process by which to tackle bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct when it occurs.

I urge hon. Members and right hon. Members to have a look at and take part in the review, because it matters not only to our staff and ourselves that we get it right; it matters for the way that our Parliament is perceived across the country and the world.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. The SNP welcomes the progress made on the work of the ICGS. We support all efforts to improve the system and to stamp out all bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct, in this place and beyond. Everyone has a right to a safe workplace and to live their lives without fear or intimidation. All employers have a duty of care to protect the health, safety and welfare of their workers, and that means having robust processes for reporting and dealing with harassment, bullying and sexual misconduct. At a time when trust in politicians is, unfortunately, at an all-time low, it is more important than ever that we treat those who work in this place with dignity, courtesy and respect, and that we ensure that those who do not treat people in that way are held to account.

The SNP very much appreciates the work of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme team in providing confidential guidance, advice and support to anyone who has experienced bullying, harassment and/or sexual misconduct. We welcome the ICGS’s fifth annual report and pay tribute to all those who have helped to drive improvements across the work of the ICGS.

I very much appreciate the comments made by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller), who I know is standing in, extremely capably, for another Member, and I know that that Member— the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom)—has a particular and very close interest in the debate. The right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire will also be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) is very sorry that he could not make it today, but I am sure that he will be watching closely.

The report found that the ICGS team has responded to criticisms and made improvements that have—it must be acknowledged—reduced the time taken to carry out investigations. That improvement was due in part to the welcome addition of extra investigators to the team. It has been a big source of concern for many in this place that some of these investigations have taken so long, and I certainly look forward to further improvement in the time taken.

The team has also provided extra guidance resources for service users to support them through the process, and it has implemented 32 out of 33 of Alison Stanley’s 18-month review’s recommendations. We welcome the fact that the remaining recommendation, on governance, will be considered in the upcoming review and that an interim governance arrangement has been established.

However, there are still shortcomings in the system that need to be addressed. It is vital that complaints are dealt with confidentially, but through a transparent process. The scheme was set up to shed a light on matters that had been shrouded in darkness previously and that reflected badly on the House and its Members. It is important that we are clear about the processes the different complaints go through, while of course making every effort to make those processes confidential for the individuals involved. It is also important that we do things in a timely manner, as I mentioned, and that we improve the process so that complainants feel listened to and receive the support they need.

The report highlights key trends, including a

“power imbalance between the complainant and the respondent…In a number of cases, the blurring of personal and professional boundaries”

and

“the presence of alcohol and the culture of drinking in Westminster.”

We agree with the ICGS director, Thea Walton, that the organisation should escalate action against individuals if they are the subject of three allegations of bullying and harassment—the current trigger is five—even if those fall short of a formal complaint. Although the ICGS is well placed to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct, harassment and bullying, it is incumbent on all of us in this place to improve the working culture and to ensure that everyone who works here feels safe and is treated with dignity and respect.

We are very much in favour of the proposed expansion of the Members’ Services Team, which has come to provide a really invaluable and professional service over such a short time, as I am sure other Members will appreciate. The recommendation that the team should evolve into a Members’ and Members’ staff service is commendable. As small employers, MPs should have access to better human resources support, but staff should also have access to guidance and advice independent of their employing MP.

The Speaker’s Conference report, published a couple of weeks ago, describes Members’ staff as “uniquely vulnerable” and found the current Members’ support service to be “under-resourced”. It recommended creating a new “restorative practice” for workplace dispute resolution. That welcome recommendation would help to create uniform procedures for MPs’ staff across the House. Inadequate provision of employee support, employer guidance and qualified HR experts directly impacts on the experience of staff. We are highly supportive of recommendations to improve those and the great work of the current Members’ Services Team.

In closing, I acknowledge the cross-party group of MPs—the initial working group—who worked so diligently in the initial stages to arrive at various recommendations, which were acted on. In particular, I acknowledge my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire, who was the SNP shadow Leader of the House at the time, and the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire. They made what some might say was an unlikely couple, but they were able to put aside political differences to take that important work forward—with the assistance, of course, of other members of that working group, and I pay tribute to them.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the debate, Sir Robert. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) for providing leadership on this key issue, and I acknowledge the work of the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) in helping develop the ICGS in the first instance.

This topic is important, and I touched on it recently in the Speaker’s Conference debate. Although it is by no means an issue for every MP—or indeed everyone who works in Parliament—there have been too many instances where MPs, or sometimes staff members, have abused their power. The issue goes to the heart of our culture and working conditions in Parliament. The past few years have been damaging to the reputation of the Houses of Parliament, with serious allegations against, and sometimes convictions of, Members. It is essential that we get our own house in order and ensure that we have an inclusive and respectful working environment.

We welcome the role of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme in dealing with instances of poor behaviour by Members. The ICGS is a hard-won system, its origins rooted in too many reviews of Parliament’s failures. We fully support this new way of working. Investigations of misconduct are independent and impartial, with victims’ anonymity respected—that is important.

The ICGS has proved an effective method for MPs’ staff to raise incidents of poor conduct. After concerns that the process can be lengthy, timescales for completing cases are coming down. The most recent report published by the ICGS, in October, said that the time taken to resolve complaints had fallen by 26 working days. It used to take up to a year to resolve cases, but they are now completed, on average, within six months. That is an important step in the right direction, but the time taken is still too long.

It is welcome that the ICGS has held roadshow events across the country. Constituency office staff and those working remotely should be aware of the advice and support open to them. I also welcome the new HR system proposed by the Members’ Services Team. Earlier intervention can prevent the escalation of problems in the long term. The MST, acting as a mediator where appropriate, could help to prevent incidents from escalating and to ensure that we have proper inductions, training and ongoing welfare checks, as others have said. Early intervention by the human resources team will reduce complaints to the ICGS. As covered in the Speaker’s Conference debate, it is essential that such important HR issues are introduced as soon as possible.

At the coming general election, there might be a high turnover of Members, and it would be good to see the measures ready to go at that point. Importantly, the implementation of a risk-based exclusion process is urgently needed. There are safeguarding issues if an MP who is arrested for a serious violent or sexual offence is allowed to continue attending their workplace and going on parliamentary visits. Labour has been working with Mr Speaker and the Leader of the House on the issue, and we want the exclusion process to be brought forward as quickly as possible.

I therefore have some questions for the Minister. Can the ICGS investigation process please be speeded up still further? Will the proposed action on exclusions be introduced before Christmas of this year? How will the ICGS work with the new Members’ Services Team? It is vital that we continue to make progress on this important issue. Parliament should be a safe and respectful workplace.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) on securing the debate and on her excellent speech, which set out the details around the ICGS and how it was set up.

The Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme was a fundamental step towards safeguarding everyone on the parliamentary estate, in the wake of disturbing allegations of bullying and harassment in Westminster back in 2017. As Members have mentioned, it was set up at pace and on a cross-party basis, and I too pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) for all her work when she was Leader of the House, as well as for her work over the past few years in ensuring that the House authorities continue to look at this important issue.

The ICGS now provides a dedicated independent mechanism for handling complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct in both Houses, and it forms an important part of the parliamentary standards system and of efforts to effect culture change in Westminster. To pick up on some of the words mentioned in each of the speeches this afternoon, reputation matters, trust in politics matters and culture matters. That is why it is so important to have this system in place, and I will come on to talk about the review and its importance. The safety of the parliamentary community is paramount, and the Government have made it clear that there is no place for bullying, harassment or sexual harassment in Parliament. By working cross-party, we can ensure that everyone who works in Parliament is treated with dignity and respect.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke outlined in her excellent opening speech, an independent review of the ICGS was launched on 23 October to assess the performance of the ICGS and identify areas for further improvement. This is something that has been evolving over time, and there was a previous review, which I will touch on in a moment. The current review is an important piece of work, and I remember having a conversation with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire last year. It is five years since the ICGS was first developed and launched, so it is an ideal time to review how it is working. The review will look at the operation of the ICGS, as well as at understanding the investigatory process and the complexities involved.

The Minister said a phrase a few moments ago that I think is important: the ICGS is a system. It is not a thing, but a system; it is a number of different elements. The concern that I expressed, and that has come from elsewhere, is that although we may be having this review at the moment, not all of the system has actually been implemented—many elements of it were never implemented. Will she join me in urging the review to particularly focus on that point?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her intervention. The terms of reference have been set for this review, but there are a number of different mechanisms relating to standards in the House. The Standards Committee is actually undertaking an inquiry itself, and I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend has put evidence to that inquiry, but I would urge her to look at that as well.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke mentioned in her opening remarks, the independent reviewer will soon launch a call for written evidence, and I encourage members of the parliamentary community to submit evidence. The review is expected to conclude and to be published in early 2024. I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will continue to champion improvements to the ICGS as a member of the House of Commons Commission—indeed, many Members present are members of the Commission, including the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock). One of the Commission’s recommendations from earlier in the year was the need for a new resolution service to support Members and staff to resolve issues and repair relationships.

I will turn now to the terms of reference of the current review. There have been a number of mentions of timeliness today, and quality and timeliness is one of seven points in the review’s terms of reference. The review will be an opportunity to address concerns about timeliness and the quality of investigations. Fundamentally, we need to ensure that people have confidence in the ICGS. I know that the Leader of the House and Commission members look forward to working with the director, the chair of the Independent Expert Panel and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to ensure that the system operates as effectively as possible. All colleagues mentioned timeliness in their speeches, and Alison Stanley’s 18-month review of the ICGS, which was published in February 2021, stated:

“Its operation and processes have become over complex and there is a perception amongst the Parliamentary community that it is a stressful, isolated and lengthy process.”

I very much welcome the fact that timeliness is part of the current review, because it is one of the things that cause concern.

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) mentioned risk-based exclusion, and the Commission continues to consider the matter—as hon. Members will appreciate, there is a need to treat it with due care and attention. On 12 June, there was a debate about the proposals for risk-based exclusion that the Commission published in late May. It was a general debate because the commissioners were conscious that the publication of the report was the first opportunity for hon. Members to consider the Commission’s final proposals. It was an important opportunity for Members to express their views—ultimately, this is House business. The Commission has reiterated its strong commitment to proceed with this matter while taking on board the useful practical suggestions that emerged from that debate. It is of course paramount that everyone working on the estate feels safe. We all have a responsibility to improve the culture and working environment across Parliament.

The ICGS has been an integral part of efforts to change the culture in Parliament. We must remember that we probably would not be having this debate if it were not for the bravery of those men and women who chose to speak about their personal experiences. We thank them for taking that step on behalf of everyone. It is vital that we continue to take steps in the right direction and to listen to feedback. The review is under way, and I am sure the independent reviewer will listen to this debate. I will ensure that a copy of Hansard is provided with the points that have been made this afternoon.

It is important that the system has the confidence of all those involved. Our Parliament must lead by example in how it tackles these issues. The Government and the Leader of the House look forward to seeing the review’s recommendations. I sincerely thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke for securing the debate, as well as all those who have worked so hard in this area.

I thank everybody who has taken part in the debate, and I hope our comments will be listened to carefully. The ICGS is a system of well thought-through procedures and processes that provide an avenue for redress and for changing culture and behaviour in this place. Not all the original proposals have been implemented or adhered to, so I urge the review to consider how many of the current issues could have been avoided if they had been put in place as designed. There is a list of things, including training and HR, that have not yet come to fruition. Let us get the full package in place and give the ICGS the opportunity to work as originally envisaged.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the work of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme.

Sitting suspended.

School Pupils with Allergies

[Graham Stringer in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered pupils with allergies in schools.

I sincerely thank hon. Members for making time for this afternoon’s debate. I am ever mindful that the reason why people are here is that they want to be here. The House has risen—even the Adjournment debate is over—and those of us here today are here with a purpose, which is to put forward our request.

We are very pleased to see family members of allergy sufferers in the Public Gallery, and we are here to fight for them. I thank them for the books they have made available to us. I read Helen’s story about her wee boy in today’s paper. I know that she sent the story of her child to all MPs and explained why this debate is so important.

May I say what a pleasure it is to see the Minister in his place? I do not believe I have had the opportunity to address him in his current capacity, even though I am a regular in Westminster Hall. I am really pleased, as always, to see my good friends the shadow Ministers from Labour and the SNP in their places, and other colleagues who have made an effort to be here.

What are we doing today? We are raising the important issue of allergies in our local schools. I am the Member for Strangford in Northern Ireland, where education and health are devolved, but I will make a case for Helen, her family and her wee boy Benedict. The debate is important not just for those of us present, but for people across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Food allergy affects around 7% to 8% of children worldwide, or about two children in an average-sized classroom of 25, which gives a perspective on what the impact can be. It highlights the sheer volume of young people and parents on whom allergies impact. It is so important that we address this issue in the right way. I understand that the Minister has a copy of my contribution and the four requests at the end of it—the four requests that Helen and others in the Public Gallery have also made.

I am the DUP’s health spokesperson, and I am grateful to be able to make the case on behalf of all representatives and those who could not attend but wish to be here. Our schools are safe places for our children—somewhere to grow and learn—which is the way we want it and the way it should be. If we want that to be the case in our schools, we need to make sure that it is safe for that to happen. Children spend at least 20% of their waking hours in school, and further data shows that 18% of food allergy reactions, and approximately 25% of first-time anaphylactic reactions, occur at school. Collectively, we are asking for action on behalf of parents who have lost loved ones and those who are concerned for the future, because the figures highlight the need for better strategies to tackle allergies in schools. Anaphylaxis due to food allergy occurs more in schools than in any other setting. The very nature of schools is that they are places where kids socialise, chat and eat food. Schools are our focus for this debate, and it is important that we get things right.

Around 30% of allergic reactions in schools occur in children previously not known to have a food allergy. With that being the case, we really need this debate to highlight the issue. There is no doubt that we all have some experience of allergies and intolerances—there is probably not a family that does not—and maybe some Members in this Chamber have an intolerance. One of my sons had some allergies when he was smaller. The lady I was speaking to before the start of this debate was talking about airborne allergies and how this triggers asthma. My second son had asthma; he was born with it. We were told that although he had psoriasis when he was first born, when the psoriasis left him the asthma would come—there was a combination. I am not medically qualified to say that; it is what the nurses and doctors told me. We were always very cautious about the things he ate, and ensured that anti-allergen tablets were taken.

One of my staff members has a son who has a severe allergy to egg whites. That is another example. He has spent numerous nights in hospital over the last 20 years of his life, and his mother has had to be especially vigilant when he has been offered certain vaccines because the vaccines themselves can complicate the issue. We are able, over the years, to build an understanding of how to cope with these allergies, but for younger children, who are being exposed to new foods and new surroundings, it is not always that easy, especially in schools.

Every debate I do, I learn something; I have clearly learned today that there are probably airborne allergens in this room at this moment and, if we have an allergy, we could react to one of those. However, what is responsible for my being here today and for making this debate happen is the story of Benedict Blythe and engaging with his mother, Helen. I understand that she sent an email to every MP. I got it, and the issue caught my attention, as it did for other hon. Members here today and those who unfortunately cannot be here but wish that they could be. Helen is utterly fantastic and a devoted voice for this cause. It was her energy, commitment and dedication that ensured that we all found out about this issue.

Benedict, Helen’s son, was allergic to milk, eggs, nuts, sesame, soya, chickpeas and kiwi. He also had asthma. In 2021, he collapsed at school and died in hospital. I am ever mindful that Helen has fought this campaign through the Benedict Blythe Foundation. She wants every school to have an allergies policy and tailored healthcare plans for all pupils with allergies, so if I could ask for just one thing at the end of this debate, on behalf of Helen and others, that would be the request. The Minister already knows what my requests are, and I am very confident that he will be interested and dedicated and committed to making those changes.

The relevant petition garnered some 13,000 signatures, so it is not a small petition by any means. It galvanised the opinion of many across this great United Kingdom, and that is also part of the story. If people have not heard the story, or read the story in the paper today, I encourage them to do so, please.

I know that Helen has raised the case of her son, Benedict, with many Members across this House, and not just that—there are thousands of people across the United Kingdom, including me and my constituents in Strangford in Northern Ireland, who support her wholeheartedly in doing this. I will just give some background to Benedict’s story, if I may.

This debate is taking place on the eve of the second anniversary of Benedict Blythe’s death. Benedict was only five years old at the time. He was a lovely young boy with so much to live for. The Benedict Blythe Learning Foundation was established in 2021 in memory of five-year-old Benedict following his collapse at school and subsequent death from anaphylaxis. He was an enthusiastic learner—as children are at that age. Children are almost like a sponge because they want to learn it all and they want to learn it right now. And that was what Benedict did. He loved to “play numbers” and learn about the natural world. Inspired by his passion for knowledge, exploration and play, the Benedict Blythe Foundation seeks to support other children to have the same positive relationship with learning and education, regardless of their ability, and to remove barriers to education. If young Benedict had survived, he could well have gone on to become an MP in this House, such was his interest in making things change and making things happen.

Benedict was allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts, sesame and chickpeas. Helen and her husband, Pete, are still waiting for the inquest to shed light on how and why their son died, but they say the horrifying speed with which he became ill—I understand that there is an inquest to be heard—demonstrates the need for pupils with allergies to be better protected at school. That is one of the requests of this debate.

Helen and her husband, all of us here and all those in the Gallery today are calling for new legislation to make that happen, including mandatory allergy and anaphylaxis training, statutory allergy policies, individual healthcare plans for all children with allergies and spare adrenalin pens in every school. We have many requests, but that is our core request. That would allow children with allergies to have a fantastic experience of school and enjoy all the fun of learning and social interaction with their friends, despite their allergies. It is about having a normal life and yet, at the same time, having an agreement to deal with the problems of allergies.

There is a need for schools to be better prepared to manage the increasing number of children with allergies entering a classroom. In September 2017, the UK Department for Education published guidance on the use of adrenalin auto-injectors in schools. It states that from 1 October 2017 schools may purchase AAI devices without a prescription for emergency use in children who are at risk of anaphylaxis. Schools may administer their spare AAIs to children in emergencies but only to a pupil at risk of anaphylaxis, where both medical authorisation and written parental consent for use of the spare AAI has been approved.

To parallel the UK’s guidance, Northern Ireland’s version issued by the local Department of Education back home, updated in October 2018, essentially reflects the DFE document. In Northern Ireland, while schools are expected to develop policies to support pupils with medical needs, including allergies, and review them regularly, there is no statutory requirement for them to do so. It is a guideline that schools will follow. Today, we are trying to underline the need for legislation that can make that compulsory. While everyone says, “Yes, we will do that,” we need to make sure there is enforcement to do that. That is not about being critical of anybody and it is not about pointing the finger; we are just saying, “Let’s get it right.”

I can speak for the schools in my constituency that go above and beyond to cater for pupils with medical needs. The extent of the allergies that children have can vary, but ensuring that teachers are aware of the correct protocol, no matter how severe the allergy, is the core of the solution. Support for children with allergies can vary significantly across the country. Examples of best practice exist and include some in my constituency of Strangford and across Northern Ireland where schools find ways to be inclusive and keep children safe.

Whenever a mum or dad leaves a child in school, they are fairly confident that their child is safe. We need to make sure that the child is safe. That often depends on teachers going above and beyond that guidance. For every instance of good practice, there are many cases of severe allergic reactions and, unfortunately, sometimes death. The lack of universal standardisation of school allergy policies is a concern given that around a quarter of allergic reactions to food in children occur at school, some of which result in fatalities from anaphylaxis.

I am conscious of time so I will briefly make some comparisons. There are international jurisdictions that have schemes in place that could provide us as a collective with inspiration. I mention some, such as Canada and Sabrina’s law, the first of its kind ever, which requires Canadian public schools to create and execute anaphylaxis plans to reduce allergen exposure and communicate with parents, students and staff about allergies. It is about getting the communication thing right. That has to be done so that everyone understands, and people know what to look out for and what to stop the children from taking. It also requires allergy and AAI training for educators and for individual plans to be created for high-risk students. US states such as Colorado, Michigan and Ohio have laws to ensure students have access to AAIs and that schools keep adequate stocks. Again, that is precautionary but it is important that it is done. Schools must also have individual health plans in place to keep students safe.

The Benedict Blythe Foundation has already achieved some important milestones. Just last week, on 23 November 2023, the foundation launched a schools allergy code, co-created by parents, educators, clinicians, the Benedict Blythe Foundation, the Independent Schools’ Bursars Association and The Allergy Team. The foundation is to the fore in leading on that, and we congratulate it. The code is a guide to best practice in achieving a whole-school approach to allergy safety and inclusion. If you wanted a guide or legislative framework, hang it on this, because it will make the difference. It has been made available as a free resource to all schools to ensure good allergy management in their settings, and it is based around four key principles.

First, take a whole-school approach. Every member of the school community should understand allergy and their responsibility for reducing risk, from pupils and parents to staff members. Allergy management is not just the responsibility of the catering and medical teams; it is everybody’s responsibility. I know the Minister understands that and will respond to that point when he speaks. Secondly, information about the school’s approach to allergy must be communicated and given to people clearly and frequently. Thirdly, there must be clear governance and risk management—create an awareness of allergy risk across all activities and processes. Fourthly, be ready to respond. Have systems, processes and medication in place for emergencies.

Earlier this year, the foundation launched a petition, which as I said has garnered some 13,000 signatures. It called for the current voluntary guidance to be replaced by a funded, mandatory requirement for all schools. The petition has four asks—the Minister has access to them, and I am hoping that others have as well. They are that we need to have an allergy policy in place; to co-create an individual healthcare plan for all pupils with allergy and anaphylaxis; to hold spare adrenaline auto-injector pens in schools; and to train school staff and teachers in allergy awareness and allergy first aid.

The wonderful thing about the request I am making today is that it will not cost the earth. The Minister knows the figure, because I have mentioned it already. To be fair, he already knew it; he did not need me to tell him. As a gentle reminder, the steps would cost less than £5 million per year to implement in England. That is a modest sum to save a life. It would ensure that current best practice is implemented nationally, making a significant difference to keeping children safe while providing peace of mind for parents, who send their children off to school and have every intention and hope of seeing them at the end of the day. What we have here is value for money in these trying financial times.

As Members may be aware, I have worked very closely with the Oliver King Foundation to campaign for public access to defibrillators, especially in schools. I always put it on the record if somebody does something right, so I am grateful that the Government took forward my recommendations. I am no better than anybody else—far from it—but the Bill that I presented on this issue was taken up by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris). Along with Ministers with responsibility for health and education at that time, she encouraged me to take this on board. The Minister here today and the Minister who preceded him made sure that defibrillators were available in schools and took steps to fund that.

Once again I make a plea to the Government, and it is about a cause similar to the one they endorsed before, which undoubtedly saved lives. We can stop severe illness and death from allergies among young people in schools if we have the correct provisions in place. I do not care who does it, as long as somebody does it. I am not worried about whether it is a ten-minute rule Bill that I introduce or somebody else introduces. Just do the job—that is the most important thing—and take the credit.

As I always state, there is an understanding that education is devolved and that it is not the sole responsibility of the Education Secretary to introduce law in Northern Ireland, but I believe we can—indeed, we must—initiate a joint approach to ensuring that the whole of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has a strategy in place to protect young people with allergies.

Dr Adam Fox, professor of paediatric allergy at Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital—not too far from here—has stated:

“There is a clear need for a change in culture around how food allergies are managed in schools. The UK”—

unfortunately—

“lags behind other countries and children are suffering and even dying as a result. By really educating the whole school community about food allergy we can turn things around.”

That is my request to the Minister in this debate. It is a request that all of us, including those in the Gallery, will make collectively, and we look forward to a positive response from the Minister.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and it is lovely to swap roles, given the other jobs we hold. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate. He is truly such a good man, as I think everyone in this place would say. It speaks so much to the kind of man he is that, having received an email from someone far away from his isles—although only 10 minutes from my home—he put this subject forward for debate. I thank him on behalf of the entire House for doing so, because it goes to the heart of the kind of man that he is.

I also, once again, welcome Helen and her husband, who are here from Stamford. I thank them for all their work with the Benedict Blythe Foundation; it works not only to raise awareness of the risks facing children with allergies, but to support children with unique brains and approaches to learning. I will touch on that briefly, because it matters so much that we remember the children for whom we are here fighting.

Helen’s son, Benedict, had an incredible talent for maths, which I wish I had. In fact, I often say: who do I look up to most in the world? People who can do maths. At the age of one, he could complete a 24-piece puzzle independently; by 18 months, he was doing pie charts; and by the age of four, he was reading books with diagrams of the central nervous system with a maths ability equivalent to that of a 10-year-old.

Benedict was clearly blessed with incredible intelligence, but he also had asthma and allergies. His first allergic reactions were identified when he was just four months old, and I cannot imagine how scary that must have been at the time for his parents. However, with careful planning and prevention, they were able to keep him safe. When our children grow up and go to nursery and school, it means that trust has to be put in those around them. That was not easy and, as the hon. Member said, when he was aged just two, Benedict’s nursery worker gave him cow’s milk, which caused him to immediately throw up. They only admitted that they had given him something that he was allergic to after his lips and tongue had swollen so severely that he needed urgent medical treatment.

Two years ago today, on 1 December 2021, Benedict woke up and went to school. There he ate a snack that caused him to collapse shortly afterwards, and he died later that day in hospital, aged just five. That changed the lives of his family and friends forever. I want to place on record the condolences of this entire House. As parents, we all struggle with this, and my child is just five, so I struggle in particular to do this. But I am so pleased that, after a year of fighting, his family finally get their debate—a year later—and also that it comes on the eve, suggesting to me that this is fate and it was meant to be as a tribute to Benedict.

Benedict’s story, however, is not unique. Although we as parents do everything we can to keep our children safe, more support is needed, particularly in the education system, where children spend so much of their time. Worryingly, 18% of food allergy reactions and 25% of first-time anaphylactic reactions occur in school, and that will only rise. Between 1998 and 2018, 66 schoolchildren died from allergic reactions.

A really important point was made about behaviour change and understanding change. I do not remember discussions about allergies when I was growing up. I think they are on the rise—I am not an expert, so I will not pretend to give a medical diagnosis—but I think it is very difficult for those in a position of authority, when they did not grow up having to worry about allergies, to suddenly run an institution where this issue has to be of fundamental importance. As we heard, at least two children in every school classroom have an allergy.

What this means is that, every day, thousands of children walk into schools uncertain whether they will get the support they need that could mean the difference between life and death. I have seen the impact and what it means for a young child to be nervous when they sit down with their peers at lunch, not knowing what will happen if some milk were to be poured on to their skin. For some children, including one in my family, that is how severe their allergies are. The vigilance needed and the pressures that it puts on the shoulders of these children is significant. That is partly why what we are talking about today is so important. If we can lessen the stress and the vigilance that these children are living with, we would be doing them a good turn—not to mention the lives we would save.

We know that every education professional goes into the profession because they love it and want to support children. Nobody would want to see a child exposed to life-threatening allergens in their school. The problem, however, is that the current system allows risk, which I believe could be tackled. As we have heard, the current Department for Education guidance is voluntary, which results in vastly different standards in schools, and even between different teachers and classrooms.

I think we are all very united in our list of asks today, but I will go through them. We should replace the voluntary advice with mandatory regulations—that is at the basis of ending disparity. We should require every school to implement and maintain an allergy policy. Let us make talking about what allergies are a standard part of the school conversations that children have, from the youngest age. Let us talk to our children about what it is to be a responsible classmate. Let us make it as egregious to mock a child who has an allergy as it is to be racist. When we read the allergy stories in this booklet and hear children talk about having their allergy weaponised against them in the playground, we see we can deal with that by making that abhorrent from the moment children start school—they have those conversations in their classrooms.

In addition, we should require every school to work with pupils’ parents or guardians to create individual risk assessments for pupils with allergies. A child’s allergy and the support they receive has to be reviewed by a GP every single year. It should be a requirement for the school to sit down every year and go through that GP assessment with the family. That would create additional work, but this is about saving lives. The reality is that the type of things that a child will do changes every year—they might start going on foreign trips, for example. I remember that being a real cause for concern for the parent of the child in my family, who said, “Well, I don’t know what will happen when he goes on a school trip. That is not the same as a school canteen, where we know it is dealt with and there is a plan.” We have to make sure that the yearly review happens, because the circumstances and the way in which children are taught changes.

We also need to keep spare adrenaline auto-injector pens available to treat emergency cases. The good news is that the lifetime of those pens is getting longer. We need to make sure that staff are EpiPen-trained—not necessarily every member of staff, but a significant number—just as they are trained in CPR. We need to end the distinction drawn by some within education between minor and severe allergies: according to clinicians, there is no such thing. The factors in place on a day where a child has an allergic reaction determine whether or not that is minor or severe, so we need to overcome that.

Finally, we should ask for all school staff and teachers to be fully trained in allergy awareness and first aid response, because, as we heard, many children do not know that they have allergies. As part of that, in every single staff room—this can be done; I know schools that do it—there should be posters of children’s faces with the allergies that they have, and the three-point plan for what has to be done if they have an allergic reaction, so that teachers get used to knowing that. On an average day, the teacher who identifies a child having an allergic reaction in the playground or the canteen might not be their standard teacher.

As we heard, taken together, those measures would cost less than £5 million a year to implement, and they would mean that more children go to school in safety. For my part, I will write to every school in my constituency and ask them to adopt the schools allergy code. I will ask them to come back to me and we will offer whatever support they need to go through that.

Once again, I want to thank Helen and Pete; I am so proud that it is someone from our communities in and around Stamford who is going to change lives. I am confident that Benedict’s legacy will change and save lives. Some 13,000 people around this country felt strongly enough to sign the petition: 282 were in Stamford and Grantham, and 81 were in Rutland and Melton. Each one of them will be a member of a family who has been touched by this.

Allergic reactions and deaths are avoidable. I urge the Government to take these few simple steps. I know that there are many demands on the Education Minister’s time. Some people want to raise other conditions—asthma, for example, which Benedict also had—but allergies are the most likely to result in death and are therefore far more of a priority. There is an urgent need to support teachers. so that they can feel confident, take the pressure off children and make sure that parents know their children are safe. I urge the Government to take these steps to honour Benedict Blythe’s legacy and take what the House believes is a meaningful step that would save lives and ensure that we do not continue to see the heartbreaking reports of children dying in our schools for what could, with the right measures put in place, be as preventable as possible.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns); that was an excellent contribution and I associate myself with everything she said.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate, as is customary in these proceedings. In this instance, my congratulations are about more than simply adhering to the parliamentary protocols, because this stuff really matters. Hopefully, actions that might follow from this debate could save the lives of scores of young people in this country, so the stakes are high. I therefore thank him both for securing this debate and for his detailed contribution. During my comments, I will echo many of the things that have been said. As the chair of the all-party group on allergy, I can say with some confidence that the allergy community, countless young people suffering from allergic diseases and their extended families will be grateful for his intervention.

This is our third or fourth debate on allergy over the past year or so, and that is great, because it marks real progress. For years, it has been difficult to get the scale of the allergic epidemic registered in Parliament and by Government policymakers. It is so frustrating that over the past couple of decades, a series of detailed, authoritative reports has consistently demonstrated the prevalence of allergic disease, patient needs and the lack of UK service provision, yet their policy recommendations have generally been ignored. Hopefully that is now changing, as is reflected in not just the number of debates we are having, but the changing dialogue secured over the past two years with Government.

A previous care and mental health Minister, the right hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan)—now the Secretary of State for Education—demonstrated real commitment in this area and began to grip questions of allergy, primarily from a public health perspective. Consequently, since 2021, we have established a work programme and an ongoing dialogue between civil servants and representatives from the National Allergy Strategy Group to support the development of a national plan. From a public health perspective, we are beginning to see real and, quite possibly, sustained progress. Hopefully, following today’s debate, we might complement those positive recent developments with progress for those suffering from allergic disease in our schools.

It is worth remembering what we are talking about. Allergy is a hypersensitivity reaction to substances or allergens that are normally tolerated. Examples include peanuts, milk, shellfish, cats, medicines and grass pollens. They can trigger harmful antibodies and the release of inflammatory chemicals, causing symptoms such as sneezing, itching, rashes and falls in blood pressure. However, they may also cause airway narrowing, shortness of breath, wheezing and swelling that, if in the mouth, throat or airway, cause severe difficulty in breathing and can be life-threatening.

About one in three people—more than 20 million people—in the UK have an allergic-related disorder, 5 million of whom have conditions severe enough to require specialist care. Fatal and near-fatal reactions occur regularly due to foods, drugs and insect stings, and they have been increasing over recent years. For example, hospital admissions due to allergy rose by 52% in the six years to 2017-18. Admissions from anaphylaxis, which is a rapid onset of life-threatening reactions, rose by 29%.

Prevalence rates for allergy in the UK are among the highest in the world, especially among young people. Each year’s new births add some 43,000 cases of child allergy to the population in need. This is not just happening here in the UK: the prevalence, severity and complexity of allergies have increased on a global scale over the last 60 years. Allergy UK has described allergy as

“the most common chronic disease in Europe.”

More and more children struggle with allergic conditions. Some 50% of British children may have an allergy, and those numbers are rising. However, this goes beyond the statistics: for the growing number of people living with allergic disease in the UK, their condition can have a significant and negative impact on their lives and those of their families.

As I mentioned, the lack of interest in allergy at national level has been frustrating. Over the past two decades, there has been a series of specialist reports recommending action. They have highlighted the poor management of allergy in the NHS and specialist services, as well as in primary care, and they have identified the negative impact of an allergic condition on a person’s life and the lives of their family members. It is frightening and restrictive to live with a condition that can cause a severe or life-threatening reaction at any time.

However, there has been no wide-scale change in how we protect people with allergic conditions and respond to anaphylactic reactions, and a change is therefore needed. I think we can all appreciate how parents of children with allergic conditions suffer. A child unexpectedly vomiting, struggling for breath or breaking out in a rash is terrifying. That is why this debate about allergy in schools is so important.

At least a fifth of a child’s life is spent away from parents at school. More anaphylactic reactions occur in school than anywhere else, yet in a third of anaphylactic cases, teachers and staff did not know that the child had an allergic condition in the first place. That is a horrifying statistic: in a third of cases, they did not know that the child had an anaphylactic condition. It is against that backdrop that parents rightly worry that schools and teachers have inconsistent and vague guidelines on planning for anaphylactic reactions.

Although there are awkward gaps in the guidance, there is mandatory guidance on supporting children with medical conditions, but that does not provide details on specific conditions such as allergy. There is specific guidance on using adrenaline auto-injectors, but that is not mandatory. Teachers are often unaware of which pupils in their class have an allergic condition so strong that it might induce an anaphylactic reaction and may need an EpiPen response. Quite correctly, parents are therefore nervous about how schools manage their children’s allergic conditions. Moreover, pupils might forget what they are allergic to and need teachers to remember, but teachers may not know or may be unprepared to respond to a severe allergic reaction.

Things can go wrong because of no one’s fault. Let us take the case of Karanbir Cheema. When this 13-year-old boy was eating lunch at school in west London, a classmate flicked cheese at his face—the sort of behaviour that is common on most school dinner tables across the country—but Karanbir was allergic to milk. He had a severe anaphylactic reaction and was taken to hospital. Tragically, two weeks later, he died. Schools might well respond to tragic occasions such as that by introducing no-nut bans or creating special zones in dining halls for milk allergies. Those are well intentioned, but they tend to isolate children from their friends, so they might inadvertently increase the vulnerability of children to social exclusion and the type of teasing that we heard about.

The best response to improve the immediate reactions of staff is to improve their knowledge and capacity to act. The key point is that changing schools’ management of allergies is not complicated or expensive. Many countries and governments around the world have simple legislation. New York state, for example, requires daycare employees to recognise anaphylaxis and administer EpiPens properly. Virginia requires schools to stock auto-injectors, which teachers are trained on. That also protects the schools from liability. As we heard, almost 20 years ago, Canada required its state schools to create anaphylaxis plans reducing exposure to allergens and to communicate with parents and students about allergies, and it required individual plans to be made for all high-risk students. That approach seems sensible and pragmatic. It would not be expensive or complicated to develop a similar set of requirements for British schools.

I will repeat the request that has been made this afternoon. The Benedict Blythe Foundation suggests four mandatory requirements for all schools, which seem entirely sensible to me. First, it suggests that every school must have an allergy policy in place, and secondly, that parents and schools must co-create an individual healthcare plan for every pupil with allergy and anaphylaxis —similar special educational needs plans are currently created for students with disabilities. Thirdly, it suggests that schools must hold spare adrenaline auto-injector pens, and fourthly, that school staff and teachers must be trained in allergy awareness and allergy first aid. It is straightforward to learn how to use an EpiPen. As we have heard, those combined recommendations would cost less than £5 million a year to implement in England. They would end patchwork guidance and provide peace of mind for both parents and teachers.

One final point I would make is that it is important that we use such debates to put on record our appreciation for all the practitioners and healthcare professionals dealing with allergy—including Allergy UK, members of the National Allergy Strategy Group, Anaphylaxis UK, the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation and all the researchers seeking new remedies—and for the insights of all the families and campaigners fighting on behalf of those with allergic conditions. These people do a fantastic job, but they need help, because lives depend on it.

It should be the right of every allergy sufferer to receive a quality standard of care. Every sufferer should be able to feel confident about the food they consume, and every young person should remain safe at school. Allergy conditions are becoming more prevalent and commonplace, which makes it extremely important that we make schools safe and protect children with allergic conditions.

I urge the Government to respond favourably to the debate and the recommendations that have been outlined this afternoon by Members from parties on both sides of this House, because the lives of many of our young people may well depend on it.

I also commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this very important debate and agree with the tributes from the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), who also gave a very powerful and moving speech. I also welcome Benedict’s parents and others who are with us today; as hard as it was for the hon. Lady to talk about Benedict—and she did so really well—I can imagine how hard it is for them to be here and to listen to the debate. I just want to place on record our thanks to you for everything you have done and for being here today.

We are all here today to discuss the incredibly urgent need for school-wide, mandatory, standardised allergy policies—not just guidelines—that would standardise provision and protection in all schools across the country and end the postcode lottery of provision that so tragically results in up to six children—I think that is the figure the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton gave—dying in their schools each year, with many more children experiencing horrific anaphylactic reactions. In the case of coeliacs, I think the term is “being glutened”, which leads to long-term damage to the gut, as well as to short-term, painful symptoms. At the very least, we need to discuss the need for schools to have strict and standardised anaphylaxis plans and in-date and accessible EpiPens.

In 2022, it was found that around 30% of allergy reactions in schools occur in children previously not known to have had a food allergy, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) in his excellent speech, or in children with an allergy that had not been communicated to school staff. That is why it is so unfair to rely on parents of children with allergies to have to be the only experts in the room, left to self-advocate and protect their children from afar. That is also why we cannot limit EpiPen administration to children with recorded allergies.

I want to take the opportunity of today’s debate to focus on a specific issue relating to allergies in schools. Food allergies in schools come to a crucial flashpoint of risk at lunchtime. Over the last few months, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on school food, I have spoken to and been lobbied by more and more key charities and stakeholders on the allergy safety campaign, including organisations like the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, Coeliac UK and the Benedict Blythe Foundation. They have shared with me what are, frankly, horror stories of children being served allergen-contaminated food at school; contamination from other children’s packed lunches; children being made to eat alone in classrooms away from their peers; and children missing out on lunchtime activities, Christmas lunches and teddy bears’ picnics—all because allergy-safe provision was never prioritised. Their children’s needs meant that they were excluded and forgotten—to keep them safe, I suppose.

At the launch of the Food Foundation’s fantastic report on better school food just yesterday, knowing that this debate was coming up today, I spoke to several young people who received free school meals about their experiences of food in their schools. I asked them about how allergies complicate their lunchtimes and the lunchtimes of their friends. I heard from them that their friends with allergies end up limited, from all the choices on offer, often to just a jacket potato or the same food every single mealtime. I heard of young people who have had to move schools to access school food that would be safe for them. The lack of access to allergy-friendly food is compounded exponentially when a child is in receipt of free school meals and often limited to just £2.50 per meal. The level of provision is just not there. Caterers need additional support, funding and training to make varied and nutritious allergy-friendly meals.

My son-in-law is coeliac. One day, God willing, I may have grandchildren, but I am well aware that those grandchildren may have coeliac disease, so this fear is very real for me. I am also aware, therefore, how much more expensive gluten-free food is and how important it is not to have any cross-contamination in food preparation or serving areas. You only have to cook with my daughter, when she knows we are cooking for the wider family, including her husband, to realise how careful you have to be. She screams at me, “Don’t use that spoon!”—because it is a wooden spoon that I have stirred a pan of pasta with. It really, really does matter, but it takes extra space and money, none of which schools receive for this issue. I am also aware how hard school chefs and catering teams work to try to meet all the needs of their pupils with allergies, but the Government need to help them with proper, standardised policies, and the appropriate funding and training to enable them to do this properly.

Rightly, if we had a young person with, say, a religious food requirement, like kosher or halal food, we would facilitate their provision on the grounds of equality and inclusion. Similarly, access to suitable food for a young person with, say, a special educational need or disability, who had a feeding and food need, would be recognised as part of the reasonable adjustments that they require under the law. If we can recognise how important it is for schools to adhere to equality and inclusion laws for food for a variety of pupils, surely for allergies, many of which may be damaging to health or life-threatening, as we have heard, it is as—if not more—important to do the same.

I have long fought for school food for all children, and I have long fought for high-quality, nutritious school food. As the prevalence of food allergies continues to rise at the rapid rate of about 5% each year—we could have a whole debate on why that is the case, because it is interesting in and of itself—the gulf of inequality of access will continue to grow, unless we do something about it.

Children should not lose their ability to be well fed at school because of something that could be recognised as an additional need. I am not suggesting that allergies need to come under education, health and care plans or be labelled as a disability. But the point stands that the health and wellbeing—and sometimes survival—needs of these children are causing them to be excluded. That is discrimination, and that is at best; at worst, it can cause their death. That is why I implore the Minister to urgently implement the schools allergy code that we have heard about in detail today, and I look forward to his response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I, too, thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has given us an insight into allergies in schools and how they should be treated. His remarks were personal and well thought-out. Other Members who contributed to the debate teased out the issues a bit further. My contribution will be from a Scottish perspective—I do not think anyone here would expect me to do anything else.

I thank those from the Benedict Blythe Foundation who have come here this afternoon. These debates are important because, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, we all learn new things. It must have taken great courage to come here. Speaking as a granny, I know that it is not easy for you, so I appreciate you coming.

Education, as Members know, is devolved in Scotland, and it is therefore up to the Scottish Government how they do things. Across the UK, as we might already have heard, 41 million people and between 5% and 8% of children live with a food allergy. The UK has some of the highest prevalences of allergic conditions in the world, with 20% of the population affected by one or more allergic disorder. Allergies are very common in children, and although some go away, many do not—we have heard about the awful consequences of that today.

New legislation for food businesses in Scotland and the rest of the UK came into force on 1 October 2021. Known as Natasha’s law, it requires businesses to label all food that is pre-packed for direct sale with a full list of ingredients, with the 14 major allergens emphasised. Such information can help parents and students to know what they are buying and whether it is safe for them to eat and to take into school. Food Standards Scotland chief executive Geoff Ogle said:

“This is a huge step in helping improve the quality of life for around two million people living with food allergies in the UK—with 200,000 of those living…in Scotland. If these changes drive down the number of hospital admissions caused by food allergies, which has increased threefold over the past 20 years, and prevent further tragic deaths such as Natasha’s, that can only be a positive thing.”

I mention that because we are looking for more than just guidance from all Governments in relation to allergies in school.

The Scottish Government have published guidance for NHS boards, education authorities and schools on supporting children and young people with healthcare needs, including allergies, in school. Education authorities are required to work collaboratively with NHS boards and to ensure that there is adequate and effective provision in place in the schools in their areas to support the healthcare needs of young people.

As noted in the guidance, the rights, wellbeing, needs and circumstances of the individual child or young person should at all times be at the centre of the decision-making process. Under article 24 of the UN convention on the rights of the child, all children have a right to the highest attainable standard of health and to healthcare services that help them attain that.

Any child or young person at school in Scotland may require healthcare support or the administration of medication. Healthcare support or medication for the management of long or short-term conditions is therefore really important and must be available. Schools must arrange specialist anaphylaxis training for staff where a pupil in the school has been diagnosed as being at risk of anaphylaxis. The specialist training should include practical instruction in how to use the different adrenalin auto-injector devices available.

As part of the medical conditions policy, the school should have agreed arrangements in place for all members of staff to summon the assistance of a designated member of staff to help administer an AAI, as well as for collecting the spare AAI in the emergency kit. Wherever possible, children and young people should be empowered and supported to manage their own healthcare needs and work in collaboration with the school health team, school staff, and their parents and carers to reach an understanding about how their health affects them and how their healthcare needs will be met. That option is not always possible but, when practicable, it should be exercised.

Children with allergies are often excluded from social or fundraising activities in school. That has an impact on them, and it should not happen in any school in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I think I got it right that time—as the hon. Member for Strangford indicated. We play that game occasionally here.

Social or fundraising activities, including charity bakes, can be really dangerous for children with severe food allergies. When teachers are buying food—as they often do—for things such as Christmas parties, they should be aware of these things, so that they can eliminate the risk of children coming into contact with food they are allergic to.

If this debate encourages the Minister to bring in not just guidelines but regulations, everyone in this Chamber will be extremely happy, and I know that the Benedict Blythe Foundation will be too. I therefore encourage the Minister to look at the four asks and to see what he can do to help everyone involved.

It is an honour to serve under you as Chair, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate on pupils with allergies in schools. I absolutely agree with the comments the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) made about the hon. Member for Strangford—he is the reason we are here debating this incredibly important topic—and I congratulate her on her incredibly powerful and heartfelt speech. I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who have campaigned on this issue for many years in this place.

School should be a place where every child can learn and enjoy themselves—a place where parents can have confidence that their children will be safe and comfortable. Unfortunately, as we have heard at length today, when a child has a serious allergy, school can be a cause of great stress and anxiety for them and their parents. Many charities and campaigners, such as Allergy UK, the Benedict Blythe Foundation and the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, work incredibly hard to raise awareness of allergies and to support important research on them. Much of that work is driven by very difficult circumstances, and I pay tribute to Helen Blythe and her husband, who are here today and who have campaigned tirelessly in the face of their incredibly painful loss.

I regularly make the point that the challenges faced by children and young people do not just disappear at the school gate. Increasingly, schools are places where a whole range of issues that children and young people faces impact their learning and development. However, this debate is specifically about allergies and their impact in schools. Allergy UK research highlights that more than 20% of the UK population is affected by one or more allergic disorder and that 2 million people have been diagnosed with a food allergy. Young children are most commonly affected, with 6% to 8% of children suffering from food allergies.

According to the British Medical Journal, hospital admissions for food-induced anaphylaxis have tripled over the past 20 years, with the largest increase among children under the age of 15. Twenty per cent of allergic reactions among young people happen in a school setting, and 30% of allergic reactions in schools occur in children not previously known to have had a food allergy, where schools are unaware of the allergy. As we have heard, stress and anxiety around allergies can lead to some children skipping meals or missing out on social events because of concerns about the capacity to accommodate them and manage the danger they may be in.

There is some fantastic practice happening in schools, including significant planning and consideration to support children with allergies, but it is vital that best practice is applied across the board and that guidance is kept up to date with the latest developments. Why would we settle for anything less?

In response to a petition earlier this year, the Government pointed to the statutory guidance for schools, “Supporting pupils at school with medical conditions”, which makes it clear that schools should be aware of any pupils with allergies and have processes to ensure they are well managed. They also pointed to guidance to school caterers on displaying allergen information on products. I understand that the Department of Health and Social Care also issues guidance to schools on the use of adrenaline auto-injectors and emergency asthma inhalers.

The Department for Education clearly has a role to play alongside the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Health and Social Care, so I have a few questions for the Minister. I understand that the Department for Education recently declined the invitation to sit on the expert advisory group on allergy. I would be grateful if he can confirm whether that is the case and explain the Department’s reasoning, given the statistics that have been outlined today. Will he also set out how the Department for Education monitors the effectiveness of the guidance on allergen management and ensures that it is up to date and in line with best practice? What action is he aware of across Government to support forward-looking research into potentially life-saving treatments and approaches to allergies?

We know about the scale of the challenges in our schools—the workforce crisis means that far too many teachers and support staff are overworked and undervalued —but the safety of children is paramount. The upmost priority for school leaders, teachers and staff is their responsibility to keep the children in their care safe.

I look forward to the Minister’s response. I hope he will reflect on the points that have been raised and respond to the asks from charities, schools and experts in this area.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate. It is typical of him to bring to Parliament incredibly important issues that do not get the attention they should. He does so consistently in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber, and we all admire and appreciate that.

I start by offering my deepest condolences to the family of Benedict Blythe, who died two years ago tomorrow. No parent should experience what Helen has gone through. I was deeply saddened to learn of the story before I came here and to hear more detail today; the colourful picture that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) painted of what Benedict was like moved us all. My heart goes out to any family experiencing that sort of loss. I just wanted to say that at the outset to Helen and her husband. As she knows, the coroner’s inquest into Benedict’s death is ongoing, so I am unable to comment on the details of his case, but officials from the Department met her in May to hear about the excellent work she has been doing through the Benedict Blythe Foundation to raise awareness of how best to protect children.

I can, of course, address the more general points that hon. Members made about allergies and our policies. I understand how worrying allergies can be for parents. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton said in her moving speech, when parents send their children to school, it is only right and natural that they expect them to be kept safe. If their child has an allergy, that adds a particular level of concern about what is happening in the school day.

Allergies are complex conditions that can range enormously in severity. Not all allergens are foods either, as hon. Members know, which makes it more complicated to manage them. I welcome the schools allergy code that the foundation launched this week, which will provide helpful guidance to schools on how to implement allergies policies; we would be keen to encourage schools to look at that code.

I know that the Minister cannot commit to anything at this moment, but I would very much appreciate it if I could pick up that point about the code with him, maybe in a few weeks’ time; we could see whether that resource could be put on the Department for Education’s website or look at the best way to ensure that all schools around the country are aware of it, not just through the foundation but through the Department. That would be a meaningful way to spread that code across the country. I know that he cannot commit to that now, but would he be happy to pick that up with me in a few weeks?

I am very happy to have that conversation with my hon. Friend.

Turning to the statutory duties on schools, hon. Members have called for voluntary guidance to be replaced with a funded mandatory requirement. We have heard from each Member who has spoken in this debate about the four things that they would like to see: an allergy policy in place; the co-creation of an individual healthcare plan with all pupils with allergies and anaphylaxis; spare adrenaline auto-injector pens in schools; and the training of school staff and teachers in allergy awareness and allergy first aid.

Let me start with the first of those points. Section 100 of the Children and Families Act 2014 places a legal duty on schools to make arrangements to support pupils at their school with medical conditions. The accompanying statutory guidance from 2015—“Supporting pupils at school with medical conditions”—is not voluntary; governing bodies must have regard to that guidance when carrying out their section 100 duty. The guidance makes it clear that schools should ensure that they are aware of any pupils with medical conditions and have policies and processes in place to ensure that those conditions, including allergies, can be well managed. The guidance is clear that policy should also include how the processes will be implemented, what should happen in an emergency situation and the role of individual healthcare plans in supporting pupils. It says that

“The school, healthcare professional and parent should agree, based on evidence, when a healthcare plan would be inappropriate or disproportionate”

and that the policy should also set out

“how staff will be supported in carrying out their role to support pupils”

including

“how training needs are assessed, and how…training will be commissioned and provided.”

It states that

“any member of school staff providing support to a pupil with medical needs should have received suitable training.”

Members also raised the important issue of adrenaline auto-injectors. The regulations already allow schools to obtain and hold injectors and, in an emergency, they can be administered to pupils the school knows have a risk of anaphylaxis but whose own devices are not available or not working, perhaps because they are broken or out of date. To support schools to meet the needs of pupils with allergies, the Department of Health and Social Care has produced guidance on the use of adrenaline auto-injectors and emergency inhalers in schools, including the purchase of spare adrenaline auto-injectors.

We have a little more time. On that point, would the Minister accept that there is a real problem that, while the auto-injectors are stored in schools, not many staff go through any form of training on how to use them? We have to be honest, in this day and age when we see Americanism being imported to our country, teachers are scared that they will end up in law courts. The Department has a responsibility to support staff so that they are confident enough to provide that life-saving aid. Does the Minister agree, therefore, that there should be funding or a process in place? Does he agree that training should be provided in some way, even if it is just a YouTube video that every single teacher must watch, so that teachers have the confidence to administer auto-injectors? That is a concern that we hear repeatedly, and there is currently no provision.

Staff should have training in it—that is absolutely right. That is part of what we are requiring. We continually review the policies in this area, and if we feel that there are deficiencies, or indeed inconsistencies, which I suspect is the biggest problem, we will do whatever we can to ensure that they no longer occur.

I wonder if I am following you correctly—you will confirm whether that is true or not. We have asked for this provision to be not just voluntary, but mandatory. In other words, we are seeking for it to be put down in legislation—given the cost factor is so small—to make it happen and change lives. I suppose the core question that we are asking, Minister, with great respect, is whether you can confirm that that is something you are prepared to look at. It is really important.

We have a difference of opinion about the requirement on schools. The Department’s view is that what is set out in the statutory guidance should require schools to do most of what is being described, and the question then is whether that is happening in every place or not. If what we expect to be happening under the Children and Families Act and so on is not happening, then we definitely want to ensure that it does happen.

I thank the Minister for that response; I think that gives us some clarity. From what we have all said in our contributions so far, there are cases where that is not happening—wee Benedict is an example of a case where, with respect, it did not seem to happen. And if it did not happen, then we wish to see it happen.

Yes. The question with these things is always whether the laws are already there. Do you need new laws, or are the laws already there but not being enforced? I have heard from Members today that we are clearly not seeing in every case the practice that we want to see. I will discuss with officials what more we can do on that, including in promoting the code.

Can I ask the Minister one very last question? It will be the last one, I promise—that is not something I have ever said before in this room. [Laughter.]

If the point is around the Department believing that this is being done rightly, does the Minister know whether Ofsted, when it reviews schools, takes into account whether or not the allergy guidance and section 100 is being upheld adequately? I am aware that this falls between two briefs; it is not just the Minister’s brief. If that is not the case, could he write to me? That may actually be the solution: we say that when Ofsted inspects schools, because the loss of life is so high—66 children—this should be part of its reviews. That way, it can say it is meeting its requirements and commitments to children—to keep them safe and ensure it is doing everything to look after them in every single way it can, as we would all wish it to be doing. That may be the solution that fixes this gap that, between us, we seem to be coming to.

Order. This has been a good and important debate, but I must remind hon. Members that interventions should be short. I did not want to intervene previously, but I also remind Members that I am not involved in the debate—you should not refer to other Members as “you”.

I will write to my hon. Friend to clarify that particular point. Ofsted has a role in inspecting safeguarding, which incorporates a wide range of vulnerabilities that children may have. I do not know the answer to her specific question about section 100, so I will write to her on that afterwards.

I have no idea where I was in my speech at this point, so I will turn back to the code. On the points in the code on taking a whole-school approach and having clear governance and risk management, the statutory guidance makes it clear that all state-funded schools should have a policy for supporting children with medical conditions. This should be reviewed regularly and be accessible to parents and school staff.

The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) talked about school catering policies. Schools are expected to make reasonable efforts to cater for pupils with particular requirements—for example, as she touched on, to reflect medical, dietary and cultural needs.

In deciding what is reasonable, schools and their caterers are expected to take into account factors such as the type of diet required by the child with allergies, the number of children in a similar position and the cost of making suitable food available. In exceptional circumstances it may be considered reasonable for the school not to make special provision for particular children—for example, where this would be very difficult and costly to achieve.

Turning specifically to younger children, the early years foundation stage framework sets the standards that all registered early years providers must meet for the learning, development and care of children from birth to age five. It states:

“Before a child is admitted to the setting the provider must also obtain information about any special dietary requirements, preferences and food allergies that the child has, and any special health requirements.”

Providers must have

“a policy, and procedures, for administering medicines”

and

“systems for obtaining information about a child’s needs for medicines, and for keeping this information up-to-date. Training must be provided for staff where the administration of medicine requires medical or technical knowledge.”

Within all early years settings there is a requirement for at least one person who has a current paediatric first aid certificate to be on the premises and available at all times when children are present, and who must accompany all children on outings. The PFA criteria is clear that the training should include being able to

“help a baby or child who is suffering from anaphylactic shock.”

In September, we changed the adequate supervision requirement within EYFS to be explicit that adequate supervision while children are eating means that children must always be within “sight and hearing” of an adult; not within sight or hearing, as was the case previously. This will help practitioners to be able to notice the signs of an allergic reaction as soon as they present themselves, and allow them to act quickly. The new early years educator level 3 qualification will come into force next September. That will ensure that early years practitioners have an understanding of allergies and anaphylaxis.

I will have to write to the shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), about the expert advisory group on allergy—this is the first time I have heard of that. Likewise, I will write to her about monitoring the effectiveness of the allergens policy. I think her question on research into life-saving treatments is probably better directed to the Department of Health and Social Care, but I will obtain for her the information about what that Department is doing in that regard.

Having outlined the various legislation and guidance that covers allergies in schools, the Government’s overall position, given the complexity and individual nature of allergies—which was set out very clearly by the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), who chairs the APPG—is that the legislation we have in place is proportionate, and allows schools to respond to individual circumstances and the specific needs of their pupils, but, as I said earlier, we keep these policies under review. We welcome feedback on how we can better support schools’ implementation and awareness of these polices, particularly to try to remedy any inconsistencies between what we require from them and what is happening.

I will write to hon. Members about those points, and will meet my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford again for securing this important debate.

First, I am so very pleased that we have had what I would refer to as a united front across the political parties. I think we all recognise the importance of this debate. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) set the scene well from a personal point of view. We all owe the family and all the supporters here a great debt. Today—probably in our own hesitant but very sincere ways—we put the case forward for a family who have grieved, and for those we all wish to make a change for.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton said that the voluntary must become mandatory—how true that is—and be made part of the school conversation. Allergy assessment by GPs should be alongside and in conjunction with the school. There should be adrenalin pens training at every school as well. I apologise to the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), because I was not aware of the extent of his knowledge until today; he has brought his vast experience to this debate, and we thank him so much for that. There was that positive response from the school, but the allergy numbers are up and the stats are quite shocking, as he illustrated so well. That allergies happen so often at schools underlines the depth of this debate and why it is so important.

The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) always brings personal input to a debate. By her very nature, she sums up the compassion we all have—that is what I have always thought about her and I think others see that too. She spoke of the incredibly urgent need for equal access to EpiPens, of other allergies and of safety in schools. These can be life-changing matters for children, as can nutritional food and people’s diets. All such things need to be more than normal; we need to make them mandatory. We thank her for that contribution.

We are regularly in debates with the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), and I was pleased to have her Scottish input. Is something safe to eat? Is it safe to bring to school? Allergies are up threefold, and children should be at the centre for allergies and food safety, clearly.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), brought her knowledge and interest to this subject matter, and we thank her for that. School staff need to be skilled in keeping children safe and with their requests. She also reminded us that the reason why we are here today is that we are inspired by the painful loss of others. How true that is.

I thank the Minister very much for his response. Being the positive person I am, I suggest that I am correct in assuming that the Minister will take what we have said in this debate to the relevant Minister and that, where his remit falls within our debate matter, he will look much more towards the mandatory than the voluntary. I think that is our request; that is what we are seeking and asking for. If that happens, I believe that today this debate will have been won. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton suggested that Ofsted might have a role to play, and I think that is true. The Minister needs to act on that. He mentioned what happens voluntarily in schools, but we want to take that to a different stage.

Today, this House has done the family and all those in the Public Gallery proud. We have put forward viewpoints on their behalf. I think that the Minister has grasped that we are seeking the change from voluntary to mandatory—from voluntarily to legislatively making the changes. We owe a great debt to the family for all that they have done in educating us on what is necessary, and to all those in the Public Gallery. Let us make a change for wee Benedict.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered pupils with allergies in schools.

Sitting adjourned.