Skip to main content

Westminster Hall

Volume 743: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2024

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 16 January 2024

[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]

Excess Death Trends

I beg to move,

That this House has considered trends in excess deaths.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling this debate and my 17 colleagues from across the House who supported the application for a debate on the trends on excess deaths. This debate follows on from my Adjournment debate on 20 October on the same issue.

The eyes of history are upon us. Every generation looks back in wonder at the incredible mistakes of its forebears. They will ask questions such as, “How could they possibly not have realised how wrong they were?”, “What on earth happened to them?”, “Why did they ignore the evidence for so long, as well as their values and every opportunity to learn from the mistakes of yesteryear?” and “What madness captures men?”

From 2010 to 2019, annual death rates in England and Wales oscillated between 484,000 and 542,000. In 2020, there were 607,000 deaths, which is 65,000 more than the maximum figure in 2018. In 2021, there were 586,000 deaths, which is 44,000 more than the 2018 figure. After such a rise, there should be a significant deficit. In fact, our most vulnerable and elderly, who might have lived a while longer, were sadly taken from us early. In 2022, there were 577,000 deaths in England and Wales, and in 2023 there were 581,000. That is a huge rise when a significant deficit would, and should, have been expected. The deficit has been filled not with the extremely old and vulnerable, but has been filled—and then some—with many, many others who are often young or in the prime of their lives.

Some people might want to ascribe the excess deaths in 2022 and 2023 to the virus, but that would be a mistake; that is not what their death certificates say. Moreover, far too many young people are dying. Far from being below the recent rolling average, excess deaths in 2022 were above that average: 6% above. In 2023, when one might have expected deaths to finally fall below the average, the excess was also 6% above. Those numbers are higher in the younger age groups.

No one with integrity can fail to be troubled by those figures. What is actually going on? That is why we need to have this debate. This problem affects us all. It affects every community in every constituency across the country. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members attending this debate, and we need to thank the public for their interest, which has stirred the interest of colleagues. I am very encouraged by the turnout for today’s debate, which is considerably better than we have seen in the past.

Not everyone in this room will be comfortable with analysing scientific data and figures, but that is not my position. I was fortunate enough to take a degree in biological sciences from Nottingham University many years ago. I specialised in biochemistry, genetics, behaviour and virology.

The hon. Gentleman has secured a very important debate. In 2022, we saw nearly as many excess deaths across the UK as during the blitz. In my region of Yorkshire, there have been excess deaths every year since the pandemic. My constituents are very concerned about that. They are also concerned about the almost deafening silence from the NHS about what is causing this, why this is happening and what it is doing to alleviate it. I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this very important debate. Only by talking about this can we get to the root cause of the issue—and there clearly is an issue.

That is the whole point of a representative democracy. We are here to raise issues on behalf of our constituents and to look after their best interests at all times. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his attendance. We had enough signatures for a three-hour debate in the Chamber, but we are having a 90-minute debate in Westminster Hall. I mentioned to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee that I felt that that was a bit of an insult, given the gravity that the issue we are debating has for those who have lost loved ones over the last few years.

The hon. Gentleman is right that there is considerable concern about this issue. Does he agree that we should use the most accurate data available and the dataset of the age-standardised mortality rate, which takes into consideration a growing and ageing population?

Of course we should be using the most accurate figures that we have. Later in the speech, I will talk about the data we really want, which would settle this matter once and for all beyond reasonable doubt.

I thank the public for their pressure and interest in these statistics, the people who have attended in person today and the thousands who will be watching on television or online.

There is a burning question at the heart of this debate. After excess deaths, there should be a deficit: where is it? When will we have it? Worse, why is the deficit being not just filled but significantly exceeded? Why are the institutions, whose job it is to notice, record, publicise and call attention to such matters, apparently asleep at the wheel?

A second burning question is why no one is listening to those raising the alarm. The research and analysis done by two of Britain’s most trusted doctors provide us with alarming clarity. Only this week, Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford, reviewed the causes of excess deaths and concluded that they are predominantly related to cardiovascular disease. He told the Sunday Express newspaper that this cannot be explained by covid, population growth or an ageing population. Yesterday, consultant cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra, who is a world-leading expert in the causes of heart disease, told TNT Radio that even though cardiovascular disease is multifactorial, top of the list in the hierarchy of causes behind excess cardiac-related deaths has to be the experimental covid mRNA vaccine until proven otherwise. This is not speculative.

No—let me finish the point and I will then give way.

Dr Malhotra’s point is not speculative but based on the highest level of data that combines plausible biological mechanism, randomised control trials, high-quality observational data, pharmacovigilance data, autopsy data and clinical data. Those who choose not to acknowledge these cold, hard facts are either unaware of the evidence, wilfully blind or lacking in conscience.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for shining a spotlight on the important issue of excess deaths, but I am keen to understand the difference between correlation and causation. There is a correlation between eating ice cream and sunburn, but we do not necessarily assume the two go together; they could be caused by sunny weather. The same goes in this case. Is the cause to do with lockdown, late presentation or access to the NHS? Understanding causation and correlation are key to understanding why the numbers are so high.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is a medical doctor, so he clearly has some knowledge. Correlation is not causation, but it is an alarm bell. Alarm bells are going off all over the building, but no one wants to open the door to see whether there is a fire.

Future generations will ridicule us for what we have done in response to a seasonal airborne virus. We have apparently lost our collective minds. We have imposed a brand-new type of quarantine on a healthy population, in breach of all previous public health advice and our own carefully crafted expert pandemic plan, and in flagrant breach of the sensible and experienced advice of many professionals.

The noble dissenters are inevitably being vindicated, one by one, as the suppressed, shaming, real-world evidence finally emerges. I will not mention those who harass, discredit and ridicule the dissenters; they loudly parade their egotistical virtue on social media, in the press and on television. I know exactly how harassment feels.

We inflicted social distancing, masking and school closures on healthy children who were at no risk from the virus. We did that to protect adults, at the expense of our children’s social and mental health. People raised the alarm, but nobody listened. A society that consciously and knowingly sacrifices perfectly healthy children for adults is sick. This time will not be looked on well by future generations. That will be our legacy, and I call on this House and those in authority to right that grievous wrong quickly. With unbearable cruelty, we isolated even those who would gladly have made the individual choice to see their grandchildren.

Worst of all, we bypassed the procedures, protocols and science to inflict on a healthy population a brand new and untested product that had never before been used outside clinical trials, never mind approved. There was no long-term safety data. The safety analysis in the trials was eight weeks, and then the control group was vaccinated. There was no age stratification for recipients of an experimental medication for an illness with an average mortality age of 82. There was no liability under any circumstances for the manufacturers of those experimental treatments. Furthermore, there were good reasons, based on the science known at the time, for thinking that those products might be harmful. Rather than ridicule us, future generations may come to loathe us. We will forever be the poster boys and girls of a society that collectively lost its mind and its moral compass. They will hang that millstone around our necks for eternity.

What is the flaw in human nature that latches on to things and destroys all before it? It has been dubbed by some as the madness of crowds or a kind of mass formation psychosis. It is the sort of thing that allowed China to commit population Armageddon with the one-child policy for decades. It is the sort of thing that allowed us to slaughter millions of cattle during the apparent foot and mouth outbreak, when we were persuaded not by the science but by the plausible patter of provable idiots such as Professor Neil Ferguson—yes, the very same. His advice led to the bankruptcy, immiseration and utter despair of countless farmers who were forced to destroy their livelihoods in a futile attempt to prevent the spread of an airborne virus, which had already managed to pass in the air all the way from France to the Isle of Wight. How many times must the so-called experts be caught with their pants down as their models fail yet again? How long must we be subjected to debunked drivel dumped in our political discourse? How long must decision makers deal with discredited modelling and moribund and captured institutions? Why will no one listen to reason when they have been proved wrong so many times?

There are many other examples in medicine, from bloodletting with leeches to pointless lobotomies to not washing hands between the mortuary and the labour ward. Doctors and scientists are far from immune from groupthink, and the current batch are living proof.

This will not be the first, or I suspect the last, Government in history not to follow the evidence when it comes to difficult issues. When Governments make mistakes, protect themselves and do not look at the evidence, we as a democratic society should expect there to be an inquiry that establishes what happened, what should have happened and what should happen in the future. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the inquiry that we set up is failing to do that job, and is assuming that lockdown was right from the beginning?

I agree wholeheartedly. This is not a political issue; it is a public health issue that affects every constituency. The so-called covid inquiry has already set out the answers it wants to get. It has all the appearance of a whitewash. It was deeply disappointing that it announced this week that the module on the safety and efficacy of the vaccines has been put off indefinitely—certainly until after the general election, which is extremely disappointing.

I contacted every public and media body I could think of in 2014 to tell them again and again that the sub-postmasters were innocent, but no one listened. I knew the sub-postmasters in my constituency were completely honest; anybody who knew those pillars of society knew it. The innocent were falsely accused of dishonesty over the Horizon scandal and were relentlessly pursued by a merciless, mendacious and malicious bureaucracy. It is the coldness that shocks most—the imperious arrogance and the mercilessness that capture institutions and cowards in authority when a single narrative closes our collective minds to nuance, to experience and to the inconvenient truths. No one listened to the sub-postmasters; no one cared. No one in power moved a muscle to help, but now, all of a sudden, one media programme has shifted the narrative to reveal that the experts were wrong, our institutions were wrong, those in authority were wrong and an infallible computer system was, in fact, fallible. Even our justice system got it so tragically wrong, with thousands of court hearings and judges making wrong judgments. Will the Post Office lessons be learned regarding the covid insanity?

Who is actually dying now? It is not the old and frail, as it was with covid; in fact, deaths from dementia, a key benchmark of elderly deaths, have been in deficit ever since covid, as we would expect after a period of high mortality. Instead, particularly for cardiovascular deaths, there has been incessant week-on-week excess mortality for months and months in the young and middle-aged. Every age group is affected, but the 50 to 64 age group has had it worst—I declare an interest. They were struck with 12% more deaths than usual in 2022 and 13% more in 2023, and at least five in six of those deaths this year had nothing to do with covid whatever.

My constituent, Steven Miller, was a healthy IT engineer in his 40s. He had two doses of AstraZeneca jabs in the summer of 2021 and was ill shortly afterwards. His side effects were so bad that he lost his job, and in November 2021 he was rushed into hospital. He now has cardio- myopathy and ventricular failure with a maximum of five years to live, taking him to 2026, unless he has a heart transplant. When I saw him last, he had a resting heart rate of 145 beats per minute. He has subsequently lost his partner and access to his child, and he is at risk of losing his house. He now has a diagnosis from Glenfield Hospital in Leicester of vaccine-induced cardio- myopathy, and I want to help him to try to get his compensation. However, he is just one example among my constituents who will probably have 30 years of his life stolen from him. His child will lose his father. How is £120,000 of compensation possibly adequate for that?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing the debate so coherently. Can he explain why module 4 of the public inquiry into the safety of the vaccines has been arbitrarily postponed from next July? Surely the case that he mentioned highlights the need for urgent inquiry.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. Why would they put back any investigation in the public inquiry, which I think costs some hundreds of millions of pounds and therefore should be in the public interest, indefinitely? I fear that political pressure has been placed on the inquiry. Clearly, a lot of political capital in the run-up to the next election has been placed on the fact that the Government, with support from the Opposition parties, did the right thing in our pandemic response, including the roll-out of the vaccines. The very fact that they have done that indicates that there is something to hide, and it should make the public extremely suspicious. I will come on to that shortly.

For two years we have turned society upside down so as not to “kill granny”. Now that mum and dad are dying, it appears that no one cares. This is “Alice in Wonderland” thinking. People in their 50s and 60s— I declare an interest again—would normally, I hope, have many more years of active contribution and deeply fulfilling lives left to live, and they are the people being hit hardest.

Furthermore, the raw number of lives lost is not the only measure that we can look at. We have better methods, and the most famous is known as quality-adjusted life years—those who understand public health generally refer to them as QALYs. They measure healthy years of life lost and are the most sensible metric for properly assessing the impacts of deaths and lost life on families and society. QALYs were ignored at the outset. They were ignored in July 2020 when the Government’s own assessment was that lockdowns would reduce QALYs by about 1 million years in the UK—I repeat, 1 million years. They were ignored when deciding to inject the young with experimental vaccines despite the refusal of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to recommend jabbing under-15s in September 2021.

Even at the covid inquiry when the Prime Minister tried to raise the issue of quality-adjusted life years, he was shouted down by Hugo Keith KC, the lead lawyer at the inquiry. He then revealed his unbelievable, unforgivable negligence and ignorance by saying:

“I don’t want to get into quality life assurance models.”

This, I repeat, is the most senior lawyer at the so-called covid inquiry, so when I say that future generations will ridicule us, it is not hard to see reasons why. The pandemic—a term that some of our best academics from around the globe questioned from the outset in published and peer-reviewed papers—is over. The crisis has passed. Yet still, empty vessels continue to drown out intelligent, reasoned, expert discourse. Not knowing what QALY means is one thing, but parading his ignorance with arrogant disdain ought to disqualify Mr Keith from any further part in that inquiry. Sadly, his condescending disdain for open inquiry epitomises what many of us have encountered time and time again when raising these issues.

A smorgasbord of fanciful excuses has been proffered for the rise in heart attacks. Sir Chris Whitty laughably claimed that it was from a reduction in statin prescriptions, even though prescribing levels were exactly the same, and it would take years or even decades for changes on that issue to take effect and be seen in population mortality data. The media have tried to persuade us—persuade the people—that eating eggs or the wrong kind of breakfast or climate change is to blame. People are sick of being patronised with these lies. Some have claimed that the excess deaths are due to covid. The literature is littered with studies claiming that covid causes heart disease. Almost all include covid cases from spring 2020, when it was almost impossible for someone to be tested and become an official case unless they were sick and in hospital. Proving that sick people get heart disease more than healthy people does not mean that covid causes heart disease. Indeed, the claims can be easily debunked. There has been a steep rise in cardiac deaths in both Australia and Singapore, as well as the UK. Those countries did not have any significant covid until 2022, but they did roll out the jabs at exactly the same time as we did in the UK. Correlation does not prove causation—we have already heard that in this debate—but correlation with and without covid can rule out causation. The excess cardiac deaths were certainly not caused by covid.

Some have claimed that the excess deaths were caused by lockdowns. It is well known that psychological stress increases the risk of heart disease. The Government subjected people to a massive propaganda campaign of fear—well documented by Laura Dodsworth in her book, “A State of Fear”. We were cut off from our usual support networks. For many, there were immense financial pressures. Such policies could contribute to heart disease in a minor way. However, the sharpest rise came later, entirely coincident with the jab roll-out, so we have a clear temporal link between increased deaths and vaccination.

Some have claimed that the excess cannot be down to the jabs, because Sweden has not had as many excess deaths as elsewhere despite having a very similar number of doses, per million, of the experimental vaccines, but it is important to understand that heart disease is a cumulative risk. In the UK, we already had a serious problem with heart disease before the pandemic, and it has got much worse following the vaccine roll-out. By contrast, Sweden has the longest healthy life expectancy in Europe. It is no wonder that it is a statistical outlier on excess deaths now. If someone is under 50 and lives in Sweden, their chances of dying from heart disease were already half that of a resident of the UK of the same age.

Some have admitted to the problem but claimed it was worth it. Science journalist Tom Chivers even said regarding jabbing children: “It sounds cruel—but a small number of deaths would be worth it”. As I pointed out earlier, from China through to the UK, any culture willing to openly sacrifice children for adults is rotten, in my view, to its very core.

Look at what is happening now. Yet again we are seeing a peak in covid hospitalisations, as we should be expecting from a coronavirus in January. The number of people infected and the number of intensive care admissions were about the same every six months before and after the vaccinations. The number of covid intensive care admissions in the January to June 2020 wave was about the same as the number in the July to December 2020 covid wave, and the figure remained similar in the January to June 2021 and July to December 2021 covid waves. The jab therefore had no impact whatsoever. Those interested may wish to consult a recent paper in the Journal of Clinical Medicine that demonstrates exactly this point.

The next important factor is that omicron is far less deadly. The reason why there are fewer covid deaths now is because of omicron’s arrival at the beginning of 2022, but viral waves will continue to come and go until almost everyone has post-infection immunity. We are not there yet.

It is clear that viral waves were not impacted by lockdowns, and it is increasingly clear that they were not impacted by the jabs either. People have denied that viral waves peak naturally at predictable times of year, but how much longer can that be denied? The lockdowns did not cause deaths to decline from their peak in April 2020, because they also peaked and fell in April 2022 and March 2023 without lockdowns. Indeed, in 2020 infections were already falling before the lockdowns were even started.

The problem with excess deaths started in spring 2021 with the jab roll-out, and there was a stepwise rise in ambulance calls for life-threatening emergencies at exactly the same time. Hospitals started to be overwhelmed for the first time, and the number of people unable to work because of long-term sickness started to rise. Even the number of mayday calls from aircraft rose. Are we meant to think that this was all a coincidence, when we know that these injections cause a range of serious adverse events, especially cardiac events?

The excess deaths are the tip of a very ugly iceberg, and we have not even mentioned the world-shaking scandal of jabbing people who had already had covid, which, at a stroke, almost entirely demolishes the credibility of our public health policies during this period. We completely ignored natural immunity. That one fact ought to be a red flag of gigantic proportions, but no one is listening. I do not have time to discuss the fact that the jab was not pulled when it became clear that an incredible one in 800 doses administered led to serious adverse events and consequences. The rotavirus vaccine was pulled entirely after causing an adverse event rate of one in 10,000. For the 2009 swine flu vaccine, one in 35,000 was harmed, and it was then pulled from the market. The covid jab is still being pushed and it is seriously harming people, inevitably at a much higher rate than one in 800, because most people are being exposed to multiple doses of the vaccine, with the same adverse event risk at each dose.

Thalidomide, syphilis treatment and all the other infamous, appalling and shattering medical scandals are dwarfed by the iceberg under the water that is the medical scandal we are currently living through: the experimental, so-called vaccines for covid-19. It took 11 years after the drug was withdrawn in 1961 for the thalidomide scandal to be first raised in Parliament—11 years before the word “thalidomide” could even be mentioned in the Chamber of the House of Commons. I am not going to let that happen this time, which is why I fought so hard to raise this issue in Parliament, at a cost to my reputation, my career and the financial security of my family.

The public inquiry should urgently be looking at this issue. Instead, it is wasting taxpayers’ money on obsessing over WhatsApp messages while people are dying. As if that is not bad enough, we learned this week that the vaccine module has been postponed indefinitely, for no good reason. It is as if the inquiry is so desperate not to find fault that it cannot even look at what has happened with the vaccines. We need transparency.

Dr Clare Craig, co-chair of the Health Advisory and Recovery Team, has been doggedly pursuing the UK Health Security Agency for its record-level data on dosage, dates and deaths for a year. That data could sort out this issue once and for all. The UKHSA admits that it has it. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency admits that all this data has been released to Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna, yet claims that it cannot anonymise it for release to the public. A failure to release the data makes it look like there is definitely something to hide.

A recent poll in the USA shows that more than half of the public thinks the vaccines are responsible for a significant number of deaths. If there was nothing to hide, the anonymised data would certainly be released for analysis to stop the upswell of legitimate concern. The latest response from the Information Commissioner’s Office is that Dr Clare Craig has to wait at least another six months before a case officer will be assigned to this issue. That is not acceptable. They have released our health data to big pharma, but they will not release it to us. The record-level data must be released. Is it really too much to ask that the British public be given the same level of access to the relevant data given to big pharma companies actually responsible for the debacle? Those are corporations that carefully secured immunity from all legal liability—or, in this country, indemnity—from the Government before dangerously and negligibly experimenting on the health of our nation and the world. We are witnesses to the greatest medical scandal in living memory. The consequential fallout in trust, public opinion and public confidence is only just beginning. Continued attempts to shut down debate, flatten dissent and obstruct independent analysis can only delay the eventual collective shame. There will be a reckoning and we will have to try and rebuild trust in our health services, our media and our politics. We have not even started on that journey.

Before I was expelled from the Conservative party for voicing my concerns over the experimental vaccines and the harms I believe they caused, I met a senior member of the party who, after listening to my concerns about the vaccines and NG163—the midazolam and morphine scandal—told me quite calmly, “Andrew, there is currently no political appetite for your views on the vaccines. There may well be in 20 years’ time and you will probably be proven right, but in the meantime, you need to bear in mind that you are taking on the most powerful vested interest in the world, with all the personal risk for you that that will entail.”

I refused to bow to that threat and as they say, the rest is history. People have alleged that I am spouting conspiracy theories. I think it is a conspiracy; a conspiracy against the science, a conspiracy of silence and a conspiracy against the people—and I will have none of it.

Colleagues, more than nine of you wish to be called. Wind-ups will begin at 10.38 am, so I impose a voluntary time limit of three minutes each and I will try and get everybody in if I possibly can.

I am afraid that the evidence the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) is basing his arguments on is highly controversial and strongly contested as to its reliability. I will shortly explain what I mean by that assertion.

I attended two meetings on the issue that the hon. Gentleman chaired, the latter of which, late last year, included a panel of “experts” who made presentations. I attended both meetings on the basis that I am aware that there are cases in which some people with underlying or pre-existing medical conditions were vaccinated inappropriately, in some cases with lethal consequences. I support the case for some form of restitution for them and their surviving families.

At the second meeting, I was alarmed that some of the evidence given was polemical rather than scientific. The nature of some of the expert presentations alarmed me—specifically, the misleading and inaccurate assertions, similar to those made, for example, by Andrew Wakefield on the measles, mumps and rubella scandal, which tried to make the link between vaccination and autism. That was thoroughly discredited subsequently, but the consequence of that, which is still being felt, is that children are not being vaccinated and there is now an upturn in the incidence of measles, in some cases with serious consequences.

The meeting I attended involved a number of “experts” who gave presentations that included data that I am frankly sceptical about. At that meeting, I undertook to raise my concerns about the accuracy of the data with the Office of National Statistics, and I have done so. In his response, Professor Sir Ian Diamond, the national statistician, said that he has undertaken to

“consider and investigate any possible misrepresentation of the data.”

I am grateful to Sir Ian for that undertaking.

In a report in The Times today, reference is made to a study published in The Lancet that said:

“Missed vaccines ‘caused 7,000 Covid hospitalisations and deaths’”—

that is missed covid vaccines.

I am drawing to a close. By the way, that evidence involved 67 million people. The hon. Member for North West Leicestershire quoted some research based on unreliable data, but that is a major undertaking published in The Lancet, and it makes completely the opposite point to his.

This is a very important debate and I will try to make my speech as short as possible. I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire on raising this issue and on his determination to highlight the challenges that we are facing. On the one hand, we might have expected that the pandemic would shorten the lives of a number of our more frail citizens and thus have expected a fall in deaths post-pandemic, and we saw that. The ONS reported roughly 608,000 deaths in England and Wales in 2020, 586,000 in 2021, and 577,000 in 2022—that was higher than 2019 when there were about 531,000 deaths, so that does warrant further inspection. We expect a fluctuation year on year, and we also expect the total number of deaths to increase year on year as the population increases and ages. We therefore look at the five-year average, and currently we are using 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022 because of the outliers in 2020. Even then, it is unlikely that we will be exactly at the average, and we would expect some years to be higher or lower.

The ONS monthly mortality analysis shows that, in 2022, there were 32,000 more deaths than the five-year average, and in January to July 2023, there were 21,809 more. That equates to an annualised figure of around 37,000, but the figures appear to stop in July 2023. Would the Minister advise as to why the data series has been discontinued? It would be helpful if it were not. However, those are raw numbers and we must be cautious because, as the population ages and increases, so will the number of deaths. The ONS therefore uses the age-standard mortality rate, which has fluctuated month on month but is actually down for both 2022 and 2023 when compared with the five-year average. Overall, when adjusted for age and population size, the number of deaths is not excessive, given what we would expect.

We need to look further at the trends on age and the causes of death to see a fuller picture. Others will no doubt speak of rising cardiovascular disease in men, the late presentation of cancers or the rise in liver disease, but as a consultant paediatrician, I would like to focus on children. The National Child Mortality Database collates data on children’s deaths from nought to 18. Its latest bulletin from March 2023 shows that there were sadly 3,743 deaths to the end of that month, which is an increase of 8% on the previous year. Would the Minister comment on what investigation she is doing into the cause of that increased mortality and what is being done to prevent further deaths? The purpose of the child death overview panel is to investigate those deaths, but the average investigation is taking 392 days, with less than half completed in 12 months and a significant fall in the number being completed in 12 months. What is the Minister doing to improve that process?

One particularly distressing feature of child death data is that suicide or deliberate self-harm was a primary cause of death of children between 10 and 17 years, and looking at the data, it is getting much worse with children between 10 and 14. I understand that the Government are aware of those figures and are investing in mental health for children and improving online safety. I would be grateful if the Minister elaborated further on the steps they are taking to support children and prevent further tragedies.

I will finish on this point. One reason why I get exasperated with the covid inquiry is that there seems to be too much focus on who said what to whom—did someone swear, did the actors like each other? I am not that interested. I want to know what lessons can be learned. Was lockdown useful? Was getting children out of school useful? Was the vaccine a suitable thing to give to children or not, particularly if they had had covid before? Those are the answers that we need.

Time is tight, so I will cut to the chase. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) for his courage and determination on this important matter. I also challenge the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth) on his assertion that these were so-called experts at that meeting. They are world-renowned experts in their field; that is just a matter of observable fact.

I want to focus on the safe use of novel mRNA agents and on concerns over their alleged role in driving excess deaths. I repeat a point that I have made previously in this place and directly with the Minister: any agent has the potential to cause harm or injury to the subject. For the avoidance of doubt, the position I have taken is based on decades of involvement in the management and delivery of clinical trials. Politicians who dismiss the data and emerging clinical evidence are acting in a wholly irresponsible manner, and posing a real threat to the duties of honesty and candour at the heart of good clinical practice. If substantiated, the concerns surfacing around falsified or concealed data are the most serious that I can imagine.

The hon. Member is defending the “experts”, but has he actually checked their backgrounds? Has he checked the criticisms and the fact that, in some cases, they have had their medical practitioner status withdrawn?

I am not going to get into the detail of that; I have far too little time and too many important points to make. I have worked in the same institution as Professor Dalgleish, and his credentials are impeccable.

Addressing this matter is necessary because we are talking about the standards on which good clinical practice, or GCP, is based. GCP is not about a nice bedside manner or knowing what treatment to prescribe; it is a set of internationally recognised ethical and scientific requirements, which must be followed when designing, conducting, recording and reporting on clinical trials that involve people, and have their origin in the declaration of Helsinki.

The rights, safety and wellbeing of trial subjects are the most important consideration, which should prevail over interests of science and society, including commercial or political interests, and I will conclude with a reflection on that important principle. The foundation of good clinical practice is under threat. In their December 2023 pathology research and practice paper on gene-based covid-19 vaccines, Rhodes and Parry gave the following warning:

“Pandemic management requires societal coordination, global orchestration, respect for human rights and defence of ethical principles. Yet some approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic, driven by socioeconomic, corporate, and political interests, have undermined key pillars of ethical medical science.”

None of these clinical experts are quacks or conspiracy theorists. As the Government said so often during the pandemic, we must follow the science.

As we have seen in data published by the ONS, non-covid excess deaths continue to run higher than they should. People are dying unexpectedly across all age groups, particularly at home. Since the restrictions in March 2020, there have been 110,000 excess deaths in people’s own homes. In the week ending 22 December 2023, deaths at home were 11% higher than the five-year average. In the first 11 months of 2023, over 21,000 excess deaths took place at home, which is roughly one every 25 minutes.

Last month an article in The Lancet, co-authored by the head of mortality analysis at the ONS, stated that although

“the causes of these excess deaths are likely to be multiple”,

ONS data did show some clear trends—in particular, the “largest relative excess deaths” since the pandemic occurred in young and middle-aged adults, with the number of cardiac deaths happening outside hospitals the most elevated. In other words, young and previously healthy people are dying at home from cardiac-related events, and we do not know why. The article concludes:

“Timely and granular analyses are needed to…inform prevention and disease management efforts.”

Let us be clear: this is not a new phenomenon. Experts have been raising concerns about excess deaths since as early as 2021. I remember seeing an interview with Professor Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University, where he called for an investigation into the 75,000 excess deaths at home between March 2020 and October 2021. Some 90% of those excess deaths were not covid-related, but related to things such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Many of those deaths could have been prevented had people not been dissuaded from seeking care, because they were told by the media and the Government to stay at home and protect the NHS. Perhaps they tried to get help but were dismissed by a health service concerned with only one disease.

The calls for an investigation went ignored then, just as they are ignored now. Perhaps the covid inquiry, as others have said, should make better use of Professor Heneghan’s time by asking about this topic rather than the tittle-tattle that it seems to revel in. The pertinent question is: why did we lock down at all? That is what I think did the biggest damage.

We can all speculate on the cause of excess deaths, which are clearly happening, from withdrawal of healthcare during lockdown, the increased risk of sedentary lifestyles and alcohol consumption, the impact of the pandemic and related restrictions on NHS staffing levels, increasing NHS waiting times, lack of access to emergency care, covid-19 vaccine adverse reactions or another unknown cause—perhaps a mix of all of the above. Until the Government commit to a robust and independent investigation, we will not know for sure and the speculation will keep going. That is why the Government need an investigation rapidly.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) on securing this debate. It is important that Parliament considers all the available evidence. As you might expect, Sir Gary, I have to declare an interest: I am vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for radiotherapy. I am a supporter of Action Radiotherapy and an advocate for the Catch Up With Cancer campaign. The two issues that I will highlight are delayed access to cancer treatment and health inequalities.

Inequitable access to and availability of radiotherapy services are leaving the UK lagging behind other countries in cancer outcomes. That was true before the pandemic and it was amplified by the delayed diagnosis and treatment caused by the pandemic. I hope the Minister is well versed in the arguments, but I am always happy to meet if it would help to advance the cause of the campaign and promote the idea of accessing this cost-effective life-saving treatment.

There is no doubt that covid-19 impacted routine access to healthcare. It is little comfort to those protected from covid through cancellations and delays to routine services and treatment if the outcome for them is delayed cancer diagnosis, with the inevitable impact on prognosis and delayed treatment. I do not always agree with the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire, but never again can the whole NHS be subverted to deal with a single illness or condition, no matter what challenges we face. As other Members have highlighted, cancer is not the only condition affected in this way.

Health inequalities are also an important issue, and I hope the Minister is aware of a recent report by Professor Peter Goldblatt of University College London entitled “Health Inequalities, Lives Cut Short”. The report considered the life expectancy of people across England and Wales, and it is clear that those in the poorest areas suffer the worst health inequalities. Economic inequalities affect health outcomes, and my constituency is on the frontline of health inequalities. We have the worst rate of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in the UK, the highest levels of obesity and the third highest rates of epilepsy. We are well above the national average for diabetes, heart failure, depression and dementia.

For me, this is political. The hon. Member for North West Leicestershire said that this is not a political issue, but a public health issue—but public health is a political issue. In 2024, as in 1997, I expect it will once again fall to a Labour Government to begin the process of fixing the years of Tory neglect and mismanagement. For my constituents—the communities of east Durham—the general election cannot come quick enough.

I will be brief, because it is clear that there is far more demand to speak in the debate than there is time. That shows that we absolutely need a longer debate; we need a debate on the Floor of the House, because it is not just Members present who want to speak, and members of the public have shown enormous interest.

I will not go over the excellent points that have been made and the data that has been shared. We know we have a problem in this country with excess deaths, particularly among younger people and particularly from cardiovascular disease. That, in itself, is a huge challenge. We need medical experts and statisticians to address those issues—I am not qualified to do so.

What I will say is this: lockdown changed everything. Our response to covid changed everything. Just as we look back on different periods of history—before the war; before the industrial revolution—I believe we will look back at before and after lockdown. Lockdown has changed our economy and how we relate to each other. It has changed our health and our understanding of children’s development.

The conditions under which those decisions were made—decisions that were overwhelmingly wrong, in my opinion, although I do not blame any individuals, given the pressure they were under—have not changed. The conditions under which we suspended the precautionary principle, ignored the fact that interventions may cause harm, suspended the importance of children’s education, suspended the safeguarding of children, suspended the need for medical trials and suspended all sorts of safeguards that have stood society in good stead for a long time have not changed.

The conditions in Government, the media and wider society under which those decisions were made have not changed because, unfortunately, we have not yet got to the heart of the matter. Why did that pressure come from the media? Why did we have to follow what other countries were doing? Why were we obsessed with particular points of data, such as deaths from covid, rather than considering the wider impact on society?

My concern about the covid inquiry is that it is asking all the wrong questions. It is concerned with who swore at whom on WhatsApp, and not the wider conditions under which decisions were made. When, several Education Secretaries ago, the former, former, former Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson), stood up in the House of Commons and said that he would close schools, I remember, as a mother, shouting at the television, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”. I could see the impact it would have—not just on my own children, but across all the wider components of society. Society is like a big machine; we cannot just take out one part and assume that the rest will continue to operate. We have seen that clearly over the past three years.

We must address the reasons why these decisions were made. We cannot do that in three minutes each—we must have a longer debate.

Thank you, Sir Gary, for giving me a chance to speak. I also thank the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) for setting the scene. The issue is clearly sensitive. I come from the angle of someone who wanted to be and who is fully vaccinated, and who accepted that and believed in the process. However, I am also one who advocated for those who did not want to take the vaccine and whose freedoms were curtailed. It was a strange balance for me, and perhaps others, to strike, and yet I was firm in that stance.

I found myself in a delicate position as I listened to the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire, as I do believe there are questions to be answered. With all due respect to the Minister—I respect her greatly, as she knows—despite hon. Members’ various attempts and different approaches, those questions have not been answered to their satisfaction, and there are many in my constituency with similar questions.

I lost my mother-in-law to covid two and a half years ago. It was well publicised. I miss her every day. I have lost other loved ones to complications of this disease, and I have seen more who are living with the long-term effects. I can understand the drive for a vaccine and the fact that, to achieve the vaccine, emergency legislation was enacted. This House and the Government happily allowed that to take place, as our medical professionals deemed it to be necessary.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) said, we now need to focus on the fact that the approach of society and Government must never again be all-consuming, with them dealing with one particular public health issue almost to the total exclusion of others?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree.

I do not understand why the supposed links between donors and PPE provision are worthy of investigation, yet excess deaths demonstrably linked to vaccines have not been deemed important enough for investigation. For me, there is a question to be answered. It seems a natural follow-on that the unprecedented steps taken should be held to the scrutiny of an investigation and that the points that have been raised are seemingly supported by medical evidence.

I am not a doctor and I do not profess to be, but the facts raised by the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire do call for scrutiny. Therefore, I support calls for an investigation. I have seen young men in my constituency struck down with unexplained cardiomyopathy before covid, and seen the heartache that the families deal with as they wonder why. There are many families at this time with similar questions. It could well be that the increase has nothing to do with the vaccine, but we must look into why fit young men, or fit, non-smoking, healthy-weight women in their 50s, are having heart attacks, and their consultants are asking them, “Which injection did you take?”

To me as an unlearned man, those are signals that there are questions to be asked, and there is an onus on our Government and our Minister, with great respect, to see that the questions raised by medical professionals and voiced by Members of this House are taken seriously and addressed. Not for one second do I claim to see the correlation, but enough people have warranted it, so I support the calls for an investigation and ask for one to be carried out.

I thank the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) for securing the debate and for his effort to bring it to the House. I have received a significant number of emails, and the consistent theme is a lack of trust. Trust is key, and constituents have a right to know that elected representatives take them seriously and work to find out why these excess deaths are occurring. Every death is a tragedy; in each home there is devastation. We see this in all our constituencies. I have sat with several families who have lost loved ones, and I am not satisfied with the answers they have been given. We owe it to them to restore trust and to be transparent about why death rates are higher than expected.

Ignoring the issue will only increase the anxiety and distress further. People deserve answers to why the numbers are high, what the cause is, whether deaths could have been avoided and who and what were responsible. We all know people who have died. No one could realistically deny that deaths are higher than expected. Too many families are left without answers. But what is the cause? That is what needs to be established. Are these deaths attributable to covid? Is it the vaccine? Is it misdiagnosis? Is it lack of access to treatment? Is it constituents choosing to stay at home?

I have two examples. One lady, who had had cancer and seemed completely clear of it, chose not to go back for a check-up and then died quickly after that. A gentleman who had a severe lung problem was denied drugs because of gaps in the assessment of the degradation of his lungs. He died very horribly and quickly at 56 years old. As has been said, a deafening silence will not reassure our constituents or ensure that we learn and respond effectively in future health pandemics.

The hon. Member makes an important point about cancer. Operations were cancelled and treatments delayed. More and more stories are coming to the fore around vaccinations of cancer patients, how that triggered other complications and caused deaths. Does he agree that more needs to be done to investigate that?

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and I was coming on to that. Whatever the Minister is minded to say today, a proper understanding is needed of what is behind these excess deaths and the examples that have just been given.

We seem incapable in this country of talking openly about death. It will come to all of us, but we lack the courage to discuss it openly, and the consequences are widespread. Addressing the issue openly and transparently can only help our effort to bring healing and some comfort to grieving families.

I am here because a number of my constituents—the people I work for; they are my employers—have asked me to be here. I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) on securing this debate. He is right to ask the questions that he did, and right that the Post Office Horizon scandal has taught us that asking hard questions is really important.

This country generally does hard science well, and I am very proud of that. I do not think it is immodest to say that we are a science and technology superpower. However, science always needs to be evidence-based. We need to be unafraid to ask difficult questions, and we must never lack the professional curiosity to challenge and interpret data. That is really important for all of us. We have had references to lockdowns. I do not think that Parliament will ever agree to lockdowns again, because the situation is completely different now. We now have testing, vaccines and medicines, so I cannot ever see a future Parliament agreeing to lockdowns again.

I am one of the 93.6% who freely chose to be vaccinated against covid. That was my choice, but I support people who did not choose to be vaccinated. However, it is worth just mentioning that figure of 93.6%, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have been vaccinated.

I will just look at the facts. Unlike the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire, I do not have a biotechnology degree, but it has been put to me that according to the Office for National Statistics, which is independent, the mortality rate in 2022 in England was significantly lower than it was in 2020, before the arrival of covid-19. Also, analysis from the ONS published in August last year shows that people who have received a covid vaccination have a lower mortality rate than those who have not been vaccinated against covid. I accept that there are other data sets, and I completely agree with him that if there is more information that should be in the public domain, it should be put there; I support him in that regard. However, I also support the independent ONS. We challenge it at our peril, because it is important that we politicians have reliable data that is genuinely independent.

I am afraid that I will not, because I have so little time in which to speak, and I do not want to knock other speakers out.

What is the NHS doing about people dying who should not be dying? There are such deaths from cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, respiratory disease, dementia and musculoskeletal conditions, because people stayed away from their GPs or from hospitals for too long. To be fair to the Government, there is a major programme in place. We want an additional 9 million treatments and diagnostic procedures over 2023 and 2024, and 30% more elective activity. There is £8 billion extra put in by the Chancellor, and a big focus on pharmacy. However, I think there should also be a focus on diet, exercise, lifestyle and air quality, all of which are important issues.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) for securing and leading this debate.

Like many hon. Members, I have been concerned by the increasing trend in excess deaths in recent years, which includes deaths in the male population; indeed, there have been a higher number of excess deaths of men than of women, although all excess deaths are of course a tragedy.

According to the Government, from the start of the pandemic until 1 December 2023, there were 77,907 excess female deaths and 92,913 excess male deaths, the latter figure making up 54% of the total. However, once we delve into the data, we find that there are deeper differences. Between the ages of 25 and 64, the number of excess deaths for women was 12,579, while the number for men was 24,688, so nearly twice as many working-age men as working-age women have died unexpectedly since the pandemic.

Where is the research to find the underlying causes for these excess male deaths from conditions affecting the heart, diabetes and urinary disease? Where are the reports saying what we need to do to address these issues, both as a whole and in response to the nuances of particular figures? Who is looking into how this happened? In Government, which Minister, which Department, which corner of our expansive NHS, which think-tank and which Select Committee—either in the Commons or the Lords—is examining this issue?

The myriad external health and wellbeing-orientated bodies, whether they be quangos, non-governmental organisations or charities, have a plethora of experts, who are available across the state and in the various institutions that we have in this country. However, for some reason—maybe one that centres on an uncomfortable truth—no one who should be interested in the huge rise in excess deaths seems very interested in them at all. Is that a scandal? Perhaps; time will tell. However, the silence from the Secretary of State and the Ministers in her Department speak volumes, as does the silence from the civil servants at the Department. The silence from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities is similarly underwhelming, and the silence from the health community at large is echoed by the silence from the royal colleges, as is the silence from Sir Chris Whitty and his colleagues. That is worrying, not just because we all know that if the gender figures were the other way round, there would be huge publicity and research, but because it seems that these figures, in general, are purposely being ignored. Is it because men in this age group are more affected? Do men not count as much?

Overall, there have been huge number of excess deaths from covid, and we do not know what the underlying causes are for a range of conditions. It is as if the health authorities and the Government do not want to talk about it. Have they something to hide? Do they know something we do not? Back in the dark days of the pandemic, there was a debate in the Chamber about vaccinating young people, perhaps mandatorily. Only two Opposition Members turned up to support the Government, and more than 40 of the Minister’s Government colleagues did not support the Government’s approach. In my speech I said that, with regard to the health of the youngest in society, we should do no harm.

Similarly, I am not proud of the Government for ignoring the higher excess deaths. I hope the Minister will announce investigations to ascertain why the ultimate harm of excess death numbers is rising, and how excess deaths might be tackled, for women and men of all ages. As an aside, it is commendable that the Government recently ensured that all schools have defibrillators, but to my mind, that raises more questions than it answers. Is this the next Post Office Horizon-type scandal? Time will tell. One suspects that the truth will eventually out.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) for securing this debate. I will be brief, as I have a very specific point to make.

Losing a loved one can be a profoundly painful experience. In Hertfordshire, families are experiencing delays from the coroner due to the apparent increase in complicated deaths over a number of years. Although it is right to take time to do a full investigation, I am concerned about the lack of communication with families who have lost loved ones to update them about the reasons for the delays and set out what the timings will be. I am getting inquiries from families who are suffering and do not know what is happening and why there are delays, and that is feeding their concerns. Does the Minister agree that this only adds to families’ pain? They just want answers, and to know what is happening. Will the Minister please urge coroners, if they are not able to do the work, to at least communicate regularly, and provide updates, so that grieving families know what is happening and suffer less?

We now come to the Front Benchers. Will the Minister please give the mover of the motion at least two minutes to respond?

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) on securing this important debate on trends in excess mortality. I also congratulate all hon. Members who have spoken in this lively debate.

The phrase “excess deaths” refers to the difference between the actual registered number of deaths, and the expected number of deaths, based on data from previous years. Recording and understanding such trends is important for any Government of this country, because through that lens we discover areas of growing irregular activity, and we can use that information to tackle issues and improve the lives of our families, our constituents and everyone in this country.

It is sad that excess deaths appear to have increased in recent years. Although there is a range of estimates from different bodies, they all point to an increasing trend. Life expectancy in the UK has also fallen to its lowest level in a decade. Male life expectancy is down 38 weeks from its pre-pandemic peak, and female life expectancy is down 23 weeks. Those worrying trends reinforce the need for us to understand what is happening and what we can do to turn them around.

However, it is important to tackle the claim by the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire that there is a causal link between the covid-19 vaccines and excess deaths in this country.

I am afraid I have limited time.

The Opposition have stated clearly, and I confirm again, that we believe vaccines are the most effective public health intervention in relation to coronavirus and health in general. It is clear from extensive independent research that the covid-19 vaccines have been and continue to be extremely successful at preventing deaths. Sadly, there have been extremely rare cases of people suffering side effects that are possibly linked to the vaccine, but the data does not suggest that there is a link between that and the large increase in excess mortality in recent years. However, when serious side effects do occur, it is right that individuals and their families should have access to the vaccine damage payment. I encourage anyone who has a side effect from any vaccine to use the yellow card system and to report the side effect to their general practitioner.

It is wrong, however, to consistently link the observed excess deaths to covid-19 vaccines. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth), I have concerns that making that link not only stokes fear and misinformation, but distracts the public conversation away from other health concerns of critical importance.

I normally would, but I have limited time, and I really want to explain the Opposition’s thoughts. Although I disagree with hon. Members on this issue, I am pleased that we are discussing the topic today, because as I have mentioned, we face increased excess deaths and a wider health crisis across the country.

The primary cause of excess mortality has, of course, been covid-19. The pandemic was one of the most profound events of our lifetime, and in the UK, hundreds of thousands of people died, and millions were extremely ill. In fact, there are perhaps 2 million people still shielding because of their clinical vulnerability to the virus. I am sure that we all know who some of those individuals are.

The Opposition have made the case over many years that the Government and our health system were not fully prepared, and were far too slow to act throughout the crisis. It is vital that we learn lessons from the pandemic, and take steps to strengthen our resilience for the future. That is why it is so important that the covid-19 inquiry receives the support that it needs: to ensure that mistakes are not repeated.

The Government have named several other reasons, apart from the pandemic, for the increase in excess deaths in recent years.

Sir Gary, your chairmanship is superb. Will you confirm that it is normal in these debates that the Opposition spokesperson has up to 10 minutes to make their case? The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) therefore has just under five minutes left, which is plenty of time for interventions.

There is an increase in conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. As a number of Members have mentioned, the Government say that they are attempting to reduce excess deaths through more health checks, as part of their major conditions strategy. We in the Opposition welcome all efforts to improve the health of our country and tackle these issues, but we must have a Government who will build an NHS and a healthcare system that is there for the public when they need it.

I am afraid not; I really want to explain our concerns, and what the Opposition will do.

Unfortunately, through 14 years of Conservative mismanagement, the country has seen the Government do the exact opposite. On patients being seen on time, the situation continues to get worse; so many key NHS targets are being missed. The Prime Minister promised last year to get NHS waiting lists down by 2024, yet this month, waiting lists remain sky high at 7.6 million—400,000 higher than he promised. One year on, that is another pledge missed by the Prime Minister and this Government, and it leaves so many families waiting for urgent care across the country.

What is more, we are so far behind on critical health challenges. As the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) mentioned, on cancer mortality, thousands are needlessly dying because of slow and late diagnosis, combined with delays to urgently needed treatment. Cancer waiting time targets are consistently being missed, and some of them have not been met for over a decade—a leading cause of avoidable deaths in England. It is urgent that we swiftly tackle this crisis. That is why Labour has committed to improving cancer survival rates by hitting all NHS cancer waiting time targets, and to ensuring early diagnosis within five years, so that no patient waits longer than they should.

When it comes to the NHS and the health of our nation, Labour offers a different plan. We are fully committed to delivering a mission-driven Government who will cut NHS waiting times and build our NHS, so that it is there for the people when they need it. That includes measures such as delivering 2 million more appointments and operations a year at evenings and weekends.

It means doubling the number of scanners, so that patients with conditions such as cancers are diagnosed early.

Order. The hon. Lady has indicated that she will not give way. Let us hear the end of this speech. Thank you.

And it includes ensuring that ambulances get to people in time to save lives, not when it is too late. We will also tackle the wider health inequalities that mean that life expectancy is much worse in our country’s poorest regions, through our focus on intervention and a shift to community care.

Just last week, we announced our detailed child health action plan to reverse the plummeting health outcomes for our children. Through specific measures, targeting waiting lists, mental health, dentistry and more, we will ensure that that we have the healthiest generation of children ever. That area of concern has been echoed by a number of Members during this debate.

I will conclude by restating the Opposition’s concerns about increasing excess deaths in recent years. Covid-19 was the most significant threat that our public had faced in over 100 years. It is vital that we all learn lessons from that profound event and make sure that mistakes like this never happen again. It is critical that we understand other trends in the excess mortality seen across the country, and that we build our NHS as a healthcare system that invests in prevention—because prevention is key—and that is there for the public when it is needed.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister on the issues that have been raised, and about how we can tackle rising excess deaths across the country.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) for securing this important debate. We have had a number of debates; I responded very briefly to his Adjournment debate in October. I acknowledge that he is absolutely correct that there is an increase in excess deaths. We take that very seriously; I take that seriously as a Minister, and from the point of view of my clinical background.

To echo the thoughts of many hon. Members around lessons to be learned from the covid period, I too, as Minister with responsibility for pandemic preparedness, would like answers and advice on the impacts of lockdowns, face masks and the timings of vaccine roll-outs, so that those can be taken into consideration for any future pandemic. Although the inquiry is independent, a focus on those issues would be extremely helpful to me, as Minister.

Not for the moment; let me respond to as many points from hon. Members as I can.

There is an increase in excess deaths. A number of factors contribute to that. We take that seriously, and monitor it constantly. Looking at the past year, for example, there was a high flu prevalence last winter, when there were still ongoing challenges relating to instances of covid-19 and a strep A outbreak, particularly among children. Those had an impact. Statistics from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities showed that last year, there were almost 26,400 excess deaths in England, and of those excess deaths, 7,300 were due to acute respiratory infections, including flu and pneumonia.

Last winter, the number of positive tests for flu peaked at 31.8%—the highest figure in the last six years. There are schools of thought on that; one is that when people were locked down, they were not exposed to flu for a couple of years, so their immune systems struggle to cope. We have learned those lessons, and that is why, this year, we have brought forward our flu vaccination programme. We have successfully vaccinated over 17.6 million people since the campaign started in September. It is still early in the winter season, but—touch wood—we are seeing fewer admissions from flu and covid than we did last year. We are learning lessons from those excess deaths.

There are also excess deaths from cardiovascular diseases; that was pointed out during the debate. The figure is 6% higher than expected in England, with almost 13,500 excess deaths attributed to cardiovascular disease. Lockdown did have an impact on that. We know that people were not getting their cholesterol tested or their blood pressure checked, and were still smoking. Antihypertensives and statins were not being prescribed. Again, we have taken action. As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) pointed out, we are supporting local authorities to resume normal NHS healthcare checks; between April and June last year, the highest number of checks were offered since the programme began in 2013. We are investing £17 million in innovative new digital health checks, to be rolled out this spring, that will deliver an additional 1 million checks in the first four years. We have a £10 million pilot to deliver up to 150,000 cardiovascular disease checks in the workplace, with free blood pressure checks being rolled out in community pharmacies to people over 40, and we are investing £645 million to include blood pressure checks in our community pharmacy facilities. That is in addition to the work the Prime Minister announced on a smoke-free generation, which will be debated further, through which we want to see smoking rates further reduce.

I turn to the elephant in the room—covid vaccines—because the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire and other hon. Members have raised concerns about their safety. It is true that Office for National Statistics data, published only in August, shows that people who have had a covid-19 vaccine have a lower mortality rate than those who have not been vaccinated. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) and the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire are absolutely correct that a high number of people who were vaccinated appear in the excess death population, but when 93.6% of the population have had at least one dose of a covid vaccine, there will be a high number of vaccinated people in the excess death numbers. That is prevalence, not causality. It is important that we look at the causes of excess deaths and tackle them.

The Minister is saying that the number of people dying who are vaccinated is higher than the number of people who are not. That is to be expected because they are more likely to be older and frailer. Does she have any data that are adjusted for age and frailty—to say whether the vaccinated population are more or less likely to die?

I do not have those figures on me, but I will be very happy to write to the hon. Lady with them. I am not saying that the rate is higher if people are vaccinated but that a high number of vaccinated people appear in the excess death figures because 93.6% of the population were vaccinated. That does not link to causality; it shows a high prevalence instead.

On that very point, during the public inquiry, should greater importance not have been placed on investigating the excess deaths, as opposed to delaying that part of the inquiry?

The public inquiry is independent, and the Government are under heavy scrutiny from it. It is not for me to say how the inquiry should be conducted. As a Government, we are looking at the causes of excess deaths and introducing, where we can, urgent measures to reverse that increase as quickly as possible.

No vaccine or medicine—even simple paracetamol—is completely risk free, but we have systems in place to continually monitor the safety of our medicines. For example, in April 2021, following concerns raised through the yellow card system or by GPs or clinicians, the MHRA reacted to rare cases of concurrent thrombosis and thrombocytopenia following the AZ vaccine. That resulted in actions, with adults under 30 not offered the vaccine any further. In May of that year, that was extended to adults under 40. Where there is concern, we will take action and take recommendations from bodies like the MHRA to make sure that those vaccines are as safe as they can be.

The Minister knows as well as I do that the yellow card scheme sits at the heart of safe clinical care, but allegations are circulating that the MHRA is sitting on 50 times more yellow cards related to the covid-19 vaccine than those related to any other vaccine that have been reported to it. Will she commit to asking the MHRA to account for that and to taking urgent action if, indeed, it is sitting on the yellow card system reports?

Thank you, Sir Gary, for reminding me that I have two minutes left.

I absolutely take the hon. Gentleman’s point. If people have concerns, I am more than happy to raise them with organisations or to provide hon. and right hon. Members with answers. Although we have had over 8,000 claims to the vaccine damage payment scheme so far, 4,000 of them have been rejected on the grounds of causation or not meeting the severity threshold, and 159 have been awarded—156 for the AZ vaccine, two for Pfizer and one for Moderna. As well as the information that the MHRA is collecting, we are analysing the vaccine damage payment scheme to keep constantly reviewing the safety of the vaccines.

We must be careful with the language we use. We have a measles outbreak at the moment that is affecting young children, with particularly high outbreaks in London and the west midlands. Thankfully, it is mild in most cases, but children can die or have long-term side effects, and there is a danger if we are not careful with the language we use. We should absolutely scrutinise the safety of vaccines, but we need to make sure that we are not deterring parents from coming forward. We nearly eradicated measles, and we are now seeing outbreaks because of concerns about vaccinations. Although we have concerns, we also have responsibilities.

I do not have much time left, so I will make one quick point. If clinicians and experts have concerns, we should point them to the funding that we have made available for the National Institute for Health and Care Research. Some £110 million has been allocated for covid-19 vaccine research, and I encourage them to make use of that fund to develop our knowledge further.

I reassure colleagues that we absolutely acknowledge that there is a risk of excess deaths. We are working towards how we reduce that as quickly as possible, but the lockdowns have had a negative effect in many cases. We are also mindful of the safety of vaccinations, and have taken action when safety concerns have been raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell) mentioned coronial delays. That is a matter for the Ministry of Justice, but if he wants to write to me with the details of his case, I would be happy to take it up with that Department.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire for bringing forward this issue. My door is open, and I am very happy to continue the discussion with him on it.

As it always should be, Sir Gary; your chairing of the debate has been excellent. I have been extremely impressed by the turnout, which is far in excess of my expectations. I congratulate all hon. and right hon. Members who have attended, especially those who have contributed, and I thank the Minister and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare), for their participation. Respectfully, I advise the Front-Bench spokespeople that not taking interventions will not fill colleagues or the wider public with confidence that they are being open and transparent. If we want to reassure people, they need to have confidence in us.

Clearly, time has been in short supply; three minutes for Back-Bench contributions was insufficient, and I hope that everyone present today, and those who have not been able to attend but who wanted to speak, would support an immediate call for a three-hour debate in the main Chamber. That would treat the whole issue of trends in excess deaths with the reverence, time and respect that our constituents demand and that we need in order to get to the absolute truth. I am saddened that I do not believe that this trend in excess deaths will stop any time soon; in fact, I think it will continue and that the concern from our constituents will only escalate.

The Minister talked about the elephant in the room: the vaccine harms. It is that bad, and it is going to get that bad, that apparently even the elephant in the room has died suddenly. The Minister could sort all this out if her Department were to tell the data holders to release the record-level data: the vaccine records, the vaccination data, the age of the vaccinated, what they were vaccinated with, and whether they have died or had a severe adverse event. That level of data would sort out this argument once and for all, and if—

Heritage Assets: Uxbridge and South Ruislip

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the protection of heritage assets in Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this—my first Westminster Hall debate.

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”—[Official Report, 20 August 1940; Vol. 364, c. 1167.]

As I am sure colleagues will know, those words were immortalised by Sir Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister, on 20 August 1940 in the House of Commons Chamber, only a few steps away from this very room. The speech containing those famous words came at a time when Nazi invasion was long suspected and indeed feared. Adolf Hitler knew that if an invasion of the British Isles were to be successful, the German Luftwaffe would have to establish superiority over our skies. This was inconceivable, but by the end of June 1940—only a couple of months before Churchill gave his speech—the Luftwaffe’s superiority in terms of planes seemed insurmountable, with a count of 2,550 planes to the RAF’s 750.

Let us fast forward a couple of months. With war now raging over the skies of Britain, the sound of a Spitfire or Hurricane drawn into a dogfight against its Nazi foe echoed all around. The airfields of southern England faced the full force of the Third Reich, and what’s more, by 16 August the resources of Fighter Command in this part of the country had almost been completely spent. In Churchill’s speech, he remarked on and paid tribute to the enormous bravery and sacrifice of Fighter Command and the wider Royal Air Force. Sir Gary, I hope you will forgive my short history lesson; I know how famous those words are, how they epitomised that point in the war, and everything they represented.

What many people do not know, however, is that that day in the Commons Chamber was not, in fact, the first time that Churchill spoke those words. Indeed, the first time he quipped, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” was four days earlier in my constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. On 16 August 1940, Churchill, along with Major General Hastings Ismay, visited the then RAF Uxbridge, including what we today call the Battle of Britain Bunker. The trip was especially eye-opening for the then Prime Minister, as it was from that bunker that No. 11 Fighter Command operated.

Of the four Fighter Command groups, No. 11 saw the most action during the battle of Britain, shooting down many of the 1,700 enemy aircraft lost during the war. The sheer scale of No. 11’s work was evident when, on Churchill’s visit, each squadron in the group was actively engaged in combat, right at that moment, against the continuous Luftwaffe raids pouring from over the channel. When leaving the bunker, Churchill said to Ismay,

“Don’t speak to me; I have never been so moved.”

A couple of moments later, while still reflecting on what he witnessed, he turned and uttered those famous words. No. 11 Fighter Command’s continuous defence on that day was not a one-off either. Churchill would go on to write in his memoirs

“all the bulbs glowed red”

in reference to the tracking boards in the bunker’s operation room, which showed each group’s squadron engaged on 15 September that year as well.

It was not just as the stage from which Churchill uttered his famed words, or as the home of No. 11 Group’s operations, that the bunker underlined its important part in the history of Uxbridge and South Ruislip and of the entire country. I am incredibly proud of the part that the bunker played in our national history, and of the immensely courageous and brave men and women based there during the most momentous moment in Britain’s history. I am also proud that the bunker not only exists, but is one of the most popular places to visit in my constituency. I hope to be able to welcome the Minister there soon.

The bunker shows what can happen when local interest groups, alongside the wider community—those keen to preserve important parts of our history—are given institutional support. After the war, No. 11 Group relocated elsewhere, with Dowding unveiling a memorial close to the bunker entrance noting the role it played during the second world war. Thirty years after the war, and through painstaking work, the operations room of the Battle of Britain Bunker was recreated in that very room, through the tireless work of those committed to the building and its history, and those associated with it. A couple of years on, a museum was opened in the bunker, with the operations room open to visits.

When I was growing up, the bunker was an incredibly interesting place for me to visit and to learn more about my local area’s ties with the wider war effort and the role it played protecting Britain in some of her darkest days. Much of the work, however, was done off the back of volunteers and special interest groups, which is why in 2015 the whole community was thrilled when the Government pledged £1 million to fully restore the bunker, and even more people were able to visit through a specially built visitor centre. Alongside that pledge was a multi-million pound grant from Hillingdon Council to celebrate and build the visitor centre. Along with its incredible popularity, the bunker demonstrates what can happen when local heritage projects and assets have institutional support, whether from local or national Government or established charities and organisations.

I remind the hon. Gentleman, as I think he probably already knows, that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has some of the richest heritage around. We in Northern Ireland have some of that, including at the Conlig mines, where the first world war and second world war soldiers trained. The hon. Gentleman mentioned funding. It is incredibly important that the seed funding and help for councils to develop our heritage is made available. Does he agree that when it comes to the Minister’s input, which we very much welcome, the opportunity to have projects in my constituency of Strangford should also be supported?

I think that later in the debate we will see how the Minister responds on the issue of funding, but I thank the hon. Member for those remarks.

What is more, this does not always have to be about funding; it can be about advice and even signposting. I recently spoke in the main Chamber on a similar project, so I look forward to the Minister expanding on other ways in which local residents in Uxbridge and South Ruislip can access support and guidance to ensure that the heritage assets that they believe are worth saving can be saved. I hope to come on to a number of those.

Just as decades ago it played host to the valiant men of No. 11 Group, Fighter Command, the Battle of Britain Bunker has now become the very place where those people’s stories are told. I wholeheartedly thank all the team who work at the Battle of Britain Bunker for all that they do as part of this important work. As I have already noted, the bunker’s experience shows how local heritage assets can be protected. The process can be summed up in three stages: identification, protection and capitalisation. Each of those stages can have its own pitfalls. For the remainder of my time, I will try to address each of these within the local context of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

We are incredibly lucky to have organisations such as Historic England, which maintains the “Heritage at Risk” register, giving a yearly glimpse at the state of England’s heritage fabric. But the register can make for troubling reading. For instance, the 2023 edition details 392 buildings, 98 places of worship and 25 archaeological sites at risk in London. Altogether, with the other categories combined, there are 599 entries from across London. For the Borough of Hillingdon, the register contains 44 entries, including historic stables, crumbling church walls, a cinema and Hubbard’s Farm Barn and outbuildings in Uxbridge. However, the register is only as effective as the information that it contains, and I am sure that, despite the valiant work of Historic England, some sites may go undetected, known only to niche local knowledge and unfortunately then lost when that local knowledge is lost. On this, I would like to repeat my ask of the Minister to highlight how residents in Uxbridge and South Ruislip might go about highlighting the local assets that they are worried about, and how they can get them through the first and most important step of the protection process.

I have said that the register can make for troubling reading, but it can also provide a positive glimpse into the state of heritage preservation in our communities. For example, the 2023 register details that 203 assets, including 41 sites in London, were removed from the register for positive reasons. These success stories show the importance of identifying heritage assets at risk, as they underpin the protection process that I have been talking about. However, any prospect of this success stands to be undercut by a lack of suitable funding and expertise to get the work under way suitably, sympathetically and in a way that will ensure longevity.

Here is where I draw on another part of Uxbridge and South Ruislip’s aviation history—although to call RAF Northolt “aviation history” is not quite true, as it is still a fully working airfield, dealing with commercial and military flights, including Government, both national and international, to and from London. Established in 1915, RAF Northolt actually predates the establishment of the Royal Air Force and is the longest continuously used RAF airfield in the country. Like the Battle of Britain Bunker, RAF Northolt has a number of links with the second world war, but especially with the battle of Britain itself. Indeed, RAF Northolt was the first airfield to receive the Hawker Hurricane in 1937, two years before the outbreak of the second world war. The Hurricane, often overshadowed in the public psyche by the sprightly Spitfire, was the workhorse of the battle of Britain, inflicting 60% of the Luftwaffe’s losses. Four out of the five squadrons based at RAF Northolt at the time of the battle of Britain would fly Hurricanes during that time.

One of the squadrons that we are especially proud of in Uxbridge and South Ruislip was No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron. The squadron was made up of Polish forces who were withdrawn to Britain following the 1939 invasion of Poland and then the fall of France. By 1940, 8,000 Polish airmen had arrived in Britain from across the channel. Unlike many of their British counterparts, the Polish pilots were incredibly experienced and had already had wartime service. Despite that, many of the Polish servicemen were originally met with scepticism and often relegated to jobs that left them stood firmly on the ground. The 303 Squadron would go on to serve with enormous heroism and skill. Indeed, during the battle of Britain, the squadron shot down the greatest number of enemy aircraft. Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding noted:

“Had it not been for the magnificent material contributed by the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of the Battle would have been the same.”

Neither that nor the service of the Polish squadron is lost on my residents. We are proud custodians of the Polish air force memorial. Dedicated to Polish airmen who lost their lives during the second world war, the memorial stands close to the airfield’s south-eastern corner.

All squadrons based at RAF Northolt during the battle of Britain and beyond demonstrated great courage, skill and resolute determination, and 30 allied airmen from the United Kingdom, Poland, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia and New Zealand were killed after flying out of RAF Northolt. That is why I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to one small part of the airfield’s fabric that those overseeing the airfield believe to be at risk and would like to preserve. The physical space of RAF Northolt went through a lot during the second world war, with the Luftwaffe concentrating its efforts on crippling Britain’s air superiority by targeting airfields. More than 4,000 bombs fell within two miles of the airfield in just over 14 months. During the war, the airfield was camouflaged to look like housing from the air to confuse the German bombers, and a stream was even painted over the primary runway. The only problem was that these designs were so ingenious that they even fooled allied pilots when approaching Northolt for the first time.

The airfield saw so much of the physical effects of war and the lives and stories of the brave few. That is why it is important to protect the remaining fabric of the airfield such as the scramble hut, which airfield authorities are looking to preserve and to better protect. To have this physical asset harking back to a point of huge bravery during wartime, while continuing to operate as an RAF airbase, would underline the timeless notions of bravery, commitment and what is right. I hope the Minister will agree to meet me, the airfield authorities and other local groups to discuss how best to preserve this second world war asset. Hopefully we can guarantee the stories of those who have used it, including our Polish allies, and continue their legacy of fighting for what is right.

So far, I have explored the first two parts of the heritage asset journey: identification and protection. The final part remains. For this last stage, I am departing from the aviation of Uxbridge and South Ruislip and instead making a pit stop at another local point of pride for many residents and myself: our pubs, and especially our historic heritage pubs. Across our area, we are incredibly lucky not just to have pubs but to have historic pubs. This is a topic I have contributed on before in Westminster Hall, although I hope that you will allow me the chance to briefly revisit it, Sir Gary.

I just want to make clear that I want to give the Minister a good 10 minutes to respond and that the debate must conclude by 11.30 am.

Okay, I will move on. In the 16th-century Red Lion, regulars and one-off visitors can sup a pint or something less alcoholic, taking in the pub’s original Tudor fireplaces and beams. One of the most distinctive and storied pubs is The Crown and Treaty, which is historic and entwined with this very place. Both sides of the English civil war met in the pub to discuss a document that proved to be ill fated and short lived. The treaty of Uxbridge was an attempt at negotiated peace between the two sides, which had already been at war for three years. The treaty failed, but the pub is still going after 400 years.

As I said earlier, this is a potted history of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and I recognise the work that the Department has already done on heritage asset protection and especially their engagement with myself. I hope that the Minister and hon. Members leave this debate with greater knowledge of places to visit when they are next in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

The process of ensuring that an asset survives is identification, protection and consistent consolidation. These assets are more than just structures; rather, the stories of ordinary men and women and of extraordinary situations and moments in history are woven into their fabric. Finally, I look forward to working with the Minister to ensure that these stories of the few are left for the many to hear and learn from in the centuries to come.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Steve Tuckwell) for securing this debate. I was on maternity leave when he was elected, so I belatedly welcome him to this place. I am proud and glad to be responding to his first ever Westminster Hall debate, which is on such an important subject. As he knows, we are committed to protecting the historic environment for the benefit of present and future generations.

As my hon. Friend said, he has a significant number of important historic buildings in his constituency, many of which are already protected for future generations to enjoy, including a total of 148 listed buildings—nine at grade II* and 138 at grade II. The most recently designated was the church of St Mary’s, South Ruislip, which was listed at grade II in 2022. It is clear that Uxbridge and South Ruislip is a standout place for heritage and history, particularly military history. He and I have similar constituencies in many regards. Our constituents are virulently anti-ultra low emission zone, and we have histories of protecting the capital of our nation in the battle of Britain. RAF Hornchurch is in my constituency, and my hon. Friend eloquently set out the role that his constituency played.

I recommend that my hon. Friend join the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I did so, and I was honoured to be able to go to RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, which had the battle of Britain memorial flight. I also had the opportunity to visit RAF Northolt on that tremendous scheme, which connects today’s parliamentarians to the service and sacrifice that so many of our fellow citizens have made over the course of our nation’s history.

One of my projects on maternity leave was publishing the memoirs of my late auntie, who spoke about her time in Bexley when London was under the blitz. We forget about the terrible human cost that was paid by ordinary people in those terrible times for our nation, so I am grateful for the role that our constituencies played in protecting London.

The story of Uxbridge and South Ruislip is an important source of local pride, but it also brings in visitors and has an important and positive economic impact. I am speaking on behalf of my noble Friend Lord Parkinson, the Minister for Arts and Heritage, but I am the tourism Minister, so I recommend my hon. Friend’s constituency, which I have visited, to those who are interested in military history and those from across the world who want to think about the role this nation played in the war.

The primary way that my Department protects heritage assets is through the designation system, which highlights an asset’s special interest and value to this and future generations, and provides protection under law. The grade I listing of the Battle of Britain Bunker means that potentially harmful changes to it are given particularly careful scrutiny through the listed building consent process. DCMS works closely with Historic England to protect England’s heritage. Historic England gives expert advice to the Secretary of State on the listing of historic buildings and the scheduling of ancient monuments, and to central and local Government, property owners and other stakeholders. Anybody can request an assessment through Historic England with a view to listing a building, and it can then set out, with its experts, the process to ensure that an applicant has all the information they need for a listing to take place.

My hon. Friend mentioned Historic England’s “Heritage at Risk” programme, which is another excellent way to ensure that our most vulnerable heritage sites are highlighted and protected. The risk register also has available repair grants, which are given to local community groups. Again, that is something that my hon. Friend might consider.

I mentioned that my constituency has RAF Hornchurch. We have a fantastic band of volunteers, and it sounds like my hon. Friend has a similar group in his constituency. There are myriad ways in which local volunteers can leverage their position in the community. In my case, they did work with a developer to get some section 106 and community infrastructure levy funds to help to fund local heritage. Similarly, work is under way in my constituency with National Highways to help to protect some of our heritage. My hon. Friend might look into those initiatives, and his band of volunteers can also look at the National Lottery Heritage Fund as a potential avenue for funding.

According to the community life survey, 5% of all adults who have volunteered in the last year did so in the heritage sector. There is enormous enthusiasm across many people’s constituencies for that kind of work, and I want volunteer groups to be aware of the range of ways in which they can access it. The Friends of the No.11 (Fighter) Group Operations Room are very appreciated by our Department for the vital work they do so that others in London and beyond can understand our history.

Historical buildings are also a key part of our high streets. The £95 million high streets heritage action zones programme, delivered by Historic England, looks at how we can remind people of the histories of their high streets. As I said, the battle of Britain bunker is an important tourism destination. Local lists also play an essential role in building and reinforcing a sense of local character and distinctiveness in the historic environment. Historic England provides guidance on local heritage listing for councils, community groups, and other interested stakeholders. The assets of community value and community right to bid initiatives are further opportunities for local groups to protect locally important assets. The heritage action zone scheme has also worked closely with building preservation trusts, such as Valley Heritage in Lancashire and the Tyne and Wear building preservation trust, to support community groups in ownership of particular assets. That is something that my hon. Friend’s local group might want to explore. I encourage local groups across the country to contact our public bodies and their local councils for advice on how to support heritage in their area.

My hon. Friend also mentioned another important aspect of our country’s heritage: historic pubs. As he so perfectly summarised it in the debate on heritage pubs back in November:

“They are not just pubs. They are our communities; they are our history.”—[Official Report, 16 November 2023; Vol. 740, c. 24WH.]

There are currently over 12,250 listed pubs in England. That is 3.2% of all listed buildings, so the appreciation for the local boozer is well known and appreciated by people across the country. Since 2015, a number of listings have taken place as a result of research projects into heritage pubs undertaken by Heritage England. I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that barriers to the serving of building preservation notices by local planning authorities have been removed by the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023, which means that historic buildings at risk of development or demolition can be protected much more quickly. Through measures such as our designations process and the serving of building preservation notices, our historic pubs, such as Uxbridge’s nearly 400-year-old The Crown and Treaty, can be preserved for generations to come.

I shall pass on my hon. Friend’s kind invitation to the heritage Minister, my noble friend Lord Parkinson, who sits in the other place. We will also look at this issue from a tourism perspective. I thank my hon. Friend again for bringing such an important debate to this place and highlighting the fantastic history that his constituency has to offer the rest of the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Online Filter Bubbles: Misinformation and Disinformation

[Sir Mark Hendrick in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of preventing misinformation and disinformation in online filter bubbles.

It is good to see you in the Chair and in charge of our proceedings, Sir Mark. It is also good to see the Minister in his place. He confessed gently to me beforehand that this is the first Westminster Hall debate in which he has had the honour of being a Minister. I am sure that he will mark his debut with elan.

This important issue has not had enough exposure and discussion so far in Parliament, so I am pleased to see so many colleagues present. I suspect that they have all had far too many examples than they can possibly count of not just fake news but fake science, fake medicine or online memes of one kind or another landing in their in-trays from constituents. This is not just about constituents writing to Members of Parliament; it is a much broader issue that affects the whole tenor and fabric of our democracy and public debate. It is particularly important because public debate, in these online days, happens in a far wider and more varied collection of different forums than it used to before the internet was so commonly and widely used. It is something that needs to be addressed.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this timely debate. Does he agree that the prevalence of fake news is all consuming? There was a quote put to me, as a Member of Parliament, on social media a few years ago. It was along the lines of, “In the words of Abraham Lincoln, don’t believe all you read on the internet.”

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The saying used to be, “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers,” but it applies equally strongly in the modern digital world to everything that we read on the internet.

Fake news, or misinformation and disinformation, really matters, particularly this year. A large proportion of the democratic world will have general elections in the next 12 months. The scope for interference in those elections by malign actors, whether they are foreign states, organised criminals or people of a particular religious or political persuasion, is very strong. They try to sway public debate through fair means or foul, and if we are talking about misinformation and disinformation, that means foul means. The potential in the next 12 months for bad things to happen is very high, and that is just when it comes to democracy. That does not cover the other examples of fake news or fake science that I mentioned, such as fake medicine. Believing quack cures can lead to more deaths, more people getting the wrong kinds of medical treatments and so on. There are many different opportunities.

There is also a serious issue around radicalisation. Somebody who is fed a diet of alt-left or alt-right political views, or extremist religious views—it does not really matter what it is—can easily disappear down a rabbit hole, into an echo chamber of views where only one particular strand of opinion is put in front of them again and again. That way leads to radicalisation on a whole range of different topics, and it undermines both our society and our democracy, and science in many cases. It means that societies as a whole become much more brittle and more divided, and it is much harder for democracy to flourish.

What is misinformation and disinformation, without getting sucked into technocratic definitions? It is rather like trying to define pornography. As the famous phrase goes, “You may not be able to define it, but like a hippopotamus, you recognise it when you see it.” [Interruption.] I will ignore the heckling on my right; it will not help. There are two underlying facets to misinformation and disinformation. One is that if someone is simply making stuff up, telling lies and saying things that are factually inaccurate and false, that can easily become misinformation and disinformation. The second is when things are factually accurate and correct but really one-sided and biased. That matters too; it is extremely important, and we have long had rules for our broadcasters, to which I will return in a minute, that are designed to prevent it.

The good news is that the Online Safety Act 2023 took a few early steps to do something about factual inaccuracy, at least. It does not do a great deal—it should do more—but it takes some early steps, and it would be churlish to pretend that there is nothing there at all. I tabled a couple of early amendments to get us to think about factual inaccuracy and to work out where it came from—provenance, in the jargon—so that we could tell whether something comes from a trusted source. We ended up with some useful points, particularly duties on Ofcom relating to media literacy and making sure that people know what questions to ask when they see something on the internet and do not, as we were just hearing, necessarily believe everything they read online but ask questions about where it came from, who produced it and whether it has been altered. Ofcom has that duty now; it has not yet grown teeth and claws or started to bite but at least, in principle, that power is there and is very welcome.

There is also the advisory committee enshrined in the Act, which ought to make a difference, although precisely how will depend on how actively it flexes the muscles it has been given. Separately from the Online Safety Act, there are the national security laws about foreign interference too. There is some protection, therefore, but it is not nearly enough. The Minister’s predecessors, in what used to be the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport before it was reorganised, will say that in the early days of the Online Safety Act’s gestation, it was intended to cover misinformation and disinformation, but that was hived off and fell away at an early stage. That is an important omission, and we need to come back to it now.

I want to make a modest proposal. The Online Safety Act will start to make modest progress towards media literacy and people understanding and asking questions about factual accuracy and where something comes from when they see it on the web. It will go some way to addressing the first of the two sources of misinformation and disinformation—people telling lies, making stuff up, deepfakes of one kind or another. The sad fact is that the chances of deepfakes getting better with the advent of artificial intelligence is very high indeed so that, even if we think we can spot them now, we are probably kidding ourselves and in a year or two’s time it will be doubly, trebly or quadruply difficult to work out what is real and what is completely made up.

If we accept that at least something is in place in this country to deal with factual inaccuracy, we are still stuck with absolutely nothing, as yet, to deal with the one-sided and deeply biased presentation of factually correct narratives. I therefore want to draw a comparison, as I mentioned earlier, with what we already do and have been doing very successfully for decades in the broadcasting world, where Ofcom, through the broadcasting code, has been in charge of the duty of balance and undue prominence. That duty has very successfully said for decades that the analogue broadcasting world has to make sure that, when it presents something that is supposedly factual in a broadcast news programme, it must be balanced and must not give undue prominence to one side of the argument. That works really rather well, and has been a core part of ensuring that our public debates in this country are not sidetracked by fake news.

I suspect that every one of us here will, at various different times, have gnashed our teeth and shouted at the telly because we felt that the BBC, ITV or Sky News was presenting something in a slightly partisan way; depending on which side of the House we are on, we may have thought that the partisanship was on one side of the argument rather than the other. However, the fact remains that we all know the way they are supposed to do it and that there is some kind of redress, and there is generally an acceptance that it is the right thing to do. The duty matters not just because politicians think it is important, but because it has—very successfully, I would argue—made sure that there is a tendency towards reasoned, evidence-based consensus in British public debate, online and in broadcast news, over more than half a century.

The title of this debate is not just, “Misinformation and Disinformation”; it is about those two things in online filter bubbles. Online filter bubbles bear some quite important similarities to what broadcast news editorial room decision making has long been doing. The reason is that when we go online, we all have our own personal online filter bubble. Whether we use Google, Facebook, TikTok, all of the above, or whatever it might be, those platforms have an algorithm that says, “John Penrose likes looking at stuff to do with fishing tackle—we’re going to send him more stuff about fishing tackle.” I am not sure what the equivalent would be for the Minister; I am sure he will tell us in due course, unless he is too shy.

The algorithm works out what we have personally chosen to look at and gives us more of the same. That can also lead to radicalisation. If I start looking at things to do with Islamic jihad, it will say, “Oh! He’s interested in Islamic jihad”, and send me more and more things about Islamic jihad—or the alt-left, the alt-right, or whatever it might be. The algorithm’s decision to send people more of what they have already chosen—when it sends people things they have not chosen, but which it thinks they will like—is effectively a digital editorial decision that is, in principle, very similar to the editorial decisions going on in the Sky, ITV or BBC newsrooms, either for radio or for broadcast TV.

We need to come up with a modern, digital version of the long-established and, as I said, very successful principle of the duty of balance and undue prominence and apply it to the modern, digital world. Then, if I started looking at Islamic jihad, and I got sent more and more things about Islamic jihad, as I saw more and more things about Islamic jihad, the algorithm that was creating my personal filter bubble would start sending me things saying, “You do know that there is an alternative here? You do know that there is another side of this argument? You do know that the world is not just this, and this particular echo chamber—this rabbit hole of radicalisation that you are enthusiastically burrowing your way down—may actually be exactly that? You need to understand that there is more to it.” That is something that happens to all of us all the time in the old, analogue world, but does not happen in the digital world. I would argue that it is one of the reasons that many of us here, across the political spectrum, are so worried about the divisive nature of the online world and the rising levels of disrespect and potential incitement of violence there.

I plan to do something rather unusual for politicians and stop talking very soon, because I hope that this has served as a proposal for colleagues to consider. It is something that would need cross-party consensus behind it in order to be taken forward, and there may be better ways of doing it, but I am absolutely certain that we do not have anything in our legal arsenal in this area at the moment. I would argue that we need to act quite promptly. As I have said, the stakes in the next 12 months democratically are very high, but the stakes have been very high in other areas, such as medical disinformation, for a very long time because we have just come through a pandemic. The scope for damage—to our society, to our health and to our entire way of life—is very high.

Therefore, I hope that colleagues will consider what I have said, and if they have a better answer I am all ears and I would be absolutely delighted to hear it. This is a very early stage in the political debate about this issue, but we cannot carry on not having a political debate about it; we cannot carry on not addressing this central issue. So, I am glad that everybody is here today and I hope that we will all go forth and tell our political friends and neighbours that this issue is important and that they need to address it as well. And as I say, if people have better solutions than the one that I have just politely proffered, then my pen is poised and I look forward to taking notes.

It is most unusual for me to called so early in a Westminster Hall debate, Sir Mark, so I am grateful to you.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing this debate. There is no question that preventing misinformation and disinformation is one of the great challenges of our time, and it will only become more and more challenging, as he has adumbrated in his remarks to the House this afternoon.

Unfortunately, we have many active theatres of conflict around the world at the moment, so I will begin by thanking all of those who take to social media to counter so much of the disinformation that exists. Whether it is about the war in Ukraine or about the situation in the Red Sea, Gaza and Israel, so much disinformation is doing the rounds. Some of it is clearly state-sponsored; some of it less so.

Indeed, there is also misinformation or disinformation about elections, so no doubt we will see more of that as the elections in this country and elsewhere in the west draw closer. Also, last week there were elections in Taiwan, when the Taiwanese political parties said it was the harshest election yet in terms of Chinese-sponsored disinformation against a democratic people. However, a great many people invest time, effort, energy, money and resources online to counter such disinformation and they do a public service.

I will mention the negative part first, if I may; there is no point in my going over all the various examples of disinformation that exist. I recall being in a conference a few years ago with the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) where one of the complaints that we had—it is so often a complaint—was that when there are conferences and workshops and think-tank events about disinformation, everybody wants to talk about examples of disinformation but few people want to talk about how we arm ourselves against it.

So, as I say, let me start with the negative part first. I do not mean any of what I say today to be against the Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, the hon. Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti)—who, I will confess, I do not think I have faced on this issue before. Nevertheless, the Government do not have a coherent strategy on this issue. There are a great many officials across Government and across Whitehall who are doing some sterling work on it; no question about that. At a political level, however, this issue has not been given the serious consideration that it deserves; although it may be uncharitable of me to say so, that was evidenced most of all by the fact that Nadine Dorries was put in charge of it. [Laughter.] Having said that, I will come on to a central problem that is less about personalities and more about the policy framework and the institutions that are required.

As I understand it, and the Minister may correct me in his remarks, misinformation is the responsibility of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport; some disinformation is also that Department’s responsibility. Foreign disinformation falls with a mixture of the Foreign Office, the intelligence services and the Home Office. Other parts of disinformation are the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence and defence intelligence. I spent five and a half years as my party’s spokesperson for defence and the type of question that I wanted to ask depended on whether or not the Ministry of Defence could answer it. Who does this madness—a madness of responsibility and lines of accountability lying all over Whitehall—benefit? Certainly not our constituents.

The hon. Member is making a very important point. I have tried repeatedly to find answers from the Government’s Counter Disinformation Unit. That specialist unit, set up in Whitehall to counteract some of this disinformation, is meant to be cross-departmental, but sadly it has been quite dormant. We have had very little information and transparency. Does the hon. Member agree that, if we had more transparency, we could see what Departments were working on across Government and seek to tackle the problem?

Indeed. The hon. Lady is entirely correct. The fact that so much of this has spread like a great blob—some might say—around Whitehall benefits only our adversaries and those who wish to pursue disinformation in this country. That is before we get to the growing problem of the things the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare mentioned—deep fakes and AI-generated disinformation—all of which is going to get worse and worse. As long as responsibility and lines of accountability and policy formation are a bit all over the place, when in my mind the obvious place for them to lie would be with the Cabinet Office, that will be of benefit only to those who want to sow disinformation.

In June 2021, in the spirit of trying to be a helpful Scottish nationalist, which might be an oxymoron to some people, I published a report that made nine recommendations on how, in fairness to the UK Government and Scottish Government, they can better counter disinformation in public life. I want to go through a couple of those. First, we need a proper national strategy that is a whole-society national strategy, imitating the excellent work done in countries such as Finland and Latvia, where countering disinformation and hybrid threats is not the job of the Department of Defence or even the Government but involves public institutions, other public bodies, the private sector, non-governmental organisations, civil society and private citizens. There is much that can be done. Surely we saw that in the generosity people showed during the pandemic. There is so much good will out there among the population to counter hybrid threats when they arise.

Although we have the counter disinformation unit, I would suggest a commissioner, perhaps similar to the Information Commissioner, with statutory powers on implementing the national strategy and countering disinformation. There is a job for our friends in the media, too. The media need to open up to explain to the public how stories are made. There is a job to be done in newspapers and broadcast media. It would be to the benefit of mainstream media—that phrase is often used in a derisory way, although I like my media to be mainstream—as the more the media explain to the public how they make news, the better that would be for those of us who consume it.

There should also be an audit of the ecosystem. One thing I suggested in the report is an annual update to Parliament of a threat assessment of hostile foreign disinformation to this country. The better we understand the information ecosystem, the better we can equip ourselves to counter hostile foreign disinformation. I also suggest literacy programmes across all public institutions, especially for public servants, whether elected or unelected. My goodness, some of them could do with that in this House.

I also suggest we look to host an annual clean information summit. There is so much good work that goes on, especially in Taiwan, and right on our own doorstep in Europe. So much good work goes on that we could learn from, and hopefully implement here. If we do not have a whole-society approach, involving public bodies, faith groups, trade unions, private enterprise and even political parties, fundamentally any strategy will fail.

I will end on this: political parties need to get their acts together, and not just on some of the stuff that gets put out. I am not going into things that individual parties have put out. But at either this election or the next—I would argue that the upcoming election is already at risk of a hostile foreign disinformation attack—what will happen when that disinformation gets more sophisticated, better funded and better resourced than anything we have to see it off? I come back to the conference I attended with the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe, where we took part in a war game: it was a presidential election, and our candidate was subject to a hostile foreign disinformation attack to spread smears and lies about them. We need to get used to this now. Political parties need to set their arms to one side and work together so that we can preserve that thing we call democracy. I think it is worth fighting for. I look forward to the other suggestions we will hear in the rest of the debate.

I note the number of people present, and ask Members to keep their contributions to around seven minutes so that we can get everybody in.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Mark. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing the debate. I agreed with a lot of what was said by the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald)—did he say a “helpful Scottish nationalist”? I am not sure whether or not that was disinformation, but we will not debate that today.

I am extremely concerned about misinformation on a whole range of subjects. We saw it during the pandemic, with the vaccine debate; all Members will have received communications from constituents that were completely and utterly false, where people had been wound up online by fake doctors and people who were not vaccine specialists and were then presenting that information to us as fact. We see it in the immigration debate, where people are subjected to what is often racist commentary online, which then directs them towards other accounts—a lot of them anti-Muslim—which reinforce what they have heard. These people then appear in our inboxes, quoting that bile.

As others have mentioned, we also see it in election campaigns. I think all political parties can sometimes be a little guilty of promoting elements of disinformation. In the 2017 election in particular, I remember being on the receiving end of abuse and torrents of stuff that was put out about votes here, which, when I looked into the detail, just was not true. It was not as presented. I am afraid that all political parties sometimes cannot resist the urge to perhaps slightly misrepresent what has gone on in this place.

It will perhaps come as little surprise that I want to talk today about antisemitism—the anti-Jewish racism that remains prevalent and pernicious throughout our online platforms. Perhaps I am a hypocrite for talking about this, because I am not actually on any of these social media networks. I left them all, and it was the best thing I ever did for my mental health. I realised the power of filter bubbles, though, when I once looked at an account about a trainspotter, and ended up getting presented with lots of other trainspotting information. I thought, “Why is this all happening?”—it is because if someone looks at something once, they are driven down that path. Now, I could have become a radicalised trainspotter, but I was able to cut myself off just at the right point. I joke, but in other debates and on other accounts, this is incredibly frightening and dangerous.

We see it with antisemitism, with conspiracy theories reaching back hundreds of years, which, like artificial intelligence, mutate and evolve. It will be of little surprise to Members to hear that it can be found in relation to misinformation and disinformation too. We have particularly seen that since the start of the conflict in the middle east. Following the terror attacks on 7 October, there has been a significant proliferation of disinformation and misinformation. Shortly after the attacks, conspiracy theories emerged that were rooted in the anti-Jewish ideologies of those who wished to deny the atrocities that took place—denying that innocent civilians were attacked, that children were murdered and that women were subjected to gender-based violence.

I have seen some of that hate in the past 24 hours, following an outrageous smear somebody put out about me on social media that has resulted in a trickle of abuse coming at me, some of which is questionably antisemitic. Those emails have included a denial that Hamas was responsible for the deaths on 7 October, while someone else questioned, in relation to the Houthis, whether interrupting shipping lanes is really a heinous act. Worst of all, someone emailed me and described the hostages as “them Zionist rat hostages”. People have not come up with those comments and views themselves, but they have seen them online. They have been pointed in a particular direction through a series of misinformation and disinformation. It has had no effect on me, of course. I will continue to speak out and call out whatever I wish wherever I think it appropriate to whoever. It will not have any impact on me, but it has proven to me once again what a cesspit of hate and antisemitism social media can be. I will give a couple of examples to emphasise that.

One major conspiracy since 7 October is that the attacks on that day were a false flag operation by Israel—we have all probably had emails stating that. In one particular viral claim, social media users argued that the attack at the Nova music festival, in which 364 people were murdered and many abducted, was not carried out by Hamas but by Israeli forces, despite the fact that there was video evidence taken by the people there. Some try to be clever and deny one single aspect of the atrocity in order to skirt some of the social media rules.

In another example, it was claimed that the Israeli Government knew of the attack, but did not deploy the army in the hope that the crisis would help restore popularity. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that many of the conspiracies contain common antisemitic tropes. For example, sites affiliated with QAnon spread a conspiracy that the war was part of a plan to start a third world war, with a hidden ambition to start a new religion and cause chaos, which is of course a trope straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. We have seen that throughout.

AI has also played a major role in disseminating disinformation. I will use a few examples to demonstrate that. A Facebook post shows Israeli civilians cheering Israeli Defence Forces soldiers in an image that was heavily altered by AI. Of course, the people who shared it do not know that. There was a deepfake video of President Biden calling for a military draft in response to the war with Hamas. It appeared on TikTok and Facebook, where it managed to fool users into thinking that was real. I note that other people have talked about the difficulties of deepfake.

Deepfake images of abandoned and injured Palestinian babies in the ruins of Gaza have been viewed and shared millions of times. Because AI-generated content has become widespread, people now doubt genuine content. When authentic images of the luxurious homes of some Hamas leaders were shared, it was immediately pooh-poohed as an AI deepfake. Because of the algorithms that personalise the content, as other Members have said, users are drawn into filter bubbles on social media and continuously exposed to a specific narrative, with little or no exposure to counter-information.

The proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare was spot on. I am conscious of your guidance on time, Sir Mark, so I will end there. I will just say that there is more we can do. The ideas that my hon. Friend has outlined are important, as are the things about digital media literacy and all the rest of it that the Government can invest in.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Sir Mark. I am very sorry to hear about the abuse that the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) has received. It is something that many of us unfortunately have experienced from time to time.

However, I want to start on a positive note and congratulate the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing the debate and coming up with a sensible suggestion, which has to be the basis of further consideration. He was right. The matter is very dangerous for democracy and is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed. He used the term “radicalised”, which is a good way of looking at how that affects people.

People can hold views that they might not have countenanced a few months ago. The effect of filter bubbles can be that, in effect, they become a totally different person and they are completely unaware of the process that they have been through. There should be greater openness with individuals about the type of content that is being pushed on to their timeline. If an individual user could see, for example—or better still, be directed to—the tags that they have amassed, that knowledge would be of great assistance. It would hopefully prevent people from passively entering the echo chamber that we have heard so much about, and, crucially, would alert people to the possibility that the process is happening at all.

Anyone who has talked to someone whose worldview has been altered by what they have seen online will know that they will not be persuaded that their view might not be accurate. They can make no distinction between information they have picked up online as opposed to from traditional media sources, and they truly believe what they are being told. I have seen the terror in a person’s eyes as they recounted to me a particular conspiracy theory. That fear was absolutely real, and there was no dissuading them.

How widespread is the problem? Some academic research says that about 2% of the population are in an alt-left echo chamber, and 5% in an alt-right one. Another survey found that about 10% of those in the UK claim to see only social media that agrees with their particular views. That seems quite low, but it is actually still millions of people. I believe it is far easier to fall into these traps than to get out of them, so the potential for the number to grow is there. Even on these relatively low numbers, their potential to influence society is corrosive.

Groups of people operating in a sphere with a different factual basis from wider society have implications for how our democracy works, not only in terms of their own participation but in how they can shape debate outside their echo chamber. Voices airing conspiracy theories about 15-minute cities have, as we learned last week, impacted Government policy. It was reported in The Guardian that Ministers began considering curbs on cycling and walking schemes last year in response to concerns about 15-minute cities. Conspiracy theorists believe that 15-minute cities are designed to be part of the “great reset”, under which people will be forcibly locked down within their own local neighbourhood and not allowed to travel outside of it. After gaining traction online among right-wing fringe groups, mainly in echo chambers, it found its way into a Government policy. One of the biggest shifts in transport policy in decades had its origins in online conspiracy theories. From that, we can see the potential it has to really impact on Government policy.

That is one reason why foreign powers have used prominent social media platforms to seek to influence elections and disrupt civic debate. We know from extensive investigations by the US and UK security organisations that Russian state security services conduct operations via social media in order to influence the results of elections. The potency of infiltrating echo chambers and manipulating those inside can have national consequences. We have elections across the world this year, including in this country and the United States, so tackling the issue now is incredibly important.

When I have constituents who seem to believe that I and the majority of people in this place are lizards, who believe that I want to deliberately stop them from moving about freely, or who recite to me with unwavering certainty any number of other examples of absurd but dangerous conspiracy theories, we have to take seriously the threat to the democratic process that this represents. It is no coincidence that many of those online conspiracy theories have very negative things to say about UK politicians and the political process; the people peddling this stuff have no interest in seeing western liberal democracies flourish. They want to see them fail. It is fair to ask whether democracy can function properly when people are so trapped in their own warped realities that they cannot see any other viewpoint than their own, they immediately distrust anything that comes from an official source, and they cannot agree with others on basic, previously uncontested, facts.

We know trust in politics and politicians is at an all-time low. Those who end up in online bubbles tend to have zero confidence in politicians and the political process. Some people might say, “Well, so what? There have always been people who do not trust authority. There have always been people who have a propensity to believe conspiracies and operate outside the mainstream of society.” It is clear that those numbers are on the rise, their influence is growing, and there is a concerted effort by people hostile to this country to increase their ranks.

We cannot afford to be blasé. Our liberal democracy is fragile enough as it is, and it cannot be taken for granted. It has to be protected, defended and supported by us in this place as the guardians of democracy. It is not enough for us to be simply participants in the political process; we need to be its guardians. In this place, we debate and argue over interpretation of facts, but we do so within a framework where we are at least debating within the same reality. We also share a common understanding that if our arguments do not succeed on this occasion, the democratic process ensures that we will have another chance sometime. However, having so many and growing numbers of people who do not share the same reality as us and do not think that democracy works represents a real threat to democracy as a whole. We should not write those people off: we should try to engage with them as much as possible. However, we must also take on the source of their discomfort, challenge their beliefs and really lift the lid on who is pushing the disinformation and why. If we ignore that, it will grow, and before we know it there will be enough people sufficiently motivated to take matters into their own hands that this will not be just a dark corner of the internet: it will be on every street corner, and by then it will be too late.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing the debate. It could not be more important or timely; as he alluded to in his speech, half the world is voting this year. We have already seen some of those elections take place in Taiwan and Bangladesh, and in America the Republican party had the Iowa caucus last night. It is interesting to see a demonstration of the impact of disinformation on ordinary people going about their daily lives. It has been heavily reported in America that 60% of Republicans voting in the caucus believe that the last presidential election was stolen and illegitimate and that Donald Trump was elected as President.

The challenge of disinformation is not just from foreign state interference. When we first started talking about the issue some five or six years ago, we were looking principally at the influence networks of Russia and Iran and their ability to try to reshape the way in which people saw the world and the institutions in their own countries to sow fear and discord and make people distrust the institutions of their own society, the legitimacy of their courts, the freedom of their elections and the truth of their media. However, it is happening in our society as well. The pandemic was a demonstration of the potency of conspiracy networks such as QAnon to persuade people that the vaccine was not safe, and we see it today to persuade people that our public institutions and elections are not safe. It is being done to undermine the fabric of democracy. There is a lot more to being a democracy than holding elections, and having faith in our institutions, trusting our media and trusting the news and information that we get are all essential to the citizen’s job of casting their vote every four or five years to determine who should run their country. If that is attacked and undermined, it is an attack on our entire democratic way of life. This year, we will see that challenge in a way that we have not seen before, with a level of technical sophistication that we have not seen before, and we should be concerned about it.

I will respond briefly to the remarks by the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) in his speech. I was briefly the Minister responsible for the Counter Disinformation Unit, and I thought that I had better meet it, because it is not a particularly public-facing organisation, to see what it had to say. The Government quite rightly have different strategies for dealing with disinformation across Government: some of it is led by policing and security; some of it is led by looking at bad actors internally; and some of it is led by the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence looking at bad actors externally. The Government should trigger different responses: some that respond with news and information that challenge conspiracy theories and networks, and some that identify networks of disinformation being controlled and operated by foreign states against which we want companies and platforms to take action. That was included in the National Security Act 2023 last year, and the Online Safety Act places a further obligation on companies to act in response to intelligence reports that they receive. If they do not take action against those known networks of disinformation controlled and run by hostile foreign states, action can be taken against the companies as well.

That is why the Online Safety Act was so important; it creates, for the first time, the principle of liability of platforms for the information that they distribute and promote to other users. Central to the debate on the Bill that became the Online Safety Act was finally answering the false question that was posed all the time: are platforms, such as Facebook, actually platforms or publishers? They do not write the content, but they do distribute it. People have first amendment rights in America to speak freely, and we have freedom of speech rights in this country—that is not the same as the right actively to be promoted to millions of people on a social media platform. They are different things. The companies promote content to users to hold their attention, drive engagement and increase advertising revenue. It is a business decision for which they should be held to account, and the Online Safety Act now gives a regulator the power to hold companies to account for how they do that.

I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare said about whether we could borrow from the broadcasting code to try to create standards. Can we break filter bubbles by trying to give people access to different sorts of information? I think this is a difficult area, and there are subtle differences between a broadcaster and a social media platform. It is true that they both reach big audiences. It is also true that social media platforms exercise editorial decisions, just like a broadcaster does. However, the reason why it was so important for broadcasting and broadcasting licences to make sure that there were fair standards for balance and probity was that there were not that many broadcasters when the licences were introduced. The list has now grown. People tuning in do not necessarily know what they will get, because the content is selected and programmed by the programme maker and the channel.

I would say that social media have become not broadcast media, but the ultimate narrowcast media, because the content to which people are being exposed is designed for them. An individual’s principal experience of being on social media is not of searching for things, but of having things played and promoted to them, so the responsibility should lie with companies for the decisions they make about what to promote. There is nothing wrong with people having preferences—people have preferences when they buy a newspaper. I am sure that when the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) watches services by Rev. Ian Paisley on YouTube, he does not want to get a prompt saying, “You’ve had enough this week. We’re going to give you some content from the Sinn Féin party conference.” We do not want that kind of interference going on. People have perfectly legitimate viewing habits that reflect their own preferences. The question is, do platforms push and actively promote conspiracy theories and fake news? I think they do, and there is evidence that they have done so.

I will mention one of the clearest examples of that in the brief time I have left. In the 2020 US presidential election, the platforms agreed, under pressure, to give far greater prominence to trusted news sources in their newsfeeds, so that people were far more likely to see content from a variety of different broadcasters. It was not necessarily all from CNN or Fox News—there could be a variety—but it was from known and legitimate news sources as a first preference. The platforms downgraded what they call civic groups, which are the friends and family groups that are often the breeding ground for conspiracy theories. One reason why they often spread so quickly is that people push them on their friends, who look at such content because it has come from someone they know and trust. However, when the platforms changed the ranking and promotion factor, it had a big impact: it dampened down disinformation and promoted trusted news sources, but it also reduced engagement with the platform. After the election, Facebook reversed the change and the conspiracy theorists were allowed to run riot again, which was a contributing factor in the insurrection we saw in Washington in January 2021.

Companies have the ability to make sure that fair and trusted news gets a better crack, which is absolutely essential in this digital age. They should be very wary about allowing AI to use content and articles from legitimate news organisations as training data to create what would effectively become generic copies to sell advertising against, steering people away from journalism that people have to pay for and towards free content that looks very similar but is far less likely to be trustworthy. We need to get the news bargaining code right so that proper news organisations do not see their content being distributed for free, and ads sold against it by other people, without getting fair remuneration. These are things we can do to protect our news ecosystem, and the Online Safety Act is essential for making sure that Ofcom holds companies to account for actively promoting known sources of conspiracy theories and disinformation. It is important to tackle the big threat to democracy, just as it is important to combat fraud and protect citizens from financial harm.

I thank the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) for securing the debate and for giving us all an opportunity to participate. I am not technically minded, but he mentioned TikTok. In all honesty, I have no idea how it works, but my staff do, so I let them look after all the correspondence and contacts. I thank other Members for their significant contributions to the debate, and for the contributions that will follow.

We are here to discuss a critical issue that affects the very fabric of our society. In an era dominated by digital connectivity, the internet has become an indispensable tool for information transmission and exchange. It has also given rise to filter bubbles and echo chambers that reinforce our existing beliefs and shield us from alternative perspectives. I am very fortunate to have my office staff, who challenge me every day, so I never get an easy passage, so to speak. If I say something, they will always say, “Look, here’s the other side of that story.” It is good to have that challenge, because it keeps us sharp and focused on the issue, making us better understand the direction we are taking.

We live in a time when misinformation and dis- information can spread like wildfire, influencing public opinion, shaping public discourse, and even undermining the very foundations of our democratic systems. It is imperative that we address this issue head-on and take collective action to prevent the further entrenchment of filter bubbles in our online spaces. I am fortunate to have had a very good friend for some 45 or 46 years. If ever I have a problem or need some advice, it his wisdom I go to. He never tells me what I want to hear; he tells me what I need to hear. That helps us form our policies, strategies and thoughts for the way forward in the future.

First and foremost, we must acknowledge the role that social media platforms play in shaping our online experiences. These platforms, while providing a valuable means of communication, also contribute to the creation of filter bubbles by tailoring content to suit our preferences. To combat this, we must advocate for transparency and accountability from these platforms. They must disclose how their algorithms work and take responsibility for the unintended consequences of creating echo chambers.

Education is the most powerful tool in the fight against misinformation. We need to equip individuals with the critical thinking skills necessary to evaluate information critically, discern credible sources from unreliable ones, and challenge their preconceived notions. By fostering media and digital literacy, we empower citizens to navigate the vast online landscape using good judgment, balanced with a healthy scepticism. They say that as we grow older, we become more cynical. I would say that, no, we become sceptical. We are shaped by decisions and experiences, by those around us, and perhaps by the realities of life as well.

Collaboration between Government, technology companies and civil society is essential. We must work together to develop and implement policies that promote transparency, accountability and the ethical use of algorithms. Government should invest in initiatives and strategies that promote media literacy, while technology companies should prioritise the ethical design of their algorithms to mitigate any unintentional elaboration of misinformation and disinformation. This sounds very technical, but the fact is that we need to be wise, sensible and aware. That is what we are saying. By integrating these strategies into their practices, the IT sector can contribute significantly to the prevention of misinformation and disinformation in online filter bubbles.

There must also be encouragement for our online social media platforms to become more diverse. By engaging with individuals who hold different perspectives, we can burst the filter bubbles that insulate us from alternative viewpoints. This not only makes for a more robust and resilient society; it helps in breaking down the walls that misinformation and disinformation build around us. What steps will the Minister’s Department take to engage with platforms such as Meta and Google in building a more user-educated and factually informed society? We need to be aware of the power of media and those companies. It influences our young people—my generation, maybe not as much—because of access.

I conclude by suggesting that tackling misinformation and disinformation in online filter bubbles requires a multi-faceted approach that holds technology companies and platforms accountable and promotes education, critical thinking and collaboration. By taking these steps, we can strive towards a digital landscape that promotes the free exchange of diverse ideas, with the benefits of a more informed and connected society. With the help of the Minister, we can do that. I appreciate the contributions of all those who have spoken in the debate today and those who will speak after me. I believe we are all on the same page. We just need to do it better.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairship today, Sir Mark. I thank the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) for securing this timely and important debate on such an important issue.

Let us be clear that the Online Safety Act is an extremely important and very long-overdue piece of legislation. In reality, however, gaps remain in that legislation that need to be addressed. In this debate, we have heard about what are hopefully some positive ways forward.

There is huge cross-party consensus. It is a shame and a frustration that, when cross-party amendments were tabled to the Online Safety Bill, they were not taken seriously enough in Committee and were not carried forward. We raised serious questions about social media platforms, their responsibility to protect users, young and old, and to tackle the rise in disinformation. That was a clear opportunity that has now sadly passed, but the fact remains that this issue needs to be tackled.

This debate is timely, but when the Bill was progressing through Parliament, the debate focused on misleading information around the conflict in Ukraine. We all know that an alarming amount of information has recently been shared online regarding the situation in Israel and the middle east. As the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) mentioned, the horrendous atrocities that occurred on 7 October were livestreamed by Hamas. They wore GoPros and uploaded the footage directly to social media platforms, yet an incredible number of people still did not believe it, saying it was not true or that it was a hoax. How far do we have to go for women in particular to be believed when they report crimes against them and to take this seriously? I cannot help but think that if the Government had listened to the concerns that I and others raised at that time, then we would be in a much better position to deal with these issues. Sadly, we are where we are.

As colleagues have mentioned, we also need to consider the role that AI plays in relation to misinformation and disinformation, particularly the impact of generative AI. That has the power and the potential to be at the forefront of economic growth in the country but, as others have mentioned, with a huge number of elections happening across the world this year, there has never been a more crucial time to tackle the spread of this misinformation and disinformation and the impact that it could have on our democracy. I would be grateful if the Minister reassured us that the Government have a plan; I would welcome his assurances, specifically in light of whatever discussions he has had with the Electoral Commission regarding plans to tackle this ahead of the next UK general election.

The Minister knows that, despite the passing of the Online Safety Act, many of the provisions in the legislation will not be in place for quite some time. In the meantime, Twitter—now X—has given the green light for Donald Trump’s return. Political misinformation has increased since Twitter became X, and right-wing extremists continue to gain political traction on controversial YouTube accounts and on so-called free speech platform Rumble. Platforms to facilitate the increase in political misinformation and extremist hate are sadly readily available and can be all-encompassing. As colleagues have rightly noted, that is nothing new. We only need to cast our minds back to 2020 to remember the disturbing level of fake news and misinformation that was circulating on social media regarding the covid pandemic. From anti-vaxxers to covid conspiracists, the pandemic brought that issue to the forefront of our attention. Only today, it was announced in the media that the UK is in the grip of a sudden spike in measles. Health officials have had to declare the outbreak a national incident, and the surge has been directly linked to a decline in vaccine uptake as a result of a rise in health disinformation from anti-vax conspiracy theories. That causes real-world harm and it needs to be addressed.

Misinformation causes anxiety and fear among many people, and I fear that the provisions in the Act would not go far enough if we faced circumstances similar to the pandemic. We all know that this is wide-ranging, from conspiracy theories about the safety of 5G to nonsense information about the so-called dangers of 15-minute cities, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) spoke so ably. Sadly, those conspiracy theories were not just peddled by lone-wolf actors on social media; they were promoted by parliamentarians. We have to take that issue very seriously.

There are dangerous algorithms that seem to feed off popular misinformation and create these echo chambers and filter bubbles online. They have not helped but have amplified the situation. Would the Minister explain why the Government have decided to pursue an Online Safety Act that has failed to consider platforms’ business models and has instead become entirely focused on regulating content?

Moving on, possibly my biggest concern about misinformation and disinformation is the relationship between what is acceptable online and what is acceptable offline. As we all know, the issue of misinformation and disinformation is closely connected to online extremism. Although the Minister may claim that people can avoid harm online simply by choosing not to view content, that is just not realistic. After all, there is sadly no way to avoid abuse and harassment offline if individuals choose to spout it. In fact, only recently, when I dared to raise concerns and make comments here in Parliament about online misogyny and incel culture and ideology, I experienced a significant level of hate and harassment. Other colleagues have had similar experiences, as we have heard today.

This is a worrying trend, because we all know that online extremism can translate into the radicalisation of people in real-life terms, which can then heighten community tensions and make minority groups more susceptible to verbal and physical abuse and discrimination.

Online harm costs the UK economy £1.5 billion a year; we cannot afford to get this wrong. Online harm not only has that real-world impact, but it puts our country at an economic disadvantage. Recent research has shown that when there is a spike in online abuse towards one specific demographic, that translates to real-world abuse and real-world harm two weeks later, as the police themselves have said. There is only a two-week lag before online harm results in real-world attacks on certain individuals. No one should have to fear for their safety, online or offline.

In short, the Online Safety Act 2023 had the potential to be as world-leading as it was once billed to be, but the Minister must know that is far from being a perfect piece of legislation, particularly when it comes to misinformation and disinformation.

I am clearly not alone in expressing these views. I hope that the Minister has heard the concerns expressed in this wide-ranging debate, and that he will take seriously some of the proposals and move them forward.

I thank the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) for securing this debate. He and I sat together recently at a Quaker dinner in London, where we discussed disinformation and the coarsening of public debate, and I think that the small cross-party group present at the event all agreed that social media had been one of the driving factors behind that, if not the only one.

In 2015, as a new MP and a new user of social media, it took me quite some time to adapt. At first, I thought that when people wrote to me on Twitter the rules of normal social intercourse applied—that I might disagree with someone but if I responded courteously and offered facts, a respectful dialogue would then ensue or we could agree to disagree amicably.

Historywoman, a professor from Edinburgh University no less, soon disabused me of that view. The venom was staggering, and apparently it was just because we disagreed on facts about the constitution; she screamed abuse. Then there was Wings Over Scotland, with more eyeball-bulging, temple-throbbing hate. I had offered some facts about trans people, which he did not like; in fact, he hated it so much that he pounded his keyboard for months in a frenzy.

I got to understand the concept of pile-ons when a sinister organisation called the LGB Alliance decided to reward folk who gave them money by reposting disinformation and abuse about me from their account—a charity account, no less. Finally, when someone called me a “greasy bender” and Twitter moderators judged that comment to be factual and fair comment, I realised that courteous replies did not quite cut it and I became a fan of the block button.

Why are these people so angry and why do they believe that they can behave online in a way that would be considered certifiable offline? I sit on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which has undertaken long and detailed inquiries into the areas of disinformation and misinformation, and the impact of online filter bubbles. So what are filter bubbles? They are the result of algorithms designed to increase user engagement rather than correct inaccuracies; in other words, they are designed to show people content again and again based on their viewer biases. For some people, that can be innocent enough—I seem to be directed towards endless posts and films about house restoration options and Timothée Chalamet’s latest outfits—but for others, the filter bubbles are far from benign. Indeed, Facebook itself warned its own staff that its algorithms

“exploit the human brain’s attractiveness to divisiveness”.

What does that mean in practice? It means that if someone watches one conspiracy video, the chances are 70% or more that another conspiracy video reinforcing their paranoia will be recommended for them to watch immediately afterwards. The result is to drive some users into a frenzy. This is why some people blow up 5G masts, convinced that they are the cause of covid. It is not just the underprivileged and ignorant who fall prey; even graduates of the world’s most elite universities can become victims. Donald Trump thought that injecting bleach could cure covid and we now know from the covid inquiry that Boris Johnson wondered whether blowing a hairdryer up his nostrils might save him from the pandemic.

Filter bubbles pose an enormous threat to our democracy. We know how heavily engaged Vladimir Putin was in encouraging people to vote for Brexit by spreading disinformation online. He believed that Brexit would weaken the European Union and Britain’s economy. He was successful but only half right. In the United States, swept away in a tsunami of ignorance, prejudice and shared disinformation, those who stormed the Capitol believed that the victor had lost and the loser had won. Who knew that one of the world’s great democracies would be so vulnerable?

At the Select Committee, we have heard harrowing stories about vulnerable young people fed content persuading them to commit suicide. One father’s testimony was especially harrowing, and I will never forget it. So what responsibility should Members of Parliament take? Surely we should have been much tougher, and dealt much sooner with cynical and unscrupulous social media companies that are driven only by profits and scared only by threats to those profits.

Of course, politicians are directly responsible for the way in which disinformation that they initiate is spread offline and online. All of us—at least almost all—condemned Nigel Farage’s overtly racist Brexit campaign poster, with its image of outsiders supposedly queuing to get into the UK; it had hideous echoes of the 1930s. But what of the much mocked and seemingly more innocuous Tory conference speeches last September? Delegates were told that the UK Government had prevented bans on meat and single-car usage, and had stopped the requirement of us all having seven household bins. The claims were risible, false and mocked but, strikingly, Cabinet Minister after Cabinet Minister tried to defend them when questioned by journalists. Does it matter? Yes, it does. It has a corrosive effect on voters’ trust. Knowingly spreading disinformation helps only those who would undermine our democratic institutions. Some call it post-truth politics: conditioning voters to believe no one and nothing—to believe that there is no difference between truth and lies, and no difference between “Channel 4 News” and GB News.

Our Committee found that there have been repeated successful attempts by bad-faith actors to insert their talking points into our democratic discourse online. The social media companies have shown little interest in tackling them. They were disdainful witnesses when we summoned them and, disturbingly, we have seen our once proudly independent broadcasting sector polluted with the arrival of GB News to challenge long-standing, universally accepted standards. Its aim: to become as successful as Fox News in the dissemination of on-air propaganda online and offline. We all hope that the Online Safety Act 2023 will help but, alas, I fear that the evidence hitherto suggests that our woefully passive regulator, Ofcom, will continue to be found wanting.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing this debate, which has come at a very important time as we face an election year, not only in this country but across the world. It was a theme developed by the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) when he talked about the vigilance that we all must demonstrate in the coming months and years as, whatever our political stripe, lots of fake news and information will be thrown at us. I was particularly interested to listen to his views on the recent election in Taiwan and the interference of China. It is sad that the pedlar of fake news himself last night won a huge victory in the Iowa caucuses, and I do hope that the America that elected Barack Obama will come to the fore in November.

I was particularly saddened to listen to the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). I have known him since we were both was elected in 2010, as a doughty fighter for social justice for those whose voices have not been heard. He has been a very strong advocate for his constituents and he is one of the most patriotic people I have ever met, so when I hear of the accusations he has faced online, it fills me with sadness—not only because I am a Member of Parliament, like him, but because I feel that in the world we are living in, it makes it extremely difficult to put any view across. That means that people who come here, especially women and those who identify as being from an ethnic minority, can sometimes be afraid to speak for the abuse they will get online from people outside this place, and very often outside this country. As many have said, that is ultimately a danger to our democracy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) is right to say that the people who write to us with these crazy conspiracy theories actually believe them and nothing can be said to change their minds. I have someone who writes to me every week with increasingly outlandish views about what the next Labour Government will do. As often as I tell him that he is completely wrong, he tells me that I am a liar and he knows better than everybody else. What can we say to these people?

The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), a former Chair of the Select Committee, talked about the Online Safety Act, which was one of those rare occasions when the entire House comes together. He is right that social media platforms finally need to answer the question of whether they are just platforms or whether they are publishers. They should be held to account, because ultimately they are the mouthpiece for these crazy, odd, eccentric conspiracy theories that have permeated our society.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who probably has not missed a Westminster Hall debate since the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole and I were elected in 2010, spoke about ensuring that online platforms can be diverse; he made a great contribution, as always. I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), who was the shadow Minister before me and has proven to be quite a hard act to follow—[Interruption.] Who said that? [Laughter.] I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend in her new role on violence against women and girls. I know she will be a strong advocate for them, as she has proven already. She showed that in her passionate speech. I thank her for all her work in this area, and I think the entire House would agree with me. I listened to a very passionate and powerful speech by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson)—I hope I pronounced that correctly, because very often people mispronounce my constituency. He gave lots of sad examples that were all too true. It is nothing we have not heard before; sadly, what he talks about has become all too familiar.

The concept of filter bubbles captures how digital platforms personalise information based on individuals’ web history. These personalised digital environments create universes of information tailored to individual preferences, opinions and beliefs. This results in information being pushed on to a person’s algorithm even if it is not necessarily true, yet because it might be something that already aligns with the person’s beliefs, it could be taken as fact. In the realm of digital thought bubbles, individuals are primarily exposed to content aligned with their existing views, potentially fuelling polarisation and diminishing mutual understanding. The challenge we face, as highlighted by the Writers’ Institute, is to navigate a society where finding common ground becomes increasingly elusive.

As we have heard today, we MPs are more than familiar with echo chambers. Most can see that echo chambers or filter bubbles affect others. However, accepting that they affect ourselves is more of a challenging task. When discussing this topic, we think of Americans with the Fox News logo burned on to the television screens, or our conspiracy theorist uncle sitting there in his tin foil hat, yet we fail to consider that we ourselves are scrolling through Twitter or Instagram, instantly consuming the posts we enjoy.

On a lighter note, you will be pleased to learn, Sir Mark, that through numerous posts I have discovered that Manchester City is the greatest team in the world. I know that Sir Mark is a long-time supporter, so I am sure he will tell me that that is absolutely correct and reaffirms what he already knows to be true. But in the interests of honesty, among our hon. Friends, I think he might concede that the algorithm is feeding us posts that may be biased or that tell us what we would like to hear. Members may think, with my example of football, that these clever algorithms are not particularly harmful, but as many have said, they have negative and dangerous consequences. They will limit our freedom of thought and are a danger to the democratic freedoms we have enjoyed throughout the years in this country and around the world. This is because within those filter bubbles divisive ideologies can take root and thrive, leading to the erosion of trust in our institutions.

We cannot ignore the fact that these bubbles are a by-product of algorithms designed to maximise user engagement. Although they keep us engaged, they can simultaneously trap us in a feedback loop of our own preconceptions. The danger lies in the fact that citizens become increasingly susceptible to manipulation, as misinformation tailored to their worldview becomes indistinguishable from reality.

Recent research has shown that absorption into these thought bubbles is not inevitable or a passive process. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said, Oxford University does not think that filter bubbles affect the majority, but somewhere between 6% and 8% of the UK population. As my hon. Friend said, that might sound like a small figure, but it is millions of people.

What sets that 8% of people in echo chambers apart from those who are not? The primary causal mechanism is self-selection, when individuals actively choose to immerse themselves in echo chambers because they prefer news that aligns with and reinforces their existing views. It is not a process of hypnosis by the Twitter algorithm, over which one has no control. It is through an active dismissal of news sources that do not agree with their opinion.

Recent studies have gone as far as to suggest that, for some, passive personalisation results in a more varied source breadth. That is because passive personalisation is shown to enhance the probability of algorithms suggesting additional news content to individuals already immersed in news consumption. For those who are less like to actively seek out the news, it promotes news in the first place. For people who have no interest in current affairs, these algorithms produce a wider variety of news than they would otherwise see.

As such, the filter bubble theory does not seem to be comprehensive. In many cases, algorithm selections lead to slightly more diverse news than if the algorithm had not been used. It is easy to see why many older people, or those who do not have smartphones, simply consume the news by reading the same paper every day. I must admit publicly that my grandparents were avid readers of the Daily Mail and believed everything it said—imagine the conversations when I became a Member of Parliament.

Many people took their paper’s stance as gospel, as it aligned with their own political and social views. Now we can google a news story and hundreds of different stances are presented to us immediately, as is the ability to discuss and engage with those who do not agree with us. Of course, even if the proportion of people in these thought bubbles are small, that does not mean that the issue is not dangerous. We should work so that nobody is in a thought bubble. I believe that can be helped through proper education, giving people the skills to spot when they are in a thought bubble and arm them with the tools to get out.

In an era dominated by digital connectivity, the ability to navigate the vast sea of information online has become an essential skill. Sir Mark, I can see that I am pushed for time but I will try to speak on this issue as quickly as I can. One key aspect of cultivating digital literacy is the understanding of how online platforms curate content and of the formation of thought bubbles. A well-rounded education in digital skills plays a pivotal role in equipping individuals with the tools necessary to prevent entrapment in these echo chambers. An informed understanding of the process is critical, as is educating individuals on algorithms.

As a Welsh MP, I should raise the example of Wales. Welsh schools have introduced a digital competence framework, which teaches children from the age of three how to responsibly find and use information on the internet, further encouraging fact finding and verifying. As the child grows up to 16, the level of skills taught gradually increases, so as they first navigate the wide world of social media, they are best placed to curate their own nuanced social media needs.

As I said to someone this morning, by the age of six it is often too late; children already have exposure to social media platforms and devices. At one of my first events as shadow Minister, I saw the amazing example of the Kingston University digital skills campaign, which involves every student there having to pass an exam in a digital skills course. That enables students to be confident with media literacy and allows them to be resilient in the face of thought bubbles.

We face something we have never faced before. All that we have known to be true is in danger. It is only through education and debates like this that we can come to grips with those who seek to bring down our democracy.

I am conscious of time and of the broad range of this debate, but I will try to address as many issues as possible. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) for securing this important debate on preventing misinformation and disinformation in online filter bubbles, and for all his campaigning on the subject throughout the passage of the Online Safety Act. He has particularly engaged with me in the run-up to today’s well-versed debate, for which I thank hon. Members across the Chamber.

May I echo the sentiments expressed towards my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy)? I thank him for sharing his reflections. I was not going to say this today, but after the ceasefire vote I myself have faced a number of threats and a lot of abuse, so I have some personal reflections on the issue as well. I put on the record my invitation to Members across the House to share their experiences. I certainly will not hesitate to deal with social media companies where I see that they must do more. I know anecdotally, from speaking to colleagues, that it is so much worse for female Members. Across the House, we will not be intimidated in how we vote and how we behave, but clearly we are ever vigilant of the risk.

Since the crisis began, the Technology Secretary and I have already met with the large social media platforms X, TikTok, Meta, Snap and YouTube. My predecessor—my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully)—and the Technology Secretary also held a roundtable with groups from the Jewish community such as the Antisemitism Policy Trust. They also met Tell MAMA to discuss Muslim hate, which has been on the rise. I will not hesitate to reconvene those groups; I want to put that clearly on the record.

It is evident that more and more people are getting their news through social media platforms, which use algorithms. Through that technology, platform services can automatically select and promote content for many millions of users, tailored to them individually following automated analysis of their viewing habits. Many contributors to the debate have argued that the practice creates filter bubbles, where social media users’ initial biases are constantly reaffirmed with no counterbalance.

The practice can drive people to adopt extreme and divisive political viewpoints. This is a hugely complex area, not least because the creation of nudge factors in these echo chambers raises less the question of truth, but of how we can protect the free exchange of ideas and the democratisation of speech, of which the internet and social media have often been great drivers. There is obviously a balance to be achieved.

I did not know that you are a Man City fan, Sir Mark. I am a Manchester United fan. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare talked about fish tackle videos; as a tortured Manchester United fan, I get lots of videos from when times were good. I certainly hope that they return.

The Government are committed to preserving freedom of expression, both online and offline. It is vital that users are able to choose what content they want to view or engage with. At the same time, we agree that online platforms must take responsibility for the harmful effects of the design of their services and business models. Platforms need to prioritise user safety when designing their services to ensure that they are not being used for illegal activity and ensure that children are protected. That is the approach that drove our groundbreaking Online Safety Act.

I will move on to radicalisation, a subject that has come up quite a bit today. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for his eloquent speech and his description of the journey of the Online Safety Act. Open engagement-driven algorithms have been designed by tech companies to maximise revenue by serving content that will best elicit user engagement. There is increasing evidence that the recommender algorithms amplify extreme material to increase user engagement and de-amplify more moderate speech.

Algorithmic promotion, another piece of online architecture, automatically nudges the user towards certain online choices. Many popular social media platforms use recommender algorithms, such as YouTube’s filter bubble. Critics argue that they present the user with overly homogeneous content based on interests, ideas and beliefs, creating extremist and terrorist echo chambers or rabbit holes. There are a multitude of features online that intensify and support the creation of those echo chambers, from closed or selective chat groups to unmoderated forums.

Research shows that individuals convicted of terrorist attacks rarely seek opposing information that challenges their beliefs. Without diverse views, online discussion groups grow increasingly partisan, personalised and compartmentalised. The polarisation of online debates can lead to an environment that is much more permissive of extremist views. That is why the Online Safety Act, which received Royal Assent at the end of October, focuses on safety by design. We are in the implementation phase, which comes under my remit; we await further evidence from the data that implementation will produce.

Under the new regulation, social media platforms will need to assess the risk of their services facilitating illegal content and activity such as illegal abuse, harassment or stirring up hatred. They will also need to assess the risk of children being harmed on their services by content that does not cross the threshold of illegality but is harmful to them, such as content that promotes suicide, self-harm or eating disorders.

Platforms will then need to take steps to mitigate the identified risks. Ofcom, the new online safety regulator, will set out in codes of practice the steps that providers can take to mitigate particular risks. The new safety duties apply across all areas of a service, including the way in which it is designed, used and operated. If aspects of a service’s design, such as the use of algorithms, exacerbate the risk that users will carry out illegal activity such as illegal abuse or harassment, the new duties could apply. Ofcom will set out the steps that providers can take to make their algorithms safer.

I am conscious of time, so I will move on to the responsibility around extremism. Beyond the duties to make their services safe by design and reduce risk in that way, the new regulation gives providers duties to implement systems and processes for filtering out and moderating content that could drive extremism. For example, under their illegal content duty, social media providers will need to put systems in place to seek out and remove content that encourages terrorism. They will need to do the same for abusive content that could incite hatred on the basis of characteristics such as race, religion or sexual orientation. They will also need to remove content in the form of state-sponsored or state-linked disinformation aimed at interfering with matters such as UK elections and political decision making, or other false information that is intended to cause harm.

Elections have come up quite a bit in this debate. The defending democracy taskforce, which has been instituted to protect our democracy, is meeting regularly and regular discussions are going on; it is cross-nation and cross-Government, and we certainly hope to share more information in the coming months. We absolutely recognise the responsibilities of Government to deal with the issue and the risks that arise from misinformation around elections. We are not shying away from this; we are leading on it across Government.

The idea put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare has certainly been debated. He has spoken to me about it before, and I welcome the opportunity to have this debate. He was right to say that this is the start of the conversation—I accept that—and right to say that he may not yet have the right answer, but I am certainly open to further discussions with him to see whether there are avenues that we could look at.

I am very confident that the Online Safety Act, through its insistence on social media companies dealing with the issue and on holding social media companies to account on their terms and conditions, will be a vital factor. My focus will absolutely be on the implementation of the Act, because we know that that will go quite a long way.

We have given Ofcom, the new independent regulator, the power to require providers to change their algorithms and their service design where necessary to reduce the risk of users carrying out illegal activity or the risk of children being harmed. In overseeing the new framework, Ofcom will need to carry out its duties in a way that protects freedom of expression. We have also created a range of new transparency and freedom-of-expression duties for the major social media platforms; these will safeguard pluralism in public debate and give users more certainty about what they can expect online. As I have said, the Government take the issue incredibly seriously and will not hesitate to hold social media companies to account.

I thank everybody who has contributed: it shows that there is a great cross-party consensus on the need for more. I urge the Minister to understand that, because although the Online Safety Act is good and important and does vital things, I do not think that it will be enough in this area. It used to be said, and is still true, that a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Child Poverty: Greater Manchester

I will call Afzal Khan to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention in 30-minute debates, there will be no opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up. Interventions are okay, but there can be no speeches other than the Minister’s and the mover’s.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered child poverty in Greater Manchester.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Mark. I am deeply biased, but I believe that Manchester is the best city in the world. We have everything: rich cultural diversity, a bustling music scene, incredible football heritage, amazing food and beautiful green spaces. With two world-class universities, we are leading the way in education, research and innovation. However, among the vibrant energy that defines our great city, there exists a grim reality for too many families.

In 1821, the first edition of The Manchester Guardian reported that official figures citing that 8,000 children were receiving “free education”—a proxy term for poverty in those days—were wildly inaccurate: the actual figure was almost 25,000 children. Two centuries later, the official statistics on deprivation still mask the real number of children living in poverty in Manchester. We know that in Greater Manchester there are hundreds of thousands of children and families grappling with the harsh implications of poverty, made worse in recent years by the Tories’ economic and cost of living crisis. However, child poverty is not just a statistic: it is a stark realisation of systemic failure by central Government, of persistent inequalities and of a long list of unmet promises. Greater Manchester is a region that embodies resilience, but unfortunately we are not immune to the deep-seated issues that contribute to cycles of poverty, particularly among the youngest of our residents.

In this debate, I will highlight just how bad child poverty in Greater Manchester is, and the range of factors and poor policy decisions by the Conservatives here in Westminster that have caused it. I will also pay tribute to the excellent work of Mayor Andy Burnham and Labour-led Manchester City Council to alleviate child poverty despite shoestring local authority budgets, and what Labour would do in government to tackle this important problem.

The UN lead on extreme poverty and human rights has said that, in the levels of poverty over which they preside, the UK Government are in violation of international law. According to Greater Manchester Poverty Action, an incredible organisation based in Ardwick that focuses on research and outreach, we have about 250,000 children living in poverty. The End Child Poverty coalition recently found that 11 children in a class of 30 in Greater Manchester live in poverty, which is higher than both the England and the UK average.

I congratulate my constituency neighbour and good friend on securing this important debate. I agree that Manchester is the best city. However, my hon. Friend forgot to mention that Stockport is the best town not only in England, but in Britain.

Does my hon. Friend agree with me on a point about child poverty rates? In my constituency of Stockport, we have seen a 3.9% increase in child poverty since 2014; the average increase in the north-west region is 4.1%. Does he agree that the Conservative Government in Westminster have failed children not just in Greater Manchester, but across the UK?

I will simply say yes; I will make some of those points later.

Manchester City Council has the third highest rate of child poverty among local authorities in England. The Manchester, Gorton constituency has the sixth highest rate, with just over half of all children living in poverty. There are other ways in which we can understand the scale and impact of poverty. For example, 27% of secondary school pupils receive free school meals in Manchester, compared with 14.1% overall in England. Almost 20% of Manchester residents claim out-of-work benefits, compared with just 14.2% across England. Nearly 7,000 children across Greater Manchester were homeless on Christmas day, and the number of food parcels for children issued in Manchester, Gorton by the Trussell Trust network has risen by 81% since 2022. That all affects life expectancy, with men and women in Manchester living for an average of four years less than others across the country.

Alarmingly, the highest rates of child poverty are found among ethnic minority communities. Children in Bangladeshi and Pakistani households are most likely out of all ethnic groups to live with low income and material deprivation. After 14 years of harsh Tory cuts, child poverty levels in Manchester city have increased by almost 10%.

It has not always been like this. The Labour party, both in government and in opposition, has always prioritised tackling poverty, particularly child and pensioner poverty. In 1999, the Labour Government made a remarkable pledge to end child poverty in a generation. Gordon Brown set a further target of cutting child poverty in half in 10 years; as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister, he committed considerable resources to achieving that. In those 13 years, 2 million children and pensioners were lifted out of poverty, through a range of anti-poverty policies including spending on welfare, the introduction of the national minimum wage, the Sure Start initiative, financial support for childcare and increases in education spending. The Child Poverty Act was passed in 2010, enshrining in law four child poverty targets to be met within a decade.

In 2016, the Conservatives repealed the Child Poverty Act, axing Labour’s four targets, the requirement for local authorities to develop child poverty strategies, and the duty on local authorities to conduct child poverty needs assessments over 14 years. The Tories have presided over monumental cuts in public sector spending that have worsened poverty levels, meaning that we now have more food banks than police stations. The shameful level of child poverty and deprivation that we see across Manchester today is the direct result of punitive austerity measures brought in by the Conservatives in 2010, and of the Tory Government’s failure to undo any of them since then.

Too many issues have caused the high level of child poverty in Manchester, so I will focus on three: the two-child benefit cap, rising living costs and health deprivation. Introduced in 2017, the two-child benefit cap was supposed to incentivise parents into work by preventing them from claiming child tax credit or universal credit for any third or subsequent child. It has affected 1.5 million children, further impoverishing families rather than increasing employment. This has had a disproportionate impact on Manchester, with 22% of the children in my constituency alone living in affected households. The two-child limit impacts Muslims and orthodox Jewish communities more than any other faith group. For Muslims in particular we know that poverty levels are already high and 60% of all Muslim children live in families with three or more dependent children. Recent research has found that the two-child limit causes poverty—clearly failing to meet its ends.

There is no doubt that the cost of living crisis impacts us all, but no one more so than low-income families. More and more of people’s incomes are being diverted to paying soaring rents, mortgage costs and extortionate energy bills, and food is becoming increasingly more expensive. Those on benefits are struggling to make ends meet.

Around five in six low-income households on universal credit are going without at least one essential such as food, a warm home or toiletries. Without universal free school meals, too many children go to school hungry, hindering their education and development. Manchester City Council has used the household support fund to address the impact of fuel and food poverty and to provide support to the most vulnerable households. The current scheme provides support to 60,000 residents through free school meals in the holidays for 40,000 children, cost of living support payments for 12,500 vulnerable households, and additional holiday activity fund support for 6,000 children.

Despite the perpetual cost of living crisis that we find ourselves in, the Tories have decided that households will need no more support beyond March 2024 and have scrapped that vital lifeline for millions of people across the country. The complete loss of that funding in the next financial year will have a significant impact on the council’s financial capacity to provide support to some of Manchester’s most vulnerable households and to deliver the free school meal programmes in the holidays to Manchester children.

Poverty is also a major issue for children’s health. Many health challenges and inequalities in later life have their foundations in early childhood, with the poorest families experiencing the worst health outcomes. In the most horrific cases, health challenges caused by poverty end children’s lives early. In 2020, Awaab Ishak from Rochdale died from a respiratory condition caused by extensive mould in the flat that he lived in with his parents in social housing. The Levelling Up Secretary described Awaab’s death as

“a tragedy that should never have occurred.”

I agree with him, but without proper support and funding for tackling poverty and improving social housing, we cannot guarantee that there will not be another Awaab.

Parents on low incomes worry about being able to offer their children a healthy lifestyle as they are less able to afford healthy foods. The recent increases in household energy costs mean that many families are choosing eating over heating. Living in a cold home hugely impacts physical health, especially by worsening respiratory illnesses.

One in three children are not school ready in terms of their development when they start in reception. For children eligible for free school meals, almost 40% have not achieved a good level of development at the point of starting school. That has an impact throughout their lives. The foundations for the healthy development of a robust respiratory system are built during infancy. Babies living in cold housing during their first winter will be burning up calories on maintaining body temperature rather than organ development.

The knock-on effects of socioeconomic inequality cost NHS England £4.8 billion a year—almost a fifth of the total NHS budget. If children had a better, healthier start in life, the NHS would have much more capacity and resource to help those who most need it.

As I have described today, the Conservatives are failing to look after our children. It is not because they do not know how to do so, but because there is no interest in improving the lives of vulnerable people and taking them out of poverty. There are straightforward solutions that would have an unimaginable impact on the lives of children and families trapped in poverty. We must consider scrapping the two-child benefit limit and the benefit cap; restoring the household support fund; expanding free school meals; ensuring that benefits for children are regularly uprated in line with inflation; supporting childcare costs; and providing local authorities with long-term, sustainable funding to deliver the vital services our constituents depend on. These are not all the solutions, but they would go a long way in alleviating child poverty.

In Manchester, while vulnerable children are exposed to the harsh cruelties of the Conservative Government, they are cushioned by the incredible work done by Mayor Andy Burnham and Manchester City Council. As the Government have no plan or strategy to address poverty, Manchester City Council and other local authorities across Greater Manchester have taken matters into their own hands and created their own anti-poverty strategies. To quote my colleague, Councillor Tom Robinson, executive member for healthy Manchester and adult social care:

“We know that the Government has given up trying to govern, but we in Manchester have not.”

Manchester’s anti-poverty strategy includes a range of measures, from helping residents on low incomes to manage their spending and reduce debt, to ensuring access to culture and leisure opportunities to help people experiencing poverty to have a good quality of life. Some of the other incredible initiatives delivered by Manchester City Council to help the most vulnerable include setting up a cost of living advice line on debt, bills and food support, which has already supported almost 8,000 people; distributing £55,000-worth of cash and household goods through the welfare provision scheme to those suffering financial hardship; and providing school uniform grants through Manchester Central food bank.

Mayor Andy Burnham recognises that food poverty is one of the biggest scourges on our society, with food bank usage in the city region higher than most other parts of the country. He launched the first ever food poverty action plan, calling for a campaign to increase uptake of Healthy Start vouchers, the provision of debt and welfare advice alongside food handouts, and the appointment of a poverty lead in each council and by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. Many of these initiatives were recommended by the Greater Manchester Poverty Commission 10 years ago, chaired by the then Bishop of Manchester, the Right Reverend Nigel McCulloch, who called for, among other things, initiatives to reduce energy bills, access to financial support and services, and ensuring that people can access affordable fresh fruit and vegetables.

However, there is only so much we can do at a local level without ambition and investment from central Government. Under a Labour Government, this will change. Universal credit must work for those who rely on it, so Labour will reform the system so that it is effective in supporting vulnerable people and alleviating poverty. We will make it a fairer system that restores dignity and security, and we will address persistent inequalities, support workers and help people back into work. Our new deal for working people will cut poverty, increase wages and improve workers’ rights.

In conclusion, as we have seen, child poverty is not a stand-alone issue, nor is it caused by one single thing. From health disparities to educational challenges, poor housing conditions and chronic low pay, the interconnected web of factors that cause and contribute to child poverty are extensive, but not undefeatable. My questions to the Minister today are very simple. Why have the Conservatives persistently enacted policies that make child poverty worse? When will they finally call a general election and make way for a Labour Government to take back the reins and clean up their horrible mess? British children deserve so much better. We have seen the incredible impact Labour councils can make. All children deserve to grow up under a Labour Government. Their future depends on it.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I first thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) for securing this debate. I am sure we all believe that we represent the best place in the world, although I feel a little outflanked today, given the presence of the hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton North East (Mark Logan), who is sitting behind me. All of them are probably fighting for the constituency they represent to be recognised as the best place in Manchester. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton articulated, it is a wonderful and vibrant city with a huge number of positives driving its resources.

Obviously, I disagree with the picture that the hon. Gentleman has painted. I do not believe that any Member elected to this place wants to see any child living in poverty in our constituencies. I fully understand the passion that drives the contributions on this important issue. The hon. Gentleman himself has explained the complexity of the issue, and how the compounding of many factors and variables makes it an enormous challenge. I am very proud that it was us who introduced not only universal credit, which has transformed lives, to replace the old legacy benefits system, but free school meals for children in reception, year 1 and year 2. I gently say that we will probably agree to disagree at the end of this debate, but I will lay out what we have done. I always urge, in areas such as this, that we all work across the Floor to help all our children rise to fulfil their talents.

I start by reassuring colleagues about our commitment to a strong welfare system to support those most in need. That is reflected in the £276 billion that we will spend through the welfare system in Great Britain this financial year, including a £124 billion package on people of working age and their children. Having uprated in line with inflation this year, we have announced a further increase of 6.7% in working-age benefits for 2024-25, subject to parliamentary approval, and that is well ahead of inflation and its projections. On top of that, we are increasing the local housing allowance from April, which will give a further 1.6 million low-income households the support that they need.

I know that many people are concerned about the cost of living, as the hon. Gentleman said. The Government’s commitment to provide support is reflected in the further £104 billion provided in this area over 2022-23 to 2024-25. In particular, 8 million households across the UK on eligible means-tested benefits have received the first two of three cost of living payments totalling up to £900 in this financial year. That includes over 400,000 homes in Greater Manchester, and I am very pleased to confirm that the final payment will be paid to most eligible households next month to further help ease the burden.

I think there is a small area of agreement on the household support fund. For people who require that extra support, we have provided an additional £1 billion of funding, including the Barnett impact, to enable the extension of the household support fund until March. As with all such issues, we keep these things under constant review in the usual way, and before the announcements in the spring, it is not right to say it has ended. This current household support package finishes in March, but it will be kept under review. The covid pandemic and Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine have put pressure on virtually everyone, and the household support fund has been a hugely important asset. It has been in existence since October 2021 and we have provided a total of £2.5 billion in that time. It was introduced at a time when the pandemic placed real pressures on the economy, and it has provided that support through these disrupted times.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the 10 upper-tier local authorities that make up Greater Manchester have together been allocated £134.6 million since October 2021, including £32.3 million for Manchester City Council, with nearly £13 million allocated to it in the last round. I was really pleased to hear his great examples of local authorities, but the third sector, which is so important in this area, has spent that money in order to add value. Funding has been distributed broadly in the sector and includes financial support to recent care leavers.

While we remain committed to a strong welfare safety net for families who need it, particularly during challenging times, we have always believed that the best way to help children in families who are struggling with their financial circumstances is through work. The hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton said himself that levels of worklessness in his area are higher. Our approach is based on the clear evidence of the importance that work, particularly full-time work, plays in lifting children out of poverty. The most recent data showed that in the 2021-22 period, children living in workless households were five times more likely to be in absolute poverty after housing costs than those in households where adults worked, which shows how important work is.

The data also showed that there were 400,000 fewer children in absolute poverty after housing costs compared with 2009-10—hardly the glowing record that the hon. Gentleman painted. In the north-west in particular, in the three years to 2021, absolute child poverty reduced by 8 percentage points compared with the three years before 2010 after housing costs were accounted for. There are now over 1 million fewer workless households than in 2010. That is more people working and 680,000 fewer children growing up in a home where no one works. As of today, there are 934,000 vacancies across the UK, so our focus is to work with our work coaches across the Department for Work and Pensions family, holding people’s hands and giving them confidence to step into work and progress into financial independence.

I speak to families regularly, as we all do, and they tell me that the two biggest barriers into work are childcare and transport. Manchester is a thriving transport hub and the extension of the £2 bus fares by this Government provides affordable travel options for many. Furthermore, we are extending childcare support so that from September, eligible working parents in England will have access to 30 hours of free childcare per week for 38 weeks of the year from when their child is nine months old.

Universal credit can provide up to 85% of a parent’s childcare costs, and in June last year we increased that by almost 50% to £951 for a single child and £1,630 a month for families with two or more. Importantly, we can also help with advances to help people into work.

We are not stopping there. From April this year, subject to approval by Parliament, the maximum universal credit childcare amounts will increase further to over £1,000 a month for single children and over £1,700 for two or more children. We want to support people into work and allow them to progress. As I said, work coaches and those in our DWP centres stand ready. The national living wage has increased by some £6,700 since we first introduced it in 2016. This year, it has gone up to £11.44—an increase of 9.8%. That is not the record the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton painted.

To conclude, we are committed to providing opportunities for parents, wherever they live in the UK, to succeed in work. That is the only sustainable way of tackling child poverty in the longer term. It balances the needs of families on benefits with the expectations of taxpayers who contribute to the system. At the same time, as we have done throughout this challenging time, we will of course continue to ensure that vulnerable families have the support they need through the welfare system—but that is a job for all of us. I thank the hon. Gentleman.

Question put and agreed to.

Illegal Vapes

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the use and sale of illegal vapes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark, and I am pleased to have secured this debate, in order to highlight my concerns about the use and sale of illegal vapes.

As a country, we should be pleased with the progress that we have made in reducing smoking, with smoking rates falling to their lowest since records began; now, only 12.9% of the population smoke. In some part, this progress is down to the wide array of nicotine replacement products: patches, pouches, gum, and of course, in more recent years, vapes.

However, despite vapes being an effective alternative for adults to use in order to quit smoking, we must be concerned about the risks they pose to children and non-smokers. Vapes are not risk-free. Nicotine is a highly addictive substance, whatever means are used to absorb it, and there remain unanswered questions about the longer-term use of vaping. As Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, has said:

“If you smoke, vaping is much safer; if you don’t smoke, don’t vape.”

I have concerns about vaping that I wish to raise with the Minister in this debate. They are threefold: first, the availability of vaping products to children; secondly, the sale and supply of illegal vaping products to children and adults; and thirdly, the organised crime and exploitation that lie behind the illegal products.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. Many people see vaping as an alternative to smoking and it probably is, but that does not mean that it is, in some cases, any less destructive. Indeed, it has become an overnight epidemic, with vape shops popping up, including in Newtownards, the main town in my constituency. My concern has always been about the regulation of these pop-up shops; they come here and they disappear, only to pop up somewhere else.

Does the hon. Gentleman share that concern and agree that there must be a licence to sell vapes, which should be vigorously checked by the local council to ensure that laws are being adhered to, so that the things he has expressed concern about regarding children gaining access to vapes cannot happen?

It would not be a Westminster Hall debate without an intervention from the hon. Gentleman. He anticipates two of the points that I am about to come on to in my speech—first, the popping up of these shops; and secondly, the need for licensing. So, I thank him for his intervention.

Legally supplied cigarettes have reached a price that puts them beyond the reach of children’s pocket money. That has been brought about by a raft of measures, including a ban on smaller packets, a ban on advertising, plain packaging, concealed displays and raising the legal age to buy cigarettes to 18. However, we have seen a worrying trend of children taking up the habit of vaping; the latest figures show that some 20% of children have tried vaping.

Those children have taken up the use of a product that is designed to help people to quit smoking, but—this is the important point—they themselves have never smoked. We know that the flavours, packaging and design of vapes are attractive to children, and that vapes are on very visible display in shops, in contrast to the cigarettes that they are designed to replace.

As with the sale of cigarettes, the sale of nicotine-related products is restricted to people over 18, but that restriction is clearly not working. To my mind, many of the measures that we introduced to curtail smoking need to be considered again in addressing this problem.

I have met the parents of children who are addicted to vaping. It is not uncommon to see children vaping in the street and the whole disposable vape industry is visibly responsible for the increase of litter on our streets, which local authorities face huge difficulties in dealing with and which increases the risk of fire in general waste collections.

The Local Government Association is deeply concerned about what to do with the almost 200 million disposable vapes that are thrown away every year in our country, and we should all be concerned about their environmental impact. However, my primary concern is the use and sale of illegal vapes, which do not always comply with our legislation and often have much higher concentrations of nicotine. They are sold with much higher capacities than their legal equivalents. It is estimated that a staggering one out of every three vapes sold in the UK is illicit. They are being sold with no care whatever for the user.

In the north-east, we have seen tragic cases of young children hospitalised as a result of using high-strength illegal vapes. The sale of these products is often concentrated in pop-up mini-markets, which are easily identifiable and distinguishable from reliable and traditional corner shops. Once upon a time criminality hid away, but these operators hide in plain sight. These shops appear quite rapidly, with blocked out windows, vivid lighting and a sparse supply of genuine goods on the shelf and are often, although not always, also selling illegal tobacco products.

I want to put on the record my thanks to Phoebe Abruzzese from The Northern Echo in Darlington for her campaigning journalism on this issue, and I am pleased to be working with her to highlight this problem.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. He is right to want to see a clampdown on illegal vapes. They are very different from those produced by responsible manufacturers, which help adults quit smoking and thereby save lives. Does he agree that we should continue to encourage adult smokers to vape, and that we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater over this? The responsible attitude is to allow people to use legal vapes while clamping down on the illicit ones that we see too many of.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention; he raises a really important point. It is right that we encourage people to stop smoking and that smokers have an array of products available to help them, but those products must be legal. They must be supplied legally and made available in the right way.

Trading standards in Darlington, which is doing a tremendous job led by Shaun Trevor, has had much success over the past 18 months in targeting these traders. Products with a value of over £300,000 have been seized from some 23 retailers. Among those products were almost 20,000 packets of illegal cigarettes. Their sale would have resulted in a massive loss of revenue to the Exchequer—something that I am sure the Chancellor would be interested to learn about.

Last week, I went to visit a number of my local independent corner shops. They report that their tobacco sales have fallen off a cliff. In one instance, a trader of some 40 years reported that his tobacco sales had fallen from more than £7,000 a week to just £2,000. One the one hand, we can celebrate that as it will partly be the result of some people giving up smoking, but we know that the real underlying cause is that the trade has shifted to illegal sales in newly popped-up competition, which is robbing trade from our legitimate traders. Together with the footfall that tobacco sales bring to those shops and the massive loss in revenue, one retailer I visited estimates that his store is collecting nearly £200,000 less duty and VAT because of the sale of illegal tobacco. That is just one shop in one town. Imagine the scale of that lost revenue to the country as a whole.

I have shared my concerns about children vaping and about the availability of illegal products, but for me the most important aspect of this debate is the organised crime that sits behind the illegal supply and sale of these products. I know at first hand of the collaborative work going on between my local council and police in the sharing of intelligence, and I know that they are acutely aware of the damage caused to our community and the local economy. We have evidence locally that the funding for these shops is rooted in organised crime and money laundering. We know that, besides being supplied with illegal tobacco and vapes, children are being used as mules to fetch and carry the illegal products, which are stored off site rather than on the shop premises, or to act as agents by selling the vapes to their friends in the school playground. The most shocking local case was of a young person being groomed for sex with the enticement of illegal vapes. We should be wide awake to the risks in our community to young people who are exposed to exploitation in this way.

I will conclude by putting to the Minister some suggestions of things that can be done that I believe can help tackle these issues. We need to see a nationwide awareness campaign on illegal vapes for both adults and children. We need to see much-increased awareness in our schools of the safeguarding risks to young people posed by the sale and supply of these products. I would like to see all vape products in plain packaging and out of sight, just like tobacco. We need to fully explore a robust licensing system for both vapes and tobacco. We need greater collaboration on intelligence between our very small trading standards departments and police forces across the country. We need on-the-spot fines, set at punitive rates, to tackle the sale of these illegal vapes and tobaccos, and we need to see swifter premises closure orders.

I am sure that all Members are as concerned as I am about the issues that I have shared, and I have no doubt that more worrying stories will be shared throughout this debate. I look forward to the Minister’s response and to a plan that sees us clamp down on this danger.

I thank the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) for securing this afternoon’s debate. I am sure he knows that I have been discussing this issue and campaigning against the sale and use of illegal vapes throughout this Parliament, and I am sure he is aware that I tabled several amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill in 2021, when it was in Committee. I understand that the hon. Member was not a member of that Public Bill Committee, but he must share my frustration with his party on this issue. The Tory Whips instructed Conservative Members to vote down my amendments in 2021—amendments that were very similar to the proposals in the King’s Speech last November. If my amendments had been voted for, it is fair to argue that fewer people—particularly young people—would be addicted to nicotine, and that as a result the tenor of this debate would be different.

“What ifs” aside, we need to see robust regulation and enforcement at local level. My constituency needs that, and I am shocked at the extent of illicit, non-compliant and even untraceable vaping products in my constituency. Over 6,000 illicit vapes were seized last year across County Durham, with three prosecutions linked to under-age sales and illicit vapes. I express my thanks to The Northern Echo for its investigation into that.

Although I welcome the Government’s announcement of an illicit vapes enforcement squad, we are now nine months on from that announcement, and unregulated and potentially dangerous products continue to fly off the shelves. All the while, the tobacco industry is making profits off the back of youth vaping rates. Cuts to trading standards have not helped, either. Trading standards workers in Durham are at full capacity, so when will they receive something from the £30 million that was announced in October to help them do their job?

We need the Government to be bold. We need to stop rogue vape traders in their tracks, and we must ensure that the sale of illicit vape products does not deter smokers from switching to vaping. I welcome any Member’s raising the issue of the use and sale of illegal vapes. Like the hon. Gentleman, I was pleased to be part of a rare example of cross-party unity in The Northern Echo but, at the end of the day, what matters in this place is how we vote on policies. If an issue similar to that posed by the Health and Social Care Act 2022 arises in the future, I hope that the hon. Gentleman and Members who are about to contribute to the debate will put their constituents before their party Whips.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) on securing today’s debate on a very important issue.

On the face of it, nicotine vaping is substantially less harmful than smoking. It is also one of the most effective tools for quitting smoking. However, I believe that before I speak about illicit vapes it is worth noting that although vaping has helped adults to quit smoking, we do not know for sure its long-term health effects and have only an early understanding of the kinds of health problems that vaping poses. The Royal College of Physicians noted that some cancer-causing substances present in tobacco smoke have also been detected in e-cigarette vapour, which raises the possibility that long-term use of vapes may increase the risk of smoking-related diseases. However, the risks are obviously much lower than those posed by smoking.

Vaping is becoming more and more popular with young people. According to Action on Smoking and Health, over 20% of children between the ages of 11 and 17 tried vaping in 2023—up from 15.8% in 2022. There is potential for the major health disaster of a new generation of young people getting hooked on nicotine. Although nicotine itself is not the problem per se, the different substances found in e-liquids cause concern. To analyse the real contents of popular vapes, the Inter Scientific laboratory, which offers regulatory and testing services, looked at a selection of vapes confiscated from school pupils in the UK. It examined them to ensure that the UK tobacco and related products regulations were met, but it found high levels of metals in the e-liquid that far exceeded safe exposure levels. Results from the 18 vapes analysed showed 2.4 times the safe level of lead, 9.6 times the safe level of nickel and 6.6 times the safe level of chromium. Obviously there was a low dataset, but it shows that the regulations on vapes are not being met in this country.

Then we come to illegal vapes. Trading standards seized over 2 million illicit vapes across England between 2022 and 2023. In East Sussex, over 3,000 illegal vapes were seized in 2020. I believe that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Illicit vapes are particularly popular with under-age consumers, because they are cheap and can be bought in shops that are less likely to check ID. Research from the Chartered Trading Standards Institute suggests that a third of products sold in UK shops are likely to be illegal. Given the levels of metals found in legal vapes, I dread to think what the levels might be in the illegal ones. The situation is staggering, and young people are often unaware of what they are actually buying.

How do we tackle this problem? The solution lies in the method that we used to reduce smoking rates in children between 2000 and 2021. By reducing vaping rates in children, we can also help to address the scourge of illicit vapes. ASH’s response to the Government’s recent call for evidence on youth vaping is fantastic. I do not have time to go into the detail of its suggestions for tackling youth vaping, but it emphasises four key policy levers at the Government’s disposal, and I am sure the Minister is considering its recommendations.

I am glad that the Government have set out plans to introduce a tobacco and vapes Bill in this parliamentary Session, and I hope it will address many of the issues highlighted in today’s debate, because that will help to protect the health of children and adults in Hastings and Rye, now and in the future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) for securing this important debate, which gives me the opportunity to highlight the seriousness of the use of illegal vapes and cigarettes in my constituency.

A week before Christmas, I was accompanied by a team of enforcement officers on a test purchase exercise in Dewsbury town centre. I put on record my thanks to the team for their professionalism and ingenuity. During the exercise, we discovered over 20 retail outlets selling illicit cigarettes and vapes across Dewsbury. Fourteen of them were selling illegal disposable vapes, one of which was on sale for £10—but it was £10 for 3,500 puffs. The maximum legal tank size equates to about 600 puffs, so £10 spent on that product would be equivalent to almost six legal vapes. Unlike a legal vape, however, this one had not had its chemical constituents approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, so we have no idea what was in it.

Here are some further shocking findings from our investigation. That product was the smallest puff size available to purchase that day. Another product, available for £12, promised 4,000 puffs. Another claimed to provide 9,000 puffs for £13. For £17, two disposables claiming to provide 15,000 puffs and 24 ml tank sizes were available. The maximum legal tank size is 2 ml. Almost half the shops that sold these illicit vapes had them on display. They either did not care or did not realise that the products were illegal. The whole exercise was an eye-opener, but there have been several high-profile incidents involving the sale of illicit cigarettes and vapes in Dewsbury. Last October, £100,000-worth of such products were seized by West Yorkshire police and trading standards.

Last July, an independent report found that nearly a fifth by value and volume of the vaping industry appeared to be illicit in 2022 and that almost a third of e-liquid consumed in disposable vapes failed product compliance rules on nicotine concentrations and volume limits. It is clear that the industry finds itself in a challenging position but, in forging a path forward, it is important that we do not lose sight of other key facts. Scientific research indicates that vaping is less dangerous than smoking, with up to 95% fewer harmful chemicals in the emissions. The legal vape industry has had a positive impact on reducing smoking, converting 1.5 million people away from cigarettes. I have given up smoking in the last 12 months, and I used nicotine patches, but I recognise that there are other ways to stop smoking, including legal vapes. From a health benefit point of view, it is important that we recognise that aspect.

The legal vaping industry, like any other industry, needs protecting from criminal activity and illegal competition. There must also be a balance between discouraging young people from vaping and continuing to provide a route away from smoking for adults. Getting the regulation wrong could further undermine the Government’s smokefree ambitions and would arguably give a significant boost to the illicit trade. I therefore urge them to carefully consider the implications of any proposed legislation and changes to regulations in the future, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to this important debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) on securing this important debate.

Hon. Members will not be surprised by my presence or to hear my stance on this issue. For more than a year now I have championed the fight against youth vaping, an epidemic that is spreading like wildfire. These sleek, colourful contraptions, once touted merely as a smoking cessation tool, have become ubiquitous. They are not just in shops, but litter our streets and are hidden away in our children’s bedrooms and classrooms. According to a recent NASUWT survey, a staggering 85% of teachers reported vaping as an issue among their students. Teachers in my constituency have spoken of pupils struggling to concentrate because of their nicotine addiction and having to leave lessons for vape breaks—let us remember that these are not hardened junkies but schoolchildren.

I propose a number of solutions to this growing problem, including banning the sale of disposable vapes, removing them from public displays in shops and banning the bright colours and sweet flavours, which prolong the addictive effects and are so attractive to children. I welcome the Government’s work and commitments in this area, and I particularly thank the Minister for her commitment to stopping children vaping and her broader commitment to children and their health. However, we need to go further, and I would like the Government to extend the existing restrictions on cigarettes to vaping in public places to ensure that no one, least of all children, becomes an unwitting victim of second-hand vapour.

Coupled with that, we must impose tougher regulations on the advertising and marketing of vaping products. I have previously spoken out against the sponsoring of sports teams and the pervasive advertising that glamourises vapes. I would like to see these products taken off the side of Transport for London buses, off prominent displays in corner shops and away from sports stadiums. Instead, they should be put discreetly away behind the counter, as the medical type of smoking cessation device they are supposed to be.

Moving on to the specifics of today’s debate on illegal vapes, vapes can be illegal for one of two reasons. They are either illegally composed and perhaps have no self-extinguishing mechanism, excessive quantities of nicotine or more puffs than allowed. However, they may also contain harmful toxic chemicals. Last spring, Lincolnshire police took a selection of vapes from children and tested them. These are just some of the chemicals they found: diethylene glycol diacetate, aviptadil, 2-methoxyethyl acetate, poster varnish, Indian snakeroot and antifreeze. Those were all being inhaled by children using vapes in Sleaford.

The other way vapes can be illegal is that they can be sold illegally to children under the age of 18. Indeed, vapes can be illegal in both the ways I have mentioned. Newspapers locally are reporting an example of a police officer in Sleaford who recently stepped into a local shop to stop illegal vapes being sold to children. Those products were illegal not just because they were being sold to children, but because they contained much more than they ought to.

The next question is what we can do about this. We have talked about ways in which we can tackle the use of vapes. I welcome the vapes enforcement squad the Government put together with £3 million earlier this year, but we need more. There is no registration scheme for selling vapes, in the way there is for alcohol and tobacco. I would like to see a registration scheme for vapes, tied to alcohol and tobacco, specifically to disincentivise unscrupulous sellers. If they lose the vaping licence, they would also lose the alcohol and tobacco licence. I would also like to see an increase in on-the-spot fines, from £2,500 to £10,000, so that there is a significant disincentive to this behaviour. Let us face it, these people are making money out of this, and that is why they are doing it—they are making money out of selling illegal things to children that will harm them.

Another idea is an import tax. It has been proposed to me that one challenge facing Border Force is that vapes are not subject to excise. If they were subject to excise controls, Border Force would be able to intercept some of the illegal vapes. That is much more challenging because there is no excise duty on vapes. Also on the issue of tax, I am a Tory and would normally advocate cutting as many taxes as possible, but I think there is a place to put tax on vaping devices. Even with tax, they would still be potentially much cheaper relative to their nicotine content than cigarettes, making them a cheaper option for a genuine adult smoker who wishes to quit, but they would be more expensive for children, taking them out of the realms of pocket money.

In summary, this issue demands bold action, as it did when I first stood up to discuss it a year ago. I urge the Government and all hon. Members to join me in ensuring that vapes are used as a cessation device, as they are supposed to be. Only by toughening our response to a rogue industry can we protect our children from the suffocating grip of addiction.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Mark. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) for securing the debate and for the powerful way he introduced the topic.

Like the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson), I have made no secret of my lack of enthusiasm for vapes—specifically disposable vapes. I have held my own debates on the topic, and I have supported others, including the hon. Lady, so I am pleased to speak today, because we need urgent action on these things.

We have heard about smoking cessation a couple of times during the debate. Smoking cessation is absolutely important, and we should all take it very seriously, but disposable vapes are not risk-free, as has been pointed out. There are other, more useful ways of supporting smoking cessation—for instance, reusable vapes, which are not seen as attractive to young people. However we look at it, and whether they are illicit or not, disposable vapes are harmful, particularly to young people and our environment.

The environmental side of things is what first caused me to become interested in disposable vapes. That was thanks to Laura Young, better known as “Less Waste Laura”, who is a student from my constituency. Laura has worked tirelessly to rid our streets, parks and beaches of the discarded plastic, which is so familiar to us all, and the pollution that has become a torrent in recent years. These apparently disposable vapes are almost never properly disposed of; in fact, the way they are constructed means it is almost impossible to properly dispose of them even if someone wants to, which is quite unlikely, considering that this product is sold on the basis of its easily disposable nature.

It is a great pity—this is embarrassing for it—that the Labour party, propped up by the Tory party on East Renfrewshire Council, is so unwilling to support anything the SNP supports that it has, not once but twice, refused to support a motion to ban disposable vapes locally, putting the council out of step with almost every other local authority in Scotland and with the evidence of the harm that such devices do.

Does the hon. Lady not accept that properly and legally produced disposable vapes provide an attractive alternative for adults to stop smoking and thereby save lives? Some companies, although this is not happening a great deal, can now almost fully recycle the components of disposable e-cigarettes. Does she accept that there is a danger that we move from illicit vapes and start targeting those that would be welcome for adult smokers to switch to?

No, I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s proposition at all. That is absolutely wrong-headed. We can see in front of our eyes that these products are so attractive to young people that they are hooking them in—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is mumbling from his chair. If I can finish my speech, I will set out for him that these products are hooking young people in and getting them addicted, and some of these young people then go on to start smoking. That is far from the situation he laid out, and we should take a very serious attitude to these products.

I have spoken about the harms caused by legal vapes to the planet, whether it is plastic, overuse of precious metals or fires. We have heard today about the impact that these substances have on the young people who ingest them, which should be of significant concern to us. Vaping is popular among young people. Since 2021, there has been a more than sevenfold increase in the number of 11 to 17-year-olds vaping and using disposable vapes rather than reusable ones. These devices are colourful and attractive, with snazzy names and fruity flavours. Vaping has risen so rapidly among children that one in five are now using disposable vapes.

We are not speaking about a smoking cessation mechanism. We are speaking about something that health professionals increasingly warn about. They are increasingly worried about a generation of young people who are hooked on nicotine. As the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has said:

“Youth vaping is fast becoming an epidemic”.

Despite all that, and despite the fact that the public would be concerned to know all these things, we have this stream of illicit, and other, vapes on our streets. We know that local shops are the most likely source for young people to come by them, and we have heard quite a lot about that today. There is also the online space, which is a source of significant concern to me. Unregulated and untested products are coming via the online space, and we have no idea what harms will be caused to the young people consuming them.

I met a business owner from my area last week, and she talked me through her concerns about illegal medical products—obviously not proper medical products. She showed me how she was targeted by online accounts pushing these goods to her. She is a responsible professional and she resisted, but let us be clear that there are many and complex routes by which these illicit vapes arrive here, just as there are for illicit medical products. All those routes need to be closed down, and they need to be closed down now. Whatever the disposable vape, it causes harm.

We know that there are significant kinds of harm being caused with the flavours and the colours. We have heard from the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) about the worries that Action on Smoking and Health spoke about. We are hearing more and more about vape use being glamourised online, and when people under the legal age cannot purchase vapes legally, they are purchasing them illegally or purchasing illegal ones.

The public health messaging on this issue is not as clear as it should be. The hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) tried to tell me that vapes would be a perfectly reasonable way to expect adults to support themselves in smoking cessation, but that is not right and that should not be what the public health messaging tells us. We heard from the hon. Member for Darlington that vapes are a gateway to other, sometimes very serious, concerns and to riskier behaviour, such as smoking and substance abuse. He eloquently outlined the even greater and more significant harms that can be caused.

These things are arriving in huge numbers. I am grateful to the Advertising Standards Authority, which met with me after the most recent vape-related debate I spoke in. It is doing significant work trying to uphold the ban on advertising in various places, including on social media, of nicotine-containing cigarettes that are not licensed as medicines. None the less, Members may have seen adverts that would cause them to think that was not the case, and that is part of this torrent and this pushing of vapes, which needs our urgent attention.

Indeed, vapes need attention across the world. Let us be clear that the scale of the problem and the potential harms to young people and the planet should cause us deep worry. I read a really interesting piece by Chris Kirkham from Reuters last month about the owners of Elf Bar, which is a company with roots in China. Elf Bar products are very popular here, and the company is now, according to Reuters, flooding the US with illegal vapes—ones not covered by Food and Drug Administration regulations.

I am going to make progress, but if I have time, I would be happy to let the hon. Gentleman come in later.

Elf Bar is simply ignoring those regulations to get its products to market. In the UK, it is taking a different approach and complying with regulations so that it can—one presumes—sell the maximum number of its products. That means that we need different regulations that will stop the surge in young people vaping. Of course, if we banned all disposable vapes, it would be far easier to identify the illicit ones, because all vapes would be illicit. It is far better that we close down the distributors and that we do so in a wholehearted way.

I have spoken before about my own concerns about sports advertising of vapes. I spoke about Blackburn Rovers, and a 15-year-old footballer, who came on as a substitute in their FA cup win recently, made history as their youngest ever player. However, his shirt did not have the club sponsor, Totally Wicked, on it. Blackburn Rovers said that, as the legal vaping age in the UK is 18, under-18s cannot wear that logo—but they can still see it, because it is displayed on everyone else’s strip. We would not want tobacco companies advertising on sports strips. We would not want whisky, beer or cider companies on sports strips. None of those things should be acceptable to us, and advertising for vapes should not be acceptable to us either. If we are serious about dealing with the harms that young people experience because of vaping, we should expect sports clubs to take that seriously too. The claims by both Blackburn Rovers and Totally Wicked at the time that vaping had a positive and proven role in supporting the reduction of smoking are simply not credible when we think of the young people who are interested in football.

I will bring my remarks to a conclusion. I noticed recently that some vaping companies are actually going out and looking for sportspeople to sponsor. I think that is hugely dangerous and hugely unwelcome. I ask the Minister to give us some of her thoughts on that matter in her response.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I thank the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) for securing this important debate, and the many colleagues who have made excellent points, including my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) who is a great campaigner on this issue.

Many Members have focused their remarks on the impact of vaping on children, and they are absolutely right to do so. The Opposition recognise the value of vapes as a stop-smoking tool. They have their place. The chief medical officer put it bluntly:

“If you smoke, vaping is much safer; if you don’t smoke, don’t vape”.

But the CMO has also been blunt about the epidemic rise in youth vaping in recent years. Nicotine addiction is in no one’s interest apart from the companies that profit from it. Certainly no child should be vaping. We do not even know some of the long-term risks of the ingredients used in vapes, and certainly not when inhaled by young people whose lungs and brains are still developing.

However, I am afraid to say that the Government have been asleep at the wheel. In 2021, as we have heard, Labour voted for an amendment to the Health and Care Act 2022 to crack down on the marketing of vapes to children. Since then, as Labour has found, the number of children aged 11 to 17 who are vaping regularly has more than trebled. That is more than 140,000 British children. Meanwhile, one in five children have now tried vaping. Does the Minister regret that her Government and MPs voted against the amendment in 2021?

The issue is that it is now 2024 and we still have no legislation in place. It is bad enough that so many children are using these products, but, as other Members have said, it is even worse when we consider how many products on the market are illegal in their own right. As the chief medical officer has warned, those products can contain dangerous chemicals such as lead and nickel. Some contain nicotine when claiming they do not, or harmful tetrahydrocannabinol chemicals found in cannabis. To be clear, in most cases that amounts to a failure in enforcing existing regulations, and it really is shocking.

Last year, Inter Scientific and the BBC conducted an analysis of vapes confiscated from schoolchildren, and found that the vast majority did not meet UK product regulations and were actually illegal. In a separate analysis of 300 products seized by various trading standards around the country, they found that 88% were non-compliant with UK regulations; 23% had a nicotine strength over the legal limit; 15% contained lead, which when inhaled can damage children’s central nervous system and brain development; 100% contained nickel; and 33% contained nicotine, despite being marketed at 0%, which absurdly means that they can be sold to children. Can the Minister tell us what she will do to crack down on the influx of illegal vapes so that dangerous products are not falling into the hands of our young children?

From speaking to experts in the industry, I have heard that there has been an influx of illegal vapes into the United Kingdom in recent years. One expert I consulted said they think that around 6 million illegal vape products have flooded the UK in the last 12 to 24 months. Can the Minister comment on why the UK seems to be targeted more than many other countries, and where she thinks these products are coming from? Until now, UK regulations have largely inoculated us from public health scares such as the spate of hospitalisations from popcorn lung in the United States, but does she share my concern that if we do not get a grip on illegal products flooding our markets, we could face something similar here? Lastly, can she comment on what she has learned from the Government’s consultation about the percentage of vapes circulating in the UK that are illegal under the 2016 regulations? If it is anything like the 88% found by Inter Scientific, we have a very big problem.

A glaring issue that many have identified is enforcement. As we all know, trading standards is stretched and Border Force is evidently not stopping the import of illegal vapes in sufficient numbers. However, the Government have not made their job easy. One issue is the confusing regulations. I know that the Government have said they will act to close the loophole that means that while it is illegal to sell vapes to children, it is fine to hand them out. We have heard less from the Government on the fact that it is also currently legal to sell nicotine-free vapes to under-18s, which is of serious concern. Labour has been vocal on this issue. As I have flagged, these 0%-nicotine vapes in fact often do contain nicotine or other harmful chemicals. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will take action to ban those vapes being sold to children? It strikes me as a blatant loophole that is giving unscrupulous companies scope to hook young children on their products as a gateway to addiction. These 0%-nicotine vapes are out of the scope of the regulations, meaning they do not need to be registered with the MHRA. Will the Minister now require all manufacturers to notify vape products regardless of nicotine content to the MHRA? This would allow for a complete database of products where currently it is not possible to say which products are legal or illegal, which really undermines enforcement action.

Speaking of the MHRA, we must also recognise that the relevant authorities are not always empowered to do what is needed to crack down on those breaking the rules. It strikes me as a serious shortcoming that as long as producers complete notification requirements with the regulator, their product is allowed to go on the UK market without being tested as a whole. The MHRA—the regulator—does not have powers to test products to determine whether they are even compliant with what producers claim are in them, nor to remove notifications once published.

The fact that under this Government children are using vapes with nicotine in them is pretty scandalous, given what we know about the lack of regulations. I say that because when the producer of Elf Bars was found to be selling products that had larger tank sizes than allowed, the regulations did not provide the MHRA with the power to remove the product from the market, as the product notifications said that it was compliant. That is farcical.

This matter is a huge concern not just for me, but for most Members across the House. Will the Minister say whether she is looking at this as part of the legislation? Will she consider allowing the MHRA to use notification fees for testing and enforcement and giving it the powers to remove notifications from publication and, if necessary, take products off the market? Likewise, does she believe that Border Force has the powers that it actually needs? Will the Minister finally tackle the issue of youth vaping, as we have heard about from many Members, by doing what Labour has called for for years and banning vapes from being branded and advertised to appeal to children? We have all seen the displays in our local off licences, with flavours like gummy bear and unicorn shake, looking like colourfully packaged pick ‘n’ mix products at pocket-money prices. These really do need to be banned.

The hon. Lady is making some very good points about the regulations that need to be brought in to protect children. I do not think anybody thinks that the colours and flavours are not there in some ways to attract children—how many adults are going to want a unicorn milkshake-flavoured vape, whatever that tastes like? On that point specifically, would the Labour party support legislation brought in by the Government to ban all but one colour and to severely restrict the flavours available?

What has been marketed at children, definitely, is the different flavours. However, I appreciate that adults do choose different flavours as part of their whole smoking cessation, so we need to look at the evidence in the round once we are looking at the Bill. I would be keen to hear at what the Government say on that and to look at the evidence base. We need to look at the ingredients, the make-up of colours and how we get those flavours—it is about what those ingredients actually mean. We have to ensure that we have a proper evidence base on that issue.

I was talking to an industry representative about the issue of flavours in particular, and he told me that when a smoker decides to quit, they often start with a tobacco-flavoured vape. When their sense of smell and taste improves because they have stopped smoking, they then no longer like the taste of the tobacco vapes, so they move on to cherry cola or some other flavour. That actually can persist their addiction. The concern about removing the flavours is that instead of stopping using the vapes, people will continue—

Order. Interventions are meant to be short. The hon. Lady has already spoken, and we still have the Minister to come. She requires 10 minutes at least, and it is now 5.19 pm. I suggest to the Opposition spokesperson that she makes an end to her speech fairly quickly.

The next Labour Government would come down like a ton of bricks on companies profiting at the expense of our children’s health. As part of our child-health action plan, we will crack down on companies peddling vapes to children. We will work with local councils and the NHS to ensure that they are being used as a stop-smoking aid, rather than as a new form of smoking. We will tackle health inequalities, get serious about prevention and ensure that children born in Britain today are part of the healthiest generation that ever lived. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship today, Sir Mark. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), and all my hon. Friends who are here today. It highlights the importance with which the Government Benches view this issue.

I would just assure the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) that all of the issues that she has mentioned are indeed top priorities for me. I am on the warpath when it comes to children vaping. Whether it is nicotine-free, cherry-cola flavoured, legal or illegal, children should not be vaping. I will bring forward, as soon as possible, the results of the consultation, and then the smoking legislation, and all colleagues will be able to see that. However, I pay tribute to all my hon. Friends, who are here in droves in this Chamber today to make known their very serious concerns about the protection of children. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), who has done so much to try and promote this issue and to ensure that children are kept safe.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk about the work that we are doing to tackle the use and sale specifically of illicit vapes, and I am grateful to all colleagues for this being largely a cross-party issue, where we are all on the same side, and I very much hope that we will keep it that way. Like so many parents right across the country, we are all incredibly worried about the damage that is potentially being done to children’s bodies by vapes—particularly illegal vapes.

One of the main health risks posed by vapes is from their highly addictive nicotine content. Young brains are more susceptible to the effects of nicotine, and so the risk of becoming addicted is greater for younger people compared to adults.

I will not give way, I am sorry; there is no time left and I want to make my points.

It is appalling and unacceptable when businesses knowingly and deliberately encourage children to use a product that was designed for adults to quit smoking. Often sold at pocket-money prices, easy to use and widely available, disposable vapes are the product of choice for children. Over two thirds of current youth vapers use disposable products—all illegally, because they are under age. And, as if we needed another reason to regulate, 5 million disposable vapes are either littered or thrown away in general waste every week. That has quadrupled over the last year.

Our duty is clear: to protect all kids from vaping while their lungs and brains are still developing. Businesses are shamelessly using bright colours, alluring packaging and attractive flavours, as hon. Friends and colleagues have said, like “candy bubblegum” and “blueberry razz”, in Coke-can shaped packaging, right next to the sweet counter, in the full knowledge that our children are going to become addicted to nicotine. This cannot go on.

Businesses should abide by the existing regulations setting product standards, including prohibitions on certain ingredients and restrictions on nicotine strength, bottle size limits and advertising. Products should be registered with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency to be sold legally in the UK. Any product that is not notified and does not meet our high standards should not be sold to anyone, let alone children.

Unregulated vapes pose a massive risk because they circumvent the high standards of regulation, contain unknown ingredients, as colleagues across the Chamber have said, and stronger nicotine, and are often made available to children through black-market channels. Illicit vapes may contain dangerous metals such as lead, nickel and chromium, and contents such as antifreeze and poster varnish—unbelievable, extraordinary contents. We have no idea what frequent inhalation of those does to adult lungs, let alone still-developing lungs.

Independent research suggests that there is a direct link between the rise in children vaping and the flood of illegal, non-compliant vapes coming to our shores. That is why, to keep vapes out of our children’s hands, we must first enforce our regulations to stamp out the sale and supply of illicit and underage vapes, and, secondly, educate our children about how those products will hurt them.

On enforcement, we have learned much from our successful campaign to tackle illicit tobacco. Targeted enforcement saw the overall consumption of illegal tobacco plummet from 17 billion cigarettes 25 years ago to 3 billion cigarettes last year. In April, building on this success, we announced the formation of a new, specialised illicit vaping enforcement team, named Operation Joseph, to identify and seize illicit vapes on entry to England through the seven ports that have seen increased illegal activity. We are giving National Trading Standards £3 million of new funding over two years for the sole purpose of getting illicit products off our shelves. Across the country, it is diligently testing products for dangerous substances, and carrying out test purchases online and in shops. Recently, I had the great pleasure of meeting some of its officers in action—people such as David Hunt, a senior officer and illicit tobacco lead in Hackney, who is doing incredible work to ensure there is a fair and honest market. As a result of National Trading Standards’ work across the country, 2.1 million vapes were seized by trading standards officers in England between 2022 and 2023 alone.

My message to people and businesses that sell illegal vapes is clear: they should stop it right now. If they do not, they may receive an unlimited fine or a custodial sentence of up to two years. However, there is no room for complacency, and I am not naive to the scale of the challenge. That is why in October we announced an additional £30 million per year for our enforcement agencies over the next five years, to support their efforts to extinguish the illicit trade in tobacco and vapes. The additional funding will give agencies the resources they need to catch criminals and rogue traders.

Cracking down on illicit products entering the country is critical, but such efforts must go hand in hand with educating children about the dangers of these products to prevent their use in the first place. Over the past two years, we have taken a number of steps to increase the training resources and support available to teachers in schools, to update the curriculum to include the health risks of vaping, and to publish new online content on the potential risks of vaping for young people. We have also written to police forces right across England to ensure that dedicated school liaison officers are keeping vapes away from the playground as much as possible.

Finally, I want to touch briefly on our wider plans to reduce the overall rates of youth vaping. As I said at the start, I will set out much more detail in the near future. As colleagues know, we recently consulted on a range of measures to reduce the appeal, availability and affordability of vapes to children. Our consultation has also considered what further measures we could take to strengthen enforcement, such as by introducing new fixed penalty notices. We are in the process of finalising our response to the consultation and will update Parliament shortly on the measures we are taking forward.

As I said at the start of my remarks, we all have a duty to protect our children from under-age vaping as their lungs and brains continue to develop. We do not yet know about the long-term damage being caused to their lungs and brains, but I dread to think about it, so we will be ruthless towards those who disregard our safeguards and undermine our work to protect children’s health. I am on the warpath where vaping is concerned, and I urge all children to stop vaping. I look forward to working with colleagues across parties and across Government to make youth vaping a thing of the past.

I am delighted to have led the debate this afternoon and to have heard from the Minister. I was pleased to hear all the contributions from Members across the Chamber, and it is clear that there is cross-party and political-free concern about the issue of our children’s welfare. I am particularly pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) is here, given that she is a consultant paediatrician and has campaigned long and hard on this issue. I was particularly interested in her idea about bringing in some excise duties as a way to stop illegal vapes.

I am delighted to have heard from the Minister. She stole the words that I had written down—I was going to say that she was on the warpath. She is clearly—

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).