Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 743: debated on Tuesday 9 January 2024

House of Commons

Tuesday 9 January 2024

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Parole Board Consideration Mechanism

1. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Parole Board reconsideration mechanism. (900794)

The reconsideration mechanism introduced in July 2019 is a vital tool for public protection, allowing Ministers to intervene in broad cases where there is concern that the decision to release is irrational or procedurally flawed, or where there has been an error of law. Since 2019, this Government have used the mechanism to have 17 release decisions retaken by the Parole Board. Nine of those resulted in the board reversing its original decision to direct release, including the recent case of Colin Pitchfork.

The Treasurer of His Majesty’s Household, my right hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), and I have both raised concerns about the release of Edwin Hopkins, the schoolgirl killer of Naomi Smith. I know that the Secretary of State cannot retrospectively apply the law around parole, but will he assure my constituents and residents in neighbouring Nuneaton that the new laws in the Victims and Prisoners Bill going through Parliament at the moment put public safety at the heart of future Parole Board decisions?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that extremely troubling case. The murder committed by Edwin Hopkins was a truly dreadful crime, and I understand the concern about the release of prisoners who have committed such heinous offences. The reforms in the Victims and Prisoners Bill do ensure that public safety is at the forefront of parole decisions, including by codifying the release test in law and introducing a new power to allow the Secretary of State to direct a second check on the release of some of the most serious offenders.

I thank the Lord Chancellor for his response and his clear commitment to ensuring that victims are considered. As the Member of Parliament for Strangford, many people contact me about those getting early parole and decisions that are made. Will he reassure me and the House that victims will be considered and contacted before any person who has carried out an evil crime is actually released?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is one thing being a victim of a crime in the first place but another not being kept updated on progress of the sentence of that individual, or indeed a parole decision. That is why we are absolutely committed through the victims code and other mechanisms to ensuring that victims are kept updated, including during the important parole process.

Child Sexual Exploitation: Historical Cases

2. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the time taken to schedule court hearings for historical cases of child sexual exploitation on survivors and their families. (900795)

The House should be in no doubt as to how urgently we are working to accelerate justice. We will have recruited 1,000 new judges by the end of this year and extended the use of 24 Nightingale courtrooms, and we funded a record number of sitting days in courts last year. We have transformed how we support victims of sexual violence offences through the criminal justice system, including with the use of nearly 1,000 independent sexual violence advisers—some of those are especially for children—the nationwide roll-out of section 28 evidence procedures and pre-court familiarisation for vulnerable witnesses.

My constituent had to wait several years before her historical child sexual exploitation case was finally heard. During that time, the court date was cancelled twice, causing her immense distress. There is a backlog of about 65,000 Crown court cases—a third more there than in 2020—and nearly a third are waiting more than one year, compared with 10% in 2020. I appreciate what the Minister said about the additional barristers and judges recruited, but given the sensitive nature of these cases, could she indicate what percentage of the backlog is down to that and what she and her team are doing specifically to address it?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who has raised this issue before. She will know that listing is a matter for the independent judiciary, but I do not seek to hide behind that. Actually, I would like to meet her to discuss the specific reasons for adjourning the case she talked about, because we might be able to do something to help.

I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to two important things. A new police taskforce set up by the Government to support historical child sex abuse investigations has led to a 20% increase in child sex charges in the past year alone. In addition to that, I will say this. Greater Manchester currently has 59 live investigations into child sexual abuse. These are complex cases involving multiple perpetrators and multiple victims. In one case that recently went all the way through the court, the perpetrators did not even know each other—they had never met—so even the decision about how the group is arranged, how the case is allocated and the length of time it will need for listing is particularly complex. I would like to meet her, for the reasons I gave.

Victim Support

Supporting victims has broadly three elements. First, it means ensuring harmful behaviour is comprehensively criminalised. That is why we have legislated to create new offences of stalking, coercive and controlling behaviour, upskirting, revenge porn, non-fatal strangulation and cyberflashing. Secondly, it means ensuring that the punishment fits the crime, which is why the average sentence has increased by around 50% since 2010. Thirdly, it means supporting victims before, during and after the court process. That is why we are funding over 1,000 independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers by 2024-25, we have set up a 24/7 rape support helpline, and we are quadrupling funding for victims’ services in cash terms since 2010.

Cuckooing is not a victimless crime. The victims whose homes are invaded are frequently extremely vulnerable. Will the Secretary of State consider a separate specific offence of cuckooing in the Criminal Justice Bill to ensure not just that the punishment fits the crime, but that the crime fits the crime?

My hon. Friend has been brilliant in raising this issue time and time again. At least in part because of the pressure she has put on, we held a stakeholder engagement exercise on this issue with the police, criminal justice system partners, local authorities, other Government Departments and so on. The exercise reveals that there are civil orders and criminal offences which are available to disrupt it. It might be, for example, that the underlying offence is the possession of drugs with intent to supply, the possession of firearms or common assault. However, this issue is worthy of further consideration, so I will invite a conversation with her in due course.

Last week, I was contacted by a constituent who has been named in the local press as a victim of domestic abuse against their expressed wishes. As my right hon. and learned Friend will appreciate, naming has the potential to endanger their safety and harm their recovery. What more can be done to safeguard the confidentiality of victims of domestic abuse?

My hon. Friend raises an absolutely essential point, because giving evidence is a deeply traumatic experience. Powers in section 46 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 allow the court, on application, to make a decision about anonymity and to take account of the circumstances of the alleged offending, the alleged offender, the alleged victim, and so on. That is a matter for the court. The court has to weigh the circumstances of the case against the overarching interests of transparency. That is a matter on which the courts are well placed to decide.

Carshalton and Wallington is supposed to be one of the safest parts of London, but it has been shocked by a number of knife and violent crime incidents recently, including a knife attack in Wallington Sainsbury’s on Christmas eve, which was traumatic not only for those involved but for those who witnessed it. Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that victims and witnesses of terrible crimes can get access to help and support while they wait for the police to build a case?

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing the attention of the House to that appalling incident. Yes, it is absolutely imperative that both victims and witnesses can access support in the aftermath of such shocking crimes. As I indicated, we are quadrupling funding for victims and witness support by 2024-25 on 2010 levels. This is important. Under the 2006 victims code that we inherited, support was available only for direct victims. We have changed that, so it is now available for witnesses who have suffered mental or emotional harm.

The Government left the role of Victims’ Commissioner unfilled for over a year and to this day have refused to place any duty on public bodies to co-operate with the postholder. Will the Government and the Secretary of State explain why they have not supported Labour’s proposals to give the role the same powers as the Domestic Abuse Commissioner has over public authorities such as the police?

The Victims’ Commissioner plays an important role and we are delighted that Baroness Newlove is taking it on again. She has an exemplary track record. The role sits within a wider approach that we are taking, which is to ensure, through the Victims and Prisoners Bill and through the revised victims code and so on, that victims go from being spectators of the criminal justice process to participants in it. I know the Victims’ Commissioner will help us on that journey.

What is being done to ensure that victims of crime, particularly violent crime, get the necessary mental health support they require, particularly where they can suffer ongoing mental health issues and trauma beyond the period of the crime itself?

The hon. Gentleman raises an absolutely essential point. As I indicated, we are quadrupling funding for victims’ services on 2010 levels. Part of that is directed through police and crime commissioners to procure and commission precisely the kind of support he has indicated. What I am also able to say is that in those tragic cases that result in a fatality, the Homicide Service is now better resourced to provide ongoing support. That may be physical support, but it may also, sadly, be the mental support that is desperately needed.

Rehabilitation of Prisoners: Prison Estate

5. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the prison estate for the rehabilitation of prisoners. (900798)

In December last year we completed an estate-wide programme of surveys to assess the condition of each public sector prison, and I look forward to seeing the findings of those surveys. By the end of the current spending review period we will have invested nearly £4 billion towards the delivery of an additional 20,000 modern prison places to ensure that the right conditions are in place for the rehabilitation of prisoners, and in the last full financial year we spent more than £200 million on maintenance and upgrades—alongside, of course, our continued investment in purposeful activity within the prison estate.

I was delighted to receive an invitation from the Minister’s colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon), to join him on a visit to Wormwood Scrubs Prison in my constituency this Thursday, but less delighted when the invitation was withdrawn yesterday on the basis that it had been “issued in error”. Had I been permitted to attend, I would have raised the subject of the letter sent to the Lord Chancellor on 7 December by 10 chairs of independent monitoring boards for London area prisons, including Wormwood Scrubs, which stated that

“prisons are overcrowded, not safe and most of those in prison do not lead a ‘useful’ life”.

In the absence of a reply to that letter, can the Prisons Minister tell us how he intends to make prisons fit for rehabilitation, given that, according to trade union sources, there is a maintenance backlog amounting to £3 billion?

If the hon. Gentleman would like to visit the Scrubs with me—and I am not issuing this one in error—I shall be happy to accompany him on a visit to his local prison.

As I have said, we continue to invest in our prison estate. We also continue to invest in increasing the number of prison officers—to whom I pay tribute for the work that they do day in, day out; I suspect that those on the Opposition Front Bench would join me in that—and to invest in purposeful activity. The efforts that we have put in across the estate are working, as is shown by the proportion of prison leavers who are in employment six months after their release, which has more than doubled in the two years to March 2023. I look forward to discussing this further with the hon. Gentleman in his local prison.

Order. As a Member of Parliament with a prison in his area, I find it disappointing that that invitation was withdrawn from a Member of Parliament with a prison in his own area. That is not how Members of Parliament should be treated, and I hope that the question of why a Member of Parliament has been refused access to a facility in his constituency will be investigated.

I understand from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that the invitation was sent in error by the office—it was not meant to be sent—but I am happy to honour that invitation.

I hope that the Minister will look into this, because I am concerned about access for Members of Parliament. I now call the Chair of the Select Committee.

I will not go on about how I might have got people into Wormwood Scrubs in the past in one way or another—[Interruption]—and, indeed, got some of them out!

I am sure the Minister will know that a key point that comes up time and again in reports from His Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, and when issues are raised by the Justice Committee, is the lack of purposeful activity. The physical estate is part of that problem, but so are issues relating to staffing and access to education and other provision. Is it perhaps time for a strategy for the whole of the Prison Service with rehabilitation at its centre, and might not one solution to the problem be a statutory definition of the purposes of prison, of which rehabilitation—along with protection of the public—would be a key part? Would that not be a way of holding people’s feet to the fire in order to deliver rehabilitation in the public interest?

I shall certainly be happy to have that discussion with my hon. Friend if he feels that it would be useful. He is right to highlight the importance of adequate staff numbers, but I should point out that they have increased by 6.7% in the past year. I am also happy to tell him that this month we are launching the national regime model, which will require prisons to set out ambitious plans for dedicated purposeful activity—time out of cell. That will indeed hold their feet to the fire, because, as we know, such a regime is central to rehabilitation.

The latest figures show that the reoffending rate among those leaving prison has increased. That is partly because prison is failing to rehabilitate—which is no surprise, given how overcrowded, understaffed and dangerously unsafe many prisons are. In one case, after heavy rain, prison officers were having to wade through raw sewage while prisoners remained locked in their cells. Does the Minister accept that the appalling state of our prisons is not only failing to reduce crime, but breeding it?

The hon. Lady will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree with her assessments. I would highlight that reoffending rates are down on where they were when we inherited them in 2010. I have highlighted to the hon. Lady the investment in new staff and in our buildings. I would also highlight to her, and I hope that we will enjoy her support on this, the success of tough community sentences in reducing reoffending, compared with sentences of fewer than 12 months. I look forward to her support in delivering those changes.

I am going to remain on the subject of the prison estate. The Minister made a valiant attempt to defend the Conservatives’ woeful record on prisons, but they are failing to build the prison spaces we need to reduce this cycle of crime. Just last week it was revealed that the Government had built only 380 of the 1,000 pop-up prison cells that they promised by the end of 2023. Therefore, can the Minister at the very least confirm when the remaining 620 pop-up places will be built?

I would gently say to the hon. Lady that we will take no lessons on prison building from the Labour party—the party that promised three Titan prisons, with 7,500 places. How many were built? Zero. This is a Government who are committed to building 20,000 new, state-of-the-art prison places. Two prisons have already been built. One is in construction. One has just received planning permission, and I am hopeful that the other two of the six will receive that in due course.

Access to Legal Advice

Last year we spent £1 billion on civil legal aid to support the most vulnerable, and we recognise the potential benefits of early legal advice in supporting people to resolve their problems earlier. For example, last year we launched a £10 million housing loss prevention advice service. We invested in advice for welfare benefits issues, and early legal advice is also available for victims of domestic abuse in private family law proceedings, subject to the relevant means and evidence requirements. We will continue to invest in legal aid where we can see a benefit.

I thank the Minister for that response. Like many Members across this House, I regularly have constituents coming to me with many legal issues needing legal advice and support. Obviously, many Members are not appropriately qualified to offer that legal advice and support. Citizens Advice in Stoke-on-Trent are doing an excellent job trying to support many of my constituents with legal issues, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that members of the public get timely and affordable legal advice when they need it?

My hon. Friend is right to praise the work of voluntary organisations such as Citizens Advice, and as I said in my original answer, we agree that investing has benefits. That is why, since 2015, we have invested more than £25 million to support litigants in person, including our current grant funding of around £10.4 million for improving outcomes to legal support grants. That is supporting 59 organisations across England and Wales, enabling them to provide urgent legal support and advice to help people resolve their legal problems. That is in addition to the investment in providing support on domestic violence, special guardianship orders, housing loss prevention and immigration.

In its Green Paper published in October 2023, the Law Society set out reforms to legal aid to help more people get early advice. Can the Justice Secretary confirm what discussions he has had with the Treasury, in advance of the Budget in March, regarding potential increases to the legal aid budget, and that Scotland will receive its share through Barnett consequentials?

I can confirm that, following the Bellamy report and the implementation of what is known as CLAIR—the criminal legal aid independent review—we have invested over £141 million extra in the legal aid system, addressing many of the concerns that legal practitioners, including the Law Society, have raised. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I am in constant dialogue with the Law Society on how we can improve legal advice for citizens.

Human Rights Legislation

The United Kingdom has a long-standing tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically and of fulfilling our international human rights obligations. We remain committed to a human rights framework that is up to date, fit for purpose and works for the British people. We have taken, and are taking, action to address specific issues with the Human Rights Act, including through the Illegal Migration Act 2023, the Victims and Prisoners Bill and the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021, which address the vexatious claims against veterans and the armed forces.

The Rwanda Bill is the second piece of legislation that this Government have introduced that they cannot guarantee will comply with vital convention rights. Does that not illustrate the total inadequacy of UK human rights legislation? Any old Government—even a crumbling Tory Government—can rip up fundamental rights without constraint, doing over the Supreme Court in the process.

No, I reject that characterisation. The European convention on human rights, under article 13, provides a right to an effective remedy. We think there is a perfectly respectable argument that our legislation fulfils that. We are committed to human rights, and we think we have a route that safeguards those rights and delivers on the interests of the British people.

The human rights campaign organisation Just Fair has said that a human rights Bill for Scotland would provide a blueprint for how the UK as a whole could enshrine social, economic and cultural rights in domestic law. I am certain that the Scottish Government would be happy to share their experience and expertise in this area, so will the Secretary of State commit to engaging with them, with a view to bringing forward equivalent UK legislation, following their example?

I completely agree on the common interest we share across the United Kingdom in wanting to advance social and economic rights—put another way, ensuring good jobs and good public services. Of course that is right. What is questionable is whether it is sensible to make those rights justiciable, as we would find people pursuing all sorts of actions that clog up the courts, leaving them unable to deal with other matters. The hon. Gentleman is right on the principle we all want to achieve for people in our country. Is he right in wanting more litigation and more legislation? I think we have different views on that.

The Scottish Government will bring forward a human rights Bill for Scotland, which is the right thing to do. Given the Justice Secretary’s previous statements in support of human rights and the ECHR, will he confirm his support for the Scottish approach? Surely putting human rights at the heart of Government and the wider public sector is the right thing to do.

It is important not to conflate those two things. We are a member of the European convention on human rights—I have already mentioned article 13—but that does not, in and of itself, determine how one should give effect to those rights. We already have the Human Rights Act 1998. It is not at all clear to me that Scotland’s proposed human rights Bill would advance human rights across the United Kingdom, but of course we will listen carefully to whatever the Scottish Government decide to introduce.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that the ECHR and the HRA are integral to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, setting out a framework for the policing and the very governance of Northern Ireland. Does he agree that any attempt to overhaul the ECHR and the HRA from this place could have serious consequences for the communities of Northern Ireland?

We have a human rights framework that we consider to be important. We are mindful of the points that the hon. Gentleman raises. We are satisfied that we can deliver on the priorities of the British people. It is a perfectly reasonable priority to want to ensure that we have warm hearts but an open front door, and we are satisfied that we can do so within our international legal obligations.

It was revealed yesterday that, despite the best efforts of the Home Office, an Albanian-speaking migrant who has spent half his life in Serbia, and who has been jailed in this country for 18 months for cannabis farming after having entered the UK illegally, has been allowed to remain in Britain after he successfully claimed that he cannot be deported to Serbia because he no longer speaks Serbian. This is despite Albanian being a recognised minority language in Serbia, and despite him living in this country with his Serbian brother. Does this not demonstrate why we need urgent reform of the asylum system and human rights laws to allow the rapid and effective deportation of such dangerous criminals?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that those who come to our country and betray this nation’s trust by acting illegally should not expect a warm welcome. That is why one of the things I am most proud of is signing a further prisoner transfer agreement with the Albanians to ensure that the British people, having suffered the initial crime, do not suffer the double punishment of having to pay £49,000 a year to house them in bed and breakfast accommodation in the United Kingdom. We will send them back, and that is exactly what we are doing.

May I take the Justice Secretary back to his interesting observations on the Rwanda Bill? He has said that the whole debate around the ECHR

“has been tainted by a misunderstanding of what the actual rights are, as though they are a foreign import that do not reflect some of the cultural norms in our country…nothing could be further from the truth.”—[Official Report, 13 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 376WH.]

When it comes to the Rwanda Bill, why is he failing to uphold the ECHR and the Human Rights Act, which embody so many of the legal principles that the people of these islands hold so dear?

Respectfully, I completely reject that characterisation. We are remaining within the four corners of our international legal obligations. Our legislation is novel and contentious, but it remains within the four corners of our international legal obligations and delivers on the proper, insistent requirements of the British people, which are that we protect our borders and ensure fairness for all—for not only the British people, but those who have played by the rules and done the right thing when they have come to the UK. They will always have a warm welcome in our country. Those who act illegally can expect short shrift.

Of course, the Government state on the front page of the Rwanda Bill that they cannot guarantee that it complies with the ECHR, as the Justice Secretary well knows. The Bill also makes direct intrusions into devolved areas, because human rights are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. So will he confirm that a legislative consent motion will be sought from the Scottish Parliament on the safety of Rwanda?

The first point the hon. Gentleman was referring to is about the section 19(1)(b) statement, and such statements are not unusual—the much-missed Tessa Jowell took one through in the Bill that became the Communications Act 2003. There is nothing unusual about this, which is precisely why this provision was put in the Human Rights Act 1998. As for further LCMs, we will of course proceed in the normal way, and I will give that matter further consideration.

Custodial and Community Sentences

10. If he will make a comparative assessment of the effectiveness of short custodial sentences and sentences served in the community. (900804)

A 2019 Ministry of Justice analysis of a matched cohort of 30,000 offenders shows that those serving sentences of immediate custody of less than 12 months reoffend more often than similar offenders serving a sentence in the community—55% of those sentenced to less than 12 months’ immediate custody were convicted in the following 12 months, which compares with 32% among those serving their sentence in the community.

For years, I was a visitor at the Scrubs and at HMP Wandsworth. Persuade me that community sentences can be really tough.

Many, many more offenders will be serving their sentences in the community as a result of the measures in the upcoming Sentencing Bill. We all know that the Government have had to rush these measures out to deal with the prisons capacity crisis that they have created, but it is essential to recognise that these measures will rely heavily on a functioning probation service. With only one of the 33 probation delivery units inspected being rated as “good”, and all others being rated as “requiring improvement” or “inadequate,” what additional resources have been put in place to ensure that potentially dangerous criminals are being properly monitored?

We have recently increased the budget for probation by £155 million and ramped up recruitment, with an additional 4,000 staff recruited over the last period of time.

That is a four-year-old announcement dressed up as something new and, given the extensive changes in the Sentencing Bill, I am afraid that it will just not cut it. Under the Conservatives, our vital probation service has been taken to the brink of collapse, and on current performance it simply cannot handle the additional pressure that these measures will bring and keep the public safe. So will the Minister commit to ensuring that the measures in the Bill will not come into effect until there is not one probation delivery unit still rated as “inadequate”?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We will keep this under review as the Bill passes through the House, and we will make further announcements on it in due course.

Probate Registry

The past 12 months have seen the largest volume of probate applications received by the service since 2006, and that follows two years of above-average receipts. In response, we have increased staffing levels by more than 100 people and streamlined processes. We have seen some improvement, in that the level of grants issued has been running at about 8,000 more over the past two months than receipts. The average mean length of time for a grant of probate following receipt of all the documents required is now 12 weeks.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Back in November 2020, I led a Westminster Hall debate highlighting the failings of the probate service. The service was once excellent, but that is no longer the case—I could give many examples demonstrating its continuing failures. I appreciate the Minister’s efforts to improve the service, but enough is enough. If the service has not materially improved in the next three months, will the Minister take the appropriate action and remove those who are clearly underperforming, so that the service can return to the level it once was at?

My hon. Friend and I have had some interesting discussions on this topic over the past few months. Following a recovery plan to address the concerns that he and others have raised, I can reassure him that a new management team is in place and we are now seeing a distinct improvement in recruitment, competency, productivity and call handling, and for the past few months disposals have outstripped receipts. I appreciate that the service is not yet where we would want it to be, but I can reassure him that we are starting to see some impact as a result of the measures we have introduced. I am more than happy to have conversations with him so that we can work together to improve the service further.

Crown Court Case Backlog

We remain committed to reducing the outstanding caseload in the Crown court and have introduced a range of measures to achieve that aim. We funded over 100,000 sitting days in the last financial year and plan to deliver the same this year. Thanks to our investment in judicial recruitment, we expect to recruit more than 1,000 judges across all jurisdictions. We are investing over £220 million over the next two years, not just to improve maintenance but to ensure that the number of courts taken out of action for unplanned maintenance is reduced.

I am reassured by that answer, but can I press the Minister on other delays in the justice system? I have spoken to police officers who are incredibly frustrated by the delay in prosecuting those who they have arrested for multiple offences of shoplifting. What reassurance can the Minister offer to police officers in those circumstances?

It is a concern to hear that police officers remain concerned. Some of the latest performance statistics suggest that the gap between charge and first listing is falling—the latest data shows it is down two days, to 31 days. I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss any local issues he may have identified that are causing delays. Magistrates, who tend to deal with shoplifting cases, are among the most efficient parts of our justice system and list clear cases incredibly rapidly, but I am more than happy to discuss this further.

In the light of the Post Office scandal, does my hon. Friend agree that it is imperative that we not only clear the backlog as quickly as possible, because there have been deaths involved, but enable the Justice Secretary to strip the Post Office of its powers to independently prosecute?

My hon. Friend raises a good point. It is vital that the delivery of justice is swift. We appreciate that the wait for trial can be extremely difficult for victims, so we are doing all we can to ensure that cases are heard more swiftly. We are urgently working on the detail of how to clear the names of the postmasters as quickly as possible, and further detail will be announced in due course. There should be no disparity between the standard of justice in private and public prosecutions, and we will carefully consider the findings of Sir Wyn Williams’s inquiry.

The latest criminal court statistics show a Crown court backlog of 66,547 cases, once again breaking records. The next quarter has just ended, so does the Minister expect the figures to break records again?

In addition to the measures that we have already taken—unlimited sitting days, recruitment of judges, investment in courts to ensure they are resilient, and extending Nightingale courts—I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are building 58 new court rooms to ensure we have capacity. I have not seen the figures on the backlog, but the latest figures for the number of disposals—[Interruption.] Our courts and our judges are working flat out, as are all members of the criminal justice system. I reassure him that the level of disposals being undertaken by our judiciary is up and the work of our judiciary is exemplary.


I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Between 2010-11 and 2020-21, the overall proven reoffending rate decreased from 31.6% to 24.4%. The Government continue to take action to drive down the reoffending rate even further by investing in initiatives to get more offenders into work, stable accommodation and substance misuse treatment on their release.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; the key to rehabilitation and ending reoffending is employment and stable accommodation. He has spoken already about purposeful activity today, but may I ask him to look at making the subsistence payment available to all prisoners on release, because that would ensure access to the sort of settled accommodation that is required?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion. I am happy to meet him, if that would be helpful, to discuss further his ideas.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which concerns my involvement with organisations related to addiction and recovery.

I acknowledge the positives of rolling out incentivised substance-free living wings, but they do not offer recovery as part of the process. Recovery wings offer a far greater chance of rehabilitation as they get people into recovery while they are in prison and before they are released. Currently, there are only seven planned across the prison estate, and I think that it will take Ministers to challenge civil servants and NHS fundholders to see those rolled out. Will the Minister examine the benefits of expanding recovery wings across the whole of the prison estate?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for both his question and the tone in which he asks it. He is absolutely right to highlight the importance of this scheme. As he will be aware, those seven wings are a relatively new step forward. We are seeing how they operate. I think, if I recall, they were initiated by the former Deputy Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), when he was in post in the Ministry of Justice. I continue to look at this very carefully, but I am watching to see how those wings operate first, but I do so with an open mind.

Release of Violent Offenders: Victim Safety

14. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure the safety of victims after violent offenders are released. (900808)

Protecting the public is our top priority. Offenders are subject to strict licence conditions on release, which can include tagging and exclusion zones, and they can of course be returned to prison if they breach those conditions. Victims of violent and sexual offenders serving prison sentences of 12 months or more are legally entitled to request protected licence conditions on release, including exclusion zones. The probation service works with partners including the police under the multi-agency public protection arrangements, to closely manage the risk presented by the most serious offenders.

Rhianon Bragg’s attacker was convicted of stalking, possessing a firearm and making threats to kill. Only two months ago, the Parole Board decided that his probation release plan could not ensure public protection, yet he will be automatically released next month. I have sent numerous letters to Ministers on this matter but have received not a single reply. Given that the victim lives in a remote area, which makes conventional surveillance methods virtually impossible, will the Secretary of State finally provide a credible response to the urgent safety risks faced by victims such as Rhianon?

First, I thank the right hon. Lady for raising this case. I do know about the case of Rhianon Bragg—in the interests of complete transparency, I should say that I was at school with her. The Government introduced extended determinate sentences in order to better protect the public from dangerous offenders by making their early release dependent on the Parole Board. Offenders on extended determinate sentences must be released. As the right hon. Lady knows, there are no legal powers to hold them for longer at the end of that custodial term. However, they face years of strict supervision by the probation service with strict licence conditions, such as exclusion zones and curfews, and they will be returned to prison if they breach them. I am aware of the letter that was sent on the 14th to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. He will of course be happy to meet the right hon. Lady to discuss those points.

Probation Officer Case Load

We have increased funding for the probation service by £155 million a year to recruit more staff, bring down caseloads and deliver better supervision of offenders in the community. We have also accelerated recruitment of trainee probation officers, particularly in areas with the most significant staffing challenges. As a result, more than 4,000 trainees started on training courses between April 2020 and March of last year.

Probation workloads are too high, which is having a terrible impact on both staff morale and retention as well as public safety. What consideration has the Minister given to the very reasonable proposal agreed between His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and the probation unions to free up staff time by abolishing the post-sentence supervision, which was brought in under privatisation and is seen as simply a waste of time by those probation officers and their employer?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. Although, on partial data for this year, caseloads are going down, she is right to highlight that they are still high. She makes a good point about the post-sentence supervision requirement, which I am happy to reflect on carefully. I understand that the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) has met representatives to hear their views on the matter.

Safeguarding of Prisoners: Mental Health

16. Whether he is taking steps to help improve the safeguarding of prisoners with mental health needs. (900810)

We are committed to improving mental health outcomes for prisoners, including recruiting additional staff, because having adequate staffing in prisons is important; investing £625,000 of funding in the Samaritans each year until March 2025, which includes the delivery of the Listener scheme; and working alongside NHS England, which is responsible for delivering mental health support services in the custodial estate to ensure that they are joined up and effective.

I have been working with a constituent whose son sadly took his own life in Pentonville last year. Although it is well established that there is a high rate of mental health problems among prisoners, the provision of support is insufficient and even reliable data on the scale of the issue is lacking. Will the Government commit to a full review of the support and safeguarding for prisoners with mental health problems?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I hope that through her I can pass on my sympathies and condolences to her constituent. I am not aware of the details of that case, but if she wants to write to me, I would be happy to look at that specific case. Sadly, there are too many deaths in custody and every one is a tragedy, so I am always happy to look at ways in which we can better improve the support available to those with mental health conditions or other health conditions that might make them more vulnerable within a custodial environment.

Topical Questions

I thank the many His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service staff who continue to work hard over the Christmas period to deliver justice and keep us safe. Since the last Justice questions, the Victims and Prisoners Bill has passed its Third Reading in this House. It will enshrine the overarching principles of the victims code in law. It will establish a permanent independent public advocate for victims of major incidents, and it will enable a second check on Parole Board decisions in the interests of public safety. The Sentencing Bill, which is cracking down on the worst offenders by extending whole-life orders for any murder involving sexual or sadistic conduct, also passed its Second Reading, as did the Criminal Justice Bill, which will ensure, among other things, that criminals face up to the consequences of their appalling actions by requiring them to attend their sentencing hearings.

Finally, in December, I took part in a park run at HMP Onley alongside prison staff and serving prisoners. Congratulations to all who took part, except perhaps my private secretary, who had the audacity to beat me.

The Minister mentions sexual offences, but it frustrates me beyond belief that my constituents have to wait on average 839 days for their cases to be heard. Is the distress caused taken into account, or is the system too broken?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue of victims of serious sexual offences. We take that incredibly seriously, and that is why we have introduced measures such as section 28, which enables evidence to be taken and recorded in advance. We have increased the fees for barristers to make that more straightforward. We have also increased the number of independent sexual violence advisers, who accompany, as it were, those victims on that journey. That is very important to prevent dropout rates. This is an important point: the sentencing levels are much higher—up by 30% compared with 2010.

T2. I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in that my wife is an education lawyer. Parents appealing decisions in relation to education, health and care plans and health needs are forced to wait between nine months and 13 months from appeal registration to hearing. That is far too long in terms of a child’s development. Does my hon. Friend agree with that? Does he also share my concern that some schools are delaying providing education, health and care plans in the knowledge that it will take a year or more to have an appeal? (900820)

My right hon. Friend is right. Despite special educational needs and disabilities appeals and disposals being up by 24% and 29% respectively, I do share his concerns, and systematic reform is required. That is why through the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, the Department for Education and ourselves will be working hard to ensure that it is improved. I am more than happy to meet my right hon. Friend to go through the details.

The Children’s Commissioner’s report on family contact in the youth estate states that at the weekend, in two young offenders institutes, boys spent only up to one hour outside their cell each day. We can clearly see why that has led to an increase in violence. What is the Minister going to do about it?

It is important to note that, since 2010 when we came into power, the number of under-18s in custody has dropped dramatically. The cohort now in young offenders institutes is, to put it politely, highly complex. We take that extremely seriously and want to ensure there are sufficient staff. We do not give up on people, but it is important to recognise that that cohort will have been convicted of extremely serious offences, and we want to ensure there are sufficient resources to try to get the best out of them.

T3. I recently met the senior coroner for my area about concerns over health services in north Wales and to discuss preventable deaths. As part of that work, he pointed me towards the Preventable Deaths Tracker, set up by Dr Georgia Richards in Oxford. Will the Secretary of State commit to meeting Dr Richards and me to discuss the potential benefits of the tracker? (900821)

My hon. Friend makes a great point. My officials have already met Dr Richards to discuss her work on the tracker and, together with the Chief Coroner’s office, we are exploring with her team how best to share the tracker on the various websites. However, I am more than happy to meet with my hon. Friend and Dr Richards to discuss how we can work together.

T4. Numerous studies have found that the numbers of minoritised and migrant women being held on remand are disproportionately high. For example, 10% of female black and Asian defendants were remanded in custody by magistrates courts, compared with 7% of white women. What steps are the Government taking to address those clear inequalities in the use of remand? (900822)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady; she will be aware of the work being done across the criminal justice system through both the race disparity review and the Lammy review in that context. Decisions on remand are taken by the judiciary, so it would be wrong for me to comment on judicial decisions, but I am happy to meet her to discuss this further if that would be helpful, and so is the Minister for disparity in the justice system, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer).

T5. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Director of Public Prosecutions could take over a private prosecution and discontinue it? (900823)

The Crown Prosecution Service can take over any criminal prosecution. It may then carry out the prosecution or it may end or discontinue the prosecution if it does not believe it should have been brought in the first place.

T6.   I am pleased to say that the latest Scottish crime and justice survey has shown that the volume of crime in Scotland, including incidents not reported to the police, has fallen by 53%. In addition, we have one of the lowest levels of recorded crime in Scotland since 1974—50 years. I add my thanks to all those who work in Police Scotland Tayside for their duty and service on behalf of my constituents in Dundee. Will the Justice Secretary join me in congratulating Police Scotland and all the community safety partners who have contributed to that success? (900824)

We of course welcome any reduction in crime, and I am happy to congratulate Police Scotland on its work. It is encouraging that across the United Kingdom, and certainly across England and Wales, crime and reoffending are down. However, I urge the hon. Gentleman to ensure that Scotland does not anything that would be regrettable, such as rolling back on jury trials, which are a critical part of maintaining public confidence in the criminal justice system.

T8. Having worked in A&E at Christmas over the years, I have seen the outcome of alcohol-related violence and the injuries it causes. I know the Department has been looking at fitting alcohol monitoring tags for offenders during the festive season; what assessment have the Government made of their effectiveness in reducing alcohol-fuelled crime? (900827)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. Alcohol tags are hugely valuable and are being used increasingly to tackle alcohol-related offending, including violent crime, successfully. Around 2,800 individuals were wearing an alcohol tag at the end of November 2023, 900 more than in the same period the year before, and alcohol bans imposed in community sentences were complied with for 97.3% of the days monitored since their introduction in October 2020. They are a vital crime-fighting tool.

T9. In May 2022, my constituent Tallulah Cox was diagnosed with brain stem cancer. She was left catatonic from the radiation treatment, a side effect that her parents, Zoe and Richard, were never informed about. They then had to fight constantly for the support and care that she needed from her local council and NHS. That support never came. Little Tallulah passed away on 2 November last year— (900828)

Order. This is topical questions. I have to get everybody else in. If the hon. Lady is going to ask a topical question, it must be short and quick to allow others to ask theirs. Has the Minister been briefed on what is being asked?

Little Tallulah passed away aged two on 2 November last year after those services failed her. How can her parents get some justice?

This sounds like an absolutely appalling case and my heart goes out to Tallulah and her family. I am unaware of the details of the case, but if the hon. Lady writes to me, she will get a response.

Dozens of businesses have signed up to Torbay Council’s safety of women at night charter, which is being championed by Councillor Hayley Tranter. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that those who pose a threat to women, for example by spiking drinks, get the type of deterrent sentence that such disgraceful behaviour deserves?

I congratulate Torbay Council and Councillor Tranter on their excellent work to keep women safe in Torbay. Spiking is a disgusting crime that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison depending on the harm that results. We are changing the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 to define the offence of spiking specifically and comprehensively in law, with a view to encouraging more people to come forward. However, the biggest barrier to conviction remains the fact that toxicology tests are often conducted after the substance has left a woman’s body. That is why we are investing in research for rapid drinks testing kits so that spiking will be easier to prove and we get more of the offenders behind bars.

My constituent was the victim of a violent attack, but because the perpetrator got a sentence of less than 12 months, she was not told when he was released from prison. The police say that it is impossible for them to go through the records of everybody who is released in order to advise her, so there is a gap in victim support. Will the Secretary of State commit to resolving that?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. I take that extremely seriously. Certainly, under the victims code, the rights of victims to be kept informed are far tighter than ever they used to be. If we need to go further, that seems to be a sensible conversation and I would be happy to have it.

For too many years, this House has been witness to wrongful convictions in the Post Office-Fujitsu scandal. There remain 800 Post Office convictions based on bad data. Until those convictions are overturned, the victims cannot claim compensation. We could do something good together if the Justice Secretary brought a simple Bill to quash all 800 convictions immediately.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who, with his customary precision, puts his finger on that appalling injustice. The suggestion that he makes is receiving active consideration. I expect to be able to make further announcements shortly.

I add my support to the comments made by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson). Cuckooing is a terrible activity, and making it a specific crime not only makes sense but would, I suspect, lead to the prosecution of other crimes such as drug dealing.

As I indicated, I will have a conversation with my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson) about that. There is very likely to be a substantive underlying offence, be it handling stolen goods, possession with intent to supply or firearms matters. This has been considered by way of discussions with criminal justice partners, but if there are further matters to consider with my hon. Friend, and indeed with the hon. Gentleman, I would be happy to have those conversations.

January is often considered family breakdown month. Anybody taking the terrifically difficult decision to separate this year will face not only a divorce costing over £14,000 on average, but months, or potentially more than a year, of resolving child and financial disputes. We need reform of focus in a range of areas. Will the Lord Chancellor kindly agree to meet me and the formidable Baroness Deech and Baroness Shackleton to look at our campaigns?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know that she campaigns tirelessly on this issue. I am more than happy to arrange a meeting with my noble Friend Lord Bellamy, who leads on this issue, to update her and the noble Baroness Deech—

To reduce reoffending we need a strong, locally focused and stand-alone probation service—similar to how things were before privatisation—so why are the Government moving in the opposite direction with their One HMPPS programme, which has triggered a formal dispute with the probation unions because it subsumes probation still further into prisons?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question; it is nice to answer questions from him again, as I did when he was shadow Secretary of State.

The One HMPPS programme is about different parts of the system working well together to create a system that delivers the outcomes that society wants to see. I take the opportunity, prompted by the hon. Gentleman, to pay tribute to all the staff in the probation service. I had the pleasure of visiting some of them in Southwark recently, and I pay tribute to all the work they are doing.

In a perfect world, the victims of the Horizon IT scandal would have their cases individually assessed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the Court of Appeal, but we are not in a perfect world. The scale of the miscarriage of justice is enormous, and there are hundreds of victims who understandably do not want to come forward because they have lost faith in the process. Will my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor now consider the exceptional and unique step of legislating to quash the convictions?

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend, who speaks with such authority. The circumstances are truly exceptional. When I was a Back Bencher, I went on the record as saying that Horizon is the most serious miscarriage of justice since the Guildford Four or the Birmingham Six. But the clue is that there were four in the Guildford case and six in the Birmingham case; we are talking about hundreds of people. The situation is truly exceptional and unprecedented, and it will need an appropriate resolution.

Under the Illegal Migration Act 2023, victims of human trafficking who arrived in the UK via irregular routes would not have legal recourse to receive support under modern slavery provisions. Are Ministers comfortable with that? They do not look like monsters, so I assume not. If they are not, what will they do about it?

I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman and check exactly what the provisions are for legal aid under the Illegal Migration Act. I am more than happy to provide him with the details and meet him if necessary.

Precisely because legislating to overturn convictions would be so unprecedented, will my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor make sure that before such a step is taken, he is satisfied from conversations with the senior judiciary that the means of triaging and consolidating appeals that currently exist may not be capable of delivering justice within an acceptable timeframe?

That is precisely the point, and my hon. Friend has put his finger on it. Of course, we would not want to stray into the normal lane of the judiciary; we have huge respect for our independent judiciary, who do an exceptionally good job of ensuring that there is fairness on the facts before them. As I have said, the case is wholly unprecedented, and we will want to have exhausted all alternatives before taking radical action.

Spending on housing legal aid has fallen by more than half in the past decade, from £44 million to £20 million. Is this a proper response to growing insecurity, overcrowding and poor conditions in the housing market, or might it be a contributing factor?

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that just last year we invested an extra £10 million in housing legal aid, so I think we are addressing the issue.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Financial Times is reporting that Teesworks Ltd—the so-called public-private partnership to redevelop the former steelworks site on Teesside—has reported an exceptional year, tripling its profits to £54 million. Sadly, the public will see very little of that hard cash, as under the Tees Tory Mayor, 90% of shares in the company were handed over to two local businessmen. That means they get £48.6 million, and the public get just £5.4 million. Personally, I think that is scandalous.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and I raised questions about the way that business is done at Teesworks, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities ordered an inquiry, which was expected to have reported by now. Will you please advise me, Mr Speaker, on whether you have heard of any plans by the Secretary of State to come to the House to make a statement about why that report has been delayed and when we can expect it?

I have had no indication from the Government that the Secretary of State intends to make a statement on this matter, but I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, and I am sure he will pursue it in other ways. No doubt, if nothing is forthcoming, it might need an urgent question—that is a possible suggestion.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. For the convenience of the House, it may assist right hon. and hon. Members if I give some advance notice of Thursday’s business statement.

The business for the week commencing 15 January will include:

Monday 15 January—Committee of the whole House and remaining stages of the Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill.

Tuesday 16 January—Committee of the whole House on the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill (day 1).

Wednesday 17 January—Committee of the whole House on the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill (day 2).

I will announce the business statement on Thursday in the usual way.

While that was not a point of order for the Chair, I am sure the House will have heard the announcement by the Leader of the House with great interest. I call the shadow Leader of the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Is this not just another example of this Government making it up as they go along, with no real plan, scrabbling around and trying to make something of this failed, unworkable plan? We have had at least three business statements or questions since the Bill first began to be timetabled. Would you not expect, Mr Speaker, such an announcement to be made in a business statement in the usual way?

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. It may be helpful if I explain to the House that if I had waited to announce this for the first time on Thursday, there would have been very limited time for people to table amendments ahead of the normal tabling deadline. We are making this announcement to facilitate right hon. and hon. Members in tabling amendments, if they wish to do so. We do not wish to bring forward legislation that will not be successful. This is a matter of great importance to the general public, and we wish it to be successful. I hope the House will understand why we have given it a heads-up of the business for next week.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Normally business statements allow Back Benchers as well as Front Benchers to ask questions of the Leader of the House. This is a difficult precedent because it does not give the Back Benchers a voice. Saying that it is just a matter of convenience for amendments is not good enough when the Government are in charge of the business and could have done this in a more organised way to give everybody a say. I think this is a deplorable development.

In general, I would expect the House business to be announced via a statement or in response to the business question. It would of course be in order to ask questions about the timetabling of this business during Thursday’s business statement, but you have made the point and at least you have got it on the record. Let us move on.

Schools (Mental Health Professionals)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision to require every school to have access to a qualified mental health professional; and for connected purposes.

Mr Speaker,

“He used to be such a lovely happy little boy and now he’s so sad. I’m terrified for his future. All I’ve ever wanted was to help my son and I’ve failed and fallen at every hurdle.”

Those are the anguished words of a constituent of mine who is mother to a nine-year-old. Week in and week out, I speak to parents whose children are struggling with their mental health and struggling to access appropriate support. When I speak to headteachers, they tell me that some of the most pressing challenges facing our education system come from outside the classroom, and mental health is among the biggest. Teachers often feel as though they are the fourth emergency service, filling the gap left by under-resourced services across the country.

Let us be clear: mental health services for young people before the pandemic were inadequate. Since the pandemic, despite the best efforts of everyone working in the sector, services are on their knees. The current generation of children have had to contend not only with rising pressures and judgments brought by social media, but with the huge consequences of a global pandemic. It is unsurprising that such challenges have taken their toll on children’s and young people’s mental health.

It is estimated that one in five children between the ages of seven and 16 has a probable mental health disorder. If six children in every classroom were diagnosed with a physical condition such as diabetes, there would rightly be a public outcry, and there would be no discussion about urgently putting both proper treatment and preventive measures in place. We would just do it. Mental health is no different and should not be treated any differently.

We must do everything in our power to ensure that every child arrives at school happy, healthy and ready to learn and thrive. My Bill provides one of the tools to help to achieve that. It would place a dedicated qualified mental health practitioner in every school—primary and secondary—giving every child in school access to care and support from the moment they start to need it.

Early intervention is crucial. Research tells us that half of all lifetime mental health disorders start before the age of 14. Stepping in as soon as warning signs start to show can often help to prevent conditions from becoming more severe. When Nicole, now aged 19, was struggling with her mental health, she had to wait a very long time before she could access any support. Describing that time, she said:

“Waiting for suitable mental health support meant that my whole life felt like it was paused and erased…I was left without suitable support and my mental health left to deteriorate.”

This story is not unique, nor is it unusual. I know that colleagues across the Chamber are aware of many similar stories in their own constituencies.

The state of our children and young people’s mental health is a significant and urgent challenge facing our country and, frankly, this Government are not taking it seriously enough. In December 2021, the Health and Social Care Committee warned that the combination of unmet need before the pandemic and additional needs created by the pandemic were significant. It said that the Government’s plans

“are simply not sufficient for the task at hand.”

In the two years since, there is no indication that their approach has improved. Last month, when I asked the mental health Minister, the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), in a written question what proportion of mental health funding had been allocated to children and young people, I received an answer that such funds are not “separately identifiable.” How can a Government begin to take a problem seriously when they do not even know how much money they are spending on it?

Sadly, in the eyes of the Treasury children and young people are too often seen as a financial burden and a drain on Government resources, and that is just wrong. Spending on education and services to support our children is an investment in their future and our country’s future, and it is time that the Government recognised that.

The introduction of mental health support teams has been an encouraging step forward, but they are under-resourced and overstretched. Last year, I visited Carshalton Boys Sports College. I met MHST staff as well as some of the pupils they were supporting. The boys talked about how the team had helped them to learn coping techniques for anxiety and how to identify the techniques that work for them. The staff mentioned how important it was that they could intervene early before things escalate and children need other services, such as child and adolescent mental health services, but what struck me was that the team was stretched thinly across many local primary and secondary schools, which meant that their valuable skills and service were available only for half a day to one day per week in each school.

Furthermore, research by the Liberal Democrats revealed that by the end of this year half of secondary schools and three quarters of all primary schools in England will still have no access at all to mental health support teams. Instead, the role of supporting children’s mental ill health falls on teachers, who are already managing a heavy workload at the same time as contending with extremely overstretched budgets. With many schools struggling to afford the basics, sadly some of those that have found their own money for mental health support are being forced to cut back, which is why schools must not have to fund the provision themselves.

My Bill makes it clear that funding needs to be made available for the proposed statutory duty for all state schools. Using the “polluter pays” principle, Liberal Democrats have proposed funding mental health practitioners through tripling the digital services tax on our big social media companies, given the harm that they have contributed to our children’s mental health.

A big challenge currently facing schools is persistent absence, with the most recent Government data revealing that a fifth of children missed on average a day of school every fortnight last term. One of the most significant causal factors of absence is mental ill health. According to new data from YoungMinds, more than one in five children waiting for mental health support has missed more than six months of school.

Absence has a huge impact on a child’s education and ultimately their prospects. Three quarters of these children said that they had stopped exercising, doing hobbies and even seeing friends. These children should be carefree, enjoying themselves and spending time with loved ones; instead, their lives are being put on hold and their life chances being diminished because they cannot access the support they have so bravely asked for.

Just last week I heard of a pupil at a school in my constituency who is stuck in exactly that limbo. Despite desperately needing mental health support, they are stuck on a long CAMHS waiting list. In the meantime, not only has the child stopped attending school, but their mother said that they have not left the house in more than four months. A teacher at the school told me that they strongly believe that had there been the possibility of seeing a mental health professional at school on a regular basis, that pupil would still be attending school. Instead, their mental health is rapidly deteriorating, leaving those around them worried sick. Sadly, this is not uncommon—alarmingly, the headteacher of this pupil told me that it was just one example of many.

There is a tidal wave of mental ill health among our children and young people, which is jeopardising their wellbeing, education, prospects, and long-term health. A report commissioned by the Local Government Association, and undertaken by the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, asserted that there is

“a missed opportunity to significantly ease pressure on the system by increasing the availability of preventative and early intervention support.”

That is exactly what putting a mental health practitioner in every school would do. It would make mental health support accessible to every pupil, regardless of their age, where they live or their background. It would save our NHS money in the long term by tackling issues before they become more severe, and it would ensure that children’s mental health is supported early on, giving them the tools they need to be resilient and thrive into adulthood.

The Bill is an investment in our future and one that we must make, not just because it is sensible but because we owe it to this generation of children and young people—a generation that so often feels let down and neglected. I would like to end by thanking the young people, parents and teachers who have shared their stories with me, as well as the organisations that have supported me with the Bill, including YoungMinds, the Centre for Mental Health, Barnardo’s, Place2Be, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and the Sutton Trust. They are all dedicated to ensuring that every child has the right support in their time of need. The Bill would be a significant step towards achieving that.

Question put and agreed to.


That Munira Wilson, Ed Davey, Daisy Cooper, Helen Morgan, Layla Moran, Sarah Dyke, Richard Foord, Sarah Green, Sarah Olney, Tim Farron and Wera Hobhouse present the Bill.

Munira Wilson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 21 June, and to be printed (Bill 75).

Opposition Day

2nd Allotted Day

NHS Dentistry

I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

I call the shadow Secretary of State.

I beg to move,

That this House recognises that NHS dentistry is in crisis, with eight in 10 dentists in England not taking on new NHS patients and vast parts of the country considered so-called dental deserts, where no dentists are available; regrets that this has led to people resorting to DIY dentistry or attending A&E to access urgent care; is concerned that tooth decay is the most common reason children aged six to 10 are admitted to hospital; and therefore calls on the Government to provide an extra 700,000 urgent appointments a year, introduce an incentive scheme to recruit new dentists to the areas most in need and a targeted supervised toothbrushing scheme for three to five year-olds to promote good oral health and reform the dental contract to rebuild the service in the long-run.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

After 14 years of Conservative neglect and mismanagement,

“NHS dentistry in England is at its most perilous point in its 75-year history.”

That is the conclusion of the Nuffield Trust think-thank, and who can blame it? Eight in 10 NHS dentists no longer take new patients. According to the NHS, no dentist is taking on new adult patients in entire constituencies such as Broxtowe, Bolsover, Stoke-on-Trent South and Stroud. Five million patients tried but failed to get an appointment in the past two years. Millions more needed dental care but did not bother trying to book an appointment because they knew it would be impossible. Tooth decay is now the No. 1 reason why children aged six to 10 end up in hospital. We face the moral outrage of one in 10 Brits saying that they have been forced to attempt dentistry themselves because the NHS was not there for them when they needed it. This is Dickensian—DIY dentistry in 21st-century Britain. Is there any greater example of the decline that this country has been subjected to under the Conservatives?

May I add Rotherham to the list that my hon. Friend is quoting? To give an example, one of my constituents has been trying for more than a year to register with an NHS dentist. He has now had to go private for the consultation, which said:

“Your teeth are in a very poor condition with most of your remaining teeth decayed and unsaveable. All your teeth except 2 …need extracting.”

He has been living for more than a year on painkillers and soup. I have raised this with the Minister and got no satisfaction. This is what Tory Britain is doing to dentistry.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. We have heard so many heartbreaking stories like the one she mentions from her constituency. A service that once was there for all of us when we needed it is almost gone for good.

Is there any greater landmine of a Labour legacy than the 2006 contract that it designed, which is pulling us down? Labour Members need look no further than their own designs on the NHS. We are sorting out their mess.

The sound you can hear, Mr Speaker, is the scraping of the barrel. How has the hon. Gentleman got the brass neck to stand up, after 14 years of his party in government, and say that a contract agreed in 2006 is the problem? If only the Conservatives had been in government for 14 years to sort it out.

Here is the other rub: we do not pretend that everything was perfect under the last Labour Government. In fact, reform of the NHS dentistry contract was in Labour’s 2010 manifesto, because we recognised that it needed to change. Had we been elected in 2010, we would have delivered. It was also in the Conservatives’ 2010 manifesto and 2015 manifesto. It was probably in the 2017 and 2019 manifestos, too, and they have not delivered. We have 14 years of Conservative failure. How dare the hon. Gentleman have the brass neck to stand up and blame someone else.

It is of great interest, is it not, that there is not one Member from the governing party in Scotland present for this debate? I can tell the House that dental services in my constituency in remote Scotland have gone backwards in a big way, and I am shocked that none of them are here to hear this.

It is deeply disappointing. Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that as with the last Labour Government—13 years that created a rising tide that lifted all ships across the country, when we had an NHS with the shortest waiting times and the highest patient satisfaction in history—the next Labour Government will deliver a rising tide to benefit people across the country.

The British Dental Association highlights that:

“Hormonal changes during pregnancy can make gums more vulnerable to plaque”,


“Changes to dietary habits, and morning sickness”

can also impact on oral health. After being told of the importance of seeing a dentist after suffering multiple miscarriages, a constituent tells me that she has been struggling for three years to see a dentist within a 50-mile radius of her home. Dentists say that they are going private and are helping only with emergencies. Surely that is evidence of a colossal failure of Tory Government dental policy, and even the most vulnerable are suffering.

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, he has the ability, as the Labour MP for Stockton North, to speak for his residents. If only other people across the country had MPs standing up for them. Chris Webb, Labour’s candidate in Blackpool South, reported to me that pregnant mothers have been telling him they cannot get an NHS dentist, despite being entitled to free NHS check-ups and treatment. Alice Macdonald, Labour’s candidate in Norwich North, reported similar conversations to me. Expectant mothers have told her that they have been travelling hundreds of miles to see a dentist when we know that pregnant women probably need that support more than many others. What an indictment of 14 years of Conservative Government.

Did my hon. Friend see the report in today’s Times that showed that NHS dentists are performing only 75% of the procedures they are contracted to do? In Devon and Somerset, where the situation is the worst in the country, it is only 26.5% and 30%. Not only have this Government delivered an NHS desert in Devon and Somerset, but they are wasting masses of public money. What is my hon. Friend going to do about it when he is Health Secretary?

I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend. Things are so desperate. He mentioned the south-west in particular, and Devon and Cornwall have been particularly poorly served. Jayne Kirkham, Labour’s candidate in Truro and Falmouth for this year’s general election, reported to me that a local dentist handed their contract back before Christmas, meaning that 3,000 people lost their NHS dentist overnight. There are currently no dentists in Truro and Falmouth taking on adult NHS patients. Contract reform is urgent, so where is it? They have had 14 years, so where is the recovery plan that the Health Secretary mentions in her amendment?

I must make some progress.

Turning to other parts of the country, Keir Cozens, Labour’s candidate in Great Yarmouth, has been running a campaign on the state of dentistry in Great Yarmouth. He has heard heartbreaking stories of broken teeth left for months with people in pain, of children unable to be seen, of at least one person a day going to accident and emergency with dental issues, and of people performing DIY dentistry at home after buying kits from Amazon. No one should be doing that, but people are desperate. DIY dentistry does not work, and before you know it, people are back in A&E waiting for expensive emergency dental treatment. I have heard similar stories from Kevin Bonavia, Labour’s candidate in Stevenage. He tells me that people turning to DIY is shockingly common.

No one voted for this. None of the five Conservative Prime Ministers, the seven Conservative Chancellors or the eight Conservative Health Secretaries told the public that this was what the future held, but this is what they have done to dentistry. It is the way all our public services are going, and it is why the Conservative party cannot be allowed five more years to finish the job.

I thank the shadow Secretary of State for bringing this debate forward. The stats from the British Dental Association cannot be ignored. In its survey, 41% of practice owners and 38% of associate dentists said that they would like to leave NHS dentistry as soon as possible. This debate will resonate with many people out there. Does he agree with the chair of the Northern Ireland Dental Practice Committee that now is the time for the funding allocation to pay for a better contract and for training more dedicated dentists who will commit to the NHS, rather than private practice?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the urgency of the situation. There is a different path available to us. We can revive our public services and give our country back what we used to take for granted. Labour’s plan would take immediate steps to rescue NHS dentistry, with 700,000 more urgent appointments and the recruitment of new dentists in the areas most in need. We would also take the necessary steps to rebuild NHS dentistry over the long term, including reforming the dental contract and introducing supervised toothbrushing for three to five-year-olds in primary schools, so that poor oral health is prevented and demands on the service reduced.

In fact, some of my Labour colleagues are not even waiting for the general election to start making a difference. Labour’s candidate in Stroud, Simon Opher—himself a GP—has spearheaded a campaign working with local dentists and the integrated care board. From opposition, he has more than trebled the number of emergency appointments available each day across Gloucestershire, pioneered a new dental stabilisation scheme for people not known to a local practice, opening up more than 130 appointments a week, and introduced supervised toothbrushing in 14 local primary schools. If that is the difference Simon is making in opposition, imagine what he will be able to do as a Labour MP working with a Labour Government. That Government cannot come soon enough.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree with me and my constituent in Crouch End who has not had a check-up since 2019 that the link between poor oral health and oral cancer is serious? That could be contributing to the terrible problem we have with cancer waiting times.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Prevention is better than cure. It is a truism, and it is also the foundation pillar of what would be Labour’s 10-year plan for reform and modernisation of our national health service. A part of that plan is before the House today, and Government Members will have to explain to their constituents, only months, if not weeks away from a general election, why they are refusing to support it.

The Government’s amendment to the motion promises that the dental recovery plan is coming soon, but it was due last summer; now, they cannot put a date on when the plan will arrive, when it will be implemented or even say what it is. Conservative Ministers have taken a look at the state of NHS dentistry, at the millions of people across the country who cannot get an appointment to see a dentist and at children in their own constituencies whose teeth are rotting, and their conclusion is: what is the rush? Let me tell them why they should get their skates on.

A 17-year-old boy in Plymouth had to undergo emergency surgery on an abscess in his mouth last year. He spent two months trying to book an NHS dentist—he said that he was on hold for about three hours per day. According to figures on the NHS website, no dentists are taking on new NHS patients in the Plymouth, Moor View constituency. It was left too late, and when he finally got the healthcare he needed, he required emergency surgery, which has left him scarred for life.

In Worthing West, Labour’s candidate Dr Beccy Cooper told me of an 82-year-old great-grandfather on pension credit who told her that he will not be going back to an NHS dentist before he dies. He tried to get an NHS dentist in Worthing, but no one will take him on the NHS to receive low-cost treatment. Dr Beccy Cooper also tells me that residents who cannot get a dentist are being told to look for one in Hampshire, more than 60 miles away from where they live.

On that important point, a couple who moved into new housing in my constituency tried to get an NHS dentist for over a year without any success whatsoever. They have got two options: they either go private or use their previous dentist, who is 20 miles away. That is wholly unacceptable. Will my hon. Friend simply explain how Labour’s plan will eradicate this unacceptable issue?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will have: 700,000 appointments, making a difference straightaway; supervised toothbrushing for three to five-year-olds to reduce future demand on NHS services; and reform of the NHS dentistry contract so that we can rebuild an NHS dentistry service worthy of the name. That change cannot come soon enough.

My constituent Amy has been in contact with me about the difficulties that she and her five children have had getting NHS dentist appointments. She explained that her husband was in the military and therefore they had to move home frequently, and each time they moved they found it harder to get an NHS dentist. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a shameful way to treat people who have served and given so much to our country?

I agree. I am afraid that when it comes to serving personnel and veterans, there is a gulf between what the Government say and promise and what they do; that is not the only example.

One thing not in the Government’s amendment to Labour’s motion is a pledge to protect the NHS dentistry budget. That is odd, because the Prime Minister promised to do exactly that 18 months ago. The truth is that the Prime Minister broke that pledge in November when he gave the go-ahead for dentistry underspends to be raided, effectively waving the white flag on the future of the service. Can you believe it? Despite everything we have heard, there are dentistry underspends, and the Prime Minister thinks that other things are greater priorities than this crisis. The consequences of that decision are now being felt. The budget in some areas of the country is running out and dentists are having to stop NHS work for the remainder of the year. It is so deeply frustrating.

NHS dentists want to do more NHS work; it is the Government who are standing in their way. The Nuffield Trust’s stark report into the crisis suggested that NHS dentistry may have to be scaled back and made available only to the least well-off. Such an approach would be the end of NHS dentistry as a universal public service, yet that is exactly the approach that the Government are piloting in Cornwall. Children, the over-80s and those with specific health needs are given treatment; everyone else has to go private or go without. They will not admit it, but this is the future under the Tories: further neglect, decline and patients made to go without.

Worse still, NHS dentistry is the ghost of Christmas yet to come under the Tories. That is not partisan overreaction on our part; that is according to the lead author of the Nuffield Trust’s report. He wrote:

“For the wider health system, the lessons are troubling: without political honesty and a clear strategy, the same long-term slide from aspiration to reality could happen in other areas of primary care too.”

What has happened to NHS dentistry under the Tories is coming to the rest of the NHS if they are given another five years. That is not the continuity that the country is looking for—it is looking for change with Labour.

My Bath constituency is also described as an NHS dental desert. The only option for people is to go private. The hon. Member has already said that it is Dickensian. Does he agree that it is not just a health problem but an equalities issue that the Government fail to recognise?

I totally agree. In fact, Claire Hazelgrove, Labour’s candidate in Filton and Bradley Stoke—next-door to the forthcoming by-election—was telling me about problems in her constituency and that exact challenge of people being left without or having to go private. One patient told her that her dental practice was now only seeing private patients. That same patient cares for her 84-year-old dad with dementia, who needed a tooth removal to allow him to eat. His appointment was also cancelled. That is what is happening before our eyes.

What of those who cannot afford it? Anna Dixon, Labour’s candidate in Shipley, told me of a woman in her town who had been turned away as an NHS patient and could not afford to go private. She was struggling with pain, it was affecting her eating, and she was at her wits’ end. With the Tories, if you have not got the money, you have not got the care.

As a neighbouring MP, I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning Claire Hazelgrove, our candidate in Filton and Bradley Stoke, who is doing tremendous work on this. I have done a survey of my constituency and have found that about 98% of Bristol NHS practices are not taking on new patients. One issue I have also come across is that, even when people do have access to an NHS dentist, they cannot afford even those lower fees, and as a result they are being removed from the active patient list and losing access to that. We can understand how, during the cost of living crisis, people might delay a check-up for a few months because there are so many other pressing demands on their budgets.

I totally agree, and I do not think we should be complacent about this as a country. The NHS is already becoming a two-tier healthcare system, where those who can afford to go private are paying and the rest are left with an increasingly poor service for poor people. Government Members protest now, but they admit their goals once they leave the Department for Health and Social Care. The Health Secretary’s predecessors may not have said it when they were in her place at the Dispatch Box, but, as soon as they were out the door of the Department, the right hon. Members for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) and for Bromsgrove (Sir Sajid Javid) said what they really believe: patients should be charged for GP appointments. Well, why stop there with this Conservative philosophy? Why not go further? That is the future for the health service if the Conservative party is given another five years. That is the risk facing patients across the country, and that is the choice facing voters at the next general election: further neglect, mismanagement and decline under the Conservatives or change with Labour and a decade of national renewal.

On NHS dentistry, the need for change could not be clearer. By the Conservative party’s own admission, it does not have a plan—just the vague promise of one coming in the future. All it does have is a record of 14 years of failure. If we stick to the current path, full universal access to NHS dentistry may be gone for good. The Conservatives may be happy to wave goodbye to this vital public service, but that is not the Labour way. With Labour, there is a clear plan, with immediate steps to tackle the crisis and long-term reform to rebuild dentistry. There will be more appointments, more dentists, more support for children and long-term reform to put the service on a sustainable footing, paid for by abolishing the non-dom tax status. That is because Labour believes that people who live and work in Britain should pay their taxes here, too. It does not matter whether they live on Downing Street or any other street: if they make their money here in Britain, they should pay their taxes here, too.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Abby Lane, in my constituency, has contacted over 30 dental practices. Not one is accepting her and her one-year-old child, who desperately needs dental treatment. Is it not the case that we now need to reform the system so that local commissioners can ensure that dental commissioning is happening in local areas where there is need, and not just have this patchwork system where dentists are fleeing because it is not paying well enough?

I totally agree. The tragedy is that if we look at the system as a whole and think about the pressure the whole system is under, and if we got NHS dentistry right, we would not only be saving patients untold pain, but saving the NHS money. As Lucy Rigby, Labour’s candidate in Northampton North, reported to me, in 2022 tooth decay forced 625 of her local patients to A&E—worse for them and more expensive for the taxpayer.

If Tory Members disagree with charging non-doms their fair share, maybe they could explain in their own contributions why they disagree. I am sure that their constituents would love to hear their defence of the non-doms, and we would be happy to give them space on Labour leaflets to quote their arguments back at them and let the public decide. I would particularly like to know why the Prime Minister is so wedded to this tax break for the wealthiest.

While Tory Members are set to oppose Labour’s rescue motion today, I understand that our plan on supervised toothbrushing for three to five-year-olds has received an endorsement from an unlikely source. On his podcast, former Conservative Chancellor George Osborne said:

“That really is the nanny-state in action.”

Coming from the Chancellor who introduced a sugar tax, I am sure George meant that as a compliment. Of course, Conservative Members may not see it the same way, just as they do not agree with Labour’s proposal to phase out smoking for children. Don’t worry, we have the Prime Minister’s back on that one; it is, after all, our proposal. But I ask those who attack our plan as nanny-state, what is the alternative? If a child cannot see a dentist and their parents will not do the responsible thing and make sure they clean their teeth, then should we just shrug our shoulders and do nothing while children’s teeth rot?

The problem for the small-statists on the Conservative Benches is this. Too many children today are not cleaning their teeth. Their teeth are rotting and they end up having them pulled out in hospital, which is worse for them and more expensive for the taxpayer. Last year, the NHS spent £80 million on tooth extraction. Toothbrushing in schools would cost a fraction of that, yet the Conservatives choose to waste taxpayers’ money, burning through taxpayers’ cash on the altar of ideological dogma and putting children through unnecessary misery, because it fits their confused ideology.

That is the irony of the Conservative party. Tories say that they believe in a small state and low taxes, yet they have left our country with the highest tax burden since the 1950s. The NHS receives £169 billion a year, yet it is going through the biggest crisis in its history. Because they do not understand that prevention is better than cure. Because they have refused to undertake meaningful reform. Because they treat taxpayers’ money with utter carelessness and contempt. And so they have left us with an NHS that gets to people too late, delivering worse care for patients at greater cost to the taxpayer. We are paying more and getting less. That is Tory Britain. No wonder Tory candidates are so worried.

Before this debate, I happened on a letter on Facebook from the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) who is, happily, in his place. First he talks about the state of dentistry in his constituency—we obviously agree with him there—and then he says:

“I was shocked to learn at the end of last year that little to no progress has been made by the Health Board in our region who are responsible for commissioning this service to you.”

Let us assume it was in anticipation of Labour’s motion, which he is going to vote against because the Whip has been cracked. He goes on to say:

“I have today written to the Chief Executive following on from the meetings I had last year, and will be raising this issue in today’s dentistry debate in the House of Commons.”

What that is, and what voters will see it for, is just one of what will no doubt be countless examples of Tory MPs and Tory Ministers, after 14 years of their failure and mismanagement, pointing the finger of blame at someone else, hoping that voters in Darlington and elsewhere will blame local NHS managers and local NHS commissioners for 14 years of failure. If it is really the case that his integrated care board is to blame for why people in Darlington cannot get a dentist, why are people struggling in Newcastle-under-Lyme? Why are they struggling in Northampton North? Why are they struggling in Shipley? Why are they struggling in Filton and Bradley Stoke? Why are they struggling in Worthing West, Stroud, Stevenage, Great Yarmouth, Truro and Falmouth, Blackpool South, Stockton South and every other constituency in the country? Stop blaming other people for your Government’s failures.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I appreciate that he gave me notice that he was going to mention my constituency. What he failed to do in his contribution was read out the letter in full. He has also not anticipated the full content of my speech, which highlights all the work I have been doing in my constituency to tackle the failure by the ICB to deliver the missing contract.

I could quote the full letter, but it does not help the hon. Gentleman. He misses the fundamental point. This is not just a failure in Darlington. This is not just a problem in the north-east of England. It is the south-west of England, it is the south-east of England, it is the west midlands, it is the east midlands, it is the north-west, it is Cumbria—it is right across the country. In fact, even in London, my city, which has the best NHS dentistry provision in the country—so much for levelling up—dentistry is still in a poor condition. That is why people in Darlington are looking to Labour and, I hope, Lola McEvoy, to take responsibility, show some leadership, back good Labour policies and rescue NHS dentistry in Darlington. The general election cannot come soon enough.

The choice is clear. Under the Tories, NHS dentistry is dying a slow death. The only chance for survival is change with Labour. Labour’s plan will deliver: 700,000 more dental appointments a year for those most in need; new dentists recruited to dental deserts where there is not a single dentist taking on new patients; toothbrushing in primary school for three to five year-olds to promote good health and prevent demand on the NHS; and reform of the dental contract after 14 years of failure, so that once again every patient who needs a dentist can get one. Politics is about choices. Labour chooses to rescue NHS dentistry, not give the wealthiest a tax break. Labour’s plan is fully costed, fully funded, and will make a real difference to people across the country. The Tories have left our country toothless. Labour will give our country its smile back and give its NHS back, too.

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

“recognises the impact of a once-in-a-generation pandemic on NHS dental services, with 7 million fewer patients seen in England across 2020 and 2021; notes these challenges were reflected in both Scotland and Wales; acknowledges the steps already taken to recover services in England including the introduction of a minimum rate and increased payments for complex dental activity to better reward dentists for their work; welcomes the publication of the Long Term Workforce Plan which committed to expanding dental training places by 40 per cent; and supports the upcoming publication of the Government’s plan to further recover and reform NHS dentistry and promote good oral health throughout life.”

It is a pleasure to update the House on the work the Government are doing to strengthen NHS dentistry across the country. We are reforming our NHS and social care system to make it faster, simpler and fairer. Dentistry is a vital part of our NHS and improving dentistry is one of my top priorities. The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) represents a deeply urban seat, so I am pleased that he has presented me with an excuse to boast about the fact that I represent, and am very proud to represent, a rural and coastal constituency. That is why fairness is one of my three priorities for our NHS. I know the challenges that rural and coastal communities face when it comes to accessing an NHS dentist appointment, and the disparities in health that we see between rural and coastal communities and city centres. I will come to some statistics in a moment.

I am determined to fix these issues, and the other problems facing NHS dentistry, so that anyone who needs to can always see an NHS dentist, no matter where they live. Indeed, one of my very first acts as Secretary of State was to respond to the Health and Social Care Committee’s recommendations on dentistry. We agreed to the majority of those recommendations, and we stand firmly behind the ambition that NHS dentistry should be accessible and available to all who need it.

I am going to make a little progress, but I promise to give way later.

The whole House understands that the pandemic placed a long-lasting and heavy burden on NHS dentistry. [Interruption.] I hear groans from Opposition Members, but they cannot ignore the fact that some 7 million people did not come forward for appointments during that long period of the pandemic because dentists had to shut, and we were unable to accommodate those needs within the system because of the severe strictures under which we were all placed as a society. We shepherded the sector through the pandemic with £1.7 billion of direct support to compensate for NHS activity that could not be delivered. As we recover from the pandemic there are no quick fixes, but our recovery is well under way. Let me give the latest statistics, because the hon. Member for Ilford North missed them out in his speech. The Government delivered 6 million more courses of NHS dental treatment in 2022-23 than in the previous year. [Interruption.] In the two years to June 2023, the number of adults seeing a dentist increased by 1.7 million compared to the number in the previous year, and 800,000 more children saw a dentist in the year to June 2023.

Opposition Members cannot have it both ways. While I was reading out those statistics they were saying, “You cannot make those comparisons because of the pandemic”, but that is the point: people did not come forward during the pandemic, so, as we must all know from experience in our own constituencies, there is a backlog that dentists around the country are having to work through—and they are making progress.

In fairness, I will give way to the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) first, because she rose earlier.

Like the Secretary of State, I represent a rural community, and the reason dentists are handing back their NHS contracts where I live is that they cannot recruit another dentist to come and help them. They have not had a day off, they cannot meet their commitments under their contracts, and they cannot recruit. They have offered golden hellos of 25%, but they have not been able to get anyone to come and work with them. What will the Secretary of State do to recruit the dentists whom we need to see the people in dental deserts such as North Shropshire?

As I have explained, in relation to dentistry but also in relation to wider healthcare, the long-term workforce plan, which was requested by NHS England and by clinicians, is the means of laying those foundations for the future of the NHS. I will now give way to the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle).

I thank the Secretary of State. I wanted to intervene earlier when she was talking about the pandemic. In my constituency many people were thrown off their dentists’ lists during the pandemic, often with no notice, and then found that they could not register anywhere else. That is what happened, I believe, all over the country. Can the Minister explain what she is going to do about it? It was not that people were not visiting their dentists; they were denied access.

The hon. Lady has raised an interesting and important point, because, of course, dentists are independent contractors to the NHS, and I have to work with the levers that are available to me. As I have said, we have already invested £1.7 billion to try to help with the recovery, and the House will, I hope, look forward to our dentistry recovery plan when it comes to other ways in which we can improve that. The important point, however, is that because those dentists are independent contractors, we must work with the profession to encourage them back to the NHS to offer the services that we all want to see.

Is not the root of the problem the contracts that the NHS has with dentists? The roots of that, of course, lie with the previous Government, a Labour Government, rather as they do with the GP contracts. Does my right hon. Friend not need to revisit the genesis of this problem, as well as training more dentists here in the UK?

I thank my right hon. Friend, and indeed my friend, my Lincolnshire neighbour, who knows as well as I do the pressures that we face in ensuring that our constituents receive the same quality of care that we expect across England. He was right to draw attention to the—I would argue—badly drafted contract of 2006, but he also touched on the complexity involved in finding systems that would work better.

I cannot wait to reach the part of my speech that will deal with the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions, but first I will allow him to intervene, because I enjoy this back and forth.

So do I. The Secretary of State is far more entertaining than her predecessor. Given that she is painting a picture of improvement, how does she explain the story in The Times which revealed that NHS dentistry activity is now falling in 2023-24 compared with 2022-23? Is it not the case that things are going backwards rather than forwards? How does the Secretary of State explain that, and when are we going to see her plan?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, because according to the latest statistics available to me, 18.1 million adults were seen by an NHS dentist in the 24 months up to 30 June 2023. That is an increase of 10%, and what does it mean in reality? It means that over 1.7 million more adults were seen than in the previous year. I know that we are all concerned about the health of children; some 6.4 million children were seen by an NHS dentist in the 12 months up to 30 June 2023, an increase of 14%, which means, in real terms, an increase of 800,000 on the previous year.

I accept, of course, that there is more to do, and we will be setting that out in our dental recovery plan shortly, but this is not just about big numbers. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks when “shortly” will be. As he knows full well, “shortly” is a little shorter than “in due course” and a little longer than “imminently”.

We have introduced several simple and effective measures to improve the nation’s dental health. The Health and Care Act 2022 made it simpler to expand water fluoridation schemes, because raising the fluoride level to 1 mg per litre is a straightforward way to prevent tooth decay. It has proved effective in parts of England as well as Canada, the United States, Ireland and Australia, and the chief medical officer has concluded that there is “strong scientific evidence” that water fluoridation can drive down the “prevalence of tooth decay”.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the progress that has been made, while, obviously, recognising that there is more to be done. I wonder if she will help me to ask the shadow Minister to correct the record. He said that in 2010 and 2015 Labour had a plan for dental practice, but there is no mention of that in the Labour manifestos. I will come back and correct that if necessary, but the hon. Gentleman is out there stating that Labour has had a plan for dental recovery since 2010, and that is not in those manifestos.

My goodness me! My hon. Friend has identified a “cavity” in the shadow Minister’s so-called plans.

Several hon. Members rose—