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Westminster Hall

Volume 742: debated on Wednesday 6 December 2023

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 6 December 2023

[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

Conversion Practices

[Relevant Documents: e-petition 613556, Ensure Trans people are fully protected under any conversion therapy ban; e-petition 300976, Make LGBT conversion therapy illegal in the UK; Correspondence from the Chair of the Petitions Committee to the Minister for Women and Equalities, relating to conversion practices, reported to the House on 21 November 2023.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government policy on conversion practices. 

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue—perhaps I will refer to you as Madam Chairman for simplicity.

Colleagues, let me tell the House about Sienna. Sienna, 31, is non-binary and was sent to conversion therapy by her father every summer between the ages of 12 and 15. Sienna has known that she is a lesbian since the age of 8, but her devout Catholic father planned for her to “pray the gay away” at camps. She recalls the worst part of the experience as being when the practitioner or administrator were abusive towards her when she was 14.

“They would often try to beat the ‘queer thoughts’ out of us. During my father’s last attempt at conversion therapy, I knew that these camps would never end if I didn’t pretend to be straight. So, I put on a facade of being ‘normal’ for him. It’s only then that the abuse ended.”

Siena did not tell anyone about what she had been through until her late 20s. Instead, she turned to alcohol, drugs and sex as coping mechanisms.

“I didn’t care about what I was using to cope because it felt like no one cared about what happened to me. Eventually, I did talk about it with close friends and then my mother, years after she got divorced from my father. It was so difficult to open up about.

I’ve always known that I was different. I’ve struggled with my identity for years, but deep down I know who I am. I want countries that are yet to ban conversion therapy to know how damaging it is. It’s a barbaric practice that does more harm than anything else. I’ve known people who killed themselves because they weren’t allowed to be their true selves. Conversion therapy doesn’t work and should never be thought of.”

Ben, 34, is a gay man who also endured conversion therapy in a religious setting, which they describe as “brainwashing”. They say their religion seemed very friendly on the surface. However, there were rules, and mixing outside the religion was frowned upon. Doing so could result in being publicly reprimanded or, more dangerously, disfellowshipped. That meant being shunned by all in the religion, blacklisted and losing all support from friends and family. Their religious parents forced them into studying the Bible daily, attending regular meetings and completing study activities.

I thank my hon. Friend for making such an important point. Does he recognise that some of us who are religious and have religious belief know that this practice is abhorrent?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I would go one step further and say that not only is it abhorrent; it is evil, and there is no place for it in any part of society.

As well as study activities, Ben also had to go door to door and preach on the streets every week.

“From a very young age, I knew I was gay. However, I had been taught that homosexuality was disgusting in the eyes of God. I felt so alone with the feelings I had.”

Ben was outed by another member of their faith group, who found out that they had a boyfriend. Ben was 21.

“He gave me the ultimatum that I had to tell my parents before he did. We were dealing with a family bereavement, so it wasn’t the right time. I was petrified of the repercussions of coming out, so I initially did it by text message. I hoped it would soften the reaction when I was face-to-face with my parents. However, I was accused of deceiving my parents, and their reaction was hateful. They told me I was ‘disgusting’ as they feared what other people would say. Our family environment became a warzone.”

Ben’s parents tried to tell them that they were going through a phase and had just not met the right girl yet. That went on for months, destroying Ben’s mental health and leaving them with no choice but to endure religious study activities.

“They wanted to ‘make me see sense’. Over a year I had to talk about my sexuality in detail, as I risked being made homeless. I was even made to change my dress sense to stop wearing bright colours and have my hair cut short to appear more ‘masculine’.”

Ben had to read the same scriptures over and over again, even being given “homework” of watching heterosexual pornography, which they did in an attempt to regain stability over their life. Eventually, Ben hit rock bottom and repeatedly ran away from home.

“I have struggled with my sexuality all my life, and what I’ve been through means I now battle constantly with shame, fear, trust issues, needing validation and waiting for people to abandon me.”

I think we will all agree that that is no way to live.

“Everyone deserves a safe space. If I had that, it could have been my chance to escape earlier, and I want that option for anyone in my situation.”

I could go on and share countless testimonies from many people, but I will share the words of just one more person. Penny, 50, from Portsmouth, said it best in 2018:

“Conversion therapy…is abuse of the worst kind and must be stamped out.”

That was not just any Penny; that was our current Leader of the House, who was the Minister for Women and Equalities at the time of those words. Her article in The Independent went on to say that her Department would now consider

“all legislative and non-legislative options”

to prohibit promoting, offering or conducting the therapy in the UK. So as glad as I am to have secured this incredibly important debate, there really should be no need for it. Half a decade has passed, and the Government have betrayed the LGBT community on this issue. There has been U-turn after U-turn because we have had Conservative Prime Ministers who have been too weak to take on the right wing of the party.

Banning all forms of so-called conversion therapy is the right and moral thing to do. A ban on conversion therapy is not woke, left wing or for snowflakes—or whatever other bizarre term certain people opposed to it want to offer up this week. It is not complicated, as some have made it out to be. There has been a failure of leadership. It is the right thing to do.

We sometimes go wrong in this House at times like this. This is not a debate—it should never be a debate. It is a conversation, at best. People are entitled to their own opinions; however, they are not entitled to their own facts. Underpinning this conversation is the fact that conversion cannot be done: we cannot change someone’s sexuality or gender identity, just as you cannot change mine, Madam Chairman. People can go on all the courses and say all the prayers they want, but it cannot be done. It is physically impossible; in fact, it is perverted to think that it is possible.

For someone in a position of power to push their ideas of what sexuality is means that they are imagining what people are doing behind closed doors. It seems to me that that person not only has a problem, but is the problem—it is not the young person who is gay, lesbian or trans. It is not a choice to be lesbian, bi, gay or trans. If it were, why would anyone actively choose to make their life harder? Members should ask themselves the question: “Would I choose to face front-page demonisation almost every single day? Would I have chosen, decades ago, to be jailed for who I fell in love with? Would I choose to be part of a group that saw record levels of hate crime this year?” No, they would not—no one would. Why? Because it is not a choice. We all know who we are in this room. So what gives us the right to tell other people that they are not who they know they are, and to leave the door open for already vulnerable young people to be preyed upon by religious zealots and hateful bigots?

Every child and young person deserves the opportunity to be loved, respected and nurtured—to be a positive force in this world. There is no need for a slanging match on this issue. Not everybody is like the social norms we hold up in society, and that is okay; it is what makes us different, what we should be embracing. We are talking about real people—normal young people—but if we continue on the current path, they will only grow into adults who are severely damaged or, in some cases, dead. They will be dead because the Government did not change something from wrong to right with a flick of a pen on a piece of legislation. We need a meaningful ban on an abhorrent and evil practice.

I came to this House to do what I thought was the right thing—to protect those who are the most vulnerable—and I would like to think that every single Member in this room made that same choice: not to take sides and to argue this to the death, but to find solutions to these problems. That is why we in Labour have said that we will ban all forms of conversion therapy—no excuses, no loopholes; no one can consent to abuse.

It was disappointing to hear some of the accusations from the Government that a ban would inevitably criminalise parents talking to their children. That is a ludicrous suggestion. Parents should always be able to speak to their children, just as I am very fortunate to be able to speak to my daughter. What we do not want, however, is parents sending their kids on a course to have the gay prayed out of them. The Government cannot afford to get this wrong; too many lives are literally at stake. My hopes and prayers are that we will—

The hon. Member is raising some very deep points that need to be in a conversation and considered. Bad parenting is exactly that: bad parenting. But does he believe that, when addressing issues to do with conversion therapy—and therefore issues that go to puberty blockers and issues like that, on the other side of the debate—there should be a policy that says to parents, “You’re not allowed to have a say in that matter for your children, your infant”? Secondly, would it be his party’s policy not only that parents would not have a say on puberty blockers, but that there should not be a lower age limit at which puberty blockers should not be administered and that they should be administered at any age that it is thought they are required?

While I thank the hon. Member for the intervention, I do not think that it is relevant to the debate.

I disagree with the hon. Member. This is about conversion therapy, not about some practices or whether or not someone is trans. I do not think that is relevant.

My hopes and prayers are that we will listen and recognise that outlawing conversion therapy can never have any get-out clauses. Anything else is a ban in name only.

Normally at this point I would finish my speech and sit down; however I want to finish by offering a hand of friendship to the Minister, in good faith. I know that he cares deeply and passionately about this issue. I have heard him speaking in the Chamber and spoken to him outside, and I know how passionately he cares about all this. I really hope that we can work together on this, so let us please work together on a ban on all forms of conversion therapy. Let us not look back at this time as a missed opportunity; let us do the right thing and ban this evil practice.

Order. I remind Members that they should bob if they wish to be called in this debate. I will be imposing an informal time limit of five minutes on speeches, and interventions should be short.

It is a pleasure to serve under you chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) on leading today’s debate. I thank him particularly for sharing the deeply moving stories of Sienna and Ben. I also want to thank the 213 people from Darlington who signed the petition to ensure that trans people are protected under any ban, and the 325 residents of Darlington who signed the e-petition to ensure that LGBT conversion therapy is made illegal.

I cannot believe that we are still having a debate about this. It has been announced in two previous Queen’s Speeches. It has been relentlessly pursued by a team of dedicated Members on this side of the House, including, most notably, my hon. Friends the Members for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn). It has been raised in dozens of written parliamentary questions, and it has been raised many, many times in the Chamber. Indeed, it has been promised by countless Ministers at the Dispatch Box.

I know that the Minister is a good man. Indeed, he was described as an angel in a debate just last week. I know his personal intentions on this matter, and I know a good number of other Ministers who also want to see this policy delivered. The role of any Government is to protect their citizens, and Conservative Governments have a great track record: the Children Act 1989, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the Serious Crime Act 2015, the Stalking Protection Act 2019 and the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. To my mind, banning conversion practice abuse falls firmly within the remit of those Acts by protecting our citizens.

Our country has made significant progress in many respects on LGBT rights, but with rights come responsibilities, and we cannot be said to be in favour of equal rights if we are giving rights without balancing them with the responsibilities of protection. I have spoken on this issue many times in this place, yet despite the support right across the House for banning this dreadful practice, there has sadly been no progress. There is an argument that this abuse is already covered by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, but there is no guidance for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. Will the Minister please look into that?

There are jurisdictions around the world that have made progress on a ban, so I ask the Minister: what is so difficult? Why can we not make progress? Why is the UK so unique that we cannot do this? The Minister will say that it is difficult and complex, and that the Government are looking at it, but I encourage him to stop looking and, please, start doing.

I will struggle to get what I want to say into five minutes, but I will certainly have a stab at it. I will focus principally on the assertion that there is a need for a ban on conversion therapy, including for the conversion of trans people, and I want to look at it through a slightly different lens.

I will start with a quote from Kierkegaard:

“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”

That is, in essence, the point I want to make. Legislation is supposed to fix a problem, not create a new one, and where evidence of conversion practices exist, they will not be mitigated but exacerbated by such proposals. The true scandal that needs to be addressed is the medical and surgical conversion of young lesbians and gay males by affirming and transing away the gay.

This proposal rests on a bed of dangerous lies, and it is but one part of an assault on the sex-based rights of women, lesbians, gay men and bisexual people. It is perpetrated by and done under the cover of once-important LGBT organisations such as Stonewall, which are erasing gay identities and are complicit in using the T to erase the LGB.

There are three legislative conceits that form part of this movement: gender self-ID, amendments to hate crime and public order legislation, and so-called conversion therapy bans. Each is the antithesis of what it purports to be. Self-ID is not about equality but about promoting supremacy, hate crime legislation is about silencing the raising of valid safeguarding concerns, and preventing conversion therapy is promoting the very thing it aims to stop. The planned Bill is today’s modern conversion therapy scandal, and it is affecting vulnerable children and young people who may be gender non-conforming or struggling with normal yet distressing pubertal body dysmorphia. It would embed the lie that those young people have been born in the wrong body, that the normal development of puberty should be arrested with chemicals—something that can never be restarted or repaired—and that emotional distress can be fixed with hormones and irreversible radical surgical intervention.

That is being facilitated in Scotland and elsewhere by Government non-statutory guidance, promoted by activist teachers and enabled by others who are bamboozled, threatened and afraid to speak out because of the attacks carried out by radicalised gender activists. Social transitioning is being arranged and encouraged in schools, with parents and carers being completely excluded from their own child’s care. The NSPCC recognises that as a form of grooming, stating:

“Groomers may introduce ‘secrets’ as a way to control or frighten the child.”

Teachers prepared to keep secrets with children, to the exclusion of their parents or child protection teams, is not only dangerous to the child but legally precarious for that teacher, and they should be open to prosecution. None of those teachers are employed as experts in psychological therapy, dysphoria or complex gender assessment. What they are doing is top-to-tail dangerous and wrong. In their zeal, and in secret from parents, they are effectively denying vulnerable children access to the very therapeutic support that they so desperately and obviously need, from real experts, not gender ideology radicals. That is chilling.

This is not a debate about trans rights; it is about conversion therapy. I think we have all acknowledged that conversion therapy is abhorrent and evil. If it abhorrent and evil for gay and lesbian people, it is abhorrent and evil for trans people. How this conversation keeps descending to an anti-trans position is wrong. Will the hon. Gentleman think on that point: that conversion therapy is evil and just needs banning?

I cannot really respond to the hon. Gentleman constructively because he is obviously not listening to the points I am making.

When I was a young lad—this might stretch Members’ imagination—I was a very pretty boy. In the 1970s, I had long hair and flared trousers, and I was often confused for a girl. The question I am struggling with is this. Is it possible that I would have been open to this form of conversion therapy, and would not have become the successful, happy, gay man that I am today? I can only conclude that, yes, that could easily have happened to me.

We had plenty of struggles growing up, such as section 28. My friend the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) and I attended the first ever Pride event in Edinburgh, Lark in the Park. We have faced these struggles and now we face them once again. I am absolutely exhausted from listening to people using my history and my struggle against me, when I am when I am attempting to stand up for the rights of young LGB people and protect their futures.

I appreciate that I need to draw to a close, so I will conclude with this. It is not a ban on conversion therapy that the Bill proposes; rather, it is rocket fuel for radicalised ideologues, to trans away the gay, depriving a generation of young LGB people from becoming the fabulous, vibrant and unique, gender non-conforming people they have every right to be.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) for calling this debate. I come to this debate from a religious perspective. I am a serving Roman Catholic. I have worshipped at the same church on Brixton Road all my life. My life revolves around that church. I was not baptised there, but my sisters were. I met my husband there, and my children and my mum were baptised there.

We have to be clear that there are a number of people in the Christian faith who are proud of their sexuality, proud to be LGBT. It is important that religious leaders can offer support and counselling, because for many people in our communities, the church is the first support group. They trust the church more than politicians.

On the church and faith settings, does the hon. Member agree that any proposed ban will impinge on many people in a faith setting? They may wish, as mature adults, to go to a meeting—a formal or informal discussion setting—to talk about sexual matters, but they might feel that a ban would restrict that, or prevent them from doing that. That is because of the very radical agenda being pursued by some, not all, of the activists.

I thank the hon. Member for making that point. We need the Government to be clear, so that church leaders do not feel that they will be targeted on this. We should be happy and proud when it comes to GAY: God adores you. God adores all of us. That is the Bible that I was taught.

We must look at the timing of this debate. We have to be honest: this practice is not right; it has done untold harm to many LGBT people. A study in the US found that those who had undergone conversion therapy were twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts—that is a sin in the Bible. We need to look at how we can help people. That is not a rare occurrence; according to the 2017 national LGBT survey in the UK, one in 50 people who had undergone conversion therapy made suicide attempts. For trans respondents, that number was one in seven. Those figures should worry and horrify us. Sadly, a succession of Governments have been either too uninterested or too weak to act on that.

I understand that for some in the Government, this issue may be difficult, but we should not put it in the “too difficult” box. Plans for a ban were first introduced three ex-Prime Ministers ago in July 2018—more than five years ago—but after years of consultation, delays and rumours, those plans were missing from the King’s Speech last month. That is yet another promise that the Government have broken. I invite the Minister, who I know cares about this passionately, to think about the impact of that unacceptable delay.

I am fascinated to see that there is demand for policy and action on the issue on both sides of the House. I want to know, as both a parent and a legislator, what the proposal is. Does the hon. Member believe, for example, that parents should be excluded from knowledge about what drugs our children are taking? Should there be a lower threshold for giving out those drugs? It is absolutely essential that we know that.

I thank the hon. Member for that point. I speak as a parent of an eight-year-old and a six-year-old. I want to know what is happening in my children’s lives, but we must be honest: some parents are bad parents, and children need to be protected. It is important that those parents who cause harm to their children should not make decisions about those children’s lives. That is my personal view.

After years of delays, we see yet another broken promise. We must think about the message that sends to the LGBTQ+ community. We have seen hate crime increase. Hate crime based on sexual orientation has gone up by 70% since 2018-19. In my constituency of Vauxhall, there have been disturbing attacks, rooted in suspected homophobia. When our LGBTQ+ community needs support, the Government are simply not on their side; they are dragging their feet on the issue.

I urge the Minister to think about the issue today. We on the Labour Benches support a ban on conversion practices, and want to ensure that all the areas and communities that are worried have their say and are fully consulted. The Minister needs to ensure that a Bill comes forward. Countless Conservative MPs have promised to deliver a ban, but have failed to deliver. The Minister should come forward with a full pledge today, and look at how we can introduce the ban in this Parliament as soon as possible.

I come to the debate as a feminist and a lesbian who has been out since 1987. Like my friend the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey), I have been active in the gay rights movement since the late ’80s, when I first campaigned against the introduction of section 28. Of course I oppose conversion therapy as it is conventionally understood, but I share the concerns of many feminists and lesbians that the inclusion of the concept of gender identity in any Bill risks threatening the professionals working with children and vulnerable people who are having issues with their gender if they seek to explore the reasons for that distress.

Over the past few years, there has been a worrying rise in the number of children, particularly girls, becoming convinced that they were born in the wrong body and seeking to take puberty-blocking drugs and sex hormones. Looking at the statistics, about 74% of teenagers referred to the gender identity development service at the Tavistock Centre are girls. Only 8.5% of those girls say that they are exclusively attracted to boys; almost 70% of them say that they are attracted only to other girls, and 20% are attracted to both sexes. In other words, the vast majority of teenage girls being referred to the GIDS clinic are lesbian or bisexual.

The treatment with puberty-blocking drugs and cross-sex hormones that I described is a controversial, experimental medical treatment for a complex problem. We have also seen an increase in the number of young people who have later regretted the irreversible damage done to their bodies and sought to de-transition. Young women, particularly those who may be internalising lesbophobia or misogyny, must be offered alternatives to such drastic medical pathways, and their teachers, parents and therapists should not be threatened with prison and fines for discussing the options with them.

In the years leading up to puberty, I, like many girls, was a tomboy and wanted to be a boy, but when I grew up, I realised I was a lesbian. It is really very common for young girls to want to be boys. Some of them grow up to be lesbians, some of them grow up to be trans, and some of them grow up to be straight, but they need time to grow up before they make irreversible decisions. What those campaigning for a ban often call “conversion therapy” is in fact legitimate protection of the time and space for a child to reconsider the conviction that they were born in the wrong body, so they can be stopped from going down a pathway of hormones and surgery, which sterilises them and can leave them with no adult sexual function.

The hon. and learned Lady is making a powerful speech; I do not fully agree with it, but it is powerful none the less. It sounds very much as though she is insinuating that this is a trend or phase that young people and children will grow out of. Will she clarify that point?

What I said, if the hon. Gentleman was listening, was that many young girls are confused, have gender dysphoria, want to be a boy and find the onset of puberty deeply alarming. There is a lot of internalised lesbophobia and internalised misogyny in our country at the moment, and I do not want the state to say that there must be an assumption that any girl who wants to be a boy should be told that she can become a boy. She needs to be allowed to explore whether that feeling comes from internalised lesbophobia or internalised misogyny. Sure, some of those girls may be trans, but the stats from the GIDS clinic show that most are lesbians. I do not want lesbians to be transed away. Staff at the GIDS clinic have expressed concern that that is what is happening.

As I said, many of the children who go down the medical pathway are same-sex attracted, and some of them are autistic. Of the first 70 adolescents referred to the Amsterdam clinic that pioneered puberty blockers for children, 62 were homosexual and only one was heterosexual. I am concerned that that is a form of modern conversion therapy. I want young women, particularly those who may be lesbians, to be able to discuss what is making them wish they had been born a boy, with professional support if necessary, before they embark on life-changing treatment with puberty blockers, which could leave them permanently infertile and undergoing surgery to remove their breasts. There are documented examples of girls going through the procedure, deeply regretting it and wanting to de-transition.

I hoped to include in my speech this comment from a young de-transitioner:

“I delayed my appointment for surgery for over two years, because I had doubts. But then they gave me an ultimatum and I knew that if I was not going to go through surgery I would lose my therapist.”

Does the hon. and learned Lady believe that that is coercive control or informed consent?

I do not know the full facts of the case, but it sounds far from ideal. We must have informed consent, and children are not always in a position to give informed consent.

One would not know it from the Library briefing for this debate, which is extraordinarily one-sided and sets out only the views of certain stakeholders, but many lesbian, gay and bisexual people, and many feminists, share the concerns that I am expressing. LGB Alliance welcomes the fact that the UK Government plan to ban gay conversion therapy, but it is worried that

“the inclusion in the proposals of ‘transgender conversion’ therapy threatens to amplify what we consider to be the greatest risk to young LGB people today: the promotion of the notion that children who have gender dysphoria can change their sex, or should begin to do so, before they are fully adult.”

My friends at LGB Alliance are concerned that, “by a tragic irony”, some of the conversion proposals could lead to thousands of children, most of whom would have gone on to be happy lesbian, gay or bisexual adults,

“having their puberty blocked by experimental drugs and”


“pushed into life-long medical treatment.”

In other words, the legislation could promote, not stop, gay conversion therapy.

Sex Matters—I declare an interest, because I am on its advisory board—has put forward a proposal for legislation to ban what it calls “modern conversion therapy”, which should be considered. “Modern conversion therapy” means

“treating someone with medication or surgery to modify their sexual characteristics, when they…are too young or vulnerable to make a fully informed decision”,

or where they have

“confounding mental-health issues that have not been addressed”.

I am coming to the end of my speech, Ms Fovargue, but I had two interventions so I have taken a little longer. I note that the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) said that he wanted all forms of conversion therapy banned. Would he and the Minister think about modern conversion therapy, and making sure that lesbian, gay and bisexual teenagers are not told that they were born in the wrong body?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. Men and women are peculiar. All of us are characterised by as many particularities, preferences and preoccupations as can possibly be imagined. When we look from a distance, the beach looks uniform; when we get closer, every pebble is different, and so are we. Yet there is a constant in all our lives, and that constant is change, with all its joys and sorrows.

Change is at its most profound when we are growing, maturing and developing, as the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) said. Some changes are permanent and some are ephemeral, but coping with both means learning from others—often others who know much more. Sometimes we need to ask; sometimes we need to question. If, in the secret garden of love, which is adorned with flowers of all kinds, some blooms are perpetual and some fade, and if we are told that what we choose is no longer permitted and that we need to be forced to grow a different flower altogether, can that be right? Can that be squared with the eclecticism, the strangeness and the particularity of life? For me, it cannot.

Exploring desire is a journey that we all travel. Being guided, counselled and advised sometimes helps us to navigate our way on that difficult journey. Prohibiting guidance, in my judgment, is a short step from a ban on friendship—friendship, which may make burdens lighter and suffocate the fire of fear. Could we, in conscience, really want to make consensual, quiet conversations illegal? No one in this Chamber and no one who contributes to this debate wants cruel, inhumane and spiteful interventions in people’s particular and very different lives. Surely, we cannot ban the freedom to speak, to put our case, and to converse.

I glory in our differences in all its richness, and I congratulate in particular the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) on what I thought was an outstanding speech. Life is complicated, and in the mists of its confusion is the torch of free speech and free thought, which burns brightly.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about life being complicated, it is complicated for a number of people, including the many black and minority ethnic people who still, to this day, have not had the courage to come out because of the stigma and fear. Does he not appreciate that those practices make it even harder for those people to speak out and be their true selves?

If the hon. Lady is speaking of what I described as cruel and spiteful interventions in quiet, or sometimes less quiet, lives, then yes, of course. However, if she is referring to the kind of conversations that I described, which help people to navigate their way through life, would she really want those prohibited and made unlawful? I cannot think she would.

When we consider cancellations, bans and prohibitions —on whatever grounds, but particularly on the grounds of activists who legitimise them on the basis that they are progressive and that anyone who opposes them is a heretic—I say that if to be part of a crusade against puritanical militant transsexuals is heretical, then sign me up. If it is heresy to say that sex is a biological fact, then count me in. On that basis, I am proud to be a heretic.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue, and to speak in this debate. I may have a slightly different opinion from many here due to where I come from. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will show the respect that I have shown in listening to them and listen to me as I put forward my point of view. I say that, but some of the speeches this morning were incredibly balanced. As I have said, I may have a different opinion, but I’ll tell you what: Members have put their point of view over very admirably and in a very balanced way, and that is appreciated.

I am very grateful that we are having this debate today on an important subject that will affect many in our constituencies: I have certainly had occasion to use my position as a representative to try and help people, although not on a regular basis. I will be very conscious not to give away any confidential information on issues or conversations I have had. I am not even going to talk much about individuals, because I would not want to have any impact on them, but parents have come to me with great concern over what is happening with their children.

I am going to give a parent’s point of view, as both a parent and a representative. I very much recognise the need for nuance and a careful, measured analysis of the impacts of any policy proposals. It is vital to preface any discussion of conversion therapy by clearly condemning abuse and coercion of any kind, be it physical, mental or emotional. There can be no tolerance for any form of abuse in this country or any other. I express my deepest concern, sorrow and sympathy for all who have suffered from any form of harassment, abuse or discrimination. I say that very clearly as an introduction.

The issue at hand is wide-ranging and affects a number of areas. When we discuss possible legislation, we must reflect this broad awareness of the situation. Banning conversion therapy involves several parties, including children and youth, parents, schools, religious and belief communities, and others. I would like to address potential issues for several of those parties that may be caused by a ban on conversion therapy.

First, children and youth may be affected in significant ways by a conversion therapy ban as currently described. Such a ban could lead to limitations on the ability of children and youth to maintain informal or formal religious groups, such as prayer groups, which are used to promote spirituality and repentance in the Christian context. That is where I am coming from. People make their choices, but I am trying, as I do in all areas of my life, to be balanced in what I say and respect other people and points of view. With that in mind, I hope that people will also respect my point of view.

As a Christian myself, I recognise the importance of prayer as a tool to promote wellbeing. I believe that prayer can move mountains: the mountains in our lives, the mountains in the world, and the obstacles we come up against. For many Christians, it is an important devotional practice that may be limited by a conversion therapy ban. I am giving a parental point of view, and hopefully a very balanced Christian point of view as well—I am trying to do that very humbly, respectfully and sincerely to everyone.

Another consequence of a potential conversion therapy ban is that parents could be significantly affected in their daily responsibilities for the welfare of their children. According to some of the proposed conversion therapy bans, parents could be legally threatened if they choose not to allow their children to take puberty blockers. My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) has referred to it twice, and I cannot ignore it. We cannot ignore this issue. It is a transformative medical practice, into which parents of children and youth surely ought to have an input. That is what the hon. Gentleman said, what my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) has said, and that is what I believe as well.

I fear that a conversion therapy ban could leave well-meaning, responsible parents vulnerable to unfair legal measures and social retaliation. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) encompassed many of my thoughts. I know the hon. Lady very well, and we have had conversations, so I understand the issue.

Ms Fovargue, I recognise that the time you indicated is up. There are some things I need to put down. Do we have time?

Thank you very much; I appreciate that.

It is vital for the wellbeing of any family that parents have the ability to raise their children within their own culture, religion or belief standards. If they are unable to do so, we will see negative impacts on families of all types, which will affect the wellbeing of communities and schools. We ought to embrace diversity, understanding and tolerance of others. Conversion therapy was addressed in the 2021 Queen’s Speech. The background briefing notes for the Speech noted the Government’s intention:

“We will ensure the action we take to stop this practice is proportionate and effective, and does not have unintended consequences.”

There are unintended consequences to a conversion therapy ban—potentially some of those that have been described. I ask that we all diligently examine the effects of such a ban on every party that might be affected.

In conclusion, abuse of any kind is unacceptable, as is discrimination and intolerance. I ask that each of us—individually—closely examine our policies to ensure that those behaviours are properly condemned in all settings. We need to be building cultures of love, warmth and growth. I am grateful for my colleagues’ important contributions to that effort, which I may or may not agree with. Let us continue to seek solutions that will foster those environments, while respecting the rights and duties of parents every time—of parents from diverse backgrounds. A conversion therapy ban as typically described does not, to me and to others, seem to do so. But I believe that we can, and will, come to solutions that will be in the best interest of all affected parties.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. I want to start by thanking the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), who opened this debate extremely powerfully. The way he brought testimonies right to the forefront of his contribution was very moving and thought-provoking. I heard what he said about Sienna, who described being beaten as part of the conversion therapy that was forced on her. She described putting on a façade in an attempt at self-preservation and the horrific personal impact.

I also pay tribute to the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi). She made some very powerful points from the standpoint of her faith, and that is something we should all take full account of. She described her worry for those in this situation who are plagued by harm and suicidal thoughts, and pointed out the damage she could see because of the delay and inaction from this UK Government.

We have to be clear: conversion practices should have no place in our society. They are harmful and discriminatory. Yet, in this place—and I say this with absolutely no intent to criticise the Minister, who I think feels very strongly about this—the UK Government are all over the place. The SNP Government in Scotland remain committed to banning these harmful practices, as far as that is possible within their devolved competence.

However, it is not just the SNP that expresses that view and oppose these practices. I have heard from Humanists UK, which says that conversion therapy causes lasting harm to people—I think that is true. Stonewall has pointed out that there have been five years, five months and three days of unkept commitments on this issue by the UK Government, and I look to the Minister to respond to that. The British Psychological Society has made its views on the issue clear. The Church of Scotland passed a motion at its general assembly calling for a ban.

The Royal College of Nursing has said that it is opposed to all forms of so-called “conversion therapy”—so-called is a sensible way to put it, because this is no therapy; let us be realistic about that—based on sexual orientation or gender identity. At its congress last year, members voted overwhelmingly to support a full ban on conversion practices in all four UK nations and they called for an LGBTQ+ inclusive ban on all forms of conversion practices.

The hon. Lady makes an important point about the timing and delay by the Government. As an LGBT young person, I feel genuinely privileged that I have not had to live through the scourge of section 28 or any of the other phases that colleagues in this room today have so nobly resisted in the past. However, does she agree that that compels us to ban the appalling practice of conversion therapy today for young people, who are trapped in a form of living hell that we have a power in this place to alleviate?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that contribution and I agree; that is our job. It is one that we need to take seriously and we really need to get a move on with it. It is unforgivable for it to have been strung out so long.

Going back to the people and organisations with significant knowledge who have commented on this issue, the British Medical Association has long opposed what it also says is so-called conversion therapy, believing that it must be banned in its entirety. It also points out that the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), first committed to banning conversion practices back in 2018. Again, we have that timeline. The BMA suggests that any proposals that are brought forward to ban these practices must extend to transgender and non-binary people. It points out that the UK Government’s own analysis found that conversion therapies can result in negative mental health impacts, including depression and suicidal thoughts.

The BMA also points out that, given that transgender people are already most vulnerable to being subjected to conversion practices, with one in seven of them reporting that they have been offered or had conversion therapy, it is vital that any ban extends to gender identity. In addition, it points out that the UK Government previously cited legal complexity as justification for their decision to exclude gender identity from legislation, but says that conversion practices for sexual orientation and gender identity can be intrinsically linked, meaning that excluding conversion practices that target gender identity from the ban would in practice weaken any attempt to implement a ban.

These are people and organisations that are coming at this issue from a position of professional knowledge, or even professional expertise. We should listen to them. However, the UK Government are not doing that. In 2018, in their LGBT action plan the UK Government made a commitment to:

“bring forward proposals to end the practice of conversion therapy in the UK”.

In 2021, the UK Government’s Queen’s Speech also included a commitment to bring forward measures to ban conversion therapy. Then, they ran a consultation on banning conversion therapy, which extended from October 2021 to February 2022. They have yet to publish their response to that consultation. They said that a draft Bill would subsequently be prepared for spring 2022. Then, in spring 2022, ITV reported that the UK Government no longer planned to introduce legislation to ban LGBTQ conversion therapy. However, after a huge media furore—it could even be reasonably described as fury—sparked by some Conservative Members, the UK Government made a screeching U-turn, saying that they would indeed introduce a ban.

All of that having happened, we are still no further forward. We are still in the same place, where nobody really knows what is going to happen. And it is not because we have not sought to find out. I had a look back at some of the questions that have been put to the UK Government. Way back in May of this year, the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) asked the Minister what plans the Government had for pre-legislative scrutiny of its ban on conversion practices. In July, the Minister said that the Government would “shortly”—I think that we are stretching the definition—publish a draft Bill. If we go a little bit further forward, I asked the Minister, on 19 September, what plans were in place to publish a draft Bill. The Minister answered:

“No one in this country should be harmed or harassed for who they are”—

I agree—

“and attempts at so-called ‘conversion therapy’ are abhorrent.”

Again, I agree. He finished by saying:

“That is why we are carefully considering this very complex issue. We will be setting out further details on this in due course”.

I say to the Minister that “in due course” should not be five years.

It is not just me who has been asking. The same answer has been given to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), who also referred to the volume of written questions and contributions on this issue. Those are not the only hon. Members; I just did not want to spend all of my contribution making a list.

I do not blame the Minister for this situation—I believe that he feels very deeply about this—but I say to him that we need action. We cannot carry on like this. It is deeply and grossly unfair. There is no credible evidence to suggest that conversion practices can change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity—not that we should wish to do that—but there is very credible evidence to tell us that these things cause significant harm. Nobody’s identity should be up for debate and no one’s identity should be treated as a political football, but I am afraid that that is what the UK Government are doing; they are diminishing people’s rights because they see it as being politically expedient to do so. That is unforgiveable. I would like to hear from the Minister about what is going to happen, how it can be that all of the commitments that we have heard have fallen by the wayside, what he thinks this means for the safeguarding for people who are in that most vulnerable of positions and how he thinks this can be remedied and rectified.

I want to re-emphasise the point that neither should we nor can we change who people are. It is cynically damaging and simply wrong that the UK Government have very deliberately put the brakes on this; it will never work. I will finish where the hon. Member for Bury South ended, by saying that people simply are who they are. They are worthy of respect. The need for a ban is greater than it ever was, and I look forward to hearing how the Minister thinks that we can go forward.

It is a pleasure to participate in this debate with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) for securing such an important debate, for his powerful contribution and especially, as many Members have mentioned, for ensuring that Sienna and Ben’s testimonies were heard in this place.

I do not know how others are feeling, but I have to confess to a certain sense of déjà vu. Just 18 months ago, we were in this Chamber considering a Petitions Committee debate on transgender conversion therapy. That debate, like this one, featured contributions from Members on both sides of the House concerning why a ban on all forms of coercive conversion practices was urgently needed. We have seen that again today, although this discussion has covered a wide range of other matters, which I will come back to. Here we are, a year and a half since that last debate, and there are still no legislative proposals before the House for a ban on conversion practices. When we met in June last year, I described the policy process towards developing a legislative ban as chaotic; today, I can emphatically say that it has been shambolic.

Let me briefly recapitulate the merry-go-round that Ministers have been riding on—the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) has gone through some of that. It is more than half a decade since the ban on so-called conversion therapy was first promised in the Government’s ill-fated LGBT action plan, which was published back in the summer of 2018. After commissioning research and setting up an LGBT advisory panel to develop proposals, a draft conversion therapy Bill was first promised in the 2021 Queen’s Speech. In March 2022, it was reported that the Government planned to drop the plans entirely, only to U-turn and recommit to a ban in the Queen’s Speech that year, but one that would exclude transgender conversion practices. Then, at the beginning of this year, the Government U-turned again by committing to a trans-inclusive ban, but when the King’s Speech finally arrived, there was no draft conversion therapy Bill. If hon. Members are a bit lost, that reflects the chaotic nature of what has happened. Four Prime Ministers and more than five years since a ban was first promised, we are no further along.

I suspect the Minister may join me in lamenting this sorry saga, but ultimately it is LGBT+ people I feel sorry for, because they have not been kept safe. I look forward to the Minister explaining what his Government’s policy on conversion practices actually is now, because I want to understand why no draft Bill has been introduced and why the Government find it all so difficult. Is this really about policy differences, or is the problem that personalities in the Minister’s Department simply do not want to deliver on what was promised? Can he confirm that there is a draft Bill ready to go, sitting in No. 10 waiting for sign-off from the Prime Minister? Does he welcome the move by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), backed by Members of the Conservative party, to introduce a private Member’s Bill to do what the Government seem unable to do and ban conversion practices once and for all?

The hon. Lady can probably anticipate my question. As legislators, we are entitled to know what the Opposition’s policy will be, if there is to be a different Prime Minister—a different personality—in place in the next year. Can we have clarity on puberty blockers, which form part of the proposal? Will there be a lower age limit? Will parental consent be required?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising those issues. However, they are distinct from a ban on the practice of conversion therapy. I will come back to the exact drafting and how a ban should operate. I am slightly surprised that no one has mentioned that a review is being conducted by the paediatrician Hilary Cass into the treatment of children and young people in gender identity services. It has already produced an interim report and it is producing additional research. I think it is sensible to follow what that expert review produces. We will certainly examine its findings very closely, as we have its interim report.

I am delighted to hear the hon. Lady say that her party will wait for the outcome of the Cass review, but what does she have to say about the statistics I cited showing that the vast majority of young girls and teenagers referred to the gender identity clinic at Tavistock for therapy are same-sex attracted? Does she have any concern that what is going on here is a type of modern conversion therapy, converting young gay women into boys?

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for her intervention, but I have actually said that a number of times before. The interim Cass review is clear about an issue that has not received any publicity from Government Members: the lack of psychological provision in general for children and young people, which is also impacting on those in gender services. That did not come as any surprise to those of us who do casework—we are well aware of that—but sadly the Government have not focused on it.

I also want to ask the Minister about pre-legislative scrutiny of a future Bill, to which the Government are apparently still committed. When will it get under way? Is the Minister confident that we will be able to conduct meaningful scrutiny before the end of this Parliament and the general election, or is this effectively window dressing to hide the reality that the proposals have been junked by the Minister for Women and Equalities with the connivance of the Prime Minister? Does this Minister accept that, as things stand, there simply is no meaningful Government policy on conversion practices?

We have been here before, and we have already heard all the excuses for the lack of action. Eighteen months ago, I asked whether the Government had gathered any evidence about the impact of a well-drafted ban on conversion practices on the provision of legitimate talking therapies.

I will continue for the moment, but the hon. Gentleman is welcome to intervene on me later if I have not answered his question.

I asked for any evidence or statements from medical bodies suggesting any concerns that a conversion therapy ban would have a chilling effect, or that a trans-inclusive ban would put such treatments at risk. I did not get any answers then and I do not expect to hear any today, because these are straw-man arguments, unfortunately erected by those trying to justify inaction. I say respectfully to the hon. Member and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) that conversion refers to changing, and not to the exploration of people’s real selves, including for young gay men or young lesbian women.

The shadow Minister is raising the central point of my contribution. Many young people who have been through gender services and have then decided to desist from transition have realised that, in fact, they were always gay. What safeguards or principles does she envisage would be introduced to prevent the acceleration through affirmation of young gay people into gender services, where they are experiencing conversion therapy of radical surgical and medical intervention, which is distorting their future lives? One young man said that his sex had been lobotomised.

I am grateful to the hon. Member, but I will not take any more interventions—I am conscious that there are others who need to speak. The point about surgical and medical interventions is precisely what the Cass review has been working on. I will come to the issue of precisely how a Bill would be drafted, so the hon. Member will hear my comments on that in a moment.

However, I need to ask the Minister another question. Last summer, I wondered whether we would back here in another year asking exactly the same questions. Well, here we are, asking the same questions and, I suspect, getting exactly the same answers, going round in circles. I feel sorry for the Minister; I know that his hands are tied. The hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) was spot on in that regard, although perhaps even this Minister would not be able to live up to his celestial claims. Surely the Minister is getting fed up with making excuses for his colleagues, who do not have the courage to tell LGBT+ people that banning these abusive practices is not a priority for the Conservative Government.

We have a different approach; we acknowledge that there are complexities.

I will push on to give others time. There are complexities but it is our job to protect the public from harm. Labour, like the BMA, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and countless other organisations, believes that conversion practices constitute abuse. We are clear that a Bill to ban those practices must, of course, be carefully and sensitively drafted, so that it does not cover psychological support and treatment, non-directive counselling or the pastoral relationship between teachers and pupils, or religious leaders and worshippers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) set out clearly that those practices are not a part of religious worship. She provided a clear answer to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who always puts his points respectfully. These are matters that legislators can work through sensibly, and I am confident we will do so.

A ban would not cover quiet conversations and friendships, contrary to the claims of the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). A ban would not cover discussions within families, which are based on the need for love and support. A ban would not—and must not—have an impact on the provision of psychological, medical and supportive services for children and young people. As I said, much more support and psychological counselling is needed, not less, and that is very clear from the interim Cass review.

Labour also believes that any ban must be carefully, tightly and clearly worded, and appropriately implemented and assessed. That should surely be par for the course for any legislation, and it must apply to a ban on conversion practices, too. I remain confident that it is possible to deliver a ban without ending up in the quagmire in which the Government have found themselves.

I have the utmost respect for the Minister; I know he is in a difficult spot. I say, slightly cheekily, that someone cannot choose their boss. However, if he did rise to say again that this is all too difficult and complicated, I would gently ask him whether he considers the Conservative Government are still fit for purpose.

Sorry, but I have said I will not to give others time.

LGBT+ people need a Government that will not simply use complexity, which is common to all legislation, as an excuse for inaction. The Government should instead ensure that every LGBT+ person can live their lives in dignity and free from abuse, just like everyone else.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship this morning, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) on securing the debate. I fully empathise with the strength of feeling shown today on this issue, appreciate the candour of the debate, and empathise with some of the emotional and harrowing stories that we heard, in particular those of Sienna and Ben.

So-called conversion therapy practices are dangerous and pseudo-scientific. They are based on two ill-founded beliefs: one is that being LGBT is a defect and that not being LGBT is somehow preferable, and the other is that it is possible to forcibly change somebody who identifies as LGBT to fit that preference.

I want to lay out my position clearly. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people are invaluable, loved and integral members of the UK communities, and they deserve to be able to live authentically and openly, without fear of discrimination or of being targeted by perpetrators of conversion practices. To put it simply, conversion practices are wrong, and they do not work. The practices can take many different, sometimes overlapping, forms. They may involve the use of physical or sexual violence to hurt, scare and punish the victim. They may also involve abusive and hateful language—shouting at and continuously berating someone for being gay or trans.

Such harmful efforts may also be pitched as therapy, but far from being legitimate support, they are carried out by someone with a predetermined outcome in mind and a specific desire to change the individual accordingly. They may involve telling the LGBT person that their identity is wrong or an illness, and claiming that they can be fixed to be “normal.” To be clear, I absolutely condemn those acts. No individual should be forced or coerced into changing their identity.

I completely understand and empathise with the strong views expressed by hon. Members who want to see meaningful and timely action by the Government. I fully appreciate that the uncertainty around the Government’s next steps in this space, and how those have been reported and discussed, has sometimes been unsettling and frustrating, not least for the LGBT community, who are undoubtedly the group most affected by the issue. I express my sympathies with those sentiments and my apologies for the delay. I continue to be committed to tackling conversion practices—as I was long before I was a Minister—and delivering on our manifesto commitment to combat harassment and violence against LGBT people.

I am working closely with the Minister for Women and Equalities in the hopes of setting out further details in Parliament on the Government’s plans in this space in the near future. Last week in this hall, a debate was held on the 20th anniversary of the repeal of section 28. There was a consensus that this country has come a long way on LGBT rights. I am proud that the UK has built one of the most comprehensive and robust legislative protection frameworks for LGBT people in the world, but of course there is more to do. Many harmful, physically violent acts done in the name of conversion practice are, rightly, already illegal in this country, but there remains a gap, albeit narrow, in the existing legislative framework, particularly surrounding non-physical and speech-based acts, such as specific instances of verbal degradation or abuse that are not covered by existing legislation.

The Minister will be aware of my recent written parliamentary question and the question that I raised in my speech about whether the provisions in existing legislation, such as the Offences against the Person Act 1861, are sufficient to tackle some abusive practices that are used in conversion therapy. Are the Government actively looking at providing guidance for the Crown Prosecution Service and the police, based on what may already be on the statute book, to provide them with the tools to tackle those practices?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. There are elements that could bring about prosecutions, but we are aware that more work needs to be done on providing the guidance that the police, the CPS and so on need. There have been accusations that nothing has been happening in the past couple of months, but that is part of the work that we have been looking at. What could we do to provide encouragement and confidence to those who are implementing the protections of the law and give them the guidance that they will need? I hope that we will be able to provide more of an update on that in the time to come.

The Minister will be aware that many young people go through gender dysphoria and there is some evidence that that has increased over time. Growing up is a confusing time, as I said in my speech. Although I entirely agree with him about prohibiting cruel and spiteful practice, on the business of seeking counsel during that confusion from family or friends, or perhaps from an organisation or a church, we surely would not want to ban that.

Absolutely. I think we can agree that we must take particular care in this area when we consider legislative action. Any legislation targeting harmful practices must not affect the wider ability of parents, teachers, councillors, religious leaders or healthcare practitioners to have open, exploratory and sometimes even challenging conversations with young people who are expressing or exploring their identity. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) put it very well when she talked about her church and many people seeking support from that church. Protecting legitimate talking therapies is essential, especially for young people. We must not inadvertently criminalise or have a chilling effect on legitimate interventions and conversations.

I know from personal experience that it was conversations with my mum that helped me get through my period of coming out and realising what my sexuality was. I would not want my mum to feel that she could not have that honest conversation. Despite the fact that I am a big supporter of the conversion practices Bill, I have, as I have got into the detail, recognised that there are complexities that need to be addressed to ensure that those honest conversations can be had.

The Minister touches on a really important point: what exactly is in scope here? For many of us with deep concerns, particularly the ones that I have raised, it is important that we understand that practices such as affirmation-only models, which accelerate young people on to irreversible pathways, would form part of any conversion therapy ban and that we ensure that young people are given the space, as he was so lucky to have—the space and time of his mother; myself likewise—to explore their identity and move forward with confidence. When will the Government set out exactly what is in scope and what is to be banned? That might assuage some of the concerns that many people have. Will it include preventing teachers who have absolutely no experience in gender ideology or gender identity care from keeping secrets from parents?

The hon. Gentleman makes some interesting points, but there is an assumption that conversion is a one-way street. It is not. It goes both ways. That is what we are trying to address in the draft Bill. There has been some criticism, but our intention is to have pre-legislative scrutiny precisely so that we can check that we have got this right and that it will be the right legislation to bring about the banning of abhorrent practices that are happening to young people. I was not going to mention this, but I was part of a church. My faith is very important to me. But when I was coming out, some of the things that were said to me took me to the edge of ending it all—although it is something I never thought of doing—because it was so horrific.

I want to stop those practices being done to other people. Of course I do. However, I want to make sure that we get this absolutely right and make good legislation. Others have mentioned legislation around the world: yes, other countries may have introduced it, but how many prosecutions have they brought? Does the legislation cover the issue in the way that was intended? That is why we are considering other legislation carefully, to see what we can learn from it and get it right.

I am delighted to hear that the Minister is giving this such careful thought. Has he read the interim report of the Cass review? It states:

“We have heard from young lesbians who felt pressured to identify as transgender male.”

Does he agree that we should wait until we get the final report of Hilary Cass’s review before framing any legislation?

Obviously I have read it, and I look forward to seeing the final report. It will be an important area of work. I cannot give specifics on timing, but if PLS is being done at the time, I imagine it will include consideration of the review’s findings.

I know that the Minister cares deeply and passionately about the issue. I commend him for his honesty about his personal experience, but, equally—I do not impose my faith on anyone—I recognise that many people in the faith community welcome everybody and respect them for who they are. On the issue of parents and schools, after every little scratch or sneeze, I get a letter home about what my children are doing. We will work through this with schools and, in the case of the small minority of parents who, sadly, do not have the best interests of their children at heart, we will make sure that the legislation protects those children.

The hon. Lady makes an important point. I have always been welcomed at every church to which I have been since that time.

Thank you. That is very nice. Society has moved on, but some people are still subjected to pretty horrific experiences.

I thank the Minister for giving way and for the careful thought he is putting into his responses, especially in sharing his experience. My sympathy goes out to him for having had to endure it.

If the Prime Minister supports a ban—I think we all support a ban, although what it might look like is open to debate—surely the earlier we start pre-legislative scrutiny, the sooner we can answer these questions. We do not necessarily need to wait for reports to be finished; they can be added into the scrutiny as and when they are complete. Surely we should have the conversations and scrutiny now and feed into the process later. Does the Minister agree?

I hope it will not be too much longer before the hon. Gentleman enjoys the opportunity to put that suggestion forward. I hope the House will understand what I am trying to get at.

During my time as Minister for Equalities, to ensure that I fully understand all the viewpoints and concerns, departmental officials and I have engaged with a wide range of stakeholders on conversion practices, including with victims and survivors, LGBT rights groups, healthcare professionals, faith groups and groups advocating for sex-based rights. I am grateful to the stakeholders and the victims who have provided their testimonials and contributions through the Government’s public consultation. I am also grateful to everyone here for taking the time to consider and inform debate on how best to tackle this issue.

These sensitive issues must be discussed in a respectful and tolerant way, in line with our shared values. As we know, with such strength of feeling, the debate and rhetoric has the potential to become divisive and toxic. I am therefore encouraged by the many Members of the House and members of the public who get their points across while remaining open and respectful towards those holding differing views. We must remember that these discussions concern the lives of real people, not theoretical scenarios or sensationalist headlines, and that all individuals deserve to be spoken about and treated with dignity and compassion. In the same way, all victims of conversion practices deserve adequate, free and confidential support. That is why the Government continue to fund a support service open to all victims and those at risk of conversion practices, regardless of their background or circumstances. The support service is operated by Galop, the UK’s leading LGBT anti-violence charity. It combines decades of expertise with an approach of patience and empathy. The confidential service is open to anyone who is currently experiencing, has previously experienced or is at risk of experiencing conversion practices. The service helps people to not only to report their situation, but to access tailored support and guidance on relevant external assistance such as counselling or emergency housing. I encourage anyone affected by or at risk of conversion practices to contact the service as soon as possible so that they can get the help they need.

Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Bury South and all colleagues who have contributed to the debate. I personally understand the significance of a Bill; I will do everything I can to ensure that we can get to pre-legislative scrutiny as soon as possible, and I hope that we can continue to work together towards our shared vision of a fairer and more inclusive society.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. Although I may not necessarily agree with everything that everyone has said, we can disagree respectfully. These conversations need to take place, and I urge the Minister to bring forward pre-legislative scrutiny sooner rather than later.

Many Members could not be here today, including the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), and many other Members who have been mentioned, especially in the questions raised by the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald). Many people in this place are deeply passionate about this conversation, and I am sure that a majority in the House would want to see delivery. Again, I urge the Minister for a timely response, but we will do what we can to help that process along the way. I thank all Members for their contributions and you, Ms Fovargue, for your chairmanship. Hopefully we can start the conversation moving forward from this point.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Government policy on conversion practices.

Horserace Betting Levy Board and Horse Welfare

I will call George Eustice to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as per the convention of the 30-minute debate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Horserace Betting Levy Board and horse welfare.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss this matter. The British horseracing industry is important and successful, and the UK is a global leader in thoroughbred breeding. However, it is also a sector that faces some challenges: some financial and others relating to the growing pressure on the social licence that is necessary for horseracing to continue. Behind episodes such as the invasion of the course by animal rights activists at the grand national last year, there is a broader but far less vociferous public concern about equine welfare linked to horseracing and, in particular, the fate of horses that retire from horseracing. It is my view that activities that depend on the maintenance of that social licence for their continuation cannot take those matters for granted or dismiss such things as the views of animal rights activists. They have to work constantly to improve their approach to animal welfare.

Thankfully for the industry, there are many fabulous charities. In my own constituency, we have Racehorse Relief, which I visited earlier this year. The charity focuses on rehoming retired racehorses through a combination of retraining them so they can be used for riding and pairing them with the right rider who can take care of them properly and, crucially, is able to handle them. The charity maintains an interest in the horses in its care throughout their lives, even when they might be placed with new owners who will ride and take care of them. Yet like any charity—any Member who visits charities will face this—funding is an issue. As we have seen rising costs, particularly for things such as forage, hay and so on, funding has become a challenge for the charity and many others like it across the country.

Last summer, I went on something of a wild goose chase to try to identify the right place to get funding for great charities such as Racehorse Relief. First, I thought I had come up with a brilliant idea: what we really needed to do at a point of policy was to have a levy on the betting companies that make the money from horseracing and then use that money to support charities such as Racehorse Relief, which deal with some of the externalities linked to horseracing and in particular the welfare of retired horses. I was over the moon to discover that I was not the first person to come up with such an idea. Indeed, this House passed the Betting Levy Act 1961, establishing the Horserace Betting Levy Board, which collects a significant budget each year from bookmakers.

At that point, I had spoken to and investigated the Horserace Betting Levy Board and I was told that it tends not to give direct grants to individual charities and makes money available through other organisations that then deal directly with charities. I thought that was fair enough and I understood that. It was suggested to me that I ought to talk to the charity Retraining of Racehorses. That sounded like a perfectly obvious thing to do, because the name is on the tin. As an organisation that retrains and rehomes racehorses, it seemed to be the right place to go.

When I went to Retraining of Racehorses, it too had no money. I understand that a couple of years ago, the horseracing industry carried out a review of what it called aftercare—that is, the charities such as Racehorse Relief that care for horses when they have retired. It was concluded at that point that RoR should be the lead charity in that space. It is fair to say that the board of RoR and the chief executive at the time sensed a hospital pass coming their way with such a recommendation. They feared they would end up with the responsibility and that everybody would be signposted to them to support such charities, but they had no funding to deliver on that.

At this point, it was suggested to me that what I really needed to do was to talk to the Racing Foundation, which was established following the sale—the privatisation —of the Tote. I thought that this was something, that George Osbourne was a clever chap who had it all in hand and was thinking about these things, and that it is the Racing Foundation that makes grants available for equine welfare. I looked on their website and, rather ominously, under the equine welfare sector, it refers to other organisations that might be able to help; there are a multitude of additional signposts to other organisations. On the specific issue of welfare, the Racing Foundation website simply states that there are no more grants available for equine welfare, since it has decided to make all of its support available through another organisation called the Horse Welfare Board.

It is clear that what actually happened here is that, following the RoR’s decision not to become the lead in this space, the industry decided that what it really needed was another organisation—another board—to make sense of all of its boards and to try to join up all the inactivity of the rest of the organisations. I phoned the chairman of the Horse Welfare Board and said, “All signs point to you. Everyone says that they give the budget to you now and that you are in charge of delivering animal welfare and providing support for the aftercare sector”. He chuckled down the phone and said, “We have no money”. The reason for that is that the other organisations do not give any meaningful budget to the Horse Welfare Board; it operates on something of a shoestring. It does some very good work, and I pay tribute, in particular, to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who I know was instrumental in the setting up of that board—and also sits on it—but it has very limited resources.

In my experience in government, there is a phenomenon that I used to describe as circular signposting, where every organisation points an individual to a different organisation until they eventually end up back where they started. There are lots of organisations that could—and perhaps should—do something that find it too easy to do nothing and suggest that somebody else should do something. When a Minister comes across that phenomenon, there is a very important question they must ask: who has the money? In this case, it is very clear that the Horserace Betting Levy Board has the money. It collects almost £100 million a year from bookmakers.

The HBLB was established under the Horserace Betting Levy Act 1961, which was amended by several other Acts. The HBLB is currently principally governed by the provisions of the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act 1963. That Act sets out three quite broad criteria for the HBLB to pursue, which are improving breeding, investment in veterinary science, and another incredibly broad provision, which is simply to improve horseracing. That can be interpreted in a very broad way.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. As a veterinary surgeon, I declare my professional interest; in the past, with other veterinary colleagues, I have been in receipt of HBLB research funding. I can therefore testify to the benefits of HBLB funding for advancing veterinary science in education and horseracing. It funds the equine infectious disease surveillance team at Cambridge Veterinary School, which is led by Dr Richard Newton. The HBLB also funds disease surveillance through Rossdales Laboratories at Newmarket and produces the codes of practice for equine infectious diseases. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this excellent work, funded by the HBLB, is vital for the health and welfare of horses, for the UK’s biosecurity, and for the future of a thriving British horseracing industry?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I completely agree that HBLB does some very important work when it comes to veterinary research.

However, I want to focus particularly on the aftercare sector, because that is where the HBLB has been found wanting, in my view, and to continue my analysis of the 1963 Act, which, as well as having quite a broad remit, gives the Secretary of State a clear, direct power—a power that is exercised by the current Minister. Section 25 of the 1963 Act says that the HBLB can carry out any of its activities only “with the approval of” the Secretary of State and “subject to any conditions” that the Secretary of State might choose to put in place. It is a very broad power. It goes beyond the Secretary of State just approving a business plan every three years. There is no need for the Minister to wait for that. The Minister has a very clear power under section 25 to intervene and give a direction at any point that he might choose. It gives him the power to disregard any business plan, should he choose to, and to disregard the views of the horseracing industry or, indeed, the bookmakers when it comes to determining the correct level of the levy collected.

Let us look at the current business plan for the HBLB. What does it do with the £100 million that it has? The short answer is that the overwhelming majority of it, £79 million a year, is blown on prize money. Indeed, its report suggests that during the covid crisis, when the Government made available all sorts of grants to help industries in distress, a £21.5 million additional grant from the taxpayer was given to the HBLB. What did it do with that extra money? It spent it on prize money. Don’t get me wrong; I do not begrudge prizes for winners of competitions. But what is wrong with a cup? Between the wars, my great-grandfather used to do a lot of showing of pigs. He did not get huge amounts of prize money, but he used to win all sorts of wonderful trophies—sometimes outright, by winning them year after year after year. That probably should be enough, because after all, it is often quite wealthy individuals involved in horseracing.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate and I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which does not include horseracing ownership. I am sure that he will agree that the prize money in this country is below that across the world, and very serious issues are coming up because of that. He is of course absolutely right to say how important horse welfare is, but the horserace betting levy money does need to be fairly distributed to ensure the continuation of the sport.

I do. I was being provocative in my last comments, because I recognise that in horseracing globally there is a culture of prize money and that the UK is trying to compete with others internationally. But I would contest the point in this way. Why can the industry not find sponsors to help to provide the prize money? Why is it always the animal welfare sector that has to deal with the external costs of horseracing and be expected to go round with a begging bowl, asking for charitable donations, while prize money is deemed to be a right and paid for by the taxpayer?

In conclusion, I have a few key proposals. The first relates to the machinery of government. I have huge respect for the current Minister and his interest in this role, but my view is that responsibility for the HBLB should be transferred to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The reason for that is that DEFRA is the principal Department dealing with other levy bodies, such as the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. It has a lot of experience of levy bodies and how to govern them effectively. It is also the Department that has all the veterinary expertise, through the Animal and Plant Health Agency, and it is the Department that tends to have Ministers who have a passion for and an interest in equines.

The second proposal that I would make, recognising that such a transfer would take some time, is that the current Minister and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport should be far more assertive in its approach to the HBLB and not see its role as simply arbitrating on a dispute about what the level of the levy should be or just approving a business plan every few years, but should use its power to direct in section 25 to be very clear that it wants more money to go on animal welfare. Therefore, my final request to the Minister today is that he uses his power under section 25 to tell the HBLB that he expects it to give £12 million a year, out of its £99 million budget, to the aftercare sector. I believe that it can do so by top-slicing the budget and making that £12 million available to the Retraining of Racehorses charity, or to the Horse Welfare Board, or to a combination of the two. He has the power to do that; I seek an assurance from him today that he will act in that space.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again this morning, Ms Fovargue.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) for securing this important and timely debate, and I appreciate the support that he gives not only to horse welfare but to animal welfare in general. As he mentioned, the charity Retraining for Racehorses is in his constituency, and he has been in touch with it about the HBLB. I am also aware of the vital work that that charity does in supporting and retraining former racehorses, which go on to “second careers” in areas such as polo, eventing and supporting equine therapy programmes for humans.

The Government acknowledge the significant contribution that racing makes to our economy. As has been rightly mentioned, it plays a central role in the livelihoods of many people in rural communities. The employment that it supports at racecourses, training yards and breeding operations, and across related sectors, reflects a powerful industry that is respected at home and abroad. It is one that I am keen to understand further through the visit to a training yard that I will make next week.

The Government recognise that British racing is a substantial asset in this country, and we remain committed to supporting it. Horseracing is the second biggest sport in the UK in terms of attendance, and according to the British Horseracing Authority racing is worth over £4 billion to our economy, in direct, indirect and associated expenditure. The public’s love of racing is shown by the number of people who attend flagship race meetings, with more than 200,000 people attending Cheltenham over its four days. On my visit to Newmarket this week, and in discussions that I have had with both the Jockey Club and the Arena Racing Company, I have seen at first hand how important racing is. British horseracing and breeding enjoys a reputation as a global leader and is promoted worldwide as part of our GREAT campaign.

My right hon. Friend talked about the importance of the levy. The horserace betting levy has evolved in step with the betting industry since it was introduced in the 1960s, as he mentioned. The statutory purpose of the levy is to support the improvement of breeds of horses, the advancement or encouragement of veterinary science or veterinary education, and the improvement of horseracing. The Horserace Betting Levy Board’s expenditure covers those three statutory purposes, all of which support horse welfare to some extent. That is evident in the goals set out in the board’s three-year business plan, one of which is to drive high-quality care and support for horses involved in racing. The board is now looking to set multi-year allocations of spend in this area.

In total, the Horserace Betting Levy Board spends around £3.5 million annually on horse-related areas, such as science and educational research, and on a number of horse welfare projects. Over the last 20 years, Great British Racing has invested over £47 million in veterinary research and education, with funding invested by the HBLB and more recently by the Racing Foundation.

The largest proportion of the levy is used to support prize money, as my right hon. Friend mentioned. I will say a bit more about prize money, because there is a misconception that it is about lining the pockets of a few millionaires—the owners of the horses. In fact, prize money is a means of injecting funds into the wider racing ecosystem, through the employment of trainers, jockeys, work riders and a whole host of people in more than 500 training yards who are involved in caring for horses and putting on race days.

The ability for prize money to cover the costs of training is a key consideration for people deciding to enter the industry, which in turn determines the number of horses entered for races. Maintaining the field size is an important factor in staging race days that are attractive to owners and racegoers. This generates prize money, both directly through racecourse income and indirectly through levy board support.

In 2017, the Government extended the levy to online bookmakers and fixed the rate at 10%, so that it no longer had to be negotiated each year. The 2017 reforms almost doubled the amount of levy collected, from £49 million to £95 million, and the levy continues to perform well. Even in 2020-21, with racing suspended for two months, and betting shops closed for much longer, it returned £82 million. The forecast for 2022-23 is £100 million. The principle of a statutory levy on betting activity on horseracing has never applied to other sports. The bespoke arrangements for horseracing reflect the unique and interdependent relationship between betting and racing, and are in line with international precedents in other horseracing jurisdictions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) said we should transfer responsibility to DEFRA. Our Department works very closely with DEFRA, which leads on animal welfare—I will say a bit more about that later. However, DCMS oversees the whole of the sporting sector, of which horseracing is a part, and has a strong track record of stewardship of major sporting events. With a wide range of public bodies under the Department’s sponsorship, including other sporting bodies such as Sport England, DCMS is well placed to provide robust sponsorship to the Horserace Betting Levy Board and to ensure that it is meeting its statutory requirements.

The support the Department has provided to the sector can be seen in the support given during the pandemic, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth mentioned. A loan was provided and work was undertaken alongside other sporting bodies to help sport to resume behind closed doors, and horseracing was the first sport to do so. I hope all this will reassure my right hon. Friend that at DCMS we do have the best interests of horseracing at heart, and it is at the forefront of our thinking.

As my right hon. Friend mentioned, the British Horseracing Association—horseracing’s governing and regulatory body—is responsible for the safety of horseraces at British race courses. Like all domestic and captive animals, horses are afforded protection under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Under this legislation, it is an offence to cause any unnecessary suffering to an animal, or for an owner or keeper to fail to provide for its welfare needs.

In February 2020, the Horse Welfare Board published “A life well lived”, its five-year strategic plan for the welfare of horses bred for racing. The strategy includes traceability for horses bred for the sport, a strong focus on safety and wellbeing, a more proactive approach to communications, and improved data collection. The BHA has identified 26 projects to drive continuous improvement in equine wellbeing, and £5.5 million has been invested by the Racing Foundation and the Horserace Betting Levy Board into that equine welfare work. That was certainly welcomed by the Government.

The BHA also works in collaboration with the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare to make racetracks as safe as possible. That was seen this year when, for example, the BHA revised its rules for the use of the whip. The new rules include a threshold on the number of times the whip may be used, as well as changes to the markers on all hurdles and fences from orange to white. I am pleased to see, as a consequence of British racing’s investment in safety and welfare, the number of horses that have suffered fatal injuries has decreased.

However, I recognise the points that my right hon. Friend mentioned. He knows that we are currently reviewing the horserace betting levy. The BHA has presented its case that there is a significant gap in its funding. It believes that that means it is unable to compete with jurisdictions such as Ireland and France, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury mentioned, and it has submitted suggestions for how to close the gap. We are considering those proposals as we undertake our review, which is due by April. While I cannot pre-empt the outcome of that, I want to reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth that a decision will be firmly based on the evidence.

I am delighted to hear that decisions will be based on the evidence in the usual way. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that this juncture, when he is in a position to arbitrate on what the levy should be and potentially to determine what the future business plan should look like, is a moment when he could really effect change? If he felt that I was being too generous to charities by saying they should have £12 million from the budget, maybe a few million pounds a year would be a start. I hope he might consider that when he engages in those negotiations.

My right hon. Friend pre-empts what I was just about to say. He has raised some very important points, and, as I am also the Minister with responsibility for charities, I know how challenging the economic climate has been for them, in terms of raising funds and so on. However, we are in regular conversations, and I have regular meetings with the likes of the British Horseracing Authority, and I can assure him that I will definitely raise the issues that he has highlighted at my next meeting, because the welfare of horses that are no longer racing and the sustainability of the charities that he mentioned are very important.

My right hon. Friend alluded to section 25 in the legislation. I need to explore that further, but I give him my commitment that I understand the points he is making. I understand the challenges that those important charities face, and, recognising the current challenges across horseracing as a whole, I will see what I can do to highlight that important issue.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) raised the issue of Retraining of Racehorses, but there are a number of smaller charities that the Minister is no doubt aware of, such as HEROS—Homing Ex-Racehorses Organisation Scheme—which is based near Lambourn and brings retired racehorses together with youngsters who have lost their way, to the benefit of both. It is an excellent charity. The Minister will be looking at the charities, and there are lots of smaller charities that could perhaps also benefit from a little more attention.

I fear that this is going to become a bidding war for charities all over the country, but I get my hon. Friend’s point. My commitment to my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth and to hon. Members here, as a consequence of this debate, is that I will highlight the points that he has raised—the particular challenges that those welfare charities are facing—and give the body the opportunity to address those first, before I look at what other options may be available.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for giving way. He referred to how racing stopped during the pandemic for a period, but he will also be aware that it stopped for a few days in 2019 because of equine influenza. Does he agree that it is vital that some of the levy money goes back into veterinary science and equine infectious disease surveillance for the protection of the horses, so that the British horseracing industry can thrive?

One of the key reasons that I went to Newmarket was not just to enjoy a day at the races, but to see for myself the investment being made in the welfare of those horses, and I must say that it was incredibly impressive. My hon. Friend is right; we need to maintain those standards, and he has just given me another question to raise when I meet with the body in the next couple of weeks. I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Elderly and Vulnerable People: Loneliness and Isolation

[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered loneliness and isolation in elderly and vulnerable people.

Imagine a room of people of all ages and demographics. In this gathering, there will be vulnerable people. It is reasonable to say that a small child is vulnerable. People with visual and hearing impairments could be described as vulnerable. People with severe learning disabilities or lifelong debilitating conditions could be described as vulnerable.

In that room full of people, we would also find those who feel vulnerable and withdrawn simply because of the way we do daily modern society. They are being left behind. They can no longer access what they may have taken for granted just a few years ago. Modern life has potentially destined many of them to a life of loneliness and isolation. I want to focus my thoughts this afternoon on those people, because their vulnerability does not need to be accommodated or catered for; it is entirely avoidable.

First, I thank my constituent, Chris Goninan, who has been the driving force behind the Penwith 50+ Forum for many years. This remarkable organisation celebrates its 20th birthday this year, after two decades of enhancing the quality of life for older people in Penwith. A vital part of improving their quality of life is tackling loneliness, whether that is through driving people to church or social events or starting a local radio station to keep them in touch. I was a district councillor when we started Penwith Radio. It is now Coast FM, but it has stuck to its core mission of connecting the local community, giving good local news, information and advice to people, and reassuring them, in their homes, about their local area and the part they play in it.

In three weeks’ time, the 50+ Forum will be hosting its Christmas lunch at Pengarth Day Centre for older people who would otherwise be spending Christmas alone. I look back with fondness at the work of the 50+ Forum. I had a role as the champion for children and young people on Penwith District Council. Together with Chris Goninan, the champion for older people, I organised intergenerational events such as car washes at the fire station in Penzance and St Buryan Garage. I also supported the St Ives 50+ Forum’s efforts to secure a minibus from the Department for Transport, which enables volunteers to ferry older people to meetings and appointments, which makes such a difference to the lived experience of many elderly people in my constituency.

It is appropriate to be holding a debate on loneliness among older people at this time, as Christmas can be the hardest time for those without family around them. According to Age UK, 1.6 million older people find Christmas day the toughest of the year, with over 1 million elderly people feeling lonely over the festive season.

Chris is among friends, as the British Red Cross has recently published a call to action on tackling loneliness and building community, which has been supported by over 90 sector partners, including Age UK, Mind and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Together as a sector, they are calling for renewed national leadership on loneliness and connection, and a dedicated Minister for loneliness to lead a refreshed national strategy, overseen by the Prime Minister and supported by a cross-governmental team. The strategy would set out measurable objectives to be delivered across Government to address loneliness across all ages and among key risk groups. The sector is also calling for accountability for delivering on loneliness, and annual reporting by the UK Government, against their delivery of key strategic objectives, on how Government Departments have contributed to tackling loneliness and building connection, and national monitoring on levels of loneliness.

The Centre for Ageing Better is promoting a good home hub, which would offer practical support, advice about financial support, home assessments, trustworthy signposting—particularly to tradespeople and others who would work in the home—and support to get the most efficient and appropriate housing. This kind of model would ensure proper engagement and care that can specifically address isolation and loneliness.

Age UK is also fully engaged in the issues that Chris and his 50+ Forum friends are campaigning on, and has its own campaign, “Offline and Overlooked”, which focuses on ensuring that older people who are not online have fair and equal access to public services. An example of how Age UK is trying to address the problem is the telephone friendship service, which matches older people with a volunteer for a regular chat each week. Many older people say that the calls are the highlight of their week, and their volunteer friend might be the only person they get to speak to. In 2022, Age UK supported 239,656 telephone friendship calls, and 94% of people said that their wellbeing had improved since they started receiving the calls.

Age UK also runs the Silver Line helpline, a 24-hour, free, confidential service for older people. The Silver Line provides friendship, conversation and support for people aged 55 and over, especially those who may be experiencing loneliness and isolation. In 2022, the helpline handled 183,280 calls, but even this service is at risk, as we ditch copper landlines and switch to wi-fi-only connectivity in our homes.

There is no concern when the power supply is maintained. However, even this week, thousands of homes lost connectivity to the electricity supply due to the severe weather. I have some very concerned constituents, especially on the Lizard peninsula, who fear being completely cut off when this technology is fully adopted. I have yet to get an adequate response to inquiries that I have raised in order to reassure people that they will not be left in the dark without a phone or any means of communication. Age UK’s telephone friendship service or the Silver Line helpline is no use at all if a power cut kills people’s telephone connections.

Anyone can be lonely, but the elderly and the disabled are particularly vulnerable. One in three people over the age of 75 says that their loneliness is out of control. Life events such as the loss of a partner, combined with reduced mobility or managing on a fixed income, isolate people from social contact, which we all need to combat loneliness. Those factors can converge and reinforce themselves; loneliness affects mental health, which causes people to lose confidence in their ability to socialise, or to feel overwhelmed in social settings, and so they become more lonely.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a debate on this vital topic. As he will know as a fellow member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, we published our report this year on rural mental health. Rural isolation is a real risk factor, in terms the pressures it places on people’s mental health. We stress the importance of connectivity, whether physical in terms of transport, or virtual in terms of broadband or the mobile phone signal. I have been privileged to welcome new bus vehicles to my constituency—the Border Rambler and the Fellrunner vehicle—which were provided by volunteer networks and offer people a lifeline. Does he agree that it is important to support rural bus networks at central and local government level, as well as at volunteer level? They are a lifeline for people, and we should strongly support them.

I support that, and my hon. Friend is right to refer to our report from the EFRA Committee. In my constituency, we have a number of community-led bus schemes. Douglas Woolcock, for example, runs two buses that allow people to get to appointments and other things that they need to lead normal lives and fulfil normal functions. It is right to welcome broadband and all the things that connect homes and communities, but so often we rely on community organisations and volunteers to provide some of these services—things that it is important that only communities can do—but they should not be welcomed at the expense of things that maybe the state should continue to support and foster.

To support that point, the Minister’s own Department has reported that loneliness can contribute to early death. The effect of loneliness on mortality is thought to be on a par with that of other public health priorities, such as obesity and smoking, and it also increases the risk of depression, low self-esteem, reported sleep problems and an increased stress response. Loneliness also creates a greater risk of cognitive decline and the onset of dementia, all of which are good reasons to be discussing the issue today and trying to find solutions to address loneliness and isolation as much as we can.

We referred to fibre and broadband connectivity, and some older people are able to break the cycle through technology. That is a fantastic thing. Like many of us, one 70-year-old in my constituency discovered Zoom over lockdown. Now her family has to work around her busy schedule of Zoom calls to friends old and new all over the world. Evenings are out because she talks to America, and early mornings are for new friends in New Zealand. But—and this is a big “but”—she was only able to do that because she had a grandson who could talk her through setting up Zoom on her computer. I would like to meet him so he can help me. She also had a daughter who could talk her through buying a computer. I could not say how often I go to my 16-year-old just to try to set up wi-fi calling on my phone.

For many elderly people, that is not the case. Social isolation leads to digital exclusion, and digital exclusion leads to further social isolation. Life becomes more difficult for the 2.4 million people aged 65 or over who do not use the internet. The more they are cut off from everyday activity, the lonelier they become. The same is true of people with disabilities, who make up 60% of internet non-users.

The Government have not published a digital inclusion strategy since 2014, yet so much of our lives is online now. We can all give anecdotal evidence and examples from our own lives, but the statistics show an increase in average monthly data usage of 731% since the 2014 strategy was published. As many of us do more and more on our smartphones, it is easy to forget that more than 3 million people aged 65 or over do not use one, and 1.6 million do not even possess a mobile phone.

Another point that tends not to get much airtime is the dramatic shift in how some letter and small parcel delivery companies have evolved their business. The delivery man or woman rarely takes time to wait for someone to answer the door or even check if anyone is in. Instead, they use their technology to record the delivery and move on to the next address. Although it is not the job of delivery drivers to look after the wellbeing of residents, this is another aspect of human interaction lost to people who might not see anyone from one day to the next.

We are all familiar with the recent campaign against ticket office closures on the rail network, and we will remember the argument that 86% of train tickets are now bought online. However, we need to remember who is buying the other 14%—or, as is the case in Penzance, who is buying the third of tickets that are sold in the ticket office. As one of my constituents wrote to me when Penzance ticket office was under threat,

“Not everyone has computers or mobile phones, especially in Cornwall where mobile reception can be poor and many older people aren’t computer-savvy. The staff in Penzance are professional, kind and thoughtful. They demonstrate an understanding of levels of ability both physical and mental. They are never impatient or unkind and frequently find a much better deal than friends do online!”

The hon. Member is making an excellent speech that really strikes a chord with all of us. In my constituency, and indeed in the whole of the north of Scotland, the Bank of Scotland has announced that it will remove all its mobile banks. One can imagine what that means for old and vulnerable people experiencing loneliness in my vast and scattered constituency. That is why I will be raising the matter repeatedly in this place.

I appreciate that intervention. I was in a meeting this morning about finances, and there was an audible desire to get everything digital—that is, until we start thinking about the very people we are showing we care for today. They will never be in that space, and will never be confident or comfortable, or even feel—I will cover this later—that the risks of banking online are worth taking.

As we race towards a potentially digital-only platform, it is our job, and the Government’s job, to pause and ask who will miss out or be left behind, and to ensure that that does not happen. As I have said, my main concern is those whose loneliness and isolation can be completely avoided if we get this right. Although change is welcome, we must be sensitive, take people with us, and accommodate those who cannot jump on in the same way that perhaps we can.

The testimony about ticket offices given to the train companies’ consultation persuaded the Government that they should ask train operators to withdraw their proposals. People object to moving everything online. Indeed, they might not even be able to do that. There will always be some people who struggle with the internet, and they need to be catered for. . I want the Department for Transport’s example to be followed by all Departments, and I ask the Minister to take a lead on that. We have protected elderly people who cannot navigate the internet but want to navigate a journey to see friends or relatives; now we need to help them to navigate their day-to-day lives.

As public services increasingly move online, day-to-day essentials such as banking, making an NHS appointment or even paying for parking become more difficult for those who are offline. All Government services should be accessible to those who are not online. At the moment, many councils provide no offline access to housing benefit, council tax reductions, rebates or blue badge applications. That is completely unacceptable.

Last month, I asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he will ensure that people without internet access can use Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency services, such as paying road tax or renewing their driving licences, after the DVLA contract with the Post Office expires in March next year. The response was that the “vast majority” of licences were renewed online, and there was no guarantee that the contract would be renewed.

I recognise that there is a commercial discussion to be had about the cost of renewing the contract, but the Government should factor in the cost to older people whose social lives depend on the ability to drive—as is the case for many in rural constituencies such as mine, as was referred to earlier—and the cost to the Post Office itself. Six million customers access DVLA services across post office counters, and half of them pay in cash. Removing those services from post offices will not just impact vulnerable people, but remove an important source of revenue for such vital and often very rural services, which provide people with access where it is not otherwise available.

Post offices have always been important to rural communities. They have become even more important as a backstop for those who cannot access essential cash, postal and Government services elsewhere. Recent research found that only 47% of those aged 65 and over said they could find an alternative way of accessing pensions and social benefits. The Government should be doing everything they can to support the network. Access to cash is essential for elderly people, many of whom cannot or will not bank online. Even those older people who are comfortable with email feel uncomfortable banking online or transferring money electronically. We have heard many examples from our constituents of fraud and scams, which quite rightly concern more vulnerable people. Age UK’s research shows that 27% of people over 65 manage their accounts via a branch or physical location such as a post office.

Without banking services, those who do not bank online are cut adrift and are less able to participate in society, so the roll-out of banking hubs must increase at pace to avoid leaving communities to become banking deserts. At the moment, Link will consider a banking hub only after all commercial banks have left, as they have in St Ives and Helston, in my constituency. Helston Town Council and others deserve credit for convincing Link to provide the town with a banking hub. It will open next year, but that means that the town will have been without a bank for a whole year. There should be a more proactive approach that ensures that no one is left without a counter service.

If nothing else, the Government should ensure that all Government services are easily accessible to everyone, even those without access to the internet, and nowhere more so than in the NHS. Last week, I had an email from an 81-year-old constituent. His wife, who is not computer literate, received an email that she did not understand. Luckily, he was able to cope, but he complained that he had to jump through hoops to download a document even to understand what the email was about. Other older people do not have a helpful spouse. As my constituent wrote:

“I find it staggering that the NHS in Cornwall insist on trying to communicate with patients via email, text messages and mobile phone—when some of us don’t have a signal or are too old to deal with so called improved services. Frankly, a simple telephone call would suffice or at least if any form of communication contained a telephone number.”

Because of the work we do for our constituents, we all know that “improved services” are not necessarily improved. Last month, the journal BMJ Quality & Safety carried a report about the safety incidents resulting from remote consultations: missed, inaccurate or delayed diagnoses; delayed referrals; and underestimates of severity or urgency.

But even when remote consultations are medically justified, they do nothing to combat social isolation. A face-to-face consultation is more than an evidence gathering exercise: it can be the only social interaction many older people have. I met with a number of people from the Penwith 50+ Forum last Saturday, and one lady made a very important point. She said that when she went to see her GP face to face, he picked up other medical conditions of which she was completely unaware and which could not have been picked up on an online or telephone consultation. In the long run, social isolation will cost the NHS and the Government more. Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure and reduced immunity against infections. It increases the risk of coronary heart disease by 29% and the risk of stroke by 32%. We know that loneliness can be as dangerous as obesity or smoking: it increases the risk of early mortality by 26%.

I recognise that I have covered a lot of ground, but it needs to be said that the Government have the ability to fix this and help many of our older and vulnerable constituents to avoid a very bleak existence. As the Government consult on eliminating smoking altogether, for example, will the Minister commit to a similarly aggressive approach to tackling loneliness? Will he engage with Age UK, the British Red Cross, and others who are concerned about the current direction of travel and make a proper assessment of how many of our constituents, especially those over 65, are impacted by so many services moving online? In conclusion, I am convinced that the loneliness and vulnerability that so many people face would be eliminated if we responded adequately and effectively to this challenge.

It is an honour to serve under your guidance, Mr Sharma, and a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), who made an excellent speech. I congratulate him on securing a debate of such value and importance.

Loneliness and isolation can affect any one of us at any given time, and over periods of time. They can be caused by all sorts of things. None of us is immune to them. If we are to value the dignity of every single human being, we need to accept that, sometimes, the person affected could be us, or someone we know or come into contact with. These people are valuable, and we need to care about them. The consequences of loneliness and isolation are often physical as well as emotional, so we should care deeply. The hon. Member for St Ives is right to point out the particular susceptibility of younger people to loneliness and isolation.

Westmorland and Lonsdale is, of course, the most beautiful place in the whole of the United Kingdom, if not the planet, and definitely in north-west England. It is also the oldest place in north-west England: we have the oldest population of any constituency there. Nationwide, 19% of people are above 65. In Westmorland and Lonsdale, the figure is 28.5%. My average constituent is 10 years above the national average age—I am above that age now, but never mind. The consequences are significant. Look at what happened last weekend. It shows that while age and other forms of vulnerability can be triggers for isolation, so can rurality, as my neighbour, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), and the hon. Member for St Ives have said. Isolation was massively multiplied in Cumbria over the last few days, during which there was pretty extreme weather, even by our standards.

This is the moment to pay tribute to all those across our communities in Westmorland who sought to meet people who were snowed in, often in desperate and isolated circumstances: the police, all Westmorland and Furness Council workers, and people working for Electricity North West. I also thank all those who opened the doors of schools, village centres, community buildings, and indeed their businesses for strangers in their hour of need. It is a reminder of how important community is, how difficult it is to construct, and that it is an organic thing. It is a reminder of how precious it is, and in the last few days in Cumbria, we have seen it at its best, but we remember too that community is under extreme threat, especially rural communities such as ours.

I got a call a few weeks ago from an older gentleman; he was 80. He rang my office team for advice on something fairly basic. He lives in a community of about 14 houses, not too far from Hawkshead in the Lake district. He apologised—he should not have done—for ringing us and said, “This is the sort of thing I should’ve been able to find out myself. I would’ve called my neighbours, or knocked on their doors, but I haven’t got any.” There are 14 houses, but only one of them is lived in, and it is lived in by a single widowed man. I thought that was desperately sad. Across our communities, there are so many people like that gentleman.

Second home ownership has grown to the extent that many of our communities are hollowed out. Coniston, for example, which did a brilliant job for all the people stranded there over the weekend, is a wonderful community, but 50% of its properties are not lived in all year round. We need to think about how loneliness is effected—how we create isolation by allowing the market to let rip on our housing stock, and by not having full-time residential communities.

There are things the Government can do about that. The Government have promised to do something about short-term lets. The problem is that they are taking quite a while. Perhaps when the Minister sums up, he will address the fact that the Government made a promise—the Minister at the time made a promise to me during the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill’s progress through the Commons—to change planning law so that short-term lets would become a separate category of use from long-term lets. That is important, because tenants of long-term lets are long-term community members, whereas the tenant of a short-term let will change by the week. That can have a big impact on our community as a whole, but it also reduces the sense of community and the number of people living in it.

Will the Minister say, in his remarks at the end, whether the Government will keep that promise to bring in a change to the planning law in April, so that communities like mine, right the way from Appleby to Coniston, and from Windermere to Kirkby Stephen, can have a high number of homes that are always lived in, and so that our communities can fight against isolation?

A knock-on effect of so many properties in our communities in Westmorland and the rest of Cumbria not being permanently lived in is that the workforce is hollowed out. We already have an older population, which therefore has greater care needs and vulnerability. We also have a smaller reservoir of people of working age to care for them, who can afford to live in the area and serve those needs. That adds to the sense of isolation. Tackling the housing crisis is also about tackling the care crisis and the loneliness crisis.

For many vulnerable people—not just older people, but people living with long-term chronic conditions or learning difficulties, and all sorts of people in vulnerable circumstances—the presence of overnight NHS care is of great significance. I raise this for a reason: at Westmorland General Hospital, Cumbria Health on Call, which covers our out-of-ours service, has chosen in the last two months to end overnight doctor cover on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, so those living in our communities can expect nobody from Kendal to come and help them, and for there to be fewer doctors available across the whole of Cumbria. If they could find a doctor to travel at 4 o’clock in the morning to someone with palliative care needs, or someone with a learning difficulty who has some kind of illness, they would have to come from Barrow or Penrith, and would probably only come to the south lakes—to Grasmere, Grange or Kendal—having already dealt with their local patients. That is deeply troubling, and puts the most vulnerable people in our community at risk.

Immobility and ill health obviously make it harder for people to get out and engage with others in and around their community, and make them more isolated. I am sure fellow hon. Members here could say the same, but I know from local statistics that one in nine human beings in my constituency is on a hospital waiting list. Not every single one of those people is housebound as a result, but a very significant number of people are significantly less mobile because of the length of time it takes them to get treated and made well, and to be able to function in our society.

I want to talk about farmers quickly—I hope it is not too jarring. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) asked an excellent question in the main Chamber the other day about the mental health of farmers, who are, by definition, an often isolated group of people. They tend to be older, although we would love to get more young people into farming and are desperately trying to do that. The transition from the old farm payments scheme to the new one is leaving the average hill farmer in my constituency over 40% poorer than they were three or four years ago. That is intolerable.

Just imagine a gentleman in his 60s who has farmed for 40 years and is the fifth or sixth generation of farmer to look after the farm. Because of the transition, he sees his business disappearing and feels that he will be the one who loses the family farm. What does that do to his mental health? What does it make him feel like? The sense of isolation and of having no one to talk to is critical, and we need to challenge that. We need to get the public policy right, so that we do not put people in those positions, but we also need to reach out to people in the most isolated situations.

The hon. Member for St Ives made a really important point about ticket offices. I will not reiterate everything he said, but because it was a railway-related issue, it made me think about the Beeching cuts in the 1960s. What we learn from that mistake is that we can be too quick to dispense with the old when we have been beguiled by the new. The new in the 1960s was the bright, new, shiny motorways, and the old was these useless old railway lines. We were wrong. What is the new and the old today? The new is obviously digital connectivity and all that. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, it is super good, or capable of being so for many people. The old is human interaction, and the danger is that we are losing that. As we have heard, switching to digital voice and digital-only communication leaves people completely and utterly isolated when the electricity goes off in a snowstorm. I would like BT, Openreach and the Government as a whole to think carefully about how to ensure resilience.

Post offices in communities are enormously important, and I am delighted that we are making progress. The Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), has very kindly helped on this matter. In Shap and Hawkshead, we have been able to reopen post offices that were under threat of closure or had closed. That is a reminder that we should invest in post offices as community hubs, and revise the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency’s withdrawal from them. Post offices will have a mosaic of sources of funding, and the DVLA will be one of them.

High street banks have withdrawn from all but two of the communities in my vast constituency. Banks have saved, as a conservative estimate, £2.5 billion a year by closing down their high street networks. Why is not more than a tiny fraction of that being ploughed back into post offices, so that they can become community hubs in every single village and community? That would hopefully tackle isolation.

Bus services are obviously vital too. Post pandemic, pretty much 100% of under-65s have gone back to using buses, but there is only a 70% return for those over 65. That means that 30% of older people who were using the bus network before the pandemic are not doing so now. We need to encourage people back on to buses, and we need the buses to be there in the first place. What use is a £2 bus fare or a bus pass if there is no bus? The fact that we have not devolved to councils such as Cumberland and Westmorland and Furness the power and resources to deliver their own bus services keeps those communities isolated.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about bus services, but does he agree that one of the challenges for bus companies right across the UK is that it is very difficult to recruit and retain bus drivers? That has a real impact on services, which have not yet quite returned to pre-pandemic levels, and will never do so with this constant pressure on staffing. Of course, the Government are not addressing that with their new work visa rules.

The big problem in areas such as mine is that the workforce is too small. There are various reasons for that, but the two principal ones are the lack of affordable homes for local people to live in and the silly visa rules, which prevent the economy from working properly. If we are going to control our borders, why do we not control them in our interests, rather than just make silly points? I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady’s point, which is not silly but very important. If we are to staff rural services, we need a workforce big enough to do that.

Digital connectivity is vital for maintaining face-to-face human contact, which can mitigate loneliness and isolation and build resilience. Digital connectivity is so important. As the Government move towards Project Gigabit, which is a good thing, we should not think that one size fits all. There are communities that would be better served by switching back to the voucher system that we used before, and by our allowing community providers such as B4RN in Cumbria to deliver services. I was at a public meeting on Saturday in Murton about the communities in Murton, Hilton, Ormside and Warcop. How can we connect those communities? We can wait years for Project Gigabit to catch up, because they are in the deferred scope, or we can invest now and use the voucher system and B4RN.

Finally, we have heard a lot of talk about Margaret Thatcher in recent days and weeks, for all sorts of reasons. She once famously said that there was no such thing as society. Much as I admired the lady, I disagreed with her, but sometimes things can become self-fulfilling prophesies. Over the last 40 years—I certainly do not blame just the late Prime Minister for this at all; it is something we all bear responsibility for—there has been a privatisation not so much of our economy but of ourselves, an atomisation and a loss of community that is deeply troubling.

Places like mine are very beautiful, but are therefore expensive to live in. Another former Prime Minister, Lord Cameron, talked about the big society. The problem is that if we do not intervene in our communities and our housing market, they are available only to people from high society, and not to the big society. I want a community that is accessible and available to all. Particularly at this time of year, if we believe in the innate dignity of every single human being, we need to think practically about how we include people. We need a public policy that builds community, rather than knocking it down, and that intervenes when the market builds the opposite of what we want.

Order. I will not set a time limit on speeches, but perhaps Members will stick to about seven minutes. I will call the Front-Bench speakers at 3.28 pm.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on opening today’s debate and focusing on the digital economy.

We must remember that digital can be used as a positive, as well as a negative, and we need to focus. As we move at an even greater pace into a new age of AI and so many other technologies, we need to make sure that they work for everyone. The inequality that has been driven through the digital sphere has really shown itself, particularly among more marginalised groups.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who focused on public services that have been withdrawn. Many of those services, such as post office and rail services, were once in public ownership, and the Government could drive the opportunities to enable connectivity. I think particularly of Royal Mail and the opportunities that we have there, if we see it not as a business, but as a public service that serves communities and checks in on individuals who are elderly or isolated; we know that would make a significant difference.

I thank the organisations that contribute so much, both locally in our communities and nationally. Age UK, the Marmalade Trust, the Jo Cox Foundation—it is a real pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) here—and the Red Cross do phenomenal work. My local community group, York Neighbours, helps with one-off projects, ensures that there are regular phone calls to individuals, and arranges connectivity groups and outings.

I take issue with the point that the hon. Member for St Ives made about needing a new national strategy. We have a very comprehensive national strategy. In fact, it is exhausting to read, because it covers every single Department in detail. We have that as a background, but the question is whether it delivers and meets the needs of people in our communities. I think we need to take a different approach, and to bring it into a public health framework. We should look at how we can deliver more locally. Ultimately, we can talk about grand plans, but this is about delivery. We have the structure; we know the problems; we have identified the need; we understand the causes; and we have definitions. We need to move beyond that now.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this important debate. Does she agree that we have achieved a great deal in this place on the issue of loneliness and, crucially, that that has been on a cross-party basis? I am extremely proud of the work of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, which resulted in the world’s first Minister for loneliness, my good friend the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), and the first cross-Government loneliness strategy, which my hon. Friend referred to. Does she agree that, whoever forms the next Government, we must ensure that this issue is kept firmly on the agenda? We need to ensure that it is embedded in all Departments and across all sectors. My hon. Friend rightly paid tribute to the voluntary sector, which does a lot of the heavy lifting around loneliness, but every sector has a role to play. Will she also join me, as I hope everybody else in the House will, at the Tackling Loneliness Together festive fair at 2 pm next Monday in the Attlee Suite?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who never misses an opportunity. I pay tribute not only to the incredible work she does in this place, but to Jo, who put this agenda on all our radars and did a phenomenal piece of work in raising its importance.

Another major point I want to make is about the interventions that we need—I have been reading a speech I made in this place two and a half years ago, and it feels like we have not moved the framework forward since that time. Recently, in the Health and Social Care Committee, we had some incredible witnesses, who talked about dealing with suicide among men, although there is a lot of cut-across and move-across. I was struck by a piece of data we were given showing that 45% of males who take their own lives live alone. That really brings out the pain and the isolation. People have not asked questions, so others are left very much in the margins.

Young people are now the group who experience the most loneliness in our society. What are schools doing to intervene and ensure that there is good socialisation? Children are so stressed at the moment because they are having to meet the requirements set down by the state, but are they confident individuals who can make social connections? How do we facilitate that to help them to navigate the ever more complex world in which they are growing up?

What about the GP and every other connection, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, for those who need support—not least the disabled people in our communities? What about local authorities? If a question was asked in every interaction to find out whether people were experiencing loneliness or isolation, we could start to put strategies in place to address those needs.

There is a real need to look at statutory services and to ask how we can build a framework, but also to look at what is happening across society. As we get older, these issues get more difficult. As we have heard, there are 7.8 million people on waiting lists. People are frailer and they get more withdrawn and isolated from communities and society, so it is harder and takes more effort to make those connections. It is important that we really look into that to find out not only the scale of what is happening locally and to ask those difficult questions, but to provide the necessary services, and particularly youth services. There used to be luncheon clubs for older people, but they have just gone. The funding crisis in local authorities is making things even more difficult, so my third request is that we invest in a public health strategy that enables pilot projects to move forward and to make those connections once again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. Having heard the excellent speech from the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), I feel he has taken away most of my speech.

First, I want to re-emphasise the point about mobile banks being taken away in the north of Scotland. The county of Sutherland covers 2,028 square miles of the United Kingdom. It has one bank branch—the Bank of Scotland in Golspie. It is a huge area, yet they are going to take away the mobile banks. For all the reasons pointed out by the hon. Member for St Ives, that impacts on the old and the vulnerable. I just repeat that point to underline how such bad decisions can be taken from time to time.

I want to think about another group who are vulnerable: the young. In 1997, a very good and laudable organisation was set up called TYKES Young Carers. It, too, is based in Golspie, in east Sutherland, where the bank branch is presently. Over the years, it has supported young carers, who we define as those between the ages of five and 25. It now covers the whole county of Sutherland —a vast area. TYKES Young Carers advocates for, and raises awareness of, issues by engaging with community and statutory agencies and with other organisations. It is there to highlight the challenges faced by young people, perhaps because a parent is unwell or because the young person is going to school but then, after school, is going back to look after their family.

I want to give one example. For obvious reasons, I cannot give names, but living in an isolated house in my constituency, there is a mum who is disabled. She has three children—one aged 10, one aged six and one aged five. The 10-year-old displays quite strongly what might be called attachment disorder: she does not want to be away from her mum, because she feels she is there to care for her mum. That in turn interferes with her education. She is only 10—God help us all—but she does all the cooking and cleaning in the house and looks after her younger siblings.

To give an example of something that went wrong in the home, the cooker recently blew up at the beginning of the weekend and no longer worked. What does a young child of only 10 do about that? TYKES, bless it, got another cooker to that location, which—we should remember—is remote. But then—would you believe it?—the oven went off. Again, TYKES stepped in. What I want to say is this: I had a happy childhood, and I remember being 10 with pleasure—I remember going off to Cubs and being with my mum and dad—but just think what things are like for this child, right now in our society. But for TYKES, her life would be unimaginable.

What does TYKES do? It gives fantastic support, and I will give some examples. Each of the families involved—there are a number of them, for different reasons—will get £100 to help with the cost of living and to pay for Christmas. TYKES has its base in Golspie, and in that base there is also a cosy room where young carers can get together. If it were not for TYKES, some young carers would go home from school and be on their tod—if that is not loneliness, I do not know what is—looking after a parent, siblings or whoever. TYKES gives them a place to get together, talk and share their troubles with each other—a trouble shared is a trouble halved. They can get under a blanket, they can do their homework or they can use the pool table—they can just have something of a normal life. Finally, TYKES gives out parcels of food and helps in so many other ways—it does advocacy, engages with social services and engages with anyone who can help those families.

To conclude, this organisation—this is perhaps like what my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) was saying—is a shining example of people getting together for the good of others, because they care about them for fundamental reasons of human decency. My hon. Friend was quite right: the notion of society is precious, and I am sure that, in all our constituencies, there will be examples of groups similar to the one I have just described that are willing to do good to help. If we can remember and build on that, perhaps we can reach out to the lonely and vulnerable and do something to help them with their lives. If the child I mentioned, aged 10, had not been reached out to, God alone knows what it would have meant for the rest of her life. It could have caused damage that could never be repaired.

May I say what a pleasure it is to follow all the hon. Members who have spoken so far? They have made some fantastic contributions —particularly the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), who led the debate. By requesting it, he has allowed us all to participate and to make our own contributions.

Like the hon. Member for St Ives, I represent a rural and coastal constituency, with many homes situated out of the way, isolated from the centres of towns and villages. When the Minister kindly visited my constituency, he had the opportunity to travel through it, but he perhaps did not see all the things that this debate is about, although we were pleased to have him and we look forward to him coming back—such are the memories made on these occasions. In many of the houses in my constituency, there are older couples who have lived in their homes for years—we would say years and years and years; that is how long it is—but despite that there is still a sense of loneliness in the area. So it is great to be able to discuss what more we can do to combat that.

I cannot even begin to count how many fantastic community hubs and men’s sheds there are in my constituency to support and assist the elderly, those who are lonely and those who may not have any drive or focus and who, in some cases, may have depression, anxiety and mental health issues. I have worked closely with Cathy Polley, who manages the Ards Community Network in Strangford. She is an instrumental figure in the community, providing a safe place for people of all ages, not just the elderly.

Community support is absolutely essential. When constituents live more rurally, it is crucial to have those hubs in villages, where they are closer to home for the elderly to access. We have often talked in this place about the struggle of rural transport, and the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), asked about rural transport in her intervention. That is an issue for all our constituents, and ensuring that local connection will make all the difference. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) referred to the £2 pass and asked what good a £2 ticket is if there are no buses. It is a good question. We need to have real access; that is important.

There have been so many advances in society recently that ultimately cause a feeling of vulnerability and isolation in the elderly population. In Strangford, I have witnessed the closure of many high street banks because everything is now online or seems to be heading that way, and local shops have closed because we have less footfall and an environment where most services are provided through the internet. That is further isolating the elderly population, and it saddens me immensely to think of elderly couples who may not have any family and who may struggle to renew their passports, sort out online banking and so on.

I have had people come into my office for help with these things—rest assured, we are more than happy to help, and we do so regularly. I suspect that all Members do the same, and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to one such occasion. Sometimes our constituents just need someone to talk to, but sometimes they need someone to sort things out as well. We have the staff, and we have the online contacts, so why not just do that? They are always grateful, which makes our job 10 times easier. I have to say that it brings me a lot of joy as well.

I am very pleased that the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) is present. I had intended to speak about my next point even before she came in—I knew she would probably read Hansard tomorrow and catch up anyway—but I am pleased that she is here now. I want to speak about the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. Many of us are aware of it, and the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) referred to it. During her time as an MP, Jo Cox was dedicated to combating loneliness in the UK. Jo formed an independent cross-party commission of MPs and artists to highlight the fact that we can all do something to help lonely people in our community. I remember Jo’s words: she wanted to

“turbocharge the public’s awareness of loneliness”.

By bringing together all those MPs, bodies and charities, that is what she did. It really is a pleasure to see the hon. Member for Batley and Spen in her place today.

Following Jo’s tragic murder, the commission was taken forward in her memory by the right hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) and Seema Kennedy, the former Member for South Ribble. It is fantastic that the campaign that Jo started, which has left a legacy for her—her sister, the hon. Member for Batley and Spen, will carry that on—is being supported and that more is being done to tackle loneliness across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

There are so many fantastic services available for elderly people, but it is right to ensure that those services are accessible to them and that they are encouraged to avail themselves of them, especially in the run-up to Christmas, when feelings of loneliness are heightened as we remember those we have lost. When I say to somebody, “Have a lovely Christmas,” I am always conscious that it might not be. Christmas might be the time that they lost someone, and that will be their eternal memory of Christmas—every Christmas, repeated forever and ever, amen. I am therefore always a wee bit hesitant when I say, “Have a nice Christmas,” or whatever it may be. I hope that their Christmas will be a nice Christmas.

At a time of year when there is supposed to be so much joy, we often forget that there is an older population who are struggling. We can all do something small this Christmas, such as make a phone call. About three weeks ago, I read a suggestion in the paper that we not just call an elderly neighbour but call round and see him or her. That is something that we should all be doing and that each MP should encourage people to do—I put a press release out along those lines, because I thought it was important to do so. We should support an elderly person we know and give them some company. It is a joyous time of year, because it is when our saviour was born, and that is important, but it is also a time when people need support. The hon. Member for St Ives is to be commended for bringing this debate forward; he has done something to which we can all relate and on which we can all act.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. He makes an important point. Will he join me in paying tribute to the many volunteers and organisations that will be reaching out to people over the festive period and ensuring, as far as is possible, that no one feels lonely or alone? Does he also agree that January and February can be very lonely months for people? Because there is so much going on around Christmastime, it can be easy to stay connected; as we approach January and February, it can feel a little harder, and sometimes people feel even more isolated.

I was anticipating that the hon. Lady would intervene and I am happy that she did. She is right: Christmas is over, the new year comes in and very quickly people are thinking about paying off their debts, but the loneliness that was there before Christmas is still there in January and February. With that in mind, I conclude, and I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention.

I, too, am delighted to participate in this debate on the loneliness and isolation faced by elderly and vulnerable people. I echo the thanks to the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for bringing this important debate forward.

Older people are especially vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, which have a serious effect on their physical and mental health, as we have heard. Hundreds of thousands of elderly people, and especially those over the age of 75, are lonely and cut off from society across the UK. According to Age UK, more than 2 million people in England over the age of 75 live alone, and more than 1 million older people say they go over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member. Some 282,000 older people in Scotland feel lonely some or most of the time. More than a quarter of people over 75 said they felt lonely some or most of the time within the previous week, and almost one in five of those aged 60 to 74 reported feeling very lonely. One in four people aged over 60 said they do not meet a friend, relative, neighbour or work colleague socially with any regularity.

Those living alone are most likely to feel lonely: four in 10 of single pensioners—38%—report feelings of loneliness. More than a third of those with long-term health conditions feel lonely, and people who live in socially disadvantaged and deprived areas are almost twice as likely to feel lonely as those living in the least socially deprived areas. We know that loneliness is associated with a 50% increase in the risk of dementia, a 29% increase in heart disease and a 32% increase in the risk of stroke. Of course, we know from previous debates that loneliness is associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. Those stark and frightening statistics remind us that loneliness is a public health emergency. Loneliness among heart failure patients is associated with a nearly four times increased risk of death, whereas 68% of lonely people have an increased risk of hospitalisation and 57% have an increased risk of visiting the emergency department.

People can be lonely for a variety of reasons: getting older, losing mobility, no longer having the hub of family around them, retiring and not having the social contact that work often brings, the death of spouses or friends, friends moving away, or disability. Whatever the cause, it is shockingly easy to be left feeling alone and vulnerable, which can lead to depression and, as we have heard, a serious decline in physical and mental wellbeing.

Someone who is lonely probably feels it is difficult to reach out because there is a stigma surrounding loneliness, despite its prevalence. Older people tend to find it difficult to ask for help because they often feel it compromises their pride. It is worth pointing out that, although my focus today is primarily on older people, loneliness affects people of all ages, as we have heard. However, it is truly shocking to think of the hundreds of thousands of older people across the UK who go a week or more without meeting a single friend, relative or neighbour. I have to say at this stage that taking away the free TV licences for over-75s did not help. TV is not a replacement for social contact, but it provides an important connection with the outside world, and older people who live on their own often rely on the television for company.

The Scottish Government’s loneliness strategy is a great start, but there is still a long way to go, as the statistics tell us. Tackling loneliness should be a public health priority across all Governments and Departments. The fact is that society has changed. The social fabric that once bound us together is not as strong as it was. We are much less likely, no matter our age, to know who our neighbours are or to speak to them. Each household is much more detached from the households in its vicinity, so neighbourhood support is not what it once was. That even applies in my lifetime—I have seen that change.

Since 2000, the number of people in Scotland aged 65 and over has increased by a third, while the number of children being born has fallen by 6%. In my local authority of North Ayrshire, the projection is that in the next 10 years, 35,000 people will be aged 65 and over, which will be a quarter of North Ayrshire’s entire population. That has huge implications for tackling loneliness and for our social care provision. There will be a 50% increase in over-60s in Scotland by 2033. Currently, 21% of rural dwellers are over 60, and that is of course set to increase. There are huge challenges for us in those shocking statistics, and we need a plan and strategy for how we as a society will deal with that, because it will put a huge strain on our ability to tackle loneliness and to reach out and care for older people. That work of reaching out to care for and support people who are lonely is going on across our communities, as we have heard.

Digitisation and the technical revolution have often left old people feeling more isolated and more left behind. Social spaces are now being replaced by machines—self-scanning at tills in supermarkets is the work of the devil in my view, and online banking again takes away yet more social contact. Even libraries are under threat—libraries where people can go not just for heat but for a kind word and a conversation. The ticket offices referred to earlier were never really an issue in Scotland, because in Scotland our railway is under public ownership. When the idea of closing tickets offices was mooted, the Scottish Government consulted the people of Scotland and decided to protect every single ticket office that was open at the time.

There is a problem with digitisation, and I want to pay tribute to the organisations in my constituency that do wonderful work to combat loneliness in towns across North Ayrshire and Arran, such as Arran Community and Voluntary Service, the Beith Community Development Trust, CLASP HOPE—the Community Led Action and Support Project’s Helping Older People Evolve scheme—in Stevenston, the dementia cafés that operate in Ardrossan and Saltcoats, and Cafe Solace in Kilbirnie and Ardrossan, which provides a nutritious three-course meal for a couple of pounds. As important as that healthy meal is, people do not really come for the food—they come for the banter and the chat. I occasionally have the pleasure of serving food in that café, and I can assure everyone that it is not really about the food, nutritious as it is.

Of course, there are also the men’s sheds, which have been mentioned already. We have wonderful men’s sheds in my constituency in Garnock Valley and Ardrossan. We also have a vibrant allotment sector, which includes the Elm park allotments in Ardrossan, the organic growers of Fairlie, and the Kilbirnie allotment in Sersley Drive. I also pay tribute to the Silver Line helpline service, which has already been mentioned. I know that Age Scotland offers advice, friendship and support, and I want to pay tribute to its impressive “Share What You Love” campaign.

Loneliness is a blight that we must continue to tackle, and we are perhaps more mindful of it as Christmas approaches. For many people, it is true that Christmas is the most difficult time of the year with the jollity surrounding us simply reminding those who are lonely just how desperately lonely they are. The condition is prevalent all year round, regardless of seasons. It truly is a public health issue, and we need to recognise the work done by our volunteers each and every day to help combat it. We need to keep shining a light on it to ensure that we are mindful of the issue in our communities every single day.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Sharma. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing the debate and setting out the very real challenges that many older and more vulnerable people face with a lack of social connection, particularly in the context of an increasingly digital world. As others have said, the debate is timely. As we approach the festive season, we are bombarded by images of joyful social gatherings and family parties, but for many people, Christmas is anything but merry. I welcome the call made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for all of us to reach out to our neighbours.

Across the country, millions of people, including at least 1.4 million older people, feel lonely every day. While loneliness—

“the subjective, unwelcome feeling of a lack or loss of companionship”—

is a normal human emotion that most of us experience at some point in our lives, when it becomes persistent, it can have profound consequences for our health, happiness and wellbeing. Chronic loneliness, as has already been said, is associated with a greater risk of physical and mental ill health. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) rightly highlighted, there are links between social isolation and suicide. Regularly feeling lonely is as bad for us as obesity or smoking—it has been suggested that its impact compares to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Therefore, it is right that the Government have recognised loneliness as one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.

Like other public health issues, loneliness is a systemic problem. If someone is poor, has a long-term illness, is disabled, faces discrimination, is unemployed, or lives in inadequate housing or in a deprived area, they are more likely to experience loneliness. In recent years, work has been increasingly undertaken across the country to raise awareness of the problem of loneliness and to begin to tackle it. It has also been a regular subject of debate here in Parliament. That builds on the pioneering efforts of Jo Cox, the foundation established to continue her work, the all-party group on tackling loneliness and connected communities—so brilliantly co-chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) and the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch)—and organisations working across the sector, including the British Red Cross, the Campaign to End Loneliness and many others that have been mentioned.

The Government’s 2018 loneliness strategy set out clear objectives and plans to meet them, but despite the actions of organisations in the public, private and community and voluntary sectors, the problem has not gone away. In fact, following the pandemic it has got worse. Analysis by the Office for National Statistics shows that the number of people who are chronically lonely has risen to 3.83 million—half a million more than in the first year of the pandemic—and that more than 7% of the population now say they are always or often lonely.

Given that people are feeling lonelier than ever, it is important to re-examine the strategy to ensure it is fit for purpose and meets the new challenges we face, including the combined impacts of the pandemic and the ongoing cost of living crisis. That is not just the right thing to do because we want stronger communities in which people enjoy better lives; it makes economic sense too. Keeping people healthy reduces pressure on the NHS and social care services. People who feel connected and part of their community are more productive, which reduces the cost to business of high staff turnover and sickness absence, so we all stand to benefit from more connected communities.

Loneliness is subjective—we all experience it differently —so there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Anyone can feel lonely, although there is evidence to suggest that it is most widespread among young people. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) movingly described the needs of children and families.

It is important that we examine loneliness among different demographics, including the elderly and those with vulnerabilities, because if we understand the causes and experiences, we can improve the effectiveness of initiatives to prevent and address it. For older people, loneliness can often start when they retire from work or suffer bereavement, particularly if they lose a spouse or close friend. The grief of losing loved ones can lead to people feeling they have no one to open up to. That can be compounded by other factors: people over 50 are more likely to be lonely if they are in poor health, unable to do the things they want, feel they do not belong in their neighbourhood or live alone.

Maintaining or making new connections in our local community can be more important than ever as we get older, yet many neighbourhoods are not designed to be age-friendly or accessible. Social infrastructure is not strong enough to help those at risk of loneliness get out into their community safely, and local transport does not always support connection. Even where community facilities and opportunities for connection exist, the rising cost of living acts as a barrier to accessing them. Age UK found that older people are being pushed into debt, are living in cold homes and are cutting back on time with friends and family. Two fifths of respondents to a British Red Cross poll said that they had restricted how much they socialised because of the increased cost of living.

Disabled people are also at particular risk of experiencing loneliness. There are 16 million people in the UK with disabilities, and 45% of pension-age adults are disabled. That means that a significant and rising proportion of the population is at higher risk. Disabled people face barriers in daily life that make them more likely to be chronically lonely than non-disabled people. Mobility difficulties can restrict people’s ability to access or participate in activities. Hearing loss affects more than 11 million people, predominantly among older demographics. It is often undiagnosed and untreated, making social interaction increasingly difficult.

Living with chronic pain can also cause people to withdraw from social activity. As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said, that is exacerbated by long waiting times for NHS treatment. If people repeatedly encounter barriers when they try to engage in social activities, it understandably leaves them not wanting to try again. Bad experiences can cause people to lose their confidence and feel that they do not belong or are not accepted, which leads to more loneliness.

Of course, it is not just individuals’ impairment that restricts their participation; too often, our communities are not built to be accessible. For example, a walk to the shops, the café or the local library can feel impossible if there is no bench to stop and rest on along the route, if there is no seat at the bus stop, if the street lighting is inadequate, or if the pavement is uneven, potholed or obstructed by parked cars. All hon. Members said that access to public transport is particularly important for the elderly and those with disabilities. There has been a marked decline in local bus services, particularly in rural areas, and again, a free bus pass is no help if there is no service to use it on.

As we better understand the problem of loneliness, we need to refocus on the measures needed to overcome it and I welcome the loneliness sector’s call to action. It is clear that tackling loneliness would benefit everyone in society and that requires a concerted effort across Government Departments. We must also ensure that those with expertise, particularly the organisations in the community and voluntary sector that best engage with and amplify the voices of those with lived experience, are involved in helping to develop a revised strategy.

There are real challenges to be confronted. Over the past decade, much of the infrastructure that supports communities has been eroded. That includes the loss or decline of critical social shared spaces in local communities, such as youth centres, community centres, libraries and parks, which are the foundation for connected communities. I wonder how such facilities have suffered in places that have large numbers of second homes, as was highlighted. I hope the Minister will set out the policies and investment that he plans to grow the social infrastructure needed to support positive outcomes for local communities.

Charities and voluntary organisations are operating under increased strain as they face rising demand for their services and higher costs at precisely the same time that there is a reduction in charitable giving and a decline in volunteering. Can the Minister set out his plans to ensure the organisations we rely on to bring people together, which deliver many of the initiatives to tackle loneliness and help people engage with them, can survive this winter? It is increasingly clear that local authorities are operating under extreme financial pressures. Social care is in crisis and the extra spending required to meet rising demand is not only leaving vulnerable people without the support they need, but leading to cuts in other vital but non-statutory services. Again, what do the Government intend to do to address that?

I wanted to mention the lack of access to digital and online services, but that has probably been covered by previous speakers. I will reference the importance of Government doing all they can to increase access to digital technologies and the skills to use them and protect those who need additional support. There is much for this Government and the next to do to ensure that we build the strong, resilient and connected communities that will enable everyone to lead happy, healthier and more fulfilling lives, even as we grow older.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. This is my third Westminster Hall debate today; clearly, I am the only Minister on duty. However, that brings with it a personal achievement because it means I have been in this room more often that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) today.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing the debate and all hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions on this important issue. It really is important to raise the profile of loneliness and isolation among elderly and vulnerable people. I welcome the opportunity to talk about what we are trying to do in that area.

Loneliness does not discriminate. The Government are committed to ensuring that everyone can benefit from the power of meaningful connection, particularly the most vulnerable members of our society. Loneliness is a complex issue that we can only address in partnership and across sectors, and I want to celebrate the meaningful work being done in many of our constituencies to further and encourage those social connections. Much of that work is carried out by the civil society sector: for example, Age UK, which we have heard about and which has been referenced today for its excellent work, and those organisations that are vital in the mission to tackle loneliness. The Jo Cox Foundation, of course, has done tremendous amounts of work on that important area.

Research that we have commissioned shows that those who are most vulnerable and at risk of loneliness include those who live alone, disabled people, LGBT people, young people—which is why we have focused very heavily this year on a campaign for students going to university for the first time—and those on lower incomes, to name a few. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) rightly raised the issue of young carers. I also want to think about young people who are in care. I was really struck when we heard from a young person in care at the APPG meeting. The most heartbreaking thing she said was, “I’m never going to be in a place long enough for it to be worth trying to form friendships.” That should not be something we hear from young people.

However, people of all backgrounds can experience loneliness at any time of life. There are also certain life events that can trigger loneliness, such as retirement, divorce and bereavement. If people feel this way always or often, it can have a serious impact on physical and mental health and wellbeing. Government action to tackle loneliness among the most vulnerable in our society is driven by the three key objectives set out in the world-first strategy for tackling loneliness of 2018: to reduce the stigma of loneliness by building the national conversation, to drive a lasting shift so that relationships and loneliness are considered by organisations across society, and to improve the evidence base to make a compelling case for ongoing action.

To reduce the stigma of loneliness, the Government have a national communications campaign that has reached millions of people to raise awareness and provide advice on what people can do to help themselves and others if they are feeling lonely. Last year, our campaign became part of the Department of Health and Social Care’s “Better Health: Every mind matters” campaign. This year, we published research exploring the prevalence of stigma associated with loneliness in England. That research found three types of stigma: self-stigma, perceived social stigma and actual social stigma. One of the key findings was that older people feel stigma around loneliness driven by concerns that they will be a burden to their family and lose their independence. For example, some older people felt that their role as a parent meant that they were not meant to seek support from their children. That research is informing our work on building the national conversation on loneliness.

During loneliness awareness week this summer, I shared my personal experience of loneliness with The Times and The Sun. I have to say that I was overwhelmed by the response I had from people right across the globe. It revealed that, despite awareness raised during the pandemic, it is still unusual to speak about loneliness in public. I hope that my small contribution will play a small part in helping to reduce stigma around loneliness. As the Minister responsible, if I cannot talk about it, how can I get everybody else to start talking about it?

We are committed to driving a lasting shift in Government and across organisations in society to ensure that loneliness is considered as a matter of course in all policymaking. Since the publication of the strategy in 2018, the Government and their partners have invested almost £80 million into tackling loneliness. At the local level, we have supported community projects, such as song-writing groups in Devon and dance classes in Bedfordshire, which benefit vulnerable older people in the community. We have also supported health and wellbeing projects, such as online chat services in Durham, and projects that support education, climate and the environment, such as nature walks in Lambeth. We have also taken nationwide action, such as expanding the social prescribing programme, which connects people to activities and services in their communities to meet their wellbeing needs. That helps to tackle loneliness at its source and reduce the impact on public services.

While digital technology can be a great resource to connect people, that opportunity is not equally available to all, as we have heard from many here today. That is why we recognised the importance of it during the pandemic. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport invested £34 million to help the sector adapt to get more people online by giving them the support, devices, data and skills they need to be able to connect. We are continuing to work closely with stakeholders to understand the challenges that digital inclusion presents, and I will raise the matter continually with my colleagues to consider how the services we provide can be more mindful of those challenges. This must be a cross-sector effort. I applaud Sky for its “Sky Cares” initiative, which incorporates befriending into the roles of its call centre staff, and Barclays for its “Digital Eagles” initiative, which involves visiting existing groups to bring digital banking skills to those who need it most.

We are committed to tackling loneliness for all, and in March 2023 we launched the know your neighbourhood fund, a package of up to £30 million to create volunteering opportunities and help reduce loneliness. It will go to new and existing activity in 27 of the most deprived areas. I recently visited one of the projects in Hull, where Age UK was running a befriending service. It was creating volunteering opportunities for younger people to befriend older people who have been feeling isolated, and make them feel part of the wider community. Just a few weeks ago, I visited Waterside Farm Leisure Centre on Canvey Island, one of the recipients of Sport England funding designed to bring investment into local communities. I had the chance to take part in an exercise class with elderly people, many of whom were coming together simply because it was an opportunity not only to be active but to meet with other people.

In 2021, we launched the tackling loneliness hub as a dedicated online forum to connect individuals and organisations working to tackle loneliness. Members can develop relationships, learn and upskill from events and workshops, and share the latest research and insights on what works. Organisations represented include Age UK, the English Football League Trust, the Co-op Foundation and the British Red Cross. Membership now stands at over 600 organisations from the public, private, academic and charity sectors. It is worth highlighting the fact that we are recognised as world leaders. I have been pleased to welcome and have conversations with people from Sweden, Japan, Finland and the United States, and we continue to work across countries to learn from each other.

I am conscious of time and the need for my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives to be able to sum up, but I will just say that we recognise the fact that loneliness can affect all people, regardless of their background. We know that there are specific issues around each set of people we are talking about, but we will continue to work closely together, right across Government. I have brought together Ministers from 11 different Departments, and we will continue to work closely so that we do not lose momentum, but do everything we can to tackle loneliness in this country. As others have said, as we approach Christmas, if we see someone alone, we should just stop and say hello; it might be the only gift they get this Christmas. But let us continue that in January, February, March and the rest of the year.

I thank all colleagues for their contributions. We have covered a huge amount of ground and we have been able to demonstrate our understanding and care for lonely people of any age or demographic, wherever they live. It is heartening to hear what is going on to try to address that. I thank the Minister for his response, particularly his point that this is a cross-Government matter. One thing that concerns people is the fact that different Departments have different responsibilities, but getting all those Ministers together under his leadership is really encouraging.

Most of the tea, coffee and cake I have had as an MP has been in small community groups that are trying to address this situation. Let us demonstrate that we are on their side. The Government and all parties are determined to address this and make loneliness and isolation, where possible, a thing of the past.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered loneliness and isolation in elderly and vulnerable people.

Hertfordshire SEND Services: Ofsted Findings

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Ofsted findings on Hertfordshire’s SEND services.

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

I am relieved to have secured this debate in the wake of the damning inspection report by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission on Hertfordshire’s special educational needs and disability service. Hertfordshire has received the worst possible inspection outcome. I would like to say that that was a shocking revelation, but sadly it did not come as a surprise to me or the scores of constituents who have contacted me in previous years about their experiences of SEND in the county. I had already written to Ofsted twice this year to plead with it to bring forward the inspection as quickly as possible. It finally took place in July and was published in November. I have lost count of the number of families in St Albans I have spoken to who have reached breaking point. My casework team now spend a third of their time on SEND casework.

The Ofsted report sets out, albeit in fairly sanitised terms, what it is like to be a child or young person with special educational needs or disabilities in our area. It describes the poor communication with families about their education, health and care plans. It is explicit about the lengthy delays in preparing the plans. It is clear that when EHCPs are produced, they are often of poor quality. Inspectors also document the local authority’s continued failure to put in place the measures in those EHCPs that would ensure that children’s needs are met. The report echoes the experiences of so many families in St Albans and across Hertfordshire who have contacted me. Those families have been forced to fight every step of the way to get an EHCP, and even then many have to progress their child’s case to formal routes such as tribunals. But even with a tribunal finding in their favour, families still often struggle to get Hertfordshire to deliver on the ruling in a timely way.

The Ofsted report includes all that and more, but it cannot convey the heartbreak and human cost of the failures inflicted on families, so I want to share the experience of just one of my constituents. Charlie—not their real name—is a single parent to three children, two of whom have special educational needs. Charlie contacted me more than a year ago in utter desperation. Their oldest child had been permanently excluded from a mainstream school that could not meet their needs, and one of their younger children had been placed on a reduced timetable. The family was at breaking point. The local authority was well aware of the exclusion and had finally agreed, three months earlier, that special school places were urgently needed, but Charlie could not get any indication of when places might be available or any other support while the places were secured. In fact, calls and emails to the local authority went unanswered. Then, SEND officers failed to turn up to Charlie’s child’s exclusion panel. After that, a case was not presented correctly at a separate special needs panel, causing a further three-month delay, and then the council failed to even communicate the decision of that panel to the family. There was an utter failure in communication.

During this time, Charlie was unable to work. Having used all their annual leave, they were forced to take an unpaid sabbatical. Their bank had been sympathetic for the first three months and had allowed deferred mortgage payments, but with no update from the authority’s SEND service on planned provision, which would have enabled them to return to work, Charlie was about to lose the family home and was at real risk of losing their job. There was a very real danger that a parent and their three children would be made destitute and homeless. As a result, the children were, naturally, becoming more and more dysregulated. Their emotional wellbeing and mental health were deteriorating quickly, and their educational development had halted and in some respects gone into reverse.

When Charlie contacted me and highlighted just how close their family was to collapse, I contacted Hertfordshire County Council, stressing the urgency in no uncertain terms. Astonishingly, I too struggled to get any reply from the council. I had to follow up several times to finally secure a Zoom call with the responsible officers. I sent concise and direct questions about the case in advance of the meeting, hoping that I would get answers. Despite between eight and 10 officers joining that Zoom call, I was unable to get answers to even the most basic questions. I asked if Hertfordshire County Council would pay for the transport of a child from their home to the school, and not one of the officers could answer that question. In the end, I was told that a school placement would likely be in place within two weeks; in reality, it was another six weeks before it was provided. The urgent meeting was held in December last year, yet I was still following up on one of the EHCPs in late March of this year. Even to this day, the county council has failed to confirm the provision for the younger of Charlie’s children.

I would like to assure the House that that awful case is an isolated one, but it is not. Each and every week, my team and I get yet more examples of the chaos and confusion in the SEND service in Hertfordshire. It appears that there is simply no effective triage in place. The service is in such a state of meltdown that they simply cannot distinguish between emergencies and non-urgent inquiries. Hertfordshire MPs of all political persuasions have repeatedly asked for a more effective triage system so that we can escalate urgent SEND cases, yet we still do not have one; perhaps, after years of dysfunction, there are just too many emergencies to cope with.

I will turn to how on earth we got to this point, and I am afraid that it boils down to cold hard cash—or the lack of it. Fundamentally, our county of Hertfordshire suffers from two connected problems of the Government’s making. First, the Government’s flawed national funding formula is based on historical spend, not current need. That means that children in Hertfordshire are still receiving far less per head than children in comparable neighbouring counties, such as Buckinghamshire. Secondly, the funding that Hertfordshire County Council receives does not stretch as far as it could because it must spend huge amounts on expensive placements in the independent sector.

I will turn to the funding formula. This year, SEND children in neighbouring Buckinghamshire receive an average of £935 per head, while children in Hertfordshire receive just £614. That stems from the Government’s broken funding formula, which takes spending in 2017 as a baseline figure, and that has been particularly devastating for Hertfordshire. In 2017, £2.2 million of high-needs SEND funding was diverted from regular spending to provide new special school places by the county council as a one-off investment, and that figure therefore was not included in the baseline calculation at all. Additionally and, in my view, inexcusably, Hertfordshire’s Conservative administration returned £3.7 million, which was allocated for SEND by central Government. Its reasoning was that it was not given enough time to allocate it in that financial year, although I suspect, if asked, many families who were reliant on SEND services at the time would find that pretty hard to swallow.

All in all, the Department for Education formula ignores £5.9 million of annual spend that should have been taken into account when formulating the baseline. I have raised that with Ministers repeatedly in meetings, letters and parliamentary questions since 2021, and I have provided ample analysis from the local authority to demonstrate the disparity. In May this year, I received a shocking response from the then Minister for Children, the right hon. Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho). She suggested that by including the additional money in the baseline calculation, it would merely increase that year’s funding by £2 million, so it was not even worth adjusting. We would bite off their hand for £2 million. I understand that Department for Education officials met with Hertfordshire County Council yesterday to examine those figures again, and I hope the Minister may have an update for me today.

My first question is: will the Minister immediately release that £2 million, particularly in the light of Hertfordshire County Council’s announcement last week that without drastic action by the Conservative administration, the schools budget will be overspent by £15 million?

Secondly, when will the Government change the funding formula so that it is based on current need? The DFE has tried to justify the decision not to correct the formula by suggesting that Hertfordshire’s spend is increasing by a greater percentage each year compared with authorities such as Buckinghamshire. However, at the current year-on-year increase, it would take 15 years to achieve parity. That means that a three-year-old in Hertfordshire today would have to finish all their formal education before they would get equal funding with a child in Buckinghamshire for their SEND needs. That is indefensible.

My third question is about funding for special school places. HCC officers also tell me that, alongside having one of the lowest rates of funding per head, the council also has some of the highest costs. That is a result of needing to place more and more students in independent and out-of-county schools. I am relieved that some new school places were secured in 2019 in the council’s wave 2 bid, but I was very disappointed to be told just last week by officials from the Department for Education that Hertfordshire’s recent application for a new special school—which would go some way to mitigating that cost—was refused.

It was suggested to me that there might have been problems with that application, but HCC officials say they did not receive any negative feedback. Honestly, parents and MPs are simply not interested in finger pointing—we just want to see new school places created. Will the Minister commit to working with Hertfordshire to ensure that it can submit an application that has the best possible chance, so that our county can secure funding for the additional special school places that we so desperately need?

I have two other questions that are directly related to Ofsted. Both day-to-day funding and investment in special schools need to be addressed if we are to see any improvement in outcomes for families in Hertfordshire, but the issues in Hertfordshire now run much deeper than just the financial challenges, as Charlie’s example so clearly and devastatingly illustrates. We have all seen the Ofsted report, and I am disappointed that the Secretary of State has not—yet, perhaps—appointed a commissioner to support the council in rebuilding the service.

I welcome the news of the appointment of Dame Christine Lenehan as an independent chair of the improvement board, but the improvement plans that were presented to Hertfordshire MPs in 2023 by HCC were devastatingly similar to the ones presented to us in 2021. If anything, services have not got better; they have got worse. Families in my constituency have been waiting for far too long, so my next question is: will Ministers now grasp the nettle and immediately issue a formal improvement notice? My final question is: will the Minister appoint a SEND commissioner to get Hertfordshire back on track, in the way that the Government supported Birmingham City Council when its SEND services were found to be failing?

There is no doubt that SEND services are in crisis right across England. In the longer term, I urge the Government to end the postcode lottery of provision. Liberal Democrats would establish a national body to fund high needs SEND, and take pressure off local councils’ decimated balance sheets. But today I ask Minister to step up and take this opportunity to improve the lives of children and families in St Albans, and right across Hertfordshire. I ask him to please issue an improvement notice, please appoint a SEND commissioner to drive improvement forward, please release the £2 million adjustment without delay, and please, for goodness’ sake, fix the absurd funding formula that puts children in Hertfordshire at a permanent disadvantage—for at least the next 15 years. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) on securing a debate on such an important subject. Improving the special educational needs and disabilities system across the country is a priority for this Government, and that includes improving services for children and young people with SEND in Hertfordshire.

The Government’s ambition for children and young people with SEND is for them to thrive, fulfil their potential, and lead happy, healthy and productive adult lives. That means making sure that they have access to the right support in the right place at the right time, and intervening when a local authority is not providing that. I was therefore very disappointed to learn that Ofsted inspectors have significant concerns about the experiences and outcomes for children with SEND in Hertfordshire. The issues raised in the report are serious. I need to be confident that the local area partnership is taking the right actions to secure rapid and sustainable improvement.

DFE officials, along with NHS England advisers, are due to meet local leaders next week to scrutinise and challenge their improvement plan in response to the inspection. They will seek assurances about the actions that leaders are taking to improve SEND provision rapidly. The local authority has already appointed Dame Christine Lenehan, as the hon. Member noted. She was director at the Council for Disabled Children and will be the new independent chair of the partnership’s multi-agency improvement board. She is one of the country’s most highly respected and experienced SEND experts. I have every confidence that she will push the local authority to take the actions that it should take and move it in the right direction.

The Department for Education has also appointed a specialist professional SEND adviser to provide additional advice and support to the local SEND leaders and to the Department until such time as the Secretary of State is satisfied that that is no longer required. It is essential that rapid action is taken to improve SEND services in Hertfordshire and that the local area partnership accepts collective responsibility and accountability for delivering the agreed actions. That will require a relentless focus on improvement across all service providers so that children, young people and families can access the support that they need.

Let me turn to the hon. Lady’s questions about funding. Funding for mainstream schools and high needs funding for children and young people with complex needs will be more than £1.8 billion higher next year than this financial year. Total schools funding will be £59.6 billion—its highest ever level in real terms per pupil. Within that total, high needs funding will be over £10.5 billion in 2024-25—an increase of more than 60% on the 2019-20 allocations. That will help local authorities and schools with the increasing costs of supporting children and young people with SEND.

We recently announced provisional 2024-25 high needs allocations for local authorities, and Hertfordshire’s allocation is £187 million, which is £8.4 million more than the council will receive this year—a cumulative increase of 29% per head over the three years since 2021-22.

The Minister talks about the allocation that will be given to Hertfordshire County Council. Will he confirm that he will instruct his officials to speak directly to HCC about what should have been included in the 2017 baseline, so that we make sure that the money that we are going to receive is a fair reflection of what we should get?

If officials have not had that conversation already, I am happy for them to discuss that point with the council. This is the first time that I have heard that point from the hon. Lady today. I am well aware that she and other right hon. and hon. Members representing Hertfordshire have had discussions and correspondence with my predecessors at the Department about the way that the high needs funding formula works for Hertfordshire and other counties, and particularly the different levels of per-head funding that the council receives compared with neighbours. As she might know, officials from the Department met Hertfordshire County Council officers yesterday to discuss the local authority’s concerns, in addition to the meeting that she had with officials last week.

As the hon. Lady suggested, the situation is partly due to the historical spend factor in the formula that was in place when we came to power in 2010 and which used to be used as a proxy for supply and demand. We have been reducing the weight of that factor over time, but because of how much it made up the formula that we inherited, it is not something that can be changed immediately. That is why, as she suggested, the increases for Hertfordshire are higher than for others as we try to close the gap.

I accept that the increase cannot happen “immediately”, to use the Minister’s word, but does he agree that 15 years is too long? And if it is, and if immediately is not possible, is there a midway point? Might he look at how Hertfordshire can catch up with Buckinghamshire’s funding, for example, in a few years? Even knowing that that can happen over two or three years, or a maximum of four years, would bring huge relief to our services. Although I might accept him saying that it cannot happen immediately, I cannot accept him saying that it still has to happen over 15 years.

I can say to the hon. Lady only that we review the formula every single year. This is not the only factor that is within the formula. I believe that the gap is closing as a result of what we have been doing. As part of our annual process, we will look at every authority to see what is happening.

To turn to the hon. Lady’s questions about special school places, we know that demand for specialist provision in Hertfordshire currently exceeds the number of available places. We have published more than £1.5 billion of high needs provision capital allocations for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 financial years as part of our transformational £2.6 billion investment into high needs provision between 2022 and 2025. That includes almost £27 million for Hertfordshire. Local authorities can use the funding to deliver new places in mainstream and special schools, as well as other specialist settings, and to improve the suitability and accessibility of existing buildings.

Local authorities can also commission new schools through the free school presumption route. Hertfordshire held a successful free school presumption competition in autumn ’22 to identify an academy sponsor to open a 60-place primary school in Potters Bar. The new school is planned to open by September 2025. In addition, a 60-place secondary special free school, the James Marks Academy, was opened in September this year.

Hertfordshire has a county-wide capital programme to deliver the key priorities of the county’s SEND special school place planning strategy. I understand that the local authority intends to extend the current SEND sufficiency strategy by one year into 2025 to provide additional specialist provision places and resource provisions for children with communication needs in mainstream schools, ensuring that children can attend the provision stated on their EHCP and that their needs are met in the most appropriate local provision.

As well as expanding special resource provision in mainstream schools across the county, a priority from Hertfordshire County Council’s strategy is to open more permanent places for pupils with severe learning difficulties, physical and neurological impairment, and social, emotional and communication development need.

Positive actions have been taken. For example, the county is establishing a number of new specialist resource provisions in mainstream schools for children with communication needs. Four secondary provisions with 20 places each are being developed. One is already open and the other three will open in the next academic year. Those will be followed by nine primary provisions with 12 places each across the next two academic years.

I thank the hon. Lady again for bringing this matter forward and for raising the issues that she is seeing with Hertfordshire’s SEND provision. We all care passionately about the outcomes there, along with SEND outcomes across the country, and that is why this Government are determined to transform the system with our reform plan.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Fatalities in Childbirth: Statutory Leave and Pay

I beg to move,

That this House has considered fatalities in childbirth and statutory leave and pay.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I start by thanking those who are here to speak. This is an incredibly important topic, so I am grateful to all those who have given up their time to be here. I extend my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke), who has launched the all-party parliamentary group for birth trauma and who does vital work in this area. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), who sadly could not be here, does incredibly important work as part of the APPG on baby loss. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has spoken passionately on the topic since he was first elected.

I will focus my remarks on losing a partner during childbirth. The reason I called the debate is down to Aaron. Aaron was a constituent who came to see me at a constituency surgery in Stapleford with his three-week-old baby Tim in his arms. Tim’s mother Bernadette tragically passed away in childbirth. As I have stated previously, Bernadette would no doubt have been the most loving and dedicated mother, who also had ambitious plans for continuing a long career in the NHS. She is missed tremendously by her loved ones.

Aaron brought to my attention the fact that there are circumstances in the event of the death of a child’s parent during childbirth in which the surviving partner is not entitled to parental leave. Aaron found himself in the agonising position of losing a loved one and having to raise a new-born child alone. That situation was made worse when he realised he did not qualify for shared parental leave and pay. Aaron was fortunate in that he worked for an incredibly understanding employer, who allowed Aaron the leave and pay he required to look after Tim. Others may not be so lucky.

It must be entrenched in law that people can have time with their newborn and time to grieve without the fear of unemployment. I previously presented a ten-minute rule Bill on this topic called Shared Parental Leave and Pay (Bereavement) Bill to try to make a vital change to the law. Unfortunately, I was unlucky in the private Member’s Bill ballot, but I am delighted that, after he was successful in the ballot, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) has presented a private Member’s Bill that would create that change. I am incredibly grateful to him for doing so, and I look forward to following and supporting the Bill as it progresses.

This truly is a non-partisan issue, and I have been incredibly grateful since starting my campaign on this topic to have had support from hon. Members across all major political parties. It is incredibly important to state that although this is not an issue that affects thousands of people across the country, for those it does affect the consequences are huge. Changing the law to ensure that leave and pay are available to those who find themselves in situations such as Aaron’s will ensure that no other parent is faced in the devastating position of having to raise a child while grieving and doing so in the shadow of avoidable job insecurity.

In cases such as these, the people whom shared parental leave was created to help are often the ones who are missing out. When faced with this life-altering set of circumstances, Aaron was confronted with having to cope with the challenges of being a new parent and the prospect of job insecurity, all in the midst of extraordinary grief. That is more than most of us could handle.

Parental leave in the UK is something we should be proud of. Since the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999, entitlement and access to maternity leave and pay have existed. On a similar note, entitlement to paternity or shared parental leave, though more limited, is fairly straightforward to access. However, a small change can close the existing gap. Shared parental leave was established in 2015. When it was introduced, the Government stated that it had been created in order

“to move away from the current old-fashioned and inflexible arrangements and create a new more equal system, which allows both parents to keep a strong link to their workplace.”

Shared parental leave was introduced to allow parents access to their workplace and their family. Now that is precisely what is being prevented in cases such as Aaron’s. In such cases, it seems that the people shared parental leave was created to help are the ones missing out. When faced with this life-altering set of circumstances, Aaron was confronted with having to cope with the challenges of being a new parent and the prospect of new job insecurity, all while in the midst of extraordinary grief. That is more than many of us could handle.

Changing the law around shared parental leave in cases of bereavement is not contentious. It simply seeks to allow individuals the right, due to circumstances beyond their control, to take leave and be with their child.

Thank you, Mr Sharma, for allowing me to speak; I apologise for being late. The hon. Gentleman has said several times that this is cross-party. It is not a political issue; it is basically one of conscience. Allowing such a change does not impact thousands of people. I hope that in the course of the passage of my private Member’s Bill we can work constructively.

If he will allow me, I would say to the Minister that he and I have worked together on many issues during my time in this House. I genuinely hope we can come to a position where the Bill can be passed and bring about this change, not just for Aaron and his family but for those who will sadly follow him in those circumstances. I hope we can do that in the cross-party process, and that the Minister would agree.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, with which I certainly agree. As I mentioned, he has campaigned a long time for something similar to be done. I am glad he is taking this issue on board, which is truly cross-party. All major political parties signed my Shared Parental Leave and Pay (Bereavement) Bill. I thank him for his intervention and agree with him on that point.

The businesses that employ individuals in such circumstances are being negatively impacted. That is a topic I have heard raised as a concern. I believe some may have trepidation that such a change in law could cripple small businesses, which cannot afford that type of leave. To that point, I would say that an incredibly small number of people and businesses would be affected. It is not an issue that affects thousands.

Furthermore, if such leave is not allowed, those businesses could be faced with losing their valued employee—a situation that I am sure many would seek to avoid. I hope the effect that a change would have on businesses would be small in comparison with the benefit gained by the individual receiving leave and pay.

To be eligible for shared parental leave and statutory shared parental pay currently in the UK, both parents must share responsibility for the child at birth and meet work and pay criteria. Those are different depending on which parent wants to use the shared parental leave and pay. For the mother’s partner to take shared parental leave and pay, the mother must have been working for at least 26 weeks of the 66 weeks before the week the baby is due—the 26 weeks do not have to be in a row—and in addition, to have earned at least £390 in total across any 13 of the 66 weeks. The mother’s partner must have been employed continuously by the same employer for at least 26 weeks by the end of the 15th week before the due date, and stay with the same employer until they start their shared parental leave.

Practically speaking, a surviving partner could be entitled to take shared parental leave, but they would need to meet the criteria I have just mentioned. Aaron did not. That means that under the current requirements many will not qualify for shared parental leave and pay. I am determined that we introduce a day-one right for a parent to access both leave and pay in the circumstance of losing their partner in childbirth.

As a father, I know that being a parent to a newborn is a huge undertaking at the best of times. I cannot imagine being in that position while facing the fact that your partner has died in childbirth. I desperately want to ensure that people like Aaron are never in the position of being without support. I truly hope that no one has to find themselves in the same position as Aaron, who was unable to share the beginning of Tim’s life with his loving wife. However, a change in the law would mean that those who do would not be without the law behind them.

I thank those who have come here to speak on the issue. I look forward to hearing everyone’s contributions.

Thank you for calling me, Mr Sharma. May I say what a joy it is to follow the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) and wish him well in his endeavours to make this law? I did not know until now that the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) had kindly donated his private Member’s Bill to the hon. Gentleman for this purpose. I thank him for that and hope that, with that consensus from Members from parties on both sides of the House, the Government will put their hands up and say, “Let’s go with it and let’s do it.” That would please both hon. Gentlemen, as well as every one of us who signed the 10-minute rule Bill, which I did last year.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe is right that I have a particular interest in the matter. I am proud to be a signatory to the ten-minute rule Bill and to stand in Westminster Hall today alongside him and friends from a variety of parties. I know that the shadow Minister for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), has a particular interest in the matter as well. Indeed, I believe the hon. Lady may have had a ten-minute rule Bill on the subject in the past. We have a real consensus of opinion from everyone in this room.

This is a topic that is not and cannot be forgotten. I know that my colleague, the hon. Member for Broxtowe, is determined to see that the requisite changes are made to ensure that those going through the most immense, unspeakable and, for us, unimaginable pain have the level of support that they are entitled to. It is indeed unimaginable that the letter of the law would have the support designated for grieving parents circumnavigated, as the hon. Member for Broxtowe outlined. With the greatest respect, I cannot understand how it is possible that somebody who has lost both their partner and their child could not be eligible to receive the highest level of support. I can only imagine that that has been unintentional.

I try to be respectful in my comments, so I am sure the Minister will indicate the direction in which Government will go on the private Member’s Bill, which was kindly donated. The hon. Member for Ogmore did so in an attempt to rectify the mistake and I wholeheartedly support him in his aim, yet again along with other hon. Members here in Westminster Hall.

Interestingly, businesses are also asking for these changes to enable them to acknowledge the depth of pain that someone is going through and help in whatever way they can. If we have that request from individuals who have suffered and are in terrible pain, and we have businesses that support that, it seems to me that a consensus is building. Hopefully, that will make it much easier to acknowledge the depth of pain that someone is going through and help them in any way possible. For that purpose, we look to the Minister. He has compassion and responds to such things. I know by his very nature the type of person the Minister is and I hope—as I always do—for a positive response.

The fact is that since Government ceased part-funding sick pay, it has been coming solely from businesses, and small and medium businesses can find themselves struggling to offer support when their finances are tight. The change would enable businesses to allow the small amount of time off or the shared parental leave with no burden on the company itself. As the hon. Member for Broxtowe said, that is a small request and a small ask, but one that would made a significant difference to people.

As a father, and a grandfather to six grandchildren, the subject of this debate honestly strikes me in the very pit of my stomach. I may not really understand the pain felt by those who have lost loved ones, but I do know without any doubt that they need support and help to process and deal with that pain.

I want to tell a story that I know will resonate in particular with the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran, because I know some of what she has experienced in her life. One of my beloved constituents—I call her that because it is true—was attempting to find out where her stillborn son had been buried some 58 years ago when she passed away. She never did get to see the place, get answers or hear what had gone on. The pain that that lovely lady experienced over the years has always preyed on my mind. She was trying to find that information because she had not been able to process the grief at the time, and it stayed with her until the week she died—for all those 58 years. I knew her very, very well; I have photographs of her in my office. The system in place at the time basically told her that nothing had happened, and to forget it. That is the way it was dealt with years ago. She could not forget it, of course, and she lived with her grief every day of her life.

This debate is about not only giving financial support to people who have suffered this loss, but ensuring emotional recognition of their loss as meaningful and worthy of support, to allow them to process their grief while receiving financial help for that limited but vital time. The hon. Member for Broxtowe has done this House proud, and I thank him for securing this debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Ogmore, who was here one minute and away the next, for his contribution. I really do look forward to something coming from the consensus of opinion we have had across Westminster Hall today, and I look forward to working alongside the Minister to make that happen—I hope we will be able to do so. I also look forward to hearing from the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran, and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders); their contributions will add to the debate and reinforce the consensus of political opinion. We all want the same thing for our constituents—let’s do that.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) on securing today’s important debate on fatalities in childbirth and statutory leave and pay, and particularly on his very moving speech. I was saddened to hear about the personal circumstances of my hon. Friend’s constituent, which inspired him to take action on this issue, and I commend him for the work he has done on drafting the Shared Parental Leave and Pay (Bereavement) Bill, to which I am very sympathetic. I am delighted that it was picked up by the Opposition in the recent private Member’s Bill ballot.

I welcome the work done by the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who introduced the right to paid statutory parental bereavement leave back in 2018, which was very welcome. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), who has done such fantastic campaigning on stillbirth certificates, and fantastic work as chair of the APPG on baby loss. We work very closely together on issues affecting parents across the country.

Having listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, I absolutely agree that there is so much more that the Government could do in the very specific circumstances that he outlined. It does not seem right that my hon. Friend’s constituent was not entitled to leave, given that his wife tragically passed away while giving birth to their son. I hope that the Government consider that there should be shared parental leave in the very specific case in which one of the child’s parents has died.

I am here, as chair of the APPG for birth trauma, specifically to speak up for fathers who have been affected by this issue. Since sharing in the Chamber in October the story of the traumatic birth of my daughter, I have been inundated with stories from mothers from across the UK, who have written to me about their birth trauma. Interestingly, it was not just mums but fathers getting in touch, and that is who I would like to talk about today. From reading the many personal and harrowing stories I have been sent, it is clear to me that fathers also feel that they are not being listened to. They are often very traumatised after witnessing a traumatic birth, especially after the death of their partner or baby.

Birth trauma is caused by traumatic events or complications in birth. The term can apply to those who experience symptoms of psychological distress after childbirth or physical injuries sustained during delivery. Those events and complications can include surgical procedures—for example, when a sudden emergency requires a caesarean section—a long labour in severe pain for many hours, or of course the sad loss of a child. With permission, I will share examples from emails that I have received. I thank the Birth Trauma Association for all its support for my birth trauma campaign, and for helping me to collate these stories. One mother wrote to me about her experiences at King’s College Hospital in London:

“I had been told to lie as still as possible, so I got my husband’s attention, and he started shouting to get someone’s attention as our baby had gone blue. She was exhausted and had been placed face down on my chest and stopped breathing. We had to shout several times to get somebody’s attention and alarm bells were then rung and my daughter was taken away to be resuscitated. My husband suffered PTSD for months after”.

Another wrote:

“There was also a lack of support for my partner. He was left on his own for very long periods of time and wasn’t kept informed. No one checked in on him. Considering what was going on with me, he wasn’t a priority when it was a very traumatic experience for him as well.”

Imagine the terror that you would feel if your partner was going through that traumatic experience. It is clear that birth trauma does not only affect mothers, who have often suffered significant birth injuries like mine, as well as psychological trauma, which can stay with them for a long time.

I welcome the fact that in my recent debate on birth trauma, the Government announced the roll-out of the obstetric anal sphincter injury care bundle to all hospital trusts to reduce the risk of injuries in childbirth, but the Government could do so much more to help mothers with their aftercare. We must not forget that partners and fathers also need our support. That is why in our recent meeting I called on the Government and Health Secretary to: add birth trauma to the women’s health strategy, not just in one line, but in a meaningful way; recruit more midwives to ensure safe levels of staffing in maternity care; ensure that perinatal mental health services are available across the UK, so that we end the postcode lottery; ensure that the post-natal six-week check with a GP is offered to all mothers, and includes questions about the mother’s physical and mental health, as well as about the baby; ensure better education for parents, so that there is informed consent; ensure proper continuity of care; provide national post-birth services; and give parents a safe space to speak about their experiences of difficult childbirth.

The Government are to be commended for their support for my birth trauma campaign so far, and I am delighted to support my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe. I hope that today’s debate is a reminder of how much more there is for us to do.

I am delighted to participate in this debate on statutory parental bereavement leave and pay for those whose partners have died in childbirth, given that I almost died in childbirth. In fact, my husband was informed that I would not survive. I did, but sadly my baby was stillborn, so this issue has particular personal resonance for me.

Over the years, I have championed the cause of statutory parental bereavement leave and pay, and worked across parties and constructively with Ministers, including the Minister here. Two weeks’ paid bereavement leave for all parents who lose a child up to the age of 18 was a huge, important step in improving bereavement support. I was delighted that the Government accepted my amendment, which said that the two weeks should extend to those who suffered a stillbirth, and be in addition to their maternity and paternity leave. The Minister will recall that the passing of the legislation was a very emotional moment. For those who had invested so much in the measures, their coming into effect in 2020 showed this Parliament at its best. I was heartened by the support that they offer bereaved parents, and will continue offer them in years to come.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), who successfully brought forward a Bill to ensure additional leave—beyond statutory paternity and maternity pay—for new parents who have a sick or premature baby. It is now the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Act 2023.

The ask today, for one day’s statutory paid leave for those whose partner dies in childbirth, is certainly one that I would support; but as I think the Minister knows from previously sparring with me on these issues, I would go further. Last year, I brought forward a private Member’s Bill—the Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill—that would provide two weeks’ paid bereavement leave for all those who lose a close family member. We can debate what we mean by and how we define the term “close family member”, and I am happy to do that, but the principle that as a society we should recognise the impact of grief, which can be so debilitating and profound, seems to me to be right.

I believe that this is an idea whose time has come. It cannot be right that when we suffer the loss of a close relative, our right to leave, paid or otherwise, should be entirely down to the discretion of the employer. Thousands of employees are unable to take leave without fearing that it will undermine their job security. Those in less well paid jobs are far less likely to receive any discretionary time off with pay when they suffer a bereavement, or to have any compassionate leave at all, which is grossly unfair. That is why I brought forward my private Member’s Bill to address the issue. I tabled motions, secured debates, presented petitions and brought forward the private Member’s Bill, none of which, I am sorry to say, managed to persuade the Government, so I hope that the hon. Member for Broxtowe has better luck than I did.

I have long campaigned on better statutory bereavement support. My Bill last year seemed timely, given that we had come through a pandemic, in which loss and grief touched so many people. Rather than proposing a specific provision for those who lose their partner in childbirth, although that is a laudable idea, I think that the scale of loss for all those who lose a close family member means that they deserve statutory paid leave provision, and two weeks is not an unreasonable ask. On compassionate grounds, on economic grounds—the right support at the right time can ensure that people do not fall out of the workforce altogether and become economically inactive—and on mental health grounds, providing that is the right thing to do, because the impact of profound and complicated grief is truly debilitating, so I support the hon. Gentleman’s proposals in principle, but as I said, I would go further.

I believe that one day there will be statutory paid leave for all those who lose a close family member. For now, the Government remain unconvinced of the arguments on financial grounds, but there is plenty of evidence that ultimately this statutory paid leave would be an investment in our workforce that would more than pay for itself. Research shows that grief experienced by employees who have lost a loved one costs the UK economy £23 billion per year and costs the Treasury nearly £8 billion per year, but those costs could reach as high as £49 billion to the economy and £18 billion to the Treasury, so even if we judge the proposal for improved statutory leave and pay entirely on economic grounds, which I know the Treasury tends to do, it still makes financial sense, so I will keep making the case until it is delivered. In the same spirit, I support calls today for greater recognition of the impact of loss and bereavement, and for much greater support for those affected by it.

It is a pleasure to see you in the chair, Mr Sharma, and it has been a pleasure to listen to this debate, because it has shown the best of Parliament. People have brought their personal awful experiences to the fore to try to bring about change for the better for everyone. I certainly congratulate the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry), first on securing the debate, but also on his tireless and passionate campaigning in this area. We heard how his conversations with his constituent Aaron about the tragic loss of his wife set him on this path. As the hon. Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) said, it does not seem right that he was not entitled to any leave in those awful circumstances. That succinctly puts into words where most Members are on this issue. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stafford for her leadership and courage in this area, and to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who has been a tireless campaigner on the issue, bringing her own experiences to the fore.

I return to the tragic story of the constituent of the hon. Member for Broxtowe. We extend our deepest sympathies to Aaron and his family. What the hon. Member said today and in his previous interventions has brought the issue to the fore. While he has not been successful in the private Member’s Bill ballot, we have had positive indications that my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) will bring forward a similar Bill. I encourage the Minister to meet my hon. Friend in due course—I am sure he will—to ensure that we can get the Bill over the line.

As has been acknowledged, the circumstances in which Aaron found himself are thankfully very uncommon. The number of mothers who sadly passed away within 42 days of giving birth between 2019 and 2021 was 261, but that is 261 is too many. It goes without saying that each and every death is a tragedy, and I put on record our sincere condolences to all families who have faced those extremely difficult circumstances and that unimaginable heartbreak.

It is apposite to take this opportunity to look at the UK’s comparative maternal mortality rate. Recently published research found that the UK had a maternal mortality rate many times higher than some of its European counterparts, and it performed second-worst in a study of eight European countries. Those figures are clearly concerning, but I appreciate that that is not for the Minister to address; it is more a matter for his counterpart in the Department of Health and Social Care. In many respects, national comparisons do not get across just how difficult it is for people like Aaron who face this devastating situation. However, the fact that they can fall through the cracks in the way that we heard today shows that there are deeper problems with the protections afforded to workers in this country. In that example, the gaps are evident.

As we have heard, at present the only right to statutory bereavement leave is for parents who have lost children up to the age of 18; in those circumstances, they are entitled to two weeks of leave. Leave is a day one right, but the entitlement to pay is conditional on having been in employment for at least 26 weeks and having earned at least £123 over eight weeks. Paternity leave and paternity pay have similar requirements, and sometimes a person can have been in a job for 26 weeks before they are entitled to any support at all. Shared parental leave and pay provisions do not really help people in Aaron’s situation. Not only is there a time restriction on access to them, but income requirements can differ for a mother and a partner. Frankly, the system is very complicated, and I am afraid that the evidence is that that has discouraged families from taking up shared parental leave. It was introduced with the aim of enabling more equal parenting, but the latest figures show that only 2.8% of partners decide to take it up, so we need to do better on it.

That is why we want paternity pay, paternity leave, maternity leave and shared parental leave to become day one rights. Then those facing the tragic circumstances that Aaron faced would not risk falling through the legislative cracks, on top of facing personal tragedy and an extremely difficult situation.

Many good employers already choose to go beyond their statutory requirements, but it is clear that many do not. That is why the law needs to step in. This debate has highlighted an injustice, and it seems to me that everyone is of the same view—that this needs to be put right. It is clearly unacceptable that individuals facing some of the most tragic and difficult circumstances are allowed to fall through the cracks in this way. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister on what the Government propose to do about that. Can he inform the House of any research undertaken into the issue?

It would be interesting to know, if a figure is available, exactly how many parents in Aaron’s situation would be supported by the legislation we are talking about. That would clearly help with an assessment of the costs involved. I know the Minister has discussed the matter previously with the hon. Member for Broxtowe, but I wonder whether he has had an opportunity to consider draft legislation. I appreciate that we are not always able to get a definitive answer from Ministers on private Members’ Bills, but will the Government support the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore? That would clearly be a welcome step forward. We have heard a compelling argument for reform today, so it is about time we got on and delivered it.

It is always a pleasure to see you at any time, not least in the Chair, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) on securing today’s debate. I am grateful to him for bringing this important issue to the attention of Parliament and for his ongoing and wholehearted commitment to improving the support available to those experiencing a bereavement. I assure him that the Government are deeply sympathetic to anyone experiencing the loss of a family member or loved one. The death of a child is a truly traumatic experience for any parent, and the effects can be devastating and everlasting.

It is for those reasons that I personally brought the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill to the House in 2018 and was delighted when the entitlement came into force in 2020. It was my pleasure to take up the mantle of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), who campaigned on this issue long before me. I am also very grateful for the support I received for that legislation from across the House, not least from the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). I am not surprised that she challenges me to go further than the legislation has already taken us by extending parental bereavement to close relatives. We have discussed that matter before, and the Government have a slightly different position, but I absolutely commend her for her campaigning on it.

We introduced parental bereavement leave in recognition of the particularly tragic circumstances of losing a child before they have had the opportunity to reach adulthood. We believe it sends an important signal to employers that bereavement in the workplace should be acknowledged, and that we expect them to respond to all such circumstances sensitively and compassionately. We will continue to engage with the hon. Lady on her objective to get her proposal into legislation.

Parental bereavement leave and pay gives eligible parents a statutory right to take two weeks of paid leave to grieve the loss of their child. The entitlement to leave is a day one right, which means that it is available on the first day of someone’s employment. The two weeks can be taken together or separately, to give parents the flexibility to grieve in their own way, without having to worry about work.

In the tragic event of a stillbirth, eligible parents retain other pre-booked parental leave and pay entitlements, such as maternity, paternity and/or shared parental leave and pay. That ensures that parents have the time they need to grieve the loss of their baby. Importantly, it sends a signal to employers that bereavement and other types of personal loss should be acknowledged in the workplace.

As with all entitlements, employers are encouraged to go further whenever they can afford to and to support their employees in unforeseen and unavoidable circumstances. Since its introduction, parental leave and pay has supported thousands of parents during one of the most devastating periods of their lives, and I am proud to have played a role in passing that legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe spoke eloquently and passionately about the struggles of managing a bereavement and employment while caring for young children, in particular in the case of Aaron, Bernadette and Tim. Of course, the majority of fathers or partners who find themselves in the dreadful situation of the child’s mother having died at or soon after birth are likely to qualify for shared parental and paternity leave, as they will have completed the six months of continuous service with their employer necessary to qualify. Qualifying for shared parental leave gives eligible fathers and partners access to 52 weeks of leave to care for their child. I can say in response to the shadow Minister that we anticipate that covering about 100 cases where the mother has passed away per annum. The vast majority of those will be covered because the father has the relevant level of service—26 weeks—which gives them entitlement to take leave.

We think that the number of people who would be affected as Aaron was is around 10 per annum. Of course, each one of those cases is devastating. It was my pleasure to meet with Aaron almost a year ago, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, with whom I worked on his private Member’s Bill to make leave and pay a day one right. It was good to hear that Aaron’s employer was benevolent and did help. I think that most employers would in those circumstances. However, I quite understand the my hon. Friend’s campaign on this. He made a very compelling case with his point about the combination of being a new parent in a new job and going through extraordinary grief. I congratulate him on securing the support of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore). I am very keen to meet with both of them to talk about how we might help in this case.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) for her fine words, yet again—she won “Speech of the Year” at The Spectator awards; a wonderful accolade—but most of all for her campaigning on birth trauma and her historic debate back in October, which was the first of its kind in Parliament’s history. As a father of four children, from my perspective, every birth is traumatic. With the circumstances and cases she describes in her speech, she absolutely makes a compelling case for the work she is doing. She challenges us to describe the support that families receive following the death of a mother in childbirth. We continue to work to address the recommendations set out in the UK Commission on Bereavement’s report. To do this, we have established a cross-Government bereavement working group, with representatives from over 10 Departments, to improve bereavement support and ensure that it is more cohesive across Government. I also thank, as she did, the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss and the all-party parliamentary group for birth trauma.

Many employers go above and beyond their statutory duties and provide paid or unpaid compassionate leave. We would always encourage individuals facing difficult personal circumstances and their employers to have an open discussion to determine what solution best balances the needs of both parties. It is vital that we continue to promote a culture of compassion and understanding to the select few employers that do not respond appropriately to their employees’ requests for time off work. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe challenged us to legislate in this area, and I am very sympathetic to his pleas. Our only nervousness was set out by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). We are always cognisant of the impact of any legislation on businesses. However, it is fair to say in this case, with the small number of people who are affected, that this is something that merits very close consideration, if I can put it that way.

In this Parliament, we have already supported several private Member’s Bills that will offer new entitlements and additional support for employed parents and families. This always has to be balanced against the burden on business and the Exchequer—the costs, as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) set out. For example, in July 2023, the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act 2023 gained Royal Assent. That legislation will give millions of British workers more flexibility on where and when they work. Flexible working arrangements will be particularly useful to individuals trying to re-establish a routine after a difficult personal life event such as bereavement. We have also legislated in many other areas, including carer’s leave, neonatal care, predictable working patterns and the tipping Bill to enhance worker’s rights during this Parliament. As I say, given such a small cohort—sadly, 100 mothers lose their lives in this way—only 10 would be covered by the legislation that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe and the hon. Member for Ogmore are considering. I am happy to meet them to discuss their proposals in more detail.

We will of course continue to support the participation and progression of parents in the labour market without adding additional regulations where we can avoid doing so. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe for organising today’s debate and to all those who contributed to it. I am keen to work with him to see how we can take matters forward.

I thank everyone for their participation in this debate. It is a difficult subject that has been handled with great sensitivity and care. I thank the Minister, whom I have met about this topic on multiple occasions. He has always given valuable advice to me, and I am extremely grateful for that. I also thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for his non-partisan remarks and support. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his support for my Shared Parental Leave and Pay (Bereavement) Bill, which I introduced under the ten-minute rule. I know that, as a father and a grandfather himself, he is sincere in his support. I hope the Minister heard his words about how much cross-party support there is for a change.

I thank the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), who is not in his place, for introducing the Shared Parental Leave and Pay (Bereavement) Bill as a private Member’s Bill. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) for her remarks about birth trauma, and about the help for mothers with their aftercare and healthcare added to the Government’s health strategy as well. I also thank the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for her contribution. She is clearly passionate about this topic.

I hope that I have been clear that a change in our laws must be made to ensure that leave and pay is a day one right for those who lose their partner in childbirth. Once again, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ogmore, whose Bill seeks to bring that about. I will be sure to support his Bill through each of its stages in the House. Loss in childbirth, of a partner or child, is one of the most devastating circumstances a family can face. It is vital that we put in place all the support that we can.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered fatalities in childbirth and statutory leave and pay.

Sitting adjourned.