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Westminster Hall

Volume 746: debated on Tuesday 27 February 2024

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 27 February 2024

[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]

Child Maintenance Service

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Child Maintenance Service.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating this debate, prompted by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions inquiry on the Child Maintenance Service. We published our report last April, and the Government their response in July. The Child Maintenance Service, which I shall refer to as the CMS, was introduced in 2012 to replace the Child Support Agency.

Child maintenance is paid in three ways: non-statutory, family-based arrangements, in which the CMS plays no part; direct pay, where the CMS calculates the amount due and draws up a schedule, but the parents themselves arrange payment; and, thirdly, collect and pay, where the CMS calculates the maintenance owed, collects it from the paying parent and transfers it to the receiving parent. For direct pay, there was, until yesterday I think, a £20 application fee, waived for under-19s and in cases of domestic abuse. For collect and pay, the paying parent pays an extra 20% of the maintenance owed and the receiving parent receives just 96% of what they would have under direct pay.

The Department for Work and Pensions reported 2.5 million separated families in Great Britain in March 2022, with 4 million children in those families. The National Audit Office says that about half receive at least some child maintenance, and one in three has an arrangement that is satisfied in full. Of those with any arrangement, around 500,000 were on direct pay or collect and pay, but nearly 1 million had a family-based, non-statutory arrangement. The National Audit Office made the point that take up of the CMS has been lower than expected, for reasons that the Department does not know, and that setting up the CMS has not increased the number of effective child maintenance arrangements.

Our report made recommendations about the calculation of child maintenance. The maintenance assessed for some parents—I think this is now widely acknowledged—is unaffordable in some cases, causing serious hardship. The bands for calculating maintenance are in primary legislation, so it is hard to change them. Christine Davies, who is honorary senior lecturer in mathematics at Royal Holloway, University of London, told us that because inflation over the past quarter of a century has not been allowed for, someone earning £15,000 today should, according to the scheme’s original intentions, be paying £364 per year in maintenance, but is actually required to pay almost 10 times that or £3,500 per year.

The Callan review called for the formula to include both parents’ income, instead of only the paying parent’s. The Government rejected that, but said they would explore the possibility in their review of the calculation formula. The Government have committed—I welcome this—to a “fundamental review” of the child maintenance calculation. The Minister in the Lords told us in correspondence that the review would be wide ranging and take some time. When the Minister winds up, will he tell us whether we can expect changes before the election?

This is urgent. We have heard of paying parents taking their own lives, because the demands being made of them are simply impossible for them to meet. I was in touch yesterday with Mr Ian Briggs, whose son, Gavin Briggs, took his own life. Mr Ian Briggs told me that on 26 June 2020, the CMS sent his son a letter telling him he owed nearly £16,000. His son took his life a few days after that on 1 July, and on that day his account showed less than £4,000 in arrears. Mr Briggs asks:

“How can this be possible?”

He has had no answer to that question.

The CMS was established to deliver more effective maintenance arrangements, but there is little data on how many direct pay arrangements are effective. We do not know how much child maintenance is not being paid. We asked DWP to monitor the effectiveness of the arrangements proactively—for example, with yearly surveys of parents with direct pay arrangements—but the Government said no to that. My question to the Minister is: what are the Government’s plans for monitoring that for research on the subject? Does the Department think that it understands the effectiveness of direct pay? If so, what evidence is it using? We do not think that it does. How many direct pay arrangements switched to collect and pay or family-based arrangements in the first 12 months? Does the Department know why that is happening?

The Committee also raised concerns about collect and pay. About half of paying parents with those arrangements do not pay or pay less than they should. We heard that enforcement is slow and often ineffective, so we welcomed the Child Support (Enforcement) Act 2023. That was taken through the House by the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), who I am delighted is in her place this morning and who makes a distinguished contribution to the work of the Committee. The Act aims to speed up enforcement by allowing CMS to make administrative liability orders when a paying parent has not paid and deduction of earnings is not appropriate. Previously, CMS needed to apply to a court for a liability order, taking up to 22 weeks. The secondary legislation on that will specify the notice that CMS must give to the paying parent before making an order—seven days for those living in the UK and 28 days for those overseas—and set out the process for paying parents who want to challenge a liability order. The Government published their response to the consultation on that two weeks ago, on 12 February. Can the Minister tell us when the secondary legislation will be introduced?

Another set of recommendations in our report was about domestic abuse. In October 2021, the Government asked Dr Samantha Callan, who I already mentioned briefly, to conduct an independent review of CMS processes and procedures for supporting parents subject to domestic abuse. Her report was published in January 2023, and the Government accepted eight of its 10 recommendations. On the first recommendation, the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Act 2023 received Royal Assent last July; I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) in her place this morning as well. Where there is evidence of domestic abuse, a parent can set up collect and pay at the start instead of first trying direct pay, so the two parents need not be in contact. Last September, a written answer said that bringing the Act into force would require consultation and secondary legislation. Can the Minister tell us what the timetable is for those?

Our report asked for a timetable for all the work arising from the Callan review. One strand of that is a pilot of single, named caseworkers for complex domestic abuse cases. In the written answer that I referred to earlier, the Minister said that the Department had started a pilot and it would be evaluated. Can the Minister tell us when that will be and how the pilots went?

I am worried about that, because yesterday I spoke to Rachel Parkin, who gave evidence to the Committee’s inquiry. She is an abuse victim. The former CMS chief executive apologised to Rachel for how her case was handled, assured her that she would be on collect and pay permanently and that she would be in the pilot of a single caseworker. She had a single caseworker for a period of eight months. Her calls in that period were automatically routed to the right caseworker—it worked very well—and she made real headway in resolving long-standing difficulties, but now, without any explanation, she is being put back on direct pay. She has simply been told by the service that it is not bound by promises made to her by a former chief executive. She will be back to random caseworkers and the debilitating need to go through her story every time, which so many people talked to us about during our inquiry.

I am reluctant to interrupt the right hon. Member in full flow, but while he is talking about the failures to give adequate support to people who report that they have been living in an abusive relationship, may I ask whether he was as concerned as I was to realise how completely unaware CMS senior management seem to be that very often the abuse or controlling behaviour starts only after the relationship has ended, and that until about a year ago that was something that just did not seem to have occurred to anybody at the CMS?

The hon. Member makes a very important point, and I think he is right. I very much welcome his work and that of his colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee in drawing attention to a number of these problems.

I ask the Minister whether the idea of a single caseworker has now been abandoned. Is a domestic abuse team still in place or has that whole initiative, which the CMS talked to the Public Accounts Committee about last year, I think, now been given up? Why is it that someone such as Rachel Parkin has gone back to the arrangements that she was promised she would not?

In our report, we also raised concerns about paying parents who fraudulently attempt to reduce their maintenance assessment and about the fact that the Department does not estimate levels of fraud and error. The Public Accounts Committee, in its 2022 report— two years ago—said that the Department had

“not taken responsibility for detecting child maintenance fraud”

and had shifted the burden to receiving parents, who were expected to challenge false assessments. The Committee pointed out that a paying parent who was notified of being investigated for understating their income would no doubt guess that their ex-partner had reported them, and as a result, the Committee warned, many receiving parents would not report. I think that the Committee was right to make that point. In response, the Department said that it used risk profiling and threat scanning to target fraud in the child maintenance system and that it already had proportionate and cost-effective controls. Can the Minister tell us what exactly risk profiling and threat scanning are in practice?

We recommended that there should be specialist caseworkers for cases in which the paying parent’s income is from self-employment. In correspondence, the Minister in the other place who has responsibility for this part of the Department’s work, Lord Younger, pushed back on that, on the grounds of “funding implications”. However, the Department has said that it will legislate to ensure that unearned income, such as savings, investments, dividends and property income, is taken into account automatically when maintenance is calculated, to make it more difficult for

“the small number of parents who avoid paying the correct amount.”

Can this Minister tell us when that legislation will be introduced?

The Government have just introduced, as I mentioned earlier, secondary legislation to remove the £20 fee for all parents who apply for a statutory maintenance arrangement. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that took effect yesterday as planned. The same secondary legislation also introduced new powers for the Secretary of State to write off maintenance arrears under £7 in certain circumstances.

Finally, I want to make this point. There are, as all of us in the House well know, unending complaints about very poor customer service from the CMS. It is very difficult to get through; calls go unanswered. There are incorrect assessments, and people are having to tell their story again from scratch on every call. The service does have a very tough job, against a backdrop of pain and conflict; it is very difficult to provide a good service in that situation, but can the Minister offer us any prospect that the improvements needed will be made?

Seven colleagues wish to speak. You have six minutes each. If you are on the list to speak and you intervene, that might reduce your time to four or five minutes if you are at the end of the list. I call Dr Thérèse Coffey—six minutes, please.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Charles. I congratulate the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), on securing this important debate.

I recognise the importance of the Child Maintenance Service in trying to help children in low-income households. I give credit to Arlene Sugden, the former director of the CMS: she did a tremendous job and made a lot of changes. It is sad to hear that some of the reforms that she brought in might now have slid, but we should recognise that thanks to the CMS, more than £1 billion a year has made its way to the parents who look after the child for the majority of the time.

Several of us will have distressing stories. When parents come to us, they and their child are struggling. It is terrible to see how children are often used as pawns in a dysfunctional or non-existing relationship. That is why I really care about the Child Maintenance Service. In my time in the Department, I worked with my noble Friend Baroness Stedman-Scott to see what we could do to improve the experience for parents. Our priority was to reduce child poverty. With only one parent working, perhaps not full time, extra income from child maintenance was critical to boosting opportunities for the child.

I am conscious that in the majority of situations, whether they involve hiding assets or getting someone else to do a DNA test to avoid being identified as a parent, it is women and children who are affected. Men are also affected, however; I do not want to dismiss that in any way. Some of the most harrowing cases that I have heard have been those in which a father has been left with the children while the mother has been trying to avoid responsibility and, in some instances, lying to my face. Nevertheless, the Department continues to fund the Reducing Parental Conflict programme. The Child Maintenance Service is never seen to take sides between the two parents; it is seen to be on the side of the child. That is a vital approach.

I have already laid out how the issue matters to me. We started a strategy; it is good to see significant elements of that. I was delighted when my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) and for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) took legislation through the House on the issue, with the support of the Government. As the right hon. Member for East Ham says, we are still waiting to bring into force these important Acts of Parliament with the important changes that are needed, and we are still waiting for commencement orders. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud says, it is vital for section 25 of the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008 to come into force.

I appreciate that the Minister is very competent, but this matter is not in his brief; he is speaking for my noble Friend Viscount Younger and for the Government more broadly. In July 2022, the Department issued a call for a consultation—not a call for evidence—on enacting section 28 of the 2008 Act, which is about curfew orders. We have still not had a response to that consultation.

By the way, it is perfectly acceptable for a new Secretary of State to come in and change the approach taken by their predecessors and different Prime Ministers. I have no issue with that, but it is important that we hear from the Government what their intentions are. I am not a huge fan of doing lots of pilots. The Government have put forward legislation and Parliament has voted for it, so we should get on with putting it in place. That is one of my key messages. I will take this matter directly to the Minister when I meet him in March, but it could be useful to pre-empt some the questions.

One thing I discovered during our deep dive is that, for people who are not working or are on benefits, there is a “nominal” payment—it is actually quite a significant one for someone who does not really have an income—of £7 a week, to be paid from their benefits to the receiving parent. There are also challenges with universal credit when not everyone is not working, and there may be different elements of income support. One challenge with child maintenance is that those who do not pay everything may end up paying nothing, so over time they end up accruing money to which the child should be entitled. We need to look again at that. We also need to focus a lot more on work coaches getting people into work so that they can start paying for their children.

I will keep to my six minutes, Sir Charles. In essence, we need parents to cough up the cash for their children, and the Child Maintenance Service needs to facilitate that. I am glad that it seems to have dropped the idea that it would potentially do all collect and pay. The state does not need to be involved in every interaction between two parents, but when parents ask it to get involved it must do so to the best of its ability. I look forward to the commencement orders getting under way so we can make sure that children are put first.

It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) on his speech. I will comment not only from a Northern Ireland point of view, but from a personal point of view and on behalf of my constituents.

We brought in the Child Maintenance Service to ensure that when a parent—a mother or a father—leaves the family unit, the child is cared for. It is so important. We deal with these cases nearly every week in my office. Unfortunately, they are not always good to hear about, because the contribution—in most cases from the father, but in some cases from the mother—is not always up to scratch.

The Government give parents a small amount of money to help with childcare, but not many people can raise a child on less than £25 a week. Subsequently, it is incumbent on parents to do the bulk of the financial giving. For some parents, child tax credit helps to fill the gap, yet when there is a relationship breakdown, finances are inevitably strained. Instead of just one rent or one mortgage, there are now two. There are two sets of heating bills and two sets of electricity, yet the income has not doubled. I completely understand that it cannot all be done, but there can never, ever be an excuse for a parent not providing for their child.

The CMS was set up to facilitate things when a relationship breakdown means that an agreement cannot be reached. Its role is to ensure that help is there to work out how to pay the bills and provide for the children. That is the theory, and it is all great, but in practice I have parents coming to my office upset because their partner will not meet their obligations. I know of one who has holidays, nights out, a big car and a lavish lifestyle, and he is absolutely suntanned to the eyeballs—this is all detailed on social media! Everybody else seems to know what he is doing, but the CMS seems not to. I find that quite frustrating. What is he paying? He is paying £5 a week in maintenance. How can that be right? The computer will say that people are paying what they are able to pay, but the reality is that they have turned their back not only on their relationship, but on their child and on their obligation. Their life is so expensive. It hits you right between the eyes when you see that.

The most recent statistics that I have found, for Northern Ireland’s separate but very similar system, show that the compliance rate for paying parents on collect and pay remained relatively stable from September 2020 to September 2023. Between 75% and 83% of parents paid some child maintenance; in the quarter ending September 2023, compliance was at 79%. It is interesting that one in five parents are not paying towards their offspring, but to me the telling phrase is “some child maintenance”. That £5 a week example shows a real shortfall. How much is “some”? Is it £5 short? Is it £5 a week? It could mean the difference between a child who can afford to have swimming lessons in school and a child who has to sit on the sidelines and is made different from their peers because one parent has decided, “No, I’m not paying that.” That is absolutely unacceptable.

It is a difference that we need to know about. We cannot accept a reporting system that appears to say that any amount paid is a victory. Try explaining that victory to a struggling single parent whose mum is giving money out of her pension to keep the lights on! That is the reality for the CMS.

There is a mechanism by which those who are not paying can be taken to court. A 2018 review of the Northern Ireland child maintenance reform programme, commissioned by the Department for Communities, found that from the introduction of enforcement charges in 2014 to December 2016, £7,200 had been received in enforcement charges. I suggest that there needs to be a bit more action on that. On collect and pay, the review noted:

“Collection charges were introduced in August 2014. Up to December 2016, £432,100 have been received in collection charges from paying parents with £83,400 received from receiving parents.”

Part of the problem with parents pursuing CMS is that they speak to a different officer every time. How many times have we, as elected representatives, had to explain the whole case again to a different officer? If it is going to be one officer, that is okay, except for one thing—it does not work out either.

The point about case officers not being fully au fait with the issue is an extremely frustrating one that more and more parents are describing. They are experiencing delays on the phone, and then they have to start from scratch to explain their case from A to Z. It is extremely frustrating for all concerned.

It certainly is, and that is one of the problems. The Minister is a very compassionate and understanding Minister, and hopefully he will come back with the answers that we all seek. I am very keen to hear his thoughts on how we can we ensure better continuity.

Reforms have been happening, thanks to the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie). Like other hon. Members, I want to thank her personally, because it was her determination and commitment that enabled the Department for Work and Pensions to impose tougher sanctions on non-paying parents such as forcing the sale of property and taking away passports and driving licences through a quick and simple administrative process. The Child Support (Enforcement) Act was designed to see families being paid faster, as it gives the DWP the power to use a liability order to reclaim unpaid child maintenance instead of applying to court and waiting for up to 20 weeks. My goodness me! How frustrating to wait that long for something to be done.

I want to keep to my six minutes, Sir Charles, so these will be my last few sentences. The reform is great, but more is needed. I look to the Minister to see what improvements can be made throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I would appreciate hearing the Minister’s thoughts on discussions between the DWP and Northern Ireland to ensure that in a bitter breakdown, the child is not the one ultimately paying the price. That is what this debate is about, and that is what we should try to achieve.

As ever, Sir Charles, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), on securing this important debate.

The former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), has made the point that when constituents come to our surgeries to discuss their Child Maintenance Service concerns, cases and complaints, it is almost invariably a very distressing meeting. I will not rehearse every case that has been brought to me, but I will highlight some issues that I have encountered recently.

A man was in tears because he simply could not get the Child Maintenance Service to adequately explain the arrears on his account. On the phone, he would be told that he owed nothing, but days later he would get a letter telling him he was several thousand pounds in arrears. A deduction from earnings order would then be attached to his employer, the Ministry of Defence. It became very difficult for him professionally, because he was not allowed to be in debt, yet whenever he spoke to the service on the phone, he was told that he was not in debt. There are complexities and confusions that still prevail within the system.

Another issue that I would like to highlight is the flip of that. There are several live cases that I keep raising with the Child Maintenance Service involving 17, 18 and 19-year-old children who are no longer in college, but whose parent is still in receipt of child benefit. The paying parent is still being asked to make contributions, yet they can produce evidence from the colleges to show that those young people are no longer attending. The parent with care is claiming that the child is still in full-time education, but the child is not. They are effectively fraudulently claiming child benefit, as a result of which the paying parent is still expected to pay their child maintenance contributions. They are not averse to supporting their children; they are just trying to make the point that this is a young person who is no longer in education. When they raise that with the CMS, the CMS takes it at face value when the parent with care says, “Yes, yes, yes—they are still attending college.” It is hugely problematic.

I think there are times in this place when we should confess our sins. Previously, for 12 months of my life, I was the Minister with responsibility for the Child Maintenance Service—a Commons Minister. I pay tribute to the Minister here today, who I know is going to do an admirable job in responding to us, but I want him to take a very strong message back to the DWP: there remains a great deal of unhappiness about how the system is or is not working.

During my time at the DWP, I was desperate to have the power to remove passports from non-paying parents. Several successive Ministers—my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) and my hon. Friends the Members for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) and for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), the latter of whom eventually delivered on that power—all followed in my footsteps to make the point that taking a driving licence away from a non-paying parent hampers their ability to go out to work. Taking their passport hampers their ability to take their new partner on a weekend to Paris. I know which would be more likely to be effective in my mind.

In the intervening years, we have taken only a handful of passports from non-paying parents. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), who has done so much good work on this, passed me a note that told me it was seven in 2022. It is just not good enough. If we are to have powers in place, like the curfews suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) or those advocated for by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), they have to be used. We have to make the point to non-paying parents that powers exist and they are going to be used robustly. If they do not cough up for their children, they will suffer the consequences. I regret that I still do not think we are getting that message across adequately.

Finally, I have veered away from the many times when I have accompanied constituents to tribunals and sat with them while their cases were heard by telephone; I have always sought to support them. I recently had a really concerning response from the DWP about a constituent who had sought a deduction from earnings order for a parent who had not paid for years for their children. The DWP responded that it could not grant a DEO because it was not confident of the non-paying parent’s address. We know that the DWP has the powers to look at HMRC records and that it can see where someone is employed, yet it was not confident of the individual’s address.

That sends a very clear message: if anyone wishes to be a non-paying parent, then they can just disappear. If they ensure that their partner cannot trace their address, the DWP will back off. To be quite frank, we should never be in a situation where the DWP backs off. Parents have a duty to support their children and I urge the Minister to take the message back that we must redouble efforts to ensure that non-paying parents are compliant.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) on securing the debate on this important issue. The Child Maintenance Service can play a vital role in lifting children out of poverty, but despite significant improvements since 2012, further reforms are needed.

Last summer, I was delighted that my private Member’s Bill, which ensures that victims of domestic abuse can receive child maintenance without contact from their abuser, received Royal Assent. The Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Act 2023 will allow the CMS to intervene in cases where abuse is evident, using its powers to collect and make payments. That set-up, “collect and pay”, is already used by about 37% of parents using the CMS. It provides extra protections for parents who have experienced domestic abuse by managing payments and avoiding the need for contact, preventing perpetrators from inflicting financial abuse and control. It builds on the CMS’s existing procedures to protect both the paying and receiving parents who are vulnerable to domestic abuse, ensuring that more children in separated families are supported.

The commencement of the 2023 Act, as already highlighted, is reliant on secondary legislation to be developed and approved. When I contacted the Minister in January, the consultation details were being finalised—perhaps this Minister can update me on that. That Act and the Child Support (Enforcement) Act 2023, brought in by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), provide the basis for the CMS to act swiftly, progressing enforcement action faster with the aim of getting money to children more quickly, establishing compliance, preventing further arrears and bolstering domestic abuse protections for parents. I look forward to the secondary legislation coming into force to give effect to those two Acts as soon as possible.

However, I have a point to make about the collect and pay service: the CMS charges the paying parent 20% of the maintenance collected, and the receiving parent forgoes 4% of the collected money. It is not right that a victim of domestic abuse must effectively pay for the privilege of being abused. They should not be penalised by the fees, which should be scrapped. In addition, as per the recommendation of the Work and Pensions Committee, to help parents on low incomes there should be means testing for collect and pay fees. The fees should not apply to the lowest-income households. The children’s needs must come first, and it is important that available family moneys are for the maintenance of children to help lift them out of poverty.

Improving the effectiveness and speed of enforcement is also key. We are all aware of the fraudulent efforts of some parents who seek to avoid paying for their children, and the complication that arises when children live with both parents. For example, I have a current case with four children. Three of them live with parent A, who is not working and claims benefits, and should pay child support to parent B for one child, while one lives with parent B, who is working and pays child support to parent A for three children. Parent A has not been paying child support to parent B. Parent B cannot deduct the payment from the child support she is paying to parent A, because they are considered to be two different cases and there is no linking up. Parent B is struggling and the CMS cannot seem to get its head around it. There seems to be a need for better co-ordination within the CMS, as well as with other departments such as the family courts, to access financial information when non-resident parents are actively seeking to avoid paying maintenance. Information sharing is key, and better IT is also needed to enable joined-up enforcement activity. All public services need to remember that they are dealing with people who are often struggling.

I attended a departmental briefing in November last year with the Minister, who outlined the work in train to increase enforcement action. I welcome the further steps to improve the CMS, including the liability orders consultation to speed up enforcement action, the removal of the £20 application fee and longer-term changes. The scrapping of the £20 fee to the CMS signifies a shift towards inclusivity and accessibility. The fee can deter parents, especially those in vulnerable situations.

All parents need to take financial responsibility for their children. It is not fair on the children if they do not receive the support that they are due for essential food, clothing, education and healthcare. Financial support is also vital to reinforce a child’s overall quality of life, and their sense of security, wellbeing and stability. Knowing that both parents care about them and for them fosters emotional wellbeing. The CMS process must not add delay or hardship. Streamlining processes, improving enforcement and going after parents who will do anything to get out of paying for their child will help create a fairer system and provide financial security for children and parents.

I congratulate the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), on arranging this debate.

It is not too naive to say that we would all like parents who separate to reach an amicable arrangement on access and maintenance for their children, so the state does not have to get involved at all. However, I suspect that is somewhat unlikely to happen in every case, hence why we need to have this service. The problem is that the service is not sufficiently effective. It creates more need for itself because some parents think that they can get away with it and try not to pay, so we force the family through the system to try to fix the situation.

If there was a general feeling that a parent who did not pay their maintenance would get caught and have to pay more, we might actually push more parents to reach an amicable arrangement rather than try this route, and we would not end up having to be the referee or the battering ram that we were desperately trying to avoid in the first place. I remind the Minister that having a service that actually works is not inconsistent with the Government’s overall aim of not getting involved unless they really need to: that would stop some of the demand in the first place.

The cases that most frustrate me are the ones that are superficially easy. The parent who should be paying is in employment and has a relatively stable income, which we can see through a real-time information feed, and they either do not pay at all or do not pay regularly. It is incredibly frustrating to see how long it takes for any enforcement action to be taken in that situation. We see scenarios where that person does not pay for a bit, finally gets some threats and starts paying for a couple of months, and then stops paying again, and the whole process has to start again. It is effectively just a game that they are playing. We end up with huge arrears building up, the parent with care struggling financially and the child losing out.

I hope that, now we have administrative liability orders in place that can be brought in much more quickly, we can stop those situations from arising. I certainly hope the CMS can monitor how fast arrears are building up and how quickly the orders are being put in place, so that we can show real progress and so those arrears do not get to the stage they have been getting to in the past.

I am grateful to my colleague on the Work and Pensions Committee. He and I were at the roundtables we had in Greater Manchester where we heard from both paying and receiving parents. There were harrowing stories of parents who were in arrears. We heard a story of someone who unfortunately had died. Is he as concerned as I am about the reports around the deaths of both paying and receiving parents, and the fact that that has not been adequately considered in the handling of those parents by the CMS? What does he think we should be doing about that?

I agree with the hon. Member that those stories were incredibly concerning. That reinforces the point that if we get this right early, and everyone knows what they should be paying and it is enforced, hopefully some of that stress goes away. The Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham, rightly made the point that we should be looking at the thresholds and the calculations to ensure that they are fair on all parties.

The other situation that frustrates me concerns when somebody has arrears and is sent the demand. I have seen cases where someone is sent five demands in a week, all with different numbers and vastly different by thousands of pounds. I naively assumed that when somebody is sent a demand with arrears, a calculation is made on the system to come to that number and that when somebody asks for it, CMS can just press a button and it will be emailed over, so the person can work out how it has come to that number. That is not the case. It takes weeks and weeks. The chief executive said before the Select Committee that it is a 12-week turnaround.

How can the CMS send a demand out for arrears without calculating it? When that person finally gets the calculation, they think, “I’m paid monthly, and there is a certain percentage I have to pay. I get paid two grand a month and pay 15%. That is £300. I have paid £200, so I owe £100”—a simple calculation. What they get is 16 sides of calculations and, for some reason, it is done by weekly income. It is totally unfollowable. I would seriously urge the Minister to look through some of these calculations, if he has not done so. There must be a better way of doing it, so that everybody understands what they owe and can check it to prove whether it is right. It cannot be that complicated.

Finally, will the Minister look at where child maintenance arrears sit in the universal credit deductions? They sit a long way down, and below debt owed back to the Department. If we really think this money is essential for child welfare, we should be letting the parent with care have that money before we take it back to pay debts owed to the state, and it should be much higher on the list.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) for securing a debate on this topic, on which I have campaigned consistently during my time as an MP. I campaign on this issue because I feel strongly that there is a pure moral obligation and benefit to hard-working taxpayers of cracking down on delinquent parents.

I have said before and I will say again that having children, then not contributing to the cost of raising them is morally reprehensible. I certainly think it is worse than shoplifting, fraud, dropping litter, selling counterfeit goods and a whole range of other things for which individuals can and do regularly face much tougher sanctions. This is not about some idealised view of families or saying that families should be one size fits all; it is about saying that whatever the relationship between parents, both maintain a moral obligation to provide for their children. Recently, children have seen a win with the successful passage of the Child Support (Enforcement) Act 2023. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) for introducing the Act, and I fully support its aims. We have had the necessary consultations ahead of enactment and, like others, I would welcome an update from the Minister on when we can expect to see the powers being used, because they are very much needed.

According to Gingerbread, total arrears sit at £547.9 million. Imagine the positive impact we could have had on children had that money been paid. The non-payment of maintenance is a key driver of child poverty. If all maintenance due was paid, 60% of children of single parents who are not benefiting from payments would be lifted out of poverty. Let us be clear that in many respects taxpayers pick up the bill indirectly. Although I praise these advances, I worry that they will not be enough, and represent a partial acceptance of an unacceptable status quo, in particular for those parents who do not earn, or earn very little, when they could reasonably have expected to earn more.

This is where we need one of two fundamental rethinks. When it comes to out-of-work benefit payments, we expect recipients to make an effort to find work and earn more, because they have a moral obligation to the rest of us who pay for their benefits. Surely, the obligation to earn to care for one’s children is even greater. We should subject parents to the same reasonable expectations to find work and earn more as we do for those who claim benefits.

To enforce that and other expectations, I continue to ask the Government to make use of the home curfew powers available. The use of already established but unused powers to impose a home curfew, I believe, would have a positive impact on those who shy away from their parental financial duties. Indeed, spending six months with no social life would certainly provide time to reassess responsibilities and allow people to be made an example of.

That brings me to the second fundamental rethink. The current system ignores the moral aspect of this debt. This is not a commercial debt; people should be punished for not providing when they reasonably could. At the moment, the system simply asks them to start paying money again and, if they do that, everything falls away. There is no punishment for their moral failure to make an effort to pay, when they could, or for deliberately seeking to avoid paying. We need to create moral hazard for individuals to behave in that way.

A home curfew has the added benefit of providing time for a parent to go out to work, so arguments about punishments hampering earnings, particularly custody, fall away. Of course, these powers should not be the first port of call. Cases must have a clear evidence base that a parent has actively made attempts to deny sharing money, or made no effort over a long period of time to find work and increase earnings. I am also clear, for those who are concerned about this and write to me when I raise it, that custody and benefit arrangements are separate.

I recognise that there are parents who want to pay, do pay, and do not get access to their children. That is wrong and I encourage all of them to use the courts to secure the access to which they are legally entitled. That does not mean that someone should not pay in the meantime. If there is a genuine dispute about maintenance payments, I can understand why these cases arise, but I question the priorities of a parent who only wants to pay maintenance for their child when they have custody. Surely, payment of maintenance should come first, and custody rights should be pursued separately.

I will finish by asking the Minister to explain why we have again moved away from using home curfews, and ask him to reconsider that, or at least commit to doing so, if these newly enacted powers fail to bring down the maintenance backlog, which, unfortunately, I am confident they will not. Children deserve nothing less, and wider society should rely on us to uphold these basic moral standards.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I give my full support to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) and the Committee, and everything he asks for today. He had the foresight to bring this matter forward after the publication of the NAO report, and is smart enough to follow up and start poking the Government again, to ensure that we can get some changes. This is a serious issue that everybody up and down the country experiences in their postbags.

I am grateful to colleagues for being so kind about the Bill which I introduced. I am committed to changing the law and improving enforcement, but I must give credit to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), who initially introduced the Bill but was then made a Minister, and to the Government for their support under the direction of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). Having Government support always makes it easier when trying to force through change. In that respect, it is a big team effort.

I care so much about the CMS because of my work as a family lawyer and because of personal family experience. My dad still stares off into the middle distance when he talks of his experience of the Child Support Agency back in the day, because it was a disaster. The service goes far beyond the impact of putting money in people’s pockets, important as that is, and as much as we are right to focus on the poverty of children. It affects every single child of every demographic caught up in the difficulties of separating parents. If the system does not work for them, parents often have an impact on their children. They do not mean to; it just happens. If a parent has had to spend a whole week fighting with the CMS on trying to get a calculation, and then there is the handover, the kid is caught in the middle of that frosty handover—or worse, if there is shouting and frustration. I cannot emphasise enough the need to get the system working. As colleagues have said, getting it right early on and making early interventions deters others and changes the lives of families.

I want to say a little bit about dads. They really feel under attack whenever we talk about changing the Child Maintenance Service. It is often dads in my surgery who are in tears, because they care deeply about their children. They often have residence of their children and shared care, but the system does not recognise that or has ignored a court order. The round robins and the constant nightmare with correspondence is very damaging, and sadly it is often dads who are taking their own lives or pointing to problems with the CMS.

It is right to recognise that 93% of paying parents in the system are dads. However, we cannot ignore the fact that non-paying parents include dads, and that the liability orders that were sought in the past were sought against dads. I ask all the dads listening to this, when they hear of the push for curfew orders, societal changes and so on, to stay angry. They should not necessarily stay angry with MPs in this room, because they will just join a long list of people who are angry with us, but rather stay angry with the dads who are letting down their kids and not paying, because they poison the well for the good dads who are trying their best.

One of my constituents said that he feels—and colleagues have said this too—that there is an institutional bias in favour of the receiving parent. Even when it is proven that a receiving parent is not being honest or true, the burden of proof is often on the paying parent, and that is causing a huge amount of stress.

I am trying to calculate how much time I have left to speak. In the complex cases that we are trying to fix by tightening up enforcement, parents are seeing the lifestyle of non-paying parents far outstripping their own. The non-paying parents are going abroad and having a lovely time with their new families, but the process of taking evidence of that to the CMS is falling down. A mum wrote to me saying that she was experiencing considerable stress. She was not receiving any money. She was working between 40 and 50 hours a week just to keep her kids clothed, and that meant, because of her work ethic, that she did not qualify for any benefits. However, she could see the non-paying parent treating himself to several luxurious holidays a year to faraway shores. That is hugely detrimental to the children in that family, and we have got—

On the hon. Lady’s point about complex cases, some of the most egregious cases which I and other hon. Members have seen in our surgeries involve the paying parent concealing income because they are self-employed, so they are not paying what is owed. One mother came to me who is owed £18,000 in arrears, and I met another who has been fighting for six years for £22,000- worth of payments. The way in which arrears are treated is different from live cases, where a small amount being paid is accepted. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need a full review of how those complex cases are dealt with and reform of the CMS?

One of the biggest issues is that people’s lives are complex—families are complex and blended. We have wonderful ways of living, which must be reflected in how CMS caseworkers are trained, but we also need a bespoke approach to each case, because this is incredibly difficult. I give credit to the CMS; I am always impressed by it and I thoroughly enjoyed working with it to try to make changes, as well as with Lord Younger and Baroness Stedman-Scott, who are amazing parliamentarians who are working really hard.

The National Audit Office says that we are heading for £1 billion-worth of arrears by 2030. When the Child Support Agency had a controlled explosion from 2014 to 2018, the figures were not anywhere near that. The reality of the long wait for decisions, a lack of clarity about maintenance paid, poor communication, unclear calculations, poor service and bad handling is poisoning the well for all families. I urge the Minister to take that strong message back to the Department.

I will give Wendy Chamberlain two minutes in which to speak; she has been here from the start of the debate and has been trying to catch my eye.

Thank you, Sir Charles, for calling me to speak; I am very grateful. I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate.

There were two aspects of this issue that I wanted to raise. The first is domestic abuse cases about which many Members have spoken so eloquently. I have a particularly egregious case in my constituency. The children are now adults, but the coercive control is still being applied to the receiving parent by the withholding of money. I agree with the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) that we need to examine how we consider arrears in terms of debts and that people need to be pursued quickly, because the legacy of these issues is ongoing for these children into adulthood.

Secondly, we say that we want the system basically to work so that we do not make the situation worse when the CMS becomes involved. However, the reality is that even those parents who engage with the system in good faith are being let down.

I will just the case of my constituent, Kevin, who was medically discharged from the military 18 months ago. He reported his falling income to the CMS and continued to make payments for his children. However, the CMS then did everything wrong: it took overpayments; it wrongly moved him to the collect and pay route; and it pursued him for £12,000 of debt that never existed, because the systems work on the basis that there is a consistent salary and income going forward. The 12 weeks that was talked about earlier means that Kevin has gone through a huge amount of stress and anxiety, and we are left in a situation where those children have been negatively impacted as a result. It is clear that this issue is complex and difficult, but it is also clear that the Government need to do more.

Thank you very much, Sir Charles, for calling me to speak; I am grateful for the chance to begin summing up in this debate.

First, I commend the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), the Chair of the Select Committee, for securing this debate. I thank him and other Members of that Committee for giving me the chance to attend, as a guest, some of the hearings when they have had the Child Maintenance Service before them. Also, I want to give the right hon. Gentleman more than the usual token 20 or 30 seconds at the end of the debate to sum up, so I will try to keep within the 10 minutes I have; those who know me will know what a struggle that will be, but I will do my best.

I think this is the third time I have participated in a Westminster Hall debate on the Child Maintenance Service and I am again struck today by the fact that there has been very little disagreement in the Chamber; everybody accepts that the CMS is not working, that the time for talking about changing it is long past and that we need to start seriously changing it.

It was very noticeable in this debate today that the overwhelming majority of contributions have come from the Minister’s own party, with two of them from people who have been there with ministerial responsibility: the right hon. Members for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey).

Incidentally, while the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North was speaking, I made a quick check and found that, since she moved from the Department for Work and Pensions in 2017, we are now on our fifth Minister with responsibility for child maintenance. Maybe that partly explains why it has taken so long to get anywhere. There are obviously reasons why there have been so many Cabinet changes in that time, but I think the Child Maintenance Service is far too important to be one of the things that gets added to the portfolio of someone who stays in post for six months before they get moved on, because it is complex and, if a Minister is in post for only a year, they will not get the time to get on top of the service and drive forward significant changes.

As I have said, this is a system that is simply not fit for purpose. I do not think that we can beat around the bush and look for minor changes; we need a complete overhaul and review, starting from a blank sheet of paper and redesigning the whole thing.

To illustrate that point, I will ask a question. If somebody came in who did not know what the Child Maintenance Service was for and just looked at what it did, would they ever be able to work out what its purpose is? If they did, I will guarantee that they would not conclude that its main purpose was to make sure that no child had to live in poverty simply because of the family circumstances that their parents have found themselves in. If we accept that aim as a valid purpose for the Child Maintenance Service, we begin to understand just how far away from hitting that target we are just now.

Depending on what figures people believe, the United Kingdom is probably the fifth or sixth wealthiest economy in the world, yet 4.2 million children in the UK live in poverty, according to the Child Poverty Action Group. Again, we can argue about the exact number of children in poverty, but we cannot argue that the number of children living in poverty in an economy with so much money spilling around in some places is simply not acceptable. By fixing the Child Maintenance Service, we can certainly reduce the number of children living in poverty, and in such a way that the people who pay for it are the people who should have been paying for it all along. The parents have had the children, but for one reason or another are simply not meeting their responsibilities to pay financial support for their upbringing.

One of the previous speakers—the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), I think—talked about the fact that debt owed to the Child Maintenance Service is not seen as important or as such a high priority for collection as debt owed to the Government. Again, that is simply wrong. Why do we not have a system in which the DWP pays all the child maintenance due, and then the DWP chases the people who are fiddling the figures or trying to hide and not pay the money? I can guarantee that if the DWP were chasing an absent parent for the money, they would not be living on a fancy yacht in the Bahamas or in the Mediterranean, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). If they were doing that, but the money was owed to the Government, they certainly would not be posting on Facebook to boast about how much money they had or how much they were able to hide.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was able to listen to my points about moral hazard, but does he agree that his proposal for the taxpayer to pick up directly the payments of absent parents who are not paying would double the impact of saying, “You don’t have responsibility. The taxpayer will step in directly and pay it for you.”?

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I was saying, he would realise that that is exactly what I am not saying. I am saying that the full force of collection and enforcement that is in the hands of His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs or DWP should be brought to bear not only on those who refuse to pay what they are assessed as being due to pay, but on those who are lying, committing fraud and stealing from their own children. Ultimately, they would still be stealing from their own children, but HMRC has powers to enforce in a way that a single parent does not have. That is what I am saying. It is not a simple solution, but I think it would make a significant difference. As has been mentioned, the DWP’s own figures reckon that since the Child Maintenance Service was set up, £590 million of debt has not been collected. That does not include the undetected fraud or the under-declaration of income, assets and so on.

Something else that I always find concerning about the CMS is that it does not seem to have any curiosity about a parent who fights and fights to get a settlement but then just disappears off the system and gives up. In Child Maintenance Service cases I have dealt with, I have found that probably the single biggest outcome is that the parent with responsibility for bringing up the children simply gives up in frustration, deciding that it is better for them just to get on with their life and to struggle through—very often in or near poverty—because they can no longer cope with the stress of dealing with the Child Maintenance Service. That is a shocking indictment of any Government service, in particular one whose only point, whose only reason to exist, is to make lives better for vulnerable young children.

I have often noticed that, when speaking to parents, the paying partner always talks about how much they are having to pay to their ex-partner. They often do not see it as paying for the upkeep of their children. Something about the language we use here, we need to look at. Something raised by one of my constituents at a roundtable held by Fife Gingerbread, which I hope the Department has picked up and started to act on, is that CMS letters get addressed to the parent—the parent’s name is on it—and it does not say “To the parent of” with the name of the child, which would be a simple way of making it clear that this is about the children.

There will often be bad will between two partners who have split up. Whether they split up amicably or acrimoniously, once they start disagreeing about money, it is likely to become quite a bit more acrimonious. The children, however, should never be made to suffer as a result.

I mentioned Fife Gingerbread. I again need to commend the outstanding work that it has done, and not just within the boundaries of Fife. It is one of the organisations that has influenced the way in which the Child Maintenance Service now operates. On the scrapping of the £20 fee for being able to claim child maintenance, for example, I am convinced that Fife Gingerbread is one of the organisations that can claim part of the credit for having achieved that, as well as a number of other changes that we are seeing.

We have had reference to the fact that IT systems are not fit for purpose. This is the 21st century—we are almost a quarter of the way into the century—and we are using systems that are 40 or 50 years out of date. The Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham, and other members of the Work and Pensions Committee and of the Public Accounts Committee will remember only too well what happened to the payment of state pensions when the Department carried on using systems that were no longer fit for purpose. We could be heading for an equally massive injustice in the assessment, payment and collection of child maintenance if we do not get those systems sorted out. As the hon. Member for Amber Valley said, it should not take three or four months for somebody to be told why the assessment is the number that it is. In some of the queries to HMRC, when people are assessed on self-assessment, they could go online, and sitting in front of them would be exactly why HMRC had assessed them for that amount.

The final thing is that one way to reduce the need for child maintenance is for Governments to take other action on children in poverty. This Government could undertake actions that have already been shown to be successful by the Scottish Government. There is the child payment, which has lifted about 50,000 children in Scotland out of poverty; if we do that down here, we are talking about half a million children being lifted out of poverty. Actions taken by the Scottish Government are estimated to reduce the cost of bringing up a child by somewhere in the region of £25,000 to £26,000 during their childhood. Policies similar to those would reduce the demands on child maintenance, reducing the need either for children to live in poverty or for their parents to almost literally come to blows arguing over who should care for their child.

I entirely agree that nobody should feel that they can just leave their children to be the responsibility of someone else. I find it interesting that financial neglect, which is what we are talking about here, is treated differently from any other forms of neglect. If a parent neglects their child in any other way, we do not just stand back and leave the parents to sort it out. If a parent is deliberately neglecting their children financially, they cannot be allowed to get away with it. I do not have confidence that the existing Child Maintenance Service will ever be able to address that, which is why we need to design an entirely new service fit for the 21st century that recognises the wide variety of circumstances that people live in today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles. I thank all colleagues who have contributed, in particular the Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), for bringing forward the debate. As we heard from all the serious questions asked, it is important.

The Minister has quite a number of important questions to answer, so I will try to be swift. It is clear from this debate that on both sides of the House we all want parents to meet their responsibilities and pay what their child needs—no ifs, no buts; just get it done. We know from Gingerbread, which was mentioned by many hon. Members, that 60% of children of single parents not benefiting from child maintenance could be lifted out of poverty if that support were paid in full. That is why we want to get it sorted. The current situation is just not acceptable, which is why it was good—if a little tardy—that recently we the Government finally removed the fee for the service, after many people had warned for a number of years that it would remove its effectiveness.

Listening to colleagues, it strikes me that it would be helpful if the Government could provide a timeline or working update to help colleagues to know which improvements to CMS they are making and the status of those improvements. There are areas where the Government could do that and help us: on issues relating to domestic abuse, to customer service—I think particularly of the contribution made by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) about the complexity of calculations; it cannot be beyond us to have clarity and be able to inform citizens of the information that the Government have on their behalf—and to enforcement. Members have made it absolutely clear how long we have been trying to get enforcement improved, and having a working update from the Government on where we are with that would really help colleagues. I want the Minister to consider that.

When the Minister and I last met across Dispatch Boxes, I had some questions about research undertaken by the Government. The Minister was kind enough to write to me on 21 February to say that Ipsos is commissioned currently to research direct pay customers. That is really helpful, because we really need to understand what is going on for parents. Can he say more about when that will be published? That would be really useful.

In the letter to me, the Minister also mentioned a particular tool that the DWP has developed, which I think gives us some hope in this area. Members have rightly expressed frustration and distress from listening to cases involving people who have had to deal with having a calculation that they knew was wrong. I am thinking of the person that the Chair of the Select Committee mentioned at the beginning of his speech—the dad who had lost a son. These are really heartbreaking cases.

However, I think that there is some hope in the letter that the Minister sent to me where he mentioned the “Get help arranging child maintenance” tool that had been developed for unbiased advice and support and designed to be convenient for parents and to support people into the most suitable arrangements for their circumstances. I would like to ask the Minister what lessons the DWP has drawn from the development of that tool. From listening to the contributions of colleagues, it strikes me that if we could have a focus also on early advice, help and support so that people knew, at the very distressing time of relationship breakdown, what the best steps were for them, that would be hopeful and point to a better direction, so I would be grateful if the Minister could say what lessons the DWP is drawing from the development of the tool.

Sir Charles, I said that I was going to be swift and I will be. I will sum up by making three brief points that I think we can all agree with.

There could be a change of Government by the end of the year. I welcome the warm words, and the hon. Member may go on to describe specific policy pledges, but I would like to hear specific policy goals that her party has in mind. For example, do you support the introduction of home curfews? Rather than just speaking warm words, what will you actually do differently should you end up in government?

Thank you, Sir Charles, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will just say to him that not a single vote in an election has been cast yet.

The hon. Gentleman may have said “could”, but I am not the Minister and I would not be so arrogant as to assume that that will be certain to happen. My aim was to leave space for questions to be directed to the Minister, to assist colleagues. I simply say this to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan): I could point to the record over the past 14 years and the number of occasions when Labour spokespeople have called for the removal of the fee and stronger enforcement. Some of that, including on the issue of the fee, the Government have now done, which is good. However, as I have been saying, we all know that a range of improvements need to be made. I think that we would all find it helpful if the Government could undertake to regularly update us—through the Select Committee, if necessary—on what is happening.

As I was saying, and as we all know, the children’s needs must come first. Members have described the pain that parents experience in this system, which affects children very deeply. That is why this issue really matters to us all.

The second point that I think is uncontroversial is that the service also has to react to some complex realities of life, and one of those realities is the power dynamic in a relationship. Anyone can find themselves a victim of domestic abuse, but unfortunately, domestic abuse tends to work along the lines of the imbalance in power between men and women in our country. That then leads us to a heightened concern about how domestic abuse is handled within the system, and I hope that the service will hear that concern.

I want to end on a hopeful note, because although there has been deep dissatisfaction, I felt that in the Minister’s letter to me there were some signs that the civil service is working hard to improve the quality of the service for all parents. If we can do that early, we can avoid some of the deeply distressing situations that Members have described today.

Thank you, shadow Minister. Minister, will you just leave a couple of minutes at the end for the mover of the motion?

My eyesight cannot quite determine the numbers on the clock any more—such is my venerable age. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) for applying to the Backbench Business Committee to obtain this debate, and all hon. Members for their participation.

We have had a constructive, wide-ranging and, for my part, very interesting debate. We have discussed the original findings of the Select Committee report, which I very much enjoyed reading. Indeed, I always enjoy reading difficult, challenging reports when they are not in my brief, because I find them much more reassuring to read knowing that thinking is going on. We discussed the Government’s response at the time, the progress since that response, what is being done and how far that has got.

I will try to cover as many themes as have been raised today, but if I run out of time or there is insufficient detail, I will make sure that we write to all hon. Members. I know that Viscount Younger has already spoken to the right hon. Member for East Ham to have a further briefing. I am sure that all hon. Members here today will be interested in what Viscount Younger has to say, so I will try to ensure that all that information is properly communicated.

I do not normally do this, but I particularly thank the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for speaking in such glowing terms about my letter to her. There were some helpful comments about the progress the Government have been making. That might give other hon. Members some optimism that things are moving in a more rapid direction than they might hitherto have realised.

The Child Maintenance Service makes a real difference to the life chances of many thousands of children. That is why we are reforming it for the long term on an ongoing basis to continually improve outcomes. The service plays a crucial role in securing financial support for children when parents have separated, mandating and, when necessary, enforcing arrangements so that money flows from paying parents to receiving parents, which can benefit children and help prevent them falling into poverty. Indeed, payments for both child maintenance and private arrangements delivered an estimated £2.6 billion annually to parents between 2020 and 2022, keeping around 160,000 children out of poverty.

The vast majority of parents strive each and every day to give their children the best possible start in life. Those who shirk the financial responsibilities they have for their children must be quickly held to account. That is why we continue to improve the Child Maintenance Service to ensure it works as effectively and efficiently as possible. However, it is currently still too easy for parents to avoid paying up if their income does not come through normal PAYE. That is why we are looking at changing the rules so that child maintenance calculations include a much broader range of earnings, such as property income.

We recognise that some parents will find it more difficult to afford their payments if they have built up substantial arrears. The Child Maintenance Service will continue to prioritise collection of ongoing maintenance, but we have committed to reviewing the calculation. We have begun the process of updating the underlying research to consider how we ensure the calculation reflects current and future societal trends. Any changes made to the child maintenance calculation will require amendments to both primary and secondary legislation. The calculation formula underpins every Child Maintenance Service case. Furthermore, those with private arrangements can also use the online calculator to get an estimate to inform their own arrangement, which is doubly crucial. It is essential, therefore, that we undertake a thorough and comprehensive review of the calculation formula and consider the potential impacts on all parents and children. That requires time to ensure we take an informed and co-ordinated approach, to ensure the calculation is fit for purpose and future-proofed.

Clearly, there has been an error at set-up that the calculation needs primary legislation to be updated. Given that it is now 25 years out of date, is it not time to bring forward legislation to change it once and for all, so that future changes can be made through secondary legislation or by other means? There have been examples recently where other DWP payments were uprated through statutory instruments and it did not take nearly as much bureaucracy to get that done. We should be able to do that with the child maintenance system as well.

The hon. Member makes an interesting point that may risk becoming a digression. I note that the secondary legislation he refers to is regarding automatic uprating of particular indicators. This is a more fundamental change to how the entire structure of child maintenance is conducted, so is perhaps not suited to secondary legislation. We often hear criticism that too much goes through secondary legislation, unscrutinised by this place. As a Member rather than a Minister, I always think that I would rather such a fundamental change be scrutinised properly in the form of a Government Bill. That is an important point.

I take the point entirely about the complexity of the review’s underlying formula, which the Minister has just been talking about. Can he give us any sense of how long he envisages that review will take to complete?

I have made a lot of comments today about the drumbeat of ongoing changes and how we implement some of the private Members’ Bills that have gone through, for example. I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says about the progress and the drumbeat, but I am not sufficiently close to the actual data and the information that he seeks. I will ensure that he is written to, along with other Members present today. I am sure that will be discussed when he meets Viscount Younger.

While I am pleased to have cheered the Minister up, I can assure him that I will certainly be giving the Government down the banks yet again. But that exact point is why I thought it would be helpful if we could have some sort of regular update out of this debate. Can the Minister feed that back to the Secretary of State, if necessary? I am sure it can be discussed whether that is a statement that the Government place in the Library or a regular update to the Select Committee, but for those reasons, Members need to know what is happening with the different streams of improvement to the service.

I have already heard that point, and in my preparation for the debate, I noted the complexity and the number of workstreams going on in this area. I will certainly take that point back to the Department. Another theme that we have heard today is the importance of not just having an enforcement process but having an efficient and effective one. That is done partly by deciding what actions are appropriate on a case-by-case basis and using the existing powers that have the greatest chance of ensuring that parents meet their obligations to pay for their children.

The CMS has made a number of improvements to processes, for example by making better use of deduction from earnings orders so that they can be set up faster. The CMS has also brought forward the point at which deductions from bank accounts are made, which not only has increased the volume of deductions from bank accounts but means getting money to children faster. Working alongside His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, the Child Maintenance Service has improved court processing times by introducing virtual court presenting and the electronic exchange of documentation.

Following the Child Support (Enforcement) Act 2023, the Government propose to bring into force a legislative change to accelerate the enforcement process. The change will introduce a simpler administrative process to obtain a liability order against those paying parents who actively avoid their responsibilities. That will enable the CMS to take faster enforcement action, affecting at least 10,000 cases a year. They will also publish a consultation shortly on how the Child Maintenance Service collects and transfers payments to support survivors of domestic abuse, following the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Act 2023 receiving Royal Assent.

In addition, operating a scheme where parents are not paying their maintenance liability and where the Government guarantee child maintenance payments is not the intent of the Child Maintenance Service’s policy, which is the philosophical issue that we are stressing. The role of the CMS is to encourage parents to take financial responsibility for their children. The scheme is designed to encourage parents to agree their own family-based arrangements wherever possible, and that tends to be in the best interests of children. The CMS must always work in the best interests of children. The statutory scheme exists as a fall-back if parents are unable to reach those voluntary arrangements. The Government do not believe that the state covering the shortfall of unpaid maintenance is the right way to target additional funding appropriately, given that there is no means test for receiving parents.

We are also bringing the Child Maintenance Service into the modern age, having made a number of improvements to ensure that it delivers to the highest standard with a more digital customer focus. In order to get help arranging child maintenance on the digital service, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we are making it more accessible for parents to decide what type of arrangement is most suitable for them and to make an application online. Those improvements have already seen new applications rise by 13% in the year to September 2023, and I look forward to seeing further progress in the future. That is a welcome increase that we expect to continue with the removal of the £20 application fee. The upgraded online service allows customers to access and maintain their CMS cases themselves. Twenty-six different changes of circumstances can now be reported online. The advantage of digital systems means the service is, as I have said, available 24 hours a day. Many customer requests are now fully automated, so it is much quicker for parents to manage their own arrangements.

We have also, as I have said, improved the speeding up of enforcement processes. In the quarter ending September 2023, around £33.5 million—more than half—of the child maintenance collected through collect and pay was from parents who had a deduction from earnings order in place at the end of the quarter. Those improvements deliver a modern and efficient service for customers while enabling caseworkers to focus on parents who have more complex issues.

I will try to deal with specific issues that were raised. I might not succeed in three minutes, but I will at least try. I can confirm that the £20 fee has been removed as of yesterday, along with the eradication of debts of £7 and under, which we achieved through delegated legislation—the draft Child Support (Management of Payments and Arrears and Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 2023.

I was equally as concerned as the right hon. Member for East Ham to hear of the case of Rachel Parkin regarding the continuity of the support that she received from that single nominated caseworker. The Department will write to the Chair of the Select Committee to make sure that we properly understand that case and what can be done about it. There will be more to come on that point.

I was asked for updates on the progress of various Acts. It might be unhelpful to confirm that consultations are ongoing, because we want the measures to be proportionate, robust and targeted appropriately. It is never easy to rush consultations through. We are often criticised should we rush a consultation. Equally, I understand, not least from when I was a Back Bencher, that when final reports have been issued by the Government, people like to see action, so that point has been heard. I do not wish to pre-empt any Government decisions on curfews—those are not mine to take—nor would I wish to pre-empt the meeting of the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), with Viscount Younger when that will be fully discussed, I have no doubt. I, like her, await the outcome with great interest on what is discussed.

I have been told I now have one minute left, not three minutes. I would love to talk about fraud, but one point I have observed from my own casework is that very often people know that something is not right. They have suspicions that fraud might be occurring, but when they engage with the CMS it is not always taken forward. One thing that we hope to be able to do by the end of this month, in order to avoid vexatious frauds, is to provide to those making claims an illustrative list of evidence that the financial investigations unit will require to take an investigation forward. That then avoids the disappointment when someone thinks that something is going on, but they cannot prove it. I think that will help the individual stuck in that situation and perhaps also our caseworkers who try to guide people who ring our offices on how to go about it.

Anything that I have not covered I will cover in a letter to Members. On that note, I will sit down.

I thank everybody who has contributed to this important debate. We all deal with people who struggle with the Child Maintenance Service, so I am grateful for all the contributions that have been made. I welcomed the very constructive contribution that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) made from the Front Bench. She is absolutely right that if there were more regular updates to Members about what is going on, that would be really helpful, given the changes that are happening.

On a couple of areas that we have touched on in the debate, first is the concern about paying parents. I am grateful to the Minister for his commitment that that fundamental review is under way. It would certainly be helpful to know how long he anticipates that review is going to take.

I was struck by the example given by the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) about somebody who was told over the phone that he did not have any arrears, and yet he received a demand and deduction of earnings order to pay arrears. The hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) made a point about people receiving several notices with contradictory figures. Such muddle and confusion is terribly damaging. The stakes are really high. People are losing their lives. We must be able to come up with a system that delivers basic competence.

On the single caseworker, I was very concerned— I am grateful to the Minister for his assurance about a letter about that—but the implication was that that would be spread out to the whole system. I really hope that it is.

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

North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the governance of the North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust.

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, for this short debate about the historic governance of the trust, and about how the management of NHS North East and Yorkshire has dealt with the formal inquiry that questioned the integrity and performance of the board over two years ago. The outcome of that inquiry remains a mystery, as NHS North East and Yorkshire has fought for the past two years to keep the report a secret—a fight that continues today, and not just through my speech.

Before I get into detail on the failures of NHS North East and Yorkshire and its leadership, I want the House to know that I was proud to serve as a non-executive director of the trust before I was elected to Parliament nearly 14 years ago. I was proud that the trust was recognised not just for sound finances and delivering for patients, but for innovation and a can-do, will-do attitude that continued long after I found myself in this place.

Much of the credit for performance being maintained goes to the non-executive directors, who gave a large part of their lives to the trust and provided a robust challenge to the executive. That ensured that the trust’s performance, finances and proposals for new projects were examined in detail, not simply signed off; they were forensically examined to ensure that they were all delivering for patients. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to those people and to all independent non-executive chairs and directors for the work they do across our country, often in the most difficult circumstances.

Sadly, two years ago, the trust went through a very difficult patch that included the resignation of several non-executive directors, a few of whom I put on the record as my friends. That happened after the NHS regional leadership launched an inquiry that questioned the integrity and performance of the trust’s board, and in particular its non-executives. This was a trust that was rated as good. The contents of the ensuing report remain shrouded in secrecy, sadly, although what can only be described as a well-edited but short summary was published in 2022.

The inquiry was launched after a robust challenge from the non-executive directors to a proposal from the then new joint chair of the North Tees and South Tees NHS foundation trusts, Professor Derek Bell, to have a joint chief executive on an accelerated timescale. I suspect to this day that this was being driven not by the chair of the trusts, but by officials in the regional office, led by the regional director for North East and Yorkshire and North West, Richard Barker. So much for local decision making! I do not name an official on the Floor of the House lightly, but—given his approach to the issues raised by the inquiry—I believe that in the interests of natural justice I have no other option.

It appeared to the non-executive directors that the proposal for the new joint chief executive in November 2021 was being rapidly pushed through without due process, including consultation with the health and wider community, and without proper papers or a business case for the idea. That meant that there were no answers to the robust challenges from the non-executive directors. I can capture their views and concerns in a few bullet points: the joint chair’s proposal was made without consultation or discussion with the NEDs or governors; principles of good governance and due process were ignored or sidelined; the proposed timetable was highly risky and unlikely to lead to a sound appointment of a joint CEO; any proposal to install a joint CEO and some form of amalgamation of management structures would require careful planning, options appraisal and scenario modelling, extensive consultation with the boards and governors, senior trust stuff and other stakeholders, and expert input from human resources and legal teams; and the timeline for a successful appointment of a joint CEO was likely to be 18 months to two years, not a matter of just a few weeks.

The non-executive directors summarised their concerns and objections in a formal document, with an outline of how to organise progress towards a joint CEO and potentially a joint management structure in a way that would minimise risks and maximise benefits. The joint chair’s response was, I am told, obdurate and unyielding. There was no offer to discuss the matter at full board or a meeting of the council of governors, or to consider an alternative to his proposal. Trust between the joint chair and the non-executive directors had been severely damaged by his actions. It was at that stage that the members of the board, concerned that there was no proper process and that they were being steamrollered into a decision, alerted me to what was going on. For me, that was the real reason for the inquiry.

I believe that NHS England’s influence on the joint chair’s proposal was palpable and unhelpful. In late December 2021, the joint chair, CEO, deputy chair and senior independent NED were called to a meeting at short notice with representatives of NHSE, including Richard Barker and national board directors Sir Andrew Morris and Sir David Sloman, as well as the chair of the North East and North Cumbria integrated care board, Sir Liam Donaldson. Although the NHSE representatives recognised that they had no formal powers to oblige the board of a foundation trust to change its organisational form, they were insistent that the joint chair’s original proposal should go ahead as quickly as possible. The trust was informed that it had until the end of January to agree a plan. The meeting ended with the NHSE representatives commenting, “Don’t tell us that it’s going to take two years,” and “Just get on with it.” Some would suggest that this was simply an exercise in bullying.

In January 2022, it became clear to the non-executive directors that they could not approve a proposal that was not supported by a full and proper case, but within a month Mr Barker ordered the investigation into whether the board was acting in a unitary fashion, and into its behaviour and leadership. On 18 February, five of the six NEDs resigned with immediate effect, as they felt that they were being prevented from doing the job they believed they had been appointed to do, and that NHSE and the joint chair would steamroller their way to the desired outcome regardless of any advice to the contrary. I suspect that that is exactly what the powers that be wanted: the removal of people who were not sticking to the line or doing what the officials wanted, but were instead maintaining their independence and putting patients first.

There was an allegation that the non-executive directors were somehow deliberately delaying the proposal for a joint chief executive. Were they supposed to roll over and not do their job of scrutiny properly? I am sure that the Minister will understand that the non-executive directors were insisting on due process and consultation with the trust’s wide range of partners. I believe to this day that they were right to ensure that others were aware of what was going on. They were concerned, as I was, that it was the start of a merger process for the two trusts. One of the trusts, North Tees, was considered high-performing at the time; the other, South Tees, was struggling and under considerable scrutiny from the Care Quality Commission. Happily, there have been improvements since then.

Non-executive directors are required to be independent and put the interests of patients first. Their robust challenge was clearly not appreciated by the chair and regional bosses. Those non-executive directors were local. They knew their community and wanted to do their best for them. I would like to put it on the record that not one of the new non-executive directors lives in the general area served by the trust—a completely opposite picture to the one before. It took me several attempts to find out where the new people hail from. Only when I issued a request under the freedom of information system was I told the answer: the new non-executive team come from Stafford, Hexham, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, which is quite nearby, Crook and Northallerton. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that the idea of local trusts is just that—local—and that local people best know the needs of their community.

The outcome of the inquiry remains a mystery to all, including those who were investigated. The full report is being kept under wraps by NHS North East and Yorkshire executives, despite Richard Barker sitting in my office in Stockton and assuring me that it would be made public. What on earth have they all got to hide? Perhaps it is the fact that their actions were being questioned or that they had needlessly mounted an inquiry because the non-executive directors wanted to understand why a joint chief executive was being proposed and would not just roll over.

When Mr Barker refused to publish the report in full as he promised, I wrote to him several times, but I had to resort to the FOI request, which was ignored for some considerable time. I did think I had finally persuaded them when I eventually got a copy of the report, but it was so heavily redacted by Mr Barker and his team as to render it useless. The excuse that individuals had to be protected was far from satisfactory.

We still do not know whether the report showed that the non-executive directors were failing in their duty, or whether NHS North East and Yorkshire was even justified in mounting the inquiry. As I say, the fight for the full report continues. Although I contested the decision to make the redactions, I decided, on learning that one of the former non-executive directors was pursuing it through the Information Commissioner, to allow that action to take its course. That is still in play. Today I am asking the Minister to save the Information Commissioner a job and order Mr Barker—who commissioned the report, but then blocked its publication—to publish it now.

The Minister should also find out why this sorry mess was allowed in the first place. The decision to mount the inquiry called into question the integrity of people of long-standing service, yet not even they have been allowed to see it. They remain damaged by what has gone on, and they deserve to know what the report says—a report that cost tens of thousands of pounds. They want to see whether it is critical of them or not.

I suspect that the report remains under wraps because it may be critical of others in this sorry saga; in fact, I know that to be the case. In my Stockton office, when Mr Barker promised me full transparency and publication of the report, he said that it would be critical of the chair’s role in the scandal. That was omitted from the short summary report published by the regional officials and is not obvious from the redacted report. Mr Barker also acknowledged that the region could have handled the matter better, and I suspect that the report does too. He, too, now needs to be held accountable; I have, in the past, called for his resignation. I have no doubt that the regional officials have some questions to answer about the appalling way in which they have handled this matter.

To go back to the central issue, neither the non-executive directors nor I were opposed to the idea of a joint chief executive. In fact, I placed it on record that I was not even opposed to the two trusts one day becoming one, provided that our local hospital services were maintained and even improved. Yes, the regional officials did get their way in the end, but it was a genuine pleasure for me—I mean that honestly—to meet the new joint chief executive recently when the mayor of Stockton-on-Tees, Jim Beall, held his charity ball. Only time will tell whether a joint chief executive is the right decision. I sincerely hope that it is.

I reiterate my request to the Minister to order the publication of what should never have been a secret report. It is in the interests of natural justice, it is the right thing to do and it will give those affected the chance to move on with their lives. I provided the Minister’s office with the gist of the issues that I wanted to raise today, and I can provide him with a much fuller timeline that was too detailed for me to put on the record today. I look forward to a positive response that can help us to draw a line under this whole sorry matter.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing this important debate. He has used it to raise important questions that are vital to NHS governance—localism, transparency and accountability. He is right that patients in his constituency and the wider region should be at the forefront of decision making about their healthcare. NHS England has found that shared leadership and group working arrangements between trusts can stabilise governance and align approaches to help improvement.

I thought that those were very legitimate questions and concerns about the way forward with mergers—joint working—but one of the issues in our part of the world is that South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust was burdened by the last Labour Government with a huge PFI deal at James Cook Hospital that cost £1 million a week. That is what makes this contentious. That is what makes it so difficult to see joint working in our part of the world.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I recognise that they are two trusts with very different characteristics. He is right about the eye-watering legacy in one trust—I think it is £57 million a year of PFI debt—which can make joint working controversial. However, as I will come on to say, I have been assured that the two trusts want to work together with joint arrangements, but not merge. I hope we can set the record clearly: in doing the research behind this speech, I have heard that this is not the prelude to a merger through the back door; rather, it is about trusts wanting to work together to address the healthcare needs in the area.

It is right that any decisions about shared leadership arrangements are made in Stockton, not Westminster. However, where an NHS trust is facing performance challenges, the Government back targeted interventions by NHS England, bringing the trusts together to properly diagnose the problem and develop an improvement plan, which could include shared leadership. Any leadership changes should be kept under constant review to ensure that they are effectively delivering for patients and the local area. The point is to help challenged trusts to improve and take ownership of local issues. External evaluations of NHS England’s leadership interventions have found them to be effective.

I will address the current leadership arrangements of the North and South Tees trusts. Up and down the country, trust governance fits a variety of different frameworks. As the hon. Member for Stockton North knows, putting a round peg in a square hole is pointless. However, although we support a diversity of models, I am crystal clear that every arrangement should be geared towards building a faster, simpler and fairer NHS that works for both patients and staff. I am happy to assure him that, in this instance, I have been assured that the shared leadership and joint working arrangements are not in any way a precursor to trust mergers or acquisitions. In other words, both trusts intend to remain statutory organisations in their own right.

NHS England promotes those models of working to maintain consistency within trusts and to ensure that everyone is on the same page when lessons are being learned. However, for over 10 years now, North and South Tees trusts have been discussing how to work together to provide a better offer for the people of Stockton.

The Minister may like to acknowledge that the North Tees and Hartlepool trust and the South Tees trust have worked together for many years. It is not a case of how they can do it in the future; they have been doing it for many years.

They have been doing it for many years. There are shared challenges in the area that they need to work on together, and this model of operation has worked in many parts of the country. I hope that what the hon. Gentleman describes is very much a bump in the road rather than something that characterises the past 10 years of joint work, most of which seems to have been constructive and conducted through local consensus.

In September 2021, the trusts appointed a joint chair. Just over a year later, they announced plans to form a group model to strengthen health services in the local area. That model was intended to improve recruitment and retention of specialist doctors and nurses, ensure join-up with local communities and partners, and secure capital investment to rebuild and upgrade hospital facilities. To deliver that new way of working, I understand that North Tees and South Tees foundation trusts engaged extensively with partners in the local area.

There is now strong collaborative work taking place across the Tees Valley, in the long-term interest of patients. The North Tees foundation trust is one of the best performing providers across the country for urgent and emergency care. The area’s NHS urgent care services will now be run by an alliance of four health organisations, including the North Tees and South Tees foundation trusts. Together, the partnership will oversee minor injuries and illnesses across the Tees Valley, including urgent care centres at the University Hospital of Hartlepool, the University Hospital of North Tees, and Redcar Primary Care Hospital.

I am delighted that the new urgent treatment centre at the James Cook University Hospital opened in March. We are backing the centre with a £9 million investment in urgent care services on Teesside, which will integrate services, provide patients with care close to home, and ease pressures on A&E. We should also celebrate the new Government-funded Tees Valley community diagnostic centre, which will open in Stockton town centre later this year. The centre will offer rapid scans, tests and checks for a number of major conditions. It will help thousands of people to access simpler services, with easily accessible life-saving tests and faster treatment.

I turn now to the investigation that the hon. Member for Stockton North raised. I understand that NHS England looked into the proposed appointment of a joint chief exec, as well as the actions and behaviours of the board. It aimed to find out whether these concerns amounted to breach of the trust licence. The investigation determined that the trust board had not acted consistently in relation to moving to a single chief executive appointment for South Tees. This constituted evidence suggesting a breach of a provider licence by the North Tees and Hartlepool Trust, which would normally lead to formal regulatory action being taken. After careful consideration, however, NHS England decided that the trust should implement the recommendations on a voluntary basis.

Does the Minister recognise that the non-executive directors had moved on by then? They had actually resigned from their posts in protest at the lack of due process. Does the Minister, or maybe even the region, accept that this matter could have been handled a lot better?

I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises that there are local government arrangements, and also that these are very much operational matters for NHS England and for the region. Certainly, given the concerns that he has outlined, it is quite clear that things could have been done better to take people with them, rather than alienating people. I also echo the tributes he paid to people who serve as non-exec directors on trust boards across the length and breadth of the country. They play a vital role in local NHS governance, and it is therefore regrettable to see a large number of non-execs resign for any reason.

I think that looking at the reasons behind this and investigating the best way forward is something best delivered by the NHS, and not dictated centrally by Ministers. The recommendations arising from the report were that a summary of it should be presented at the next board meeting and that an action plan for the next steps should be agreed, which has now been completed. It was also recommended that proper consultation between board members of both organisations should take place in future, so that they can reach the best collective decision for better services for Stockton. I hope that the trusts are now able to move forward with these new arrangements, especially with a new joint partnership board, establishing a clear chain of accountability going forward to address their challenges during this troubled period.

In wrapping up, I would like to thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate forward.

The Minister has just indicated that he is wrapping up, but the central question here is whether or not that report will be published. I have a heavily redacted report, which has more black ink than white paper. Does he accept that those people have the right to understand what judgments were made on the accusations against them? They should see the full report, not a version from the person who ordered it and then refused to publish it.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the NHS commissions a large number of reports on a whole range of services. When those reports are published internally, we expect all participants to be frank and open with investigations. They do so on the basis that they are internal reports to improve the governance of the organisation. It is not expected, and it is not the normal course, for such a report to be published. My understanding is that, following the hon. Gentleman’s freedom of information request, the report will be published in a heavily redacted fashion, as he said. The redactions were made by NHS England, in accordance with its policies. It is not a report that I am privy to and, to the best of my knowledge, it has not even been shared with the Department. It is an NHS England report that, as I say, has been published in accordance with its usual practices.

Frankly, I find it amazing that a Minister cannot even get access to a report that questioned the integrity of five long-standing non-executive directors, who then resigned because of the lack of due process in the appointment system. I remind the Minister that, as I said in my speech, Mr Barker sat in my office and told me, face to face, that he would publish the report and that I would get to see it. He has reneged on that promise. Does the Minister think he should fulfil that promise?

Unfortunately, I will just reiterate the point that a summary of the recommendations emerging from this investigation were published; they were shared with the board. They are accessible by anyone who wishes to see them. Through his own endeavours, the hon. Gentleman has been able to secure a copy of the redacted full version of the report. As far as I can see from the investigations that I have made, the report has been published fully in accordance with NHS England’s normal practices.

Clearly, this is something that has led to a rocky period for the trust, but I believe that the recommendations that have been shared with the board are now being implemented and that the group model of working, as I have said today, is not a merger by the back door. I know that, in securing this debate, the hon. Gentleman wanted to give greater impetus to the trust to get its act together and resolve these issues. I am absolutely sure that the issues he has mentioned today will have been heard by members of the trust’s board—I am absolutely sure they have been listening. I urge them to work with him and other local MPs to ensure that any other concerns that he has raised, and any other concerns that other hon. Members may have, are addressed in due course.

Sitting suspended.

BBC News Impartiality: Government's Role

[Hannah Bardell in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Government’s role in upholding the impartiality of BBC news coverage.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I refer the Chamber at once to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am grateful to have secured time for this important debate.

The BBC is a much-treasured national institution. Its news service is relied on by millions of British people and others around the world. Impartiality is rightly the foundation stone of the BBC’s operational guidelines and the very reason why it has garnered the trust of its users over many years. Its journalists provide an invaluable public service, often in trying and sometimes even dangerous circumstances. It is with great regret, though, that I have concluded that the BBC’s impartiality has been brought into disrepute. The BBC has found itself at the centre of ever-increasing controversy in recent years, and the organisation’s coverage of the Israel-Hamas war has led it comprehensively to fail the British public.

I will make a little progress, then I will give way. The tragic events in Israel and Gaza undoubtedly pose a challenge to any media outlet given the strength of feelings that they elicit. However, a careful review of BBC output shows a clear failure to uphold its obligation to impartiality. In doing so, BBC News’s broadcasting and online content has actively inflamed community tensions here in the United Kingdom, fuelled the appalling rise in antisemitism and, in at least one particularly shocking case, harmed diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the violence.

Before we move on to the in-depth part of my right hon. and learned Friend’s speech, is not one of the problems with the BBC that it lays down rules then just ignores them? For example, what Gary Lineker wants to say is up to Gary Lineker. However, if the BBC says, “You do not have the right to do that,” when he then does it and waves two fingers, does that not completely undermine the BBC’s editorial content?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The BBC’s failure to adhere to standards and deal with those problems when they arise is a fundamental, systemic and systematic problem; I will come on to that.

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for bringing forward this debate. I apologise to him and to you, Ms Bardell, for not being able to be here throughout; I have a meeting with a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Minister. The right hon. and learned Member is right to set out the case on Israel and Hamas. If we look at the BBC’s bias against Brexit and Northern Ireland, it cannot even name our country right; indeed, its correspondent is called the Ireland correspondent. My goodness me. How long will it be before the BBC understand that when the Welsh correspondents are called Welsh correspondents and the Scottish correspondents are called Scottish correspondents, the people of Northern Ireland should have a Northern Ireland correspondent? We are part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That is who we are. The quicker that the BBC catch on, the better.

The hon. Member makes a good point. The examples of biased content are great in number, and I simply do not have the time to document all of them.

One of the most worrying examples of biased content on the BBC was their coverage of the bombing of the al-Ahli Arab Hospital, where its rush to accept the Hamas allegation that it was caused by Israel genuinely created problems on the ground and made it harder to resolve things. It had a real-life impact. That is an example of how the BBC needs to be much more careful in its coverage of Israel.

My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and I shall come on to that in more detail momentarily.

BBC News has been roundly and deservedly ridiculed for its abject failure to identify Hamas as a terrorist group. Under immense pressure, the BBC eventually chose to acknowledge in its ongoing coverage that Hamas is proscribed in the United Kingdom, but it still refuses to explicitly label it as a terror group. That double standard was clear for all to see just weeks after Hamas’s heinous pogrom on 7 October, when BBC News immediately reported on its website an incident in Brussels as a “terror attack” linked to Daesh. Not only is the BBC failing to uphold the law of this country when it refers to Hamas as anything other than a terror group, it is effectively becoming complicit in Hamas’s well-orchestrated disinformation campaign.

The most dangerous example of the dissemination of disinformation during the current conflict came on 17 October—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) has said—when the BBC inaccurately reported that Israel was responsible for an explosion in the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital. BBC News’ breaking news Twitter account hurriedly notified its 51 million followers:

“Hundreds feared dead or injured in Israeli airstrike on hospital in Gaza, Palestinian officials say.”

BBC News’ international editor Jeremy Bowen told television audiences that “hundreds” had been killed and “thousands” injured after the hospital was “destroyed” in what he described as “the attack”—terminology that would clearly lead viewers towards the wrong impression that Israel was responsible.

There was an urgent Israeli investigation into the explosion at the hospital, subsequently independently confirmed by non-Israeli sources, which revealed that the incident was in fact caused by a misfired terrorist rocket launched by Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Even then however, BBC News saw fit to present claims and counter claims on its website, as if there was some sort of moral equivalence between a democratic state whose leaders are elected by their people and whose courts deal with their government, and a genocidal terrorist group that oppresses its people and murders children and innocent civilians.

I will in a moment.

That particular incident at Al-Ahli Arab hospital had profound real-world implications. It led to the cancellation of a Head of State-level regional peace summit and violent protests erupting across the middle east, and the World Jewish Congress said it contributed to a spike in antisemitism globally—including the burning of synagogues in Tunisia and Germany. Such were the repercussions of that one misreport.

Reasonable people accept that mistakes can be made in any profession. However, it was the dismissive nature of the BBC’s response to the Al-Ahli coverage debacle, and the continuing pattern of troubling output since then, that does not reassure that lessons have been learned. Disgracefully, when Jeremy Bowen was interviewed about the incident he dismissively said he did not “regret one thing”, and that he did not

“feel particularly bothered about that.”

Bowen seemingly downplayed Israel’s discovery of evidence—including guns—that confirmed Hamas’s military operations within Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital, saying it was “not convincing”. Perversely though, he said

“wherever you go in the Middle East you see an awful lot of Kalashnikovs and it’s not inconceivable that…I dunno…perhaps the security department of the hospital might have them.”

Repeated preparedness by the BBC to disseminate unverified claims provided by a proscribed terrorist group with a track record of disinformation should trouble us all.

My right hon. and learned Friend is making a great speech detailing some of the failures of BBC editorial policy. However, it is not just the BBC that does not describe Hamas as a terrorist organisation, other public service broadcasters such as ITV and Channel 4 do not do so either.

As politicians, we have to be a bit careful about asking broadcasters to bow to our whims as Members of Parliament when it comes to proscribing things and making editorial decisions. As a former BBC journalist myself, I think there is a real need to balance that with editorial justification and impartiality—and I am sure my right hon. and learned Friend will come on to that in his speech. It is important to recognise that other public service broadcasters also do not describe Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman continues, I remind Members that interventions should be short and brief.

What we want, need and expect from the BBC is a lack of bias and proper impartiality—that is all anyone expects. It is supposed to be a leader in its field and to set an example for other smaller broadcasters. I make no apology for expecting high standards from the BBC.

In relation to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp), is it not the case that, when we have a criminal case in this country, the BBC describes the people in those criminal cases as murderers, burglars or whatever else they are? We have a legal framework in this country that has determined that this is a terror organisation, and the BBC should apply the same rule in that situation.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As my example indicated, it does that for Daesh, which is another terrorist organisation. It will not do it for Hamas, and that is because of a link with Israel. Not all examples are as flagrant; the bias of BBC News and its journalists can be seen in other ways, which shows the depth of the problem. The BBC follows Hamas’s cynical policy of not distinguishing between civilian and combatant casualties. BBC News reports routinely add what amounts to disclaimers on information released by Israel or the Israeli army as being unverified. Time and again, that same rule is not applied to information released by Hamas. It was only after another pressure campaign that the BBC even started informing viewers that casualty figures in Gaza were provided by a terrorist-controlled Hamas health ministry, yet that seldom comes with a disclaimer about how they are unverified by the BBC.

For example, take a story on the BBC News website from just 2 February this year, in which it reports:

“More than 26,750 Palestinians have been killed and at least 65,000 injured, according to health officials in the Gaza strip.”

It then states:

“Israeli officials say that 9,000 of those killed were Hamas militants but have not provided evidence for the figure.”

By the way, Hamas have subsequently said that they had lost 6,000 fighters, still half of what Israel has claimed, but the BBC has chosen to ignore that Hamas statement, unlike many other news outlets. That happens daily. Each time the message that it conveys to readers, viewers or listeners is that Israel is not to be trusted over the word of a proscribed terror group that are known to wage information war.

On the broader question of the charter itself, a royal charter confers a privilege, which is effectively a kind of monopoly. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the licence fee payers, who come from all over the country, are themselves paying for disinformation on the basis of what he is saying? That, if it were a product liability issue, would lead to all kinds of legal consequences.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Of course, it puts the BBC in that elevated status where the taxpayer is obliged to pay for it, and there are consequences from its poor leadership in this area. The BBC’s coverage of weekly pro-Palestinian marches has displayed an extraordinary disconnect from reality. It has repeatedly stressed that the marches are “mostly peaceful”, yet television reports have featured BBC journalists amidst crowds chanting genocidal refrains and brandishing flagrantly antisemitic placards. Not all viewers will have an understanding of those deplorable scenes and it is incumbent on the BBC to cover them responsibly.

On 30 October, the BBC posted a news item on its news app headlined, “Met Police chief wants clarity on extremism”. The article actually concerned the appalling displays of antisemitism and violent rhetoric at those pro-Palestinian rallies, but strangely the BBC saw fit to use a photograph of an Israeli flag as the banner image accompanying the piece. The message that would send to the casual reader is unmistakable: Israelis, or pro-Israel individuals, are the extremists.

I would like to touch on BBC Arabic now, which has repeatedly presented former Palestine Liberation Organisation Major General Wasif Erekat, who has celebrated the “heroic military miracle” of 7 October, as an independent military expert. Erekat has appeared on BBC Arabic at least 12 times since 7 October, despite having admitted to firing artillery shells on what he calls “Zionist positions” from Lebanon, and making outrageous remarks about how Hamas does not target civilians.

Concerns about bias within from the BBC are perhaps unsurprising when one considers some of the employment controversies engulfing the organisation, which I would like to touch on now. A scheduling co-ordinator for BBC3, Dawn Queva, branded Jewish people “Nazi apartheid parasites” and referred to the holocaust as the “holohoax”. In the wake of 7 October, BBC News Arabic journalists likened Hamas to freedom fighters and spoke of a morning of hope. A Beirut-based correspondent on BBC Arabic, Sanaa Khoury, tweeted that Israel’s prestige is “crying in the corner” and liked a comment about receiving sweets that were distributed in celebration of Hamas’s attack.

We have heard about Gary Lineker, who encapsulates the problem within the BBC. Lineker has shared a video with 8.9 million of his followers, with the offensive accusation that Israel is committing genocide and mourning the death of a Palestinian footballer, who was later revealed to be a “martyr fighter” for Hamas. He also shared a message calling for Israel to be banned from international football tournaments. Lineker has frankly made a mockery of new social media guidelines that had been drawn up following an earlier controversy over his politicised posts.

Amid that sorry state of affairs, it is perhaps unsurprising, though no less distressing, that the director-general of the BBC, Tim Davie, recently acknowledged that antisemitism was within the corporation. Perhaps that is not surprising, when “The Apprentice” star, who we have heard about recently, tweeted that Zionists were “odiously ogre-like”. The BBC compliance department apparently ruled that that was not antisemitic. Instead, they sent him on a diversity course. If Zionism were just a policy, and not a euphemism for Jews, as we all know it is, how can someone who supports a policy, of any sort, be physically ugly? That gives the lie to the whole charade. What they are really talking about when they say Zionists is, of course, Jews. Shamefully, BBC employees were prohibited from attending a major march against antisemitism last year, on the spurious grounds that it was controversial. Compounding that, BBC News saw fit to describe that as a pro-Jewish march.

The BBC has been criticised by Ofcom for its coverage, as many will recall, of a vile antisemitic attack on Jewish students in London in December 2021, finding that it had

“failed to observe its editorial guidelines on due impartiality and due accuracy.”

In that episode, the BBC had falsely accused Jewish victims of making anti-Muslim slurs. That was swiftly disproven, but the BBC failed to update its online news article for nearly two months, with no regard for the wellbeing of the attack victims and the wider Jewish community.

Simply, there have been too many examples of a lack of impartiality for the BBC to keep dismissing concerns. The BBC’s biased coverage throughout this conflict has undoubtedly had an impact on the public’s perception and the understanding of it, and has steered it in a more anti-Israel direction.

What response has the right hon. and learned Member had from the BBC when he has raised these concerns? Is it taking action?

I will be coming to that. We know that the BBC has received myriad complaints. The consequences of its lack of impartiality have been particularly acute for the UK’s Jewish community. Just as the Al-Ahli misreporting led to a violent spike in antisemitism across the world, so too has the relentless bias of BBC News coverage contributed to the record level of intimidation and attacks on British Jews.

It is interesting to note that more than three quarters of Jews in Britain—77%—believe that BBC coverage of the war in Gaza is biased against Israel, according to a recent poll by Survation for a newspaper. Dozens of current Jewish employees at the BBC are understood to have filed formal complaints related to their concerns about antisemitism, describing it as a “grim” and “frightening” time to be Jewish at the corporation. The BBC’s senior management has fundamentally failed to deal with this problem and uphold its own guidelines. The organisation now appears complicit in peddling misinformation and allowing antisemitism to fester. In those circumstances, I have come to the conclusion that the BBC is institutionally antisemitic.

It has now been 20 years since the Balen report into the BBC’s anti-Israel bias. The organisation has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds of hard-working licence fee payers’ money to suppress that 20-year-old report. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to join me and add her voice to the calls for the BBC to finally publish that report. I wrote to the director general before Christmas, and he declined to release it. I also ask the Minister whether she would agree that the time has come to finally say that the BBC’s ability to mark its own homework must be removed. Existing complaints procedures are ineffective and do not command confidence.

I shall end by recounting the words of 22-year-old Noah Abrahams, who left his dream job at the BBC after its refusal to unequivocally call Hamas what it is: a terrorist organisation. Noah said that words have the power

“to fuel hate and put fuel on the fire…Words impact how we think, how we react, how we act. They have influence.”

I challenge all of us here to stand up for truth, challenge the BBC in its deeply entrenched bias, and call for accountability.

I remind hon. Members to bob if they wish to be called to speak. I hope to call Front Benchers by 3.28 pm, so I ask those who are speaking to be mindful of that.

I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North (Sir Michael Ellis) on securing this debate. I will start, as indeed he did, by quoting what anyone can get if they go on Google and ascertain the BBC’s main contribution to wider society on its website:

“The BBC is the world’s leading public service broadcaster. We’re impartial and independent, and every day we create distinctive, world-class programmes and content which inform, educate and entertain millions of people in the UK and around the world.”

That was indeed the case many years ago. I hope that the BBC can salvage something of its reputation and return to that high-sounding statement of what it sets itself up to be.

The right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North alluded to the high-profile on-screen talent, as they are called. The most expensive, well-paid employee in the BBC is Gary “Multimillionaire Lefty” Lineker. Mr Lineker was taken to task whenever he made his initial contribution, which it was felt breached the guidelines. The BBC agreed that he did indeed breach the guidelines to which he and others were expected to adhere. Within a few hours, however, some of Mr Lineker’s on-screen friends—some of whom were in his employ—decided to down tools, and they walked out. We had one edition of “Match of the Day” without Gary Lineker in situ. Then the director general of the BBC caved in, instead of saying to Mr Lineker and those who were with him, “There’s the door. If you don’t like the guidelines, off you go and get jobs elsewhere.” That is what the director general should have said—and did not. He caved in, and Mr Lineker returned, smirking at his ability to thumb his nose at the guidelines.

Then the BBC revised the guidelines and Mr Tim Davie was asked: if Mr Lineker says again, under the guise of the new guidelines, what was in breach of the old guidelines, is he in breach of the new ones? The director general could not really answer the question. I do not know whether Mr Lineker decided to test the water again, but off he went. The right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North alluded to what he said the next time; and, of course, no action was taken. Unfortunately, this is a blatant example of how the BBC seems to be prepared to take whatever the woke or the leftist agenda is as something they must endorse. If there is a breach of the guidelines, it turns a blind eye to it.

The hon. Member is making a very good point about high-grade staff at the BBC. Does he agree that, whether someone is a staff member or a star, the social media guidelines for working in the BBC should be exactly the same?

Yes, I do, and the penalty should be the same as well. That should go without saying, but unfortunately we have to say it.

I wish to turn to the comprehensive analysis that the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North gave about Hamas and Israel. He spoke with in-depth knowledge, and I do not wish to add anything other than to agree with him. I watched aghast at some of those breaches, whether it be Jeremy Bowen or the BBC News Arabic journalist, and the whole plethora of issues he raised.

The BBC has some excellent investigative analysis programmes, such as “Panorama” and BBC Northern Ireland’s “Spotlight”. From time to time, they do very comprehensive, in-depth investigations into issues that are in the public interest. That is exactly what they should do, and they are to be commended when they do it. But over a period of years, there has been an issue of huge public interest, not just in Northern Ireland but across the UK, and it is a concept that I have consistently ridiculed, because I have personal experience of it: the hard border on the island of Ireland.

There could have been a “Panorama” or “Spotlight” investigation to show how ludicrous it is and how porous the border is. It was nonsense to be bullied by the EU to agree to some sort of trading regime between the UK and the EU because of the threat of a hard border when it could not materialise, because there were 280 physical crossing points on the land border, which only stretches for 300 miles. It would take a military force of some hundred thousand personnel to man up, and we had 30,000 personnel when there was a murder campaign and they could not create a hard border. But there was no “Spotlight” or “Panorama” investigation into the concept of a hard border.

Similarly, at the moment we have a trading issue between Northern Ireland and GB, which is hopefully being resolved. We could have an investigative programme into the problems that some people have in trying to get plants and seeds from GB into Northern Ireland. A simple reporter, with a photographer, cameraman and a sound person, could go on the ferry from Belfast to Stranraer, acquire a few plants and seeds, put them in a car, drive back to the ferry and return to Northern Ireland with no problem caused to the EU single market. Yet the EU demands certain regulations, which we hope are being resolved. There is no investigation by the BBC, when it could and should be doing one.

Another issue that is coming up is a BBC Four programme called “Shooting the Rapids”. It is to be broadcast this weekend, although I will obviously reserve complete judgment until I watch it. In it, a former director-general of the BBC says that the British public were not being told the truth about the troubles in the 1960s and 1970s in Northern Ireland because—I apologise for the language—

“the bloody Protestants were running the BBC in Northern Ireland.”

I do not know where he has been for the last 30 or 40 years, but he needs to come back and check who is running the BBC in Northern Ireland now. Martin Bell and Denis Tuohy of the BBC also say that the BBC was prevented from telling the British public about discrimination against Catholics in education, work and housing. If they had come to me or gone to people I would have recommended they speak to about disadvantage in education, work and housing, they would have seen that it is not the people they think, but many Protestants, who are currently disadvantaged in those sectors.

So there are some programmes, and I hope the Minister will take on board the issues. I do not expect her to respond to every assertion about individual programmes, but there is an Ofcom responsibility and a Government responsibility, particularly regarding the recent mid-term review, to tell the BBC that there have been a plethora of assertions and allegations made against its coverage and its partiality and partisanship in news reporting.

There is very much an imbalance within the BBC in relation to those in frontline reporting being from one section of the community or another. The difficulty we have is that there seems to be a hidden agenda in terms of what happens not only in Northern Ireland but in this House. What is deemed important is what is made important by the media, not necessarily the general public; it is what the media want to portray as the most important thing to focus on.

Order. Before the hon. Member responds, let me say that I am sure we are all looking forward to him making his peroration so that everybody gets a good crack of the whip.

Thank you, Ms Bardell, and I will bring my remarks to a close. I agree with my hon. Friend. These issues have to be investigated. Hopefully the Minister, who I know takes a deep interest in these issues, will be able to raise them with the director-general and we will see, not words, promises and new guidelines, but action from the BBC, both nationally and in the regions.

Before I call Steve Double, let me say that I am going to impose a formal time limit of four minutes to allow interventions and to make sure that everybody can get in.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North (Sir Michael Ellis) on securing this important debate. He made an excellent opening speech and, as I have only a few minutes, I will not cover the ground that he covered. He made great points and cited specific cases where the BBC is clearly failing in its responsibility to be impartial, particularly in regard to the reporting of the events in Israel and Gaza.

The BBC enjoys a privileged position in our country, particularly in the broadcast media. It is funded by the licence fee—it is, effectively, publicly funded—and we have a right to expect it to uphold higher standards than anyone else. Comments were made about other broadcasters, but we expect the BBC to set the standard and to provide the leadership that others will hopefully follow. I believe that it has failed to do that in recent months with regard to Israel and Gaza.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North cited a number of incidents, but I will highlight the case of the rocket that hit the hospital. It felt like the BBC could not wait to jump to the conclusion that it must have been Israel. It seemed almost disappointed when it came out that it clearly was not and it grudgingly had to admit that it had got its initial reports wrong.

That raises a number of serious concerns about what is going on at the BBC. I sometimes wonder whether it has a blind spot and is so blinded by its views about Israel that it cannot see how biased it is being in its reporting, or whether it is aware that it is being biased but just does not care. I am not quite sure which it is, but it has to be one of those two. The BBC seriously needs to assess what is going on and the way the conflict is being reported on its broadcast news media, because it has a role in shaping public views. Clearly, we have seen a rise in the number of antisemitic incidents taking place in recent months in this country and the shameful treatment of a number of members of our Jewish community across the country. It is difficult to come to any other conclusion than that, sadly, the BBC has contributed to that because it has presented Israel in such a poor light over recent months.

I am not saying that Israel is faultless and never gets anything wrong, but it feels like the BBC will report Hamas reports, statistics and numbers without any qualification, without any sense of caution that that information is coming from Hamas, yet when Israel reports something, it is highly qualified as though the BBC is saying, “It is Israel telling us this. Therefore we need to treat this cautiously.” I think that that is having an impact on the public’s view and on the public perception of what is happening. Sadly, that is feeding through into what we are seeing on our streets.

In the mid-term release on the BBC, assessing its charter responsibilities, the Secretary of State did lead on the issue of and concerns about impartiality. That leads me to believe that the Government perhaps share many of our concerns about the impartiality of the BBC, so I simply ask this in concluding: what further discussions are going on with the BBC to hold it to account and to its obligation to be impartial and to fulfil its public service obligation in reporting the news from Gaza and Israel?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North (Sir Michael Ellis) on securing this debate.

All reporting on this conflict should be done from the starting point of remembering that on one side we have a Jew-hating, gay-hating, misogynistic, terrorist death and rape cult, and on the other we have a democratic, liberal state with strong independent processes, which was attacked on 7 October. The fact that 77% of British Jews—remember that just 0.5% of the population of this country is Jewish—do not consider its coverage to be fair should be taken by the BBC as a cry of pain from the Jewish community, and it should take that very, very seriously.

My right hon. and learned Friend mentioned the director-general’s recent email. I ask the Minister to follow up with the director-general to ask what he is actually doing to respond to these examples of antisemitism in the BBC. In a debate a couple of months ago, I described the BBC as Israelophobic, and I think that the words that my right hon. and learned Friend used—about it having an institutional problem with antisemitism —are absolutely true. That is fuelling not only hate towards the Jewish population in this country; the way in which the BBC is presenting this conflict on television is also fuelling hate towards Members of Parliament.

Why do I say that? We have heard my right hon. and learned Friend talk about how the BBC continues to quote as fact casualty figures from Hamas—an organisation that has previously misrepresented casualty figures. Meanwhile, Israeli witnesses to the rape of Israeli women on 7 October had their story told on the BBC with the proviso that the BBC had been unable to verify those claims. That was not applied to Hamas, of course. The BBC has deliberately presented this conflict from the point of view of civilians in Gaza and contrasted that with the Israeli military or with Israeli politicians, including those at the most extreme ends of the Israeli Government, with whom all of us on the Government side of the House would have little to do and who, at the end of the day, have little impact on the positioning of the Israeli Government’s policies.

The BBC has chosen to subject viewers to an antisemitic “The Apprentice” participant. Even when it became aware of that, it offered him sensitivity training. I have written to the BBC numerous times asking who provided that training and what the specific content was on antisemitism, because none of the charities that deal with this and have expertise on this, such as the Antisemitism Policy Trust, were involved, and the BBC will not tell me.

As Hamas perpetrated its massacres on 7 October, the BBC aired an interview with Refaat Alareer, a lecturer at the Islamic University of Gaza, who described the attacks as “resistance” and “legitimate and moral”. A senior BBC broadcast journalist joked about a woman whose grandmother was abducted by Hamas as receiving an “inheritance”. On Christmas eve, the BBC reported unverified and false claims from Hamas that the Israel Defence Forces were carrying out summary executions—it had to apologise for that. Today we see an example of that with the coverage of civilians in Gaza. Of course, there is absolutely no doubt that civilians are suffering, but the coverage provided on the BBC today is not something that was given to members of Israeli society or to those victims. I would like to go on, but the speaking time in the debate is so limited that it is impossible to.

In my final few minutes, I will ask the Minister to do a couple of things. One is to ask the BBC for a full review of how its coverage of this conflict contrasts with others’, and the other is to ask whether the BBC plans to offer proper antisemitism training, provided by actual members of the community with expertise on the subject.

I, too, am concerned about the BBC’s persistent failure to fulfil its legal obligation to be impartial. We saw this with Brexit. To give an example, News-watch, which is an independent monitoring organisation run by a former BBC producer, said that, on Europe, there were twice as many remainers as pro-Brexit speakers, with an even greater imbalance in the amount of time people had to speak, at 7:3, or nearly 9,000 words against 4,000 words. No wonder the political elites of this country were stunned by the result of the referendum—they did not see it coming.

The BBC, in its language about Brexit, was not impartial, as illustrated by it persistently describing leaving without a deal with the EU as a so-called cliff-edge Brexit. No one wanted that outcome, but the BBC should not have been portraying it as a potential disaster via the terminology it used.

I wish I had thought of that for my speech. The reality is that the BBC fails to impartially report the multiplicity of viewpoints in the UK. It prides itself on diversity, but it has a real lack of diversity of thought. There is an intellectual homogeneity, which means there is no real balance of opinion among its staff. There is no recognition among those who make the decisions at the BBC that a recruitment policy that broadened its culture would better serve licence fee payers and better reflect the BBC’s viewers and the wider country.

Today the stakes seem very much higher, as we heard in the superb speech by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North (Sir Michael Ellis). Given that the BBC has these huge resources made available to it via the licence fee, and given the heightened tensions here as a result of the crisis in the middle east, we thought it really could do a bit better. In 2021, colleagues and I wrote to the Prime Minister and urged him to consider directing Ofcom to deal directly with all impartiality events at the BBC, rather than letting the BBC do those itself in the first instance. Of course, that would need to be accompanied by some changes in Ofcom; to deal with complaints impartially and objectively, its contents board needs to change, because it seems to be stuffed with former BBC lifers. I also urge Ministers to consider requiring the BBC to set up an independent unit to monitor bias on an ongoing basis.

I would first like to refer to some figures from the past five years on the complaints made by licence fee payers—that is, taxpayers, 90-odd per cent of whom pay for the BBC. According to the figures, there were 1,935,179—nearly 2 million—audience complaints to the BBC from 2017 to 2023, of which only 3,692 progressed to the BBC executive complaints unit. Only 147 complaints were upheld or partially upheld by that unit, and only four of the 1,067 escalated to Ofcom were decided to be BBC breaches of the broadcasting code. It goes from 2 million complaints to four breaches upheld by Ofcom.

That tells us a great deal. Anyone with half a brain would realise that the rest of the 2 million complaints must have contained, and do contain—as people know from their common sense and personal experience—gross breaches of impartiality. I have been talking to Ministers about that for several years. To my great regret, the mid-term review was revealed to the public by a mere written ministerial statement, when it should have been done by an oral statement on the Floor of the House. I hope I have got that right, but that is my understanding.

Secondly, we need a proper, full debate. I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North (Sir Michael Ellis) for raising this issue, with particular emphasis on the Hamas-Israel situation. However, the problem goes very much deeper. It is an endemic, almost perpetual problem, to which there appears to be no answer. Great importance should therefore be attached to the need to propose or implement an effective and workable regulatory structure between the BBC and Ofcom, and to reform Ofcom’s role in the complaints framework.

An inadequate reform of the complaints framework has been going on, and particularly the intended roles of the BBC board and the editorial guidance and standards committee. Despite the Government’s recognition of the inadequacies of the BBC, there has been a failure to initiate an independent framework for handling complaints. Although we need a vital reform to facilitate the closer scrutiny of impartiality, with no reason specified that has unnecessarily been postponed until the next charter review in 2027.

A major omission of the review is a failure to define “impartiality”. The review actually claims that the task was too complex. I find that astonishing, particularly when one considers that the Oxford dictionary definition of “impartiality”, which is pretty standard stuff, insists quite clearly that

“official judgements and reports should be based on objective and relevant criteria, without bias or prejudice”.

All the evidence points in the other direction. The figures that I have given are absolutely astonishing, and it is a great failure for us not to have managed to get this right.

I pay tribute to this Minister, and to other Ministers who have participated in this process, but I have to say that it has not met the degree of performance for which we would have hoped. We were hoping for a mid-term review that would deal with the issue of impartiality, and I regret to say that this will need a bigger debate on the Floor of the House, with the Minister giving a full account and every Member having the opportunity, cross-party, to get this thing right once and for all.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North (Sir Michael Ellis), whose opening speech covered such a wide area, with many vital points backed up by the evidence that his fine legal mind was always going to bring to this debate.

My Jewish constituents are bloody terrified now. It was bad enough leading up to the 2019 general election, when many of them felt that they would leave this country, but they had fairly good faith that the Labour party would not win that election. Now, they are truly terrified. I have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) say that he feels safer in Israel than on the streets of his own country. That is true for a great number of my constituents who, to make matters worse, are seeing an in-built bias in the BBC almost justifying those launching antisemitic attacks against my constituents.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I did not get chance to say this because of the limited time, but will he consider the coverage today on the BBC? Once again, the picture being painted by the BBC is of suffering Gazans—who inevitably are suffering, of course—versus a well-armed Israeli military trying to deal with Hamas. There are no images of Hamas fighters or the hostages being held. It is this picture of civilians versus the Israeli military that gives a wholly false impression of the battle going on. There is a whole day of it today on the BBC, and all that will do is lead to more threats and abuse for Jewish people in this country. Nobody has been able to verify any of the information coming out, and we know that people cannot speak freely because Hamas control the message and control people. The coverage today is appalling.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He brings to the debate a unique perspective on what is actually happening to the Jewish population in this country; it is more than I could hope to describe at this time.

There are several ways in which how terrible the Israelis are just creeps in, especially when listening to the radio, when we do not necessarily have the pictures. For example, “Israel have bombed a refugee camp”—most people believe that a refugee camp is an area full of tents and people who have been displaced and are suffering. These are historical refugee camps, with concrete buildings and towns that have been built around them. The laziness about going further and actually describing the situation adds to these issues.

The BBC is a very important institution in this country. There is always a role for public service broadcasting, but I hear so many of my constituents say that they hate the BBC. I would argue that what they hate is BBC News, not the BBC itself, but the reality is that the BBC’s bias is coming through in so many ways. Gary Lineker can say what he wants, but those who said that he could not say it and then did nothing about it are doing untold damage to the credibility of the BBC.

Would my right hon. Friend like to lay a bet that these particular proceedings will not appear on “Today in Parliament” tomorrow morning?

That is quite amusing. I was sat here wondering if we would actually make “Today in Parliament”; I think it may get a mention, but it will probably be quite well edited. The reality is that we live in a world where people are willing to be more militant. If the BBC does not grasp this problem and deal with it, people will stop paying their licence fee and damn the consequences. They can overwhelm it with social media, a bit like when the poll tax happened and it basically got dropped because no one was paying it. That is one of the issues for the BBC.

If we ask people, they say they listen to BBC Radio and football coverage a lot. A public service broadcaster has an important role in any country. When we have these debates, we must be careful not to give the impression that we want to abolish the BBC. What we all want is quality, independent, impartial news coverage that allows the public to get a view of what is actually happening in the world. There are plenty of television and news stations, especially in the advent of digital television, that will pander to people’s opinions if they want that. A public service broadcaster must always be above that.

I cast my mind back to when, on the “Today” programme, Amol Rajan was interviewing the Home Secretary, who told him

“if you’re just going to make a statement, I can go and get a cup of tea”.

I had never heard that on the “Today” programme. It is vital that some of the most hard-hitting questions should be put to politicians, and we should be able to answer them. I do not care how bad they are, as long as everybody gets the same toughness of interview and questions. But it is not up to journalists to sit there and make statements towards the politician they are interviewing; it is up to them to probe the policies they are running and where they are at. If that ends up embarrassing the politician, so be it, but it has to be equal across the board.

I have a great concern that what is happening at the BBC is undermining the entire institution. What potential conversations can the Minister have to ensure that those who are setting the rules to protect the impartiality of the BBC, but are doing absolutely nothing to enforce them, can be held to account? I believe that this institution is vital across the world and to this country, as long as it is doing what it is supposed to be doing, and, at the moment, it is not.

I thank Members for their brevity. We come to the Front Benches earlier than expected, starting with the SNP spokesperson.

Thank you for your work in chairing today’s debate, Ms Bardell, and I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North (Sir Michael Ellis) on obtaining the debate. I will cover a few things, some of which have been covered and some of which have not been so much.

Public service broadcasting is incredibly important, and it is incredibly important that impartiality is measured and is there in the broadcasting. Many UK Government decisions have undermined the impartiality of the BBC, including the director-general being a former Tory candidate, and including a personal friend of Boris Johnson being made the chair of the BBC—a Tory donor who donated £400,000 to the party and lent £800,000 to Mr Johnson specifically. So there is an issue with impartiality—an issue with being seen to be impartial, as well as with potentially being impartial.

I have a BBC studio in my constituency that does local news in Aberdeen and has also been involved in some big events that have happened. For example, when the Queen passed away, it was the first on the scene reporting. I want to be clear to those people working in my constituency, and across the BBC, that we are not saying—nobody in this room, I think, is saying—that any of them individually are antisemitic, other than perhaps the ones that were mentioned by name. It is not—I do not think, from anyone—an attack on these individuals. I want to be clear that we value the work that they do and the fact that they do report in sometimes incredibly difficult conditions. Sometimes reporting is got wrong from every broadcaster; mistakes are made and they need to be as swiftly as possible rectified.

I want to be clear about the BBC’s position on what happened in relation to al-Ahli Hospital. It said that

“contrary to many reports—the BBC did not claim that the Israelis were responsible for the attack. We, along with many other…media organisations, reported initial claims by Palestinian officials and eye-witnesses…that this was an Israeli air strike…We attributed the claim to those making it.”

The BBC sought a response immediately from the IDF, and when

“the Israeli authorities countered those claims”,

the BBC “prominently and consistently” reported the position of the IDF. That is the BBC’s position. It may be an idea to watch back some of that coverage to see what exactly was said by the journalists at the time.

I like the hon. Lady and I hate to criticise her on this, but I think that that is not really credible. The BBC reported it, and I believe—I will check this—that it went out on push notifications. The fact remains that as a serious public broadcaster, on an issue as sensitive and as serious as this, the BBC should have applied independent verification to this story—as it demands and requires Israel to provide on claims—before it put that out and gave it such prominence. So I do not think that its response is really credible, with respect to the hon. Lady.

I just felt that this was the BBC’s position and I wanted that to be clear, because it does not have a voice in this debate right now.

It may just help if I repeat the BBC’s breaking news Twitter account—the push notification to 51 million followers:

“Hundreds feared dead or injured in Israeli airstrike on hospital in Gaza, Palestinian officials say”.

Which, in that, is attributed to Palestinian officials, but absolutely—I think it is worth watching it back. But the BBC position is that it was very clear about that.

On the ideas around the bias or the lack of impartiality, apparently 36% of the public see the BBC as neutral; 15% see the BBC as pro-Palestine; and 17% see it as pro-Israel. There have been protests outside BBC studios throughout Scotland suggesting that the BBC is in fact too pro-Israel. Those protests have taken place outside a number of BBC studios in Scotland, including twice in Aberdeen. Any of those things are concerning and worrying for staff. People absolutely have a right to protest. Whichever the view of the protesters, the protests can be worrying for people who are perhaps not anywhere near reporting on either what is happening in Gaza or on any other sort of foreign affairs.

I am sorry to do this again, but I heard this when I met the BBC. I have had it said to me that, “Look, a lot of people think we are pro-Palestinian. A lot of people think we are pro-Israeli.” That is irrelevant. It is about the actual coverage; it does not matter what the perception is. That does not mean that there is not an issue here. I have so far not found a single example of a BBC journalist who has had to be dealt with, suspended or reported for making pro-Israeli statements on their social media accounts, whereas there are plenty that relate to this. The fact that there might be that perception does not alter the fact that there is an issue.

Actually, I do think the perception is important. It is also important that, as the hon. Gentleman said, 77% of Jewish people in the UK think that the BBC is biased. Having said all of that about the views of the general population, it is none the less incredibly important to listen to the communities who have a long history of persecution, particularly Jewish people. It is incredibly important to listen to those views and to understand that, if a community feels that the BBC is doing something wrong, it needs to take that incredibly seriously.

The hon. Lady has been generous in giving way. I reiterate the point, which I am sure she will agree with, that it is very easy for people to make any sort of claim or counter-claim, but there needs to be some evidence. I like to think that in my speech I gave numerous evidenced examples. If people are going to say that there is evidence of BBC pro-Israel bias, they need to be able to cite some examples of that. I do not think they will be able to do that.

Given that I came to talk more generally about the impartiality of BBC news and I had few notes on the conflict in Gaza, I am afraid I do not have an answer. I am not here to defend the BBC. I just wanted to be clear on what its position was, particularly around that one incident that was mentioned.

I met representatives of the Union of Jewish Students in the wake of the beginning of the conflict. We spoke about what was happening at the University of Aberdeen and how safe or unsafe they felt on campus. They raised concerns with me about reporting, but the concerns that they raised were not specifically about the BBC; they were about reporting in general. It is very important for us to listen to those people who are saying, “We are being discriminated against” or “There is bias against us” because, as a non-Jewish person, I do not feel, see or hear all the undercurrents. It is not only we as parliamentarians who must listen to such views; the BBC must ensure that it listens to members of the community who are the experts in this when providing diversity training, as the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) mentioned. I absolutely agree with his suggestion that the training should be carried out by those people who are genuine experts, such as Antisemitism Policy Trust. I will declare an interest. Members can look at my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in relation to that.

It is important to think about the regulation of the BBC. We recently had the first Media Bill in 20 years. It has been a long time since there was a change to the regulation of public service broadcasting in general. However, the BBC is governed by the charter and the agreement that comes alongside it. In some ways, Parliament is unable to take action on this; that is more in the remit of the UK Government. I ask the Minister, when she is looking at this, to look at some of the genuinely good work the BBC has done around increasing diversity—I have spoken to it about that in recent times—and to assess whether she, the Government, and the communities that are impacted feel that the 10-point plan and the impartiality and diversity training the BBC has put in place are sufficient, so that the BBC can be impartial, continue to be respected, and provide the public service broadcast that so many people rely on in order to get their news.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I would like to begin by congratulating the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North (Sir Michael Ellis) on securing this important debate. Impartiality has always been, and must remain, a crucial underpinning of the BBC. It is right that the BBC is operationally and editorially independent from Government, and that impartiality is embedded in its governance at every level. As a result, not only do eight out of 10 UK adults consume BBC news on average per week—double the next nearest provider—BBC news is unique in its ability to gain the trust of audiences in the UK regardless of their political persuasion.

As has been discussed in this debate—we have heard opinions from across the House, and indeed across the country, from East Londonderry, St Austell, Brigg and Goole, Gravesham, Stone, and Elmet and Rothwell—many are deeply concerned about the impartiality of coverage regarding the terrible events in Israel and Palestine, where over the past few months we have seen an intolerable loss of life and an unacceptable growing humanitarian disaster in Gaza. There has been some debate over the way the BBC chooses to use the word “terrorist”. To be absolutely clear, Hamas are terrorists, and proscribed as such in UK law. Hamas has committed brutal atrocities and I call it a terrorist organisation, as is only right. The BBC is responsible for its own editorial guidelines, and it is not for politicians to tell it what should and should not be included in them. However, I will use the word “terrorists”, and it will report that I did.

On the BBC’s coverage of the topic more broadly, concerns over impartiality have been raised by people of many different persuasions and backgrounds. A poll conducted by More in Common found that roughly equal numbers of people find the BBC’s coverage to be as pro-Israel as pro-Palestine. However, an even larger percentage of the 2,000 people polled said they felt that the public service broadcaster’s output on the conflict between Israel and Hamas had been mostly neutral. That is not to say that the BBC makes no mistakes, and when it does, it must work swiftly to rectify them. That is particularly important at a point where community tensions are high. The Community Security Trust, a charity that works to eradicate antisemitism, has reported a staggering 500% rise in antisemitism, and Tell MAMA, a project working to address anti-Muslim hatred, has reported over 2,000 Islamophobic incidents between 7 October and 7 February—more than triple the 600 reported during the same period the year before.

We must denounce hate crime in the strongest terms, and I expect to see a robust response to all incidents of hate associated with the conflict. I recently met the Community Security Trust, Stand Up! and Maccabi GB to discuss the worrying rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia and the work going on in communities to promote tolerance and integration. There is no place in Britain for antisemitism or Islamophobia, and all of our media outlets have a duty to report responsibly and accurately on both the conflict itself and the rise of hatred in this country. With that in mind, it is concerning that Jewish employees at the BBC have raised complaints about its coverage. The BBC says it has well-established and robust processes in place to handle any issues, concerns or complaints, so I would hope and expect that to be dealt with fairly and accordingly.

Does the hon. Lady agree that although the word “racist” is often used in this context, much of it is actually to do with divisions of opinion on matters of religion, and that is very much at the heart of a lot of these problems? If she does not know that, does she recall that Gandhi himself, when asked what the most important question about politics or religion is, said that those who do not understand that politics is secondary to religion do not know what they are talking about?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point; he has certainly put it on the record. I would like to move on.

On the BBC’s record on impartiality and its complaints processes more broadly, it is timely that the Government’s mid-term review has finally been published, as it looked directly at those issues. Indeed, the review noted that the BBC has completed the implementation of its 10-point plan, following the Serota review, with measures including impartiality training for staff, internal content reviews and regular staff surveys on impartiality. Further to that, following the independent review by John Hardie in 2023, the mid-term review also notes the new social media guidance for BBC presenters who do not cover news, current affairs or factual journalism.

The Government also found in the review that BBC First delivers fair complaints decisions that withstand scrutiny from the regulator. In terms of improving that further, the review makes a number of recommendations, including external scrutiny of complaints, improving the visibility and clarity of the process, ensuring the quality and timeliness of responses, and giving greater transparency on decision making. It is important that action is taken to work on those, and that Ofcom looks at progress in those areas when it reviews BBC First before the charter renewal.

Like any institution, the BBC does not get everything right. It is, however, a cornerstone of our creative economy and an important part of our day-to-day lives. The BBC is an important national institution, and we believe we must secure its future as a universal, publicly owned, public service broadcaster, not least in a world where misinformation is rife and public interest journalism is becoming harder to access.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North (Sir Michael Ellis) for securing an incredibly important debate on the impartiality of the BBC, and the Government’s role in upholding it. I am also grateful to every hon. Member who has contributed this afternoon, as well as the Opposition spokespeople, including the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), whose contributions have been constructive.

I appreciate the important words that were said in relation to Hamas as a terrorist organisation, and a clear understanding that the Government have taken action, but will keep a lot of these matters under review. I think there is unanimity here that the BBC is an incredibly important organisation, the integrity of which we all fundamentally seek to uphold. That is why we are here today talking about this issue. There is a collective desire in this House to focus the BBC on its core purpose when it comes to news, to report on the world with a relentless dedication to facts and truth. That is the foundation on which trust is built.

Trust, in my opinion, is the BBC’s currency in a very complex, ever-changing world where regional events can ricochet with great consequence into the communities and neighbourhoods of the UK. Hon. Friends have spoken of that and given examples, and it causes me a great deal of concern, both for my constituents and for my Jewish and Muslim friends, who have received pretty horrifying attacks from the same source—Islamist fundamentalism.

That worries me deeply, and nobody in the UK wants to see that play out in our streets. We have a duty to try to lower the heat, and also to have difficult, complex arguments on this issue. That is why we all feel strongly about the BBC’s role in that. We have an implicit social contract that grants the BBC a unique place in national life, with an equally unique funding structure in the licence fee, because it is bound by duties that commit it to that truth-telling and the reflection of communities in every corner of the UK.

Having a public service broadcaster structured in such a way says something very important about our values as a society, where a commitment to freedom of expression and openness provides an increasingly stark contrast to jurisdictions where the truth is manipulated or suppressed, or focused only on stories of the powerful. We can see that in how conflicts are reported around the world in other countries.

Indeed, the first public purpose listed in its royal charter requires the BBC to provide duly accurate and impartial news and information. The impartiality of the BBC goes to the heart of the contract between the corporation and all the licence-fee payers it serves. The public rightly expect the BBC to be an exemplar of impartiality and accuracy, while allowing a range of opinions to be offered and debated.

Of course, the BBC is not there as an instrument of Government. Ministers seeking to interfere with editorial decisions or the day-to-day running of the organisation would be in nobody’s interests, in seeking to build the trust that is so fundamental to its core purpose.

Will the Minister commit to putting forward the idea that there should be a proper definition, along the lines of the Oxford dictionary, as I mentioned, so that we have a definition of impartiality in the charter, as well as the statement she has just made about it?

I am always happy to engage with my hon. Friend on those sorts of issues, which we have engaged on in relation to the mid-term review. I shall look into the particular issue he raises on the definition of impartiality, although I suspect that it is written down in some of the documents. It may not be in the charter itself, but we do talk to the BBC about this on a very regular basis.

As hon. Members will be aware, I tread a fine line here. I appreciate that there may be a desire from colleagues for me to go very far in sticking the boot into the BBC on certain issues. I want to ensure that I am always on the right side of that line, because I would not seek to undermine the trust that the BBC must put at the centre of its compact with the public.

By the same token, if concerns are expressed by citizens of this country, and by hon. Members on their behalf, about how the BBC is carrying out its duties to fair and impartial news, and the structures that hold it to account, then I think that requires a response. No organisation, particularly one of the BBC’s nature, should be exempt from scrutiny. If large numbers of citizens are questioning the legitimacy of the BBC’s funding model as a result, in a way that I fear might risk undermining the future sustainability of the organisation, then it is fundamentally in the interest of the BBC for there to be a response.

We often find the left screaming that the BBC is a Tory mouthpiece and the right screaming that the BBC is a left-wing mouthpiece—that is political opinion, and it probably means that it has got it roughly right. But there are indisputable facts that are black and white, as with the bombing of the hospital and the failure to verify sources. That is where the BBC is taking a wrong turn. That is what is fundamentally undermining the credibility of its impartiality. It is not the knockabout politics we have on particular issues; these are black and white facts.

That is the point that I am trying to make. We do not seek to interfere with the BBC editorially, but where there is a risk that trust and faith in the organisation will be undermined because of how it is being run, that should be of concern to the BBC, of concern to Ofcom and of concern to the Government.

Further to the point from my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Sir Alec Shelbrooke), I feel we are being trolled in this debate. Someone has just sent me a picture of the main banner running alongside the BBC News website at 3.39 pm today, which says:

“Gaza health ministry: 29,878 Palestinians killed”.

We are being trolled in this debate. There is no reference to that being Hamas’s figures. There is no reference to the fact that we know that thousands of those people who have been killed are Hamas operatives. These are the very issues we have raised today. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are facts, and then there are opinions. It is a fact that these are Hamas’s figures, but they are not being presented as such. In this very debate in which we are calling this out, the BBC is trolling us. It is having a laugh.

As I say, I am trying to get the line correct between giving the BBC editorial independence and expressing concern.

In the mid-term review, we have tried to ensure that there is much greater power for the BBC board to conduct thematic reviews of complaints and to have much more independence from the editorial teams, so that if there is a clear pattern coming through in the nature of the complaints about the BBC’s reporting and editorial decision making, the BBC can look into it. That is a new innovation from the mid-term review.

I note that Samir Shah, the incoming chairman of the BBC, has made reference to the idea that there may be an opportunity to review how the BBC is reporting on foreign conflicts, to ensure that the corporation is getting it right. This goes to the fundamental currency of the BBC: it is a trusted organisation, but with that level of trust comes a much deeper level of responsibility. Hon. Members have spoken about how licence fee payers are paying for this content and therefore rightly expect certain standards to be adhered to.

A response is needed, not so that we can kick the organisation and its dedicated reporters, but so that the BBC can discharge its fundamental duties to be a beacon of trusted information in an era of water muddying, truth bending and industrial disinformation. That is precisely how we worked in the mid-term review. Halfway through the royal charter, the review was an opportunity to pause, examine and evaluate the effectiveness of the BBC’s governance and regulation. The review focused on a range of issues, including editorial standards and impartiality, and our recommendations were unambiguous about the fact that there is scope for material improvement across a variety of areas.

The review highlighted that impartiality continues to be a major challenge for the BBC. Audience perception that the BBC is not sufficiently impartial is an ongoing issue. Within a culture of continuous improvement, we think that more can be done. Following direct and constructive dialogue with the Government, the BBC is implementing major reforms, although perhaps not major enough for my hon. Friend the Member for Stone.

That would be true. Surely an improvement would be to have a test within a few months—a review of what has already been done under the new system that has been created. If that fails, the whole system fails.

My hon. Friend and I discussed the mid-term review and its findings just before it was launched, and I said to him that there is an opportunity to see how it is playing out, which will inform some of our discussions about charter renewal and future funding debates. A review of the funding model for the BBC is forthcoming. We will invite all hon. Members to engage with that review, which may be an opportunity for my hon. Friend’s views to be aired loudly and persistently.

I am grateful to the Minister for highlighting the fact that there will be a funding review, but how the BBC is funded is not the issue. The BBC has built a reputation as the trusted news source, and it is letting that reputation down. There will be a BBC no matter how it is funded, and people will turn to it. The problem now is that there is a bias being launched against Israel. That is a fact. The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) talked about a survey in which people felt that it was balanced, but they are the ones receiving the news, not the ones involved in it. It does not come down to how the funding is put in place; it is about how we ensure that the BBC keeps its impartiality.

I was referring to the next staging posts down the line. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone suggested that the mid-term review was not meaty enough for his tastes, so I was simply encouraging him to engage in the next stages of the conversation. It is an incredibly important national conversation that will involve not just hon. Members, but the general public.

I have expressed to the director-general a concern that in public life we sometimes focus on the micro issues in relation to the BBC. I am not suggesting for one moment that this is one of those issues, but we get involved in regular tussles without asking fundamental questions about what we want the BBC to be going forward. That is something that I hold very close to my heart, because we are entering a very uncertain world in which misinformation and disinformation are being industrialised, and the BBC has an incredibly important role. It is in our interests as a nation, and as a western nation, to try to ensure that its future is safeguarded and that it maintains its public perception of trust and impartiality. I simply encourage hon. Members, in advance of the charter renewal process and in advance of discussions on the funding fee, to ask some of those big, searching questions about what we truly want the BBC to be.

As we are on the topic of asking questions, will the Minister write to the director-general to ask him what his actual plan is to deal with the institutionalised antisemitism in the BBC, which I think he has acknowledged himself in his email to staff? Will she ask him what specific training was given to the antisemitic, racist star of “The Apprentice”—well, I will not call him a star, because he is not a star; he is just a nasty little racist—on content related to antisemitism, because the BBC will not tell me? Will she ask him whether the BBC has an editorial note on antisemitism within the newsroom and, if it does not, whether it will produce one?

I thank my hon. Friend for those searching questions. I have regular discussions with the director-general. Hon. Members regularly talk to me about their concerns relating to how the BBC is run, and I relay some of those concerns. We have open discussions when he comes to see me and vice versa. As my hon. Friend notes, an email has gone out to all staff within the BBC in relation to antisemitism. I will be happy to discuss his specific questions about training for the candidate for “The Apprentice” and the other issues in person with the director-general at our next meeting, if not before.

I have no doubt that somebody from the BBC will be listening to this debate and noting the concerns that have been expressed in this Chamber about how the organisation is run. It must be very difficult in BBC newsrooms when staff have concerns about other members of staff in relation to personal opinions on social media that have recently come to light. Again, it goes back to the fundamental interests of the organisation, which are to make sure that staff can work in the newsrooms with a drive towards the truth and without fear of intimidation from anybody else in that newsroom.

I return to the mid-term review. We worked very hard with the BBC and Ofcom to try to tackle the fundamental concerns that have been raised about impartiality. A new, legally binding responsibility on the BBC board will require it actively to oversee the BBC’s complaints process to assure audiences that their concerns are being fairly considered. I appreciate that many hon. Members in this Chamber wanted to move on from the BBC First complaints process. Again, that is an issue that will be considered in charter renewal. We will also be closely monitoring whether there is a substantial change in how complaints are handled as a result of the mid-term review changes.

We have recommended that Ofcom’s regulatory responsibilities be extended to the online content that the BBC produces. I believe that one hon. Member referred to a complaint about how an incident involving antisemitism on a bus in Oxford Street was reported. That was part of the BBC’s online material, and it is the kind of complaint that will be brought into scope because of the mid-term review.

Will the Minister be good enough to take into account the views of Baroness Deech KC, a Cross Bencher in the House of Lords who was a governor of the BBC? She wrote an important letter to The Times or The Daily Telegraph—it does not matter which—about the judgment of the BBC. Will the Minister look at Baroness Deech’s extremely interesting letter and speak to her about it?

Order. I have been generous in giving the Minister extra time to answer all the questions, but I hope she will afford the same consideration to the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North (Sir Michael Ellis) and allow him to sum up.

I shall look into the specific issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone raised.

As I say, the mid-term review is by definition a stepping stone. It takes us to charter review, which will be the time to ask many more fundamental questions of the BBC. I do not wish to take up any further time. I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North again for securing this debate.

I am grateful to you, Ms Bardell, and to Front-Bench and particularly Back-Bench colleagues.

The BBC is a treasured institution. We care about it and want it to prosper—that is why we are here—but it is failing. Ironically, as colleagues have mentioned, today the BBC is heavily pushing what it is calling its Gaza day. No one begrudges it that—that is what it is entitled to do—but has the BBC done an Israel day? If it purports to be neutral, it has to do both. Why not do an Israel day? If Uruguay and Paraguay were at war and the BBC did a Uruguay day, we would find it also doing a Paraguay day. Why not interview the victims, the injured, the Israeli families of the murdered of the pogrom or the hostages who have been released? Why not interview the heroes who saved civilians? If it purports to be neutral, it has to do both, so it is a highly topical example. It is suspicious, of course, because doing such an Israel day would be a lot easier to arrange and could perhaps have been done already.

Today the BBC is going some way to proving the case, but what makes the BBC institutionally antisemitic is not that there is bias or antisemitism within—sadly, there is a lot of that everywhere—but the fact that the management have not done what they should be doing about it. That is what makes it institutional. BBC employees suffering abuse from within, mistakes not being corrected, staff and so-called talent not being disciplined and erroneous reports not being corrected or being pushed out without responsible checking have inflamed community tensions here in the UK, fuelled the rise in antisemitism and harmed diplomatic efforts to end the violence.

To hold oneself out as neutral and to be biased is a form of corruption. The BBC can no longer be permitted to mark its own homework.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Government’s role in upholding the impartiality of BBC news coverage.

Time Banking

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the potential merits of Government support for timebanking.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I was reflecting ahead of the debate about where and how we find community and how that might have changed over the years. In recent decades, many of the traditional sites and sources of community have become fragmented or disappeared entirely. The changing nature of careers in the workplace, a decline in the membership of religious and community organisations, and people relocating more often have perhaps all played a role, among other factors. It is ironic that in an era dominated by online social networks and mass communication, for all the many undoubted benefits, we are grappling with issues of social isolation, loneliness and declining community cohesion.

Office for National Statistics data from March 2021 shows a 7.2% decrease since 2014-15 in those who agree that people in their local area are willing to help their neighbours, and an 8% fall in the proportion of people who believe that others in their neighbourhood can be trusted. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, in 2022 nearly 50% of adults in the UK reported feeling lonely occasionally, sometimes, often or always. There are multiple reasons for these trends, and there is no one easy fix, but they clearly demonstrate that initiatives such as time banking are needed more than ever. I declare an interest as a long-serving member on the committee at Leith Time Bank.

Life has changed, and our friends and family do not always live nearby. It is not always easy to ask someone for help, especially if it brings with it a feeling that we cannot pay them back. Time banking is a fun, relaxed and informal way of enabling people to help each other and bringing out the best in us all. Time banking is essentially about neighbours being neighbours. It offers a slightly more formalised approach to creating and sustaining the bonds that have long been fixtures of our communities. It reaffirms the old adage that the most valuable thing a person can offer someone is their time.

We all have skills, knowledge and experience to offer that could be beneficial to someone. It could be gardening, sewing, simple repairs, language skills, running errands, tech skills or helping with shopping—whatever it might be. Time banking is a way for people to exchange their skills and experience. It is based on a simple premise: for every hour someone spends helping someone, they earn an hour back from their time bank. Everyone’s time is valued equally, whatever is being offered. Everyone is encouraged to spend their time credits to give others the chance to make a difference and feel valued.

Timebanking UK was founded in 2002, inspired by the growth of time banking in the US. Social activist Martin Simon opened the first bank in Stroud, four years after the concept was introduced to the UK by Fair Shares. Having visited Dr Edgar Cahn and witnessed the time dollars movement in America, Martin Simon was determined to bring that system to the UK. He began development work from an office at City Works in Gloucester, creating Britain’s first time bank.

Now, 22 years on, there are well over 100 time banks and around 25,000 time bank members across these isles, with an estimated 6.7 million hours of help exchanged. Timebanking UK helps communities to set up time banks by providing all the resources needed. It offers monthly training sessions and networking events, a software platform and start-up materials, as well as individual support, advice and guidance.

Time banks bring together people of different ages, cultures, backgrounds and abilities who interact with each other on an equal footing and with mutual respect and understanding.

I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate; I cannot help but be enthralled by how she has presented her case for time banking. Does she agree that the old Bible truth “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is at the very core of the idea behind time banking? It allows all people to acknowledge their strengths, and to get help in return. Taking my speechwriter as an example, she says to me:

“These fingers are designed for typing”—

but there are others who are unable to manage that skill but would be able to provide tuition for a new skill. The ability to share should always be encouraged, as long as safety is paramount. We need to be assured, so I ask: is there a safety aspect to what is being put forward?

Is the hon. Gentleman asking whether there is a safety aspect in terms of monitoring what happens to everyone?

Yes, there certainly is, and I will explain a little bit about the set-up of time banks as I continue. The hon. Gentleman has got to the heart of what makes time banks work: mutual respect and the feeling of giving as well as receiving. He has hit the nail on the head.

To return to what I was saying, a time bank member is not a volunteer in the traditional sense; they must be prepared to receive from others as well as to give to others. It is that reciprocity that makes time banks unique. Timebanking UK’s case studies show that joining a time bank really can change people’s lives. Time bank members learn new skills, meet new people who are often from different backgrounds, report better self-esteem and self-confidence, and feel healthier—both mentally and physically.

After six months as a member of a time bank, 80% of participants felt a greater sense of community belonging, 74% had made new friends, 74% experienced improved mood or reduced depression, 69% felt more comfortable asking for or receiving help, 66% experienced decreased loneliness and 60% noted improvements in their quality of life, health and wellbeing. Despite its considerable success over the years, time banking has not been raised in the House of Commons since 2011, so a chance to pay tribute to the movement and identify opportunities to grow it is long overdue.

As I mentioned, I have been a long-time supporter of the Leith Time Bank, which is part of Timebanking UK and Timebanking Scotland and has been running for more than a decade. Leith Time Bank’s development worker Mary O’Connell, and Anne Munro, the manager of Leith’s wonderful Pilmeny Development Project, along with my committed fellow committee members who sustain Leith Time Bank, have been at the heart of its burgeoning success. Its primary focus is to support older people, carers and adults with chronic health conditions, but many other demographics are represented among its 200 members. The skills one can offer or ask for are as numerous, if not more so, than the number of members, and include gardening, sewing, cooking, form filling and helping with the shopping—the list goes on and on.

Leith in my constituency is a densely populated area, but folk do not always socialise locally, and particularly not across different groups and generations. Recent waves of gentrification can create tensions, but time banking has been remarkably effective at breaking down barriers and forging connections between old Leithers and new arrivals, forming friendships between people who might not otherwise have ever met.

Time banks thrive best at a local level where members can get to know one another. Leith Time Bank runs social activities to help to facilitate this, as well as activities such as a multicultural cooking group and home energy advice meetings. Every month it offers a programme of activities whereby members can get to know each other in a safe and comfortable environment, and they range from weekly language classes and culture group meet-ups to one-off events such as a gardening squad, through to attending football matches or museums.

At the height of the pandemic, communication with loved ones online was a godsend for many folk, but lockdowns also exacerbated the digital divide. Those without access to digital devices faced really increased social isolation. Leith Time Bank runs a project whereby people offer their digital skills, largely—although not necessarily completely—to support older people in learning about tech access, and they can then get something back in return.

Time banks also offer a lot of flexibility, which I know has worked well locally for students, those with irregular schedules or just folk juggling various commitments and responsibilities in busy lives who still want to put something into their local area. I mentioned Mary O’Connell from Leith Time Bank; I spent some time with her recently and she shared some examples of its positive impact. For instance, one of its members is an 80-year-old man who is visually impaired and lives alone, with no friends or family nearby. He earns credits by providing one-to-one Spanish and French lessons in a local café with other time bank members. In exchange, those members earn credits by accompanying him to medical appointments and social activities, or by providing practical help with day-to-day needs like shopping, as well as telephone and face-to-face chats.

Leith Time Bank also operates a community pot whereby people can donate credit virtually, and it can be used for those who cannot contribute, perhaps due to health issues. One gentleman wanted to see a film at the cinema but he was unable to travel there himself, so he used the community pot to find someone to buddy him for the film. Mary also told me about an older lady who had been receiving help through the community credit pot but felt she had no expertise to give back. During a group activity, she met young mums and realised that she did indeed have skills to offer as she was able to teach them all how to make soup.

Members have described time banks as a “lifeline”, spoken of how they have done wonders for their mental health, and reflected on the opportunity they give them to

“meet lots of interesting people with good values”,

and also, of course, to meet and befriend people from all sorts of different ethnic backgrounds. I have given small local examples, but there are many thousands more such interactions all across these isles. The Timebanking UK network has helped to create local mutual support structures that can work in tandem with statutory services as well. At a UK national level, it has worked on projects with organisations across the charity, public and private sectors, including the likes of Sport England, the National Lottery and Disability Rights UK.

I argue that expanding the time banking network further would have multiple benefits, and I urge the Minister to consider where the Government might be able to lend some support. Our ageing populations, the cost of living crisis and the challenges facing social care all make the case for time banking to play an enhanced role in our society. Timebanking UK proposes a three-year national programme to create multiple time banking networks, including a public awareness programme—part of the problem is that not many people are aware of time banking and its many benefits—and training in co-production for key members of the social care management and frontline workforce.

Additional funding would enable Timebanking UK to expand its operations and realise its vision of a time bank on every high street in every village, town and city, just as there are general practitioners and pharmacies. Under a social franchise model, Timebanking UK would set up delivery partnerships with stakeholders, including voluntary and support organisations, GPs, health centres and community groups.

Further support would also help Timebanking UK to implement a system for quality-effectiveness and to calculate the social return on investment. It would allow more detailed assessments of the impact of time banking for individuals and communities, and a focus on the amount that it saves for statutory services, as well as for the creation of an app for UK national interaction between participants and to engage the younger audience. To give a cost example, just £20,000 to £50,000 would enable the creation of complete start-up packs for 100 new time banks.

I strongly urge the Minister to check whether he has a time bank in or near his constituency, if he is not already in touch with one. I also thoroughly recommend that he consider meeting Timebanking UK—representatives of which are in the Public Gallery—to hear more about its proposals in detail.

I will conclude with a quote from Mary, that fantastic development worker at Leith Time Bank, which eloquently captures the essence of time banking:

“We think the reason Leith Timebank works so well is it offers opportunities for people of different ages, cultures and backgrounds to come together to share their skills, knowledge and experience with others. Everyone is valued equally, with everyone having something to offer and to receive. Timebanking is not just about exchanging services, it’s about building relationships—connecting with others in the community and creating a culture of mutual support and collaboration. This approach helps members and the community to connect, build resilience, and improve overall well-being.”

The value of time banking in fostering community cohesion and addressing social isolation is abundantly clear. Anything we can do to promote and expand the movement would be welcome. I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) for securing this debate on the potential merits of Government support for time banking and for an insightful speech on the benefits that she has clearly witnessed herself.

For me, volunteering is vital to society. As a Government, we are strongly committed—and I am personally—to supporting volunteering in all its forms. I thank all volunteers who contribute their time and energy to support others. They make a real difference in their communities. Our latest figures show that about 25 million people in England had volunteered at least once in the previous 12 months. That is a huge number of people making a positive impact in their communities.

I was delighted to take part in the launch event for this year’s Big Help Out campaign, which will take place from 7 to 9 June. It will help to raise awareness of volunteering throughout the United Kingdom and will provide opportunities for people to experience volunteering, often for the first time. Without doubt, the British public’s enthusiasm for volunteering was evident in last year’s campaign, during the celebration of the coronation of His Majesty the King, with more than 6.5 million people volunteering on that day. I hope that we can see even more people take part this year. I am sure that hon. Members present will join me in supporting the campaign.

I am also grateful to all those who did so much during the pandemic. Many people in our country would not have had the help and support that they needed, were it not for amazing volunteers up and down the country. We must not forget, however, that quality volunteering requires effort and support, so I also take this opportunity to put on the record my thanks to the people who make volunteering happen and who work tirelessly for volunteers every day.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith for highlighting the vital work that time banking plays in volunteering. As she rightly pointed out, recruitment and retention of volunteers is an increasing problem for charities, in particular the small local ones. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ “Time Well Spent” survey, which was funded by my Department, indicated that the primary barrier to volunteering among non-volunteers is not wanting to make an ongoing commitment. That is where offering incentives can be an excellent way to encourage people to try out volunteering. Who knows, they might then want to make an ongoing commitment.

As the hon. Lady mentioned, she has sat for more than seven years on the advisory group of Leith Time Bank in her constituency. Reading about some of its work, it is good to see that from its inception her work has helped to promote the time bank concept to a wider audience. I, too, read the story of the 80-year-old man who is visually impaired. It is fascinating to listen to his experience, providing one-to-one Spanish and French lessons in a local café, which is amazing. She also gave an example of someone who is clearly a master of making soup—maybe I should try some.

What the hon. Lady highlighted throughout her contribution was the true two-way nature of volunteering, and how it can bring communities together. That is why, in recognising the value of volunteer rewards schemes, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has had a hand in supporting their development. Between 2017 and 2020, Tempo Time Credits received a DCMS grant to help it to scale up from its origins in Wales, to pilot three new hubs in England. As the hon. Lady said, volunteers involved in the time credits programme felt more involved in community activities, healthier and more socially connected.

Tempo has continued to do magnificent things, and now has more than 15,000 volunteers registered on its platforms. Similar initiatives have had equally significant impacts in other sectors, including the arts and the creative industries. In West Yorkshire, in my area, the Leeds Creative Timebank, established in 2010 with Arts Council England funding, has helped to create a thriving social economy for the arts across Leeds, by facilitating the exchange of information and support among its members.

There is no doubt that time banking can be fantastic for rewarding and recognising volunteers. It is truly striking to see how time banking can help to foster those social connections and help local communities and economies to thrive. Funding from the Government in that space has helped to test this innovative model.

I know that there are barriers still to overcome, to ensure that everyone who wants to can volunteer. We are committed to encouraging and enabling volunteering across the country, and to improving volunteering experiences. That includes supporting the next generation of volunteers and enabling them to create a lifelong habit of volunteering. Rewarding and recognising volunteers is a pivotal way to encourage more people to get involved and volunteer.

My Department works closely with No. 10 to co-ordinate the Points of Light awards, whereby the Prime Minister recognises outstanding individuals and volunteers who are making real changes in their communities, inspiring others. Those awards are an essential part of telling the story of the impact of volunteering across the UK. Beyond our work to recognise volunteers, we are providing funding, and working with an extensive range of partners, to ensure that there are clear entry points for volunteering.

Another key initiative is the Vision for Volunteering, which is a voluntary sector-led initiative to develop volunteering in England over the next 10 years. The Government supported the Vision from the outset, sitting on its advisory boards and lending support to voluntary organisations that are taking the work forward. One of the themes of the Vision is to increase equity and inclusion, ensuring that volunteering is accessible and welcoming to everyone, wherever they may be.

Last year, we announced the Know Your Neighbourhood fund, with a funding package of up to £30 million, including £10 million from the National Lottery Community Fund. That funding is widening participation in volunteering and tackling loneliness in 27 of the most disadvantaged areas of the country.

I am glad that the hon. Lady mentioned loneliness. I have the pleasure of being the Minister for loneliness, and I have seen how important volunteering is as a tool for making social connections and tackling loneliness in all the age groups that suffer from it. I have given a brief glimpse of the vast work that is going on to support volunteering; I am immensely proud of what we are doing to back volunteering and enable more people to benefit from activities.

I am really glad that we have had this debate, because we all share the same ambition to support volunteers to make a real difference in their communities. We will continue to test and support many ways to encourage and enable people to take part. It is heartening to see how time banking can successfully incentivise and reward volunteers. I thank everyone who is involved.

I extend an offer to meet, as the hon. Lady requested, because I am always interested to hear about innovative ways to get all our communities working together. Day in, day out, I see the value of people volunteering, whatever form their role may take. It is a crucial tool for getting communities working together, making social connections and breaking down the barriers to talking about loneliness. The stigma around loneliness is still one of the biggest issues we face. I would be more than happy to meet to discuss what can be done. I make the caveat that I do not have a great big pot of money at my disposal, but I am sure there are innovative things that we can think about to spread the gospel about how people can get involved in their community. I thank the hon. Lady sincerely for her debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Tackling Obesity

[Peter Dowd in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of tackling obesity.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Dowd. I am incredibly grateful to be able to raise the important subject of tackling obesity, which I believe is vital to our country’s future. I am grateful to see colleagues here from both sides of the House, as tackling obesity requires a cross-party approach. I particularly welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is also a personal friend. I have worked closely with her in the past, and I know how interested in and concerned about this issue she is.

Obesity is a major public health problem and a global concern. According to the World Health Organisation, worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. Most of the world’s population live in countries where issues associated with being overweight or obese kill more people than issues associated with being underweight, and 39 million children under the age of five were overweight or obese in 2020. These are quite shocking statistics. However, the problem is of particular concern in the United Kingdom, where we have the third highest obesity rates in Europe, behind only Malta and Turkey, and where we have the third highest in the G7, behind only Canada and the US. Almost one in three adults here is now classified as obese, a dramatic increase from the one in 10 adults in 1970. The increase in this country has been much greater than in other western European countries, such as France, Germany and Italy.

The health survey for England monitors trends in our national health and care. It found that a higher proportion of men than women were either overweight or obese—69%, compared with 59%. The highest rates of obesity were found among the lowest socioeconomic groups. Almost 70% of people in the most deprived quintile of English localities are classed as living with obesity or being overweight, compared with 59% of those in the richest.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and apologise to him in advance: but for an AGM that I am attending at five o’clock, I would have participated in the whole debate.

According to the Department of Health back home, 65% of adults in Northern Ireland are obese, which is quite a shocking figure. There are now plans for a consultation, which highlights the need to make healthier food more affordable. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this must be a priority for every region of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and that that must be done in partnership with our own agrifood sector? It has a role to play—maybe a financial role, as much as a role in guidance. When it comes to the Minister’s reply, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that partnership with the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs might be advantageous?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving us that information from Northern Ireland. Of course, this is something that we need to work on across all four of our countries that make up the United Kingdom. I am sure that co-operation is the best way forward.

Behind these statistics are real people—our people, not just statistics: parents, grandparents, children, friends and neighbours. Overweight people are more likely to experience other health issues as a result of excess weight. There are real consequences, too, for the quality of life of our people. People who are obese are seven times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Some 11% of obese adults reported in the health survey for England that they had a diagnosis of diabetes from a doctor. The figure was less than half that among overweight adults, at 5%, and it was just 3% among those who were neither overweight nor obese.

People with obesity are two to three times more likely to have high blood pressure and other consequential health issues. Obesity is a risk factor for depression and is associated with social isolation and less physical activity, contributing to an increased risk of dementia. Obesity between the ages of 35 and 65 can actually increase dementia risk in later life by some 30%. Of course, excess weight puts strain on joints, increasing the risk of musculoskeletal conditions. Other health problems from excess weight include cardiovascular disease, liver disease and many common cancers. Obesity is actually the second biggest preventable cause of cancer.

As well as the costs to individuals’ health and wellbeing, there is the real cost to the economy, businesses, jobs and communities. The Times reported yesterday that 60 senior health experts—including the heads of the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Anaesthetists, the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal Society for Public Health, and dozens of health charities—have written to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, urging him to put tackling obesity and other public health issues at the heart of his Budget next month, for the sake of the economy. The plea is not just about healthcare, but about the economic vitality and future of our country. That coalition of doctors, scientists, charity bosses and food campaigners say that

“poor health is one of the greatest…threats”

facing Britain today and warn that it is damaging the economy in ways ranging from

“the size and strength of our labour market; to productivity; to growth and GDP.”

They also say that

“the vast majority of health conditions contributing to…economic problems are driven by poor diets, alcohol and tobacco.”

They cite the work of the independent Times Health Commission, a year-long inquiry that called for stronger Government intervention to tackle the growing obesity crisis and that recommended a number of interventions to combat obesity, including expansion of the sugar tax, curbs on cartoons on packaging and a pre-watershed ban on junk food advertising on television. The experts urge the Chancellor to issue a formal call for evidence on

“financial and non-financial health policy options that…make it easier for everyone to lead healthy lives—by shaping the environments they grow, learn, work and play in.”

They conclude by advising:

“The public overwhelmingly believe the government should have a stronger role in acting to create healthy lives and to take pressure off the NHS.”

The Times editorial of yesterday, under the heading “Body Politic”, gives a convincing account of the issues and the need for action. It also notes that merely increasing taxes on already hard-pressed consumers is not the way forward; we should be encouraging the switch to healthier products. I agree with that assessment and find it increasingly worrying that Frontier Economics estimates that in 2023 the total economic impact of obesity was £98 billion, accounting for the costs to the NHS and social care, lost productivity, work inactivity and welfare payments.

Obesity-related ill health does reduce workforce productivity. People living with obesity are estimated to have four extra sick days a year. That is approximately equivalent to an extra 37 million sick days across the UK working population. Estimates put the annual cost of obesity at 1% to 2% of GDP. With obesity rates continuing to soar, that is only likely to increase. Obesity places a heavy burden on the NHS. It contributes to high workloads in GP surgeries, hospitals and social care, adding to the pressures that we are already experiencing.

Tackling obesity has actually been on the political agenda for many years. In 1991, the then Conservative Government recognised that obesity was a sufficient threat to the health of the nation to warrant specific action. The first target for reducing obesity rates in England was set and was to achieve a return by 2005 to the 1980 level of 7%. Sadly, that target was missed. Over the last three decades, there have been various strategies, countless policies and many reforms, with key agencies and teams created and abolished. Despite that, and as highlighted in the statistics that I have mentioned, the issue is still very prevalent.

In my own borough of Bexley, the issue of obesity is one where, statistically, we are performing relatively badly—unlike in other areas, where Bexley performs extremely well. Last month, Bexley was dubbed the fattest borough in south-east London, after the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities published information on the percentage of adults over 18 who are classified as obese. According to the report, Bexley has the worst obesity rate in south-east London at 28% of the population, yet in recent years we have been successful in my area on health issues. The stop smoking campaign was a great success, and I was privileged to be involved in it. The number of smokers in our borough has considerably reduced because of campaigns by the NHS and the council, as well as people like me adding to those campaigns.

We have real issues with childhood obesity, and Bexley council has endeavoured to be proactive in improving the health of people across the borough, as well as implementing an obesity strategy in 2020. Despite that, childhood obesity rates in Bexley have worsened following the coronavirus pandemic. Figures by NHS Digital show that 745 of 3,095 year 6 pupils measured in Bexley were classed as obese or severely obese in 2022-23. Across England, 13.9% of year 6 pupils were overweight and a staggering 22.7% were obese or severely obese. That was slightly down on the previous year, but still higher than pre-pandemic figures.

That is extremely worrying, and childhood obesity is a major public health concern in its own right. Children who are obese are five times more likely to become obese as adults, and that puts them at higher risk of the conditions previously highlighted, as well as shortening their life expectancy. As the majority of obese children will remain obese as adults, early intervention is essential. We have to act early in their lives before they suffer complications later on due to something that was avoidable.

The Government have taken some action on childhood obesity. In 2018, they set a target of halving childhood obesity in England by 2030 and reducing the gap in obesity between children from the most and least deprived areas. While it is necessary, meeting that target unfortunately does not seem possible at this time. Despite all the health problems, the impact on lives and the cost to the economy, we must remember that obesity is preventable in many cases. Action is required by individuals, parents, schools, the Government, media and the food and drink manufacturers.

What can and should be done? Basically, as a nation, we are simply consuming too many calories each day. According to Public Health England, many adults consume an extra 200 to 300 calories a day over what they need, while children who are overweight or obese often consume an additional 500 calories a day. The NHS needs to do more, as public health improvement will ease the pressures on GPs and hospitals.

Of course, there needs to be an emphasis on the individual in tackling obesity. At an individual level, people can limit their energy intake from fats and sugars, increase their consumption of healthy food, particularly fruit and vegetables, and engage in regular physical activity. People who are overweight or obese may also benefit from joining a local weight loss group, or even from receiving support and counselling from trained healthcare professionals to help them to better their relationship with food and develop different eating habits. More publicity, promotion and education on food, nutrition and the consequences of a bad diet are absolutely essential.

Although that is important, tackling obesity is not just about individual effort; we need to see cultural and environmental changes too, while ensuring that everybody is given the necessary information to make healthy choices. Because of our fast-paced lives, our eating habits have changed in recent decades. There is a huge increase in people eating fast food, and more people are eating out, eating higher-calorie foods and buying hot food from takeaways that is high in fat, salt and often sugar. While it is good to see businesses thriving, it is incredibly worrying that some are exacerbating the problem and increasing the sugar and calorie intake of our nation. Treats are fine, and we should not be Job’s comforter on these sorts of things, but they should be for special occasions, rather than the mainstay of an individual’s diet.

Our food environment affects our behaviour and has a significant part to play in reducing obesity. Parents are crucial in this as the primary educators, and education is vital. It can be difficult to make healthy choices if someone is blissfully unaware of the content of the food they are eating. I know from personal experience that, when we do the weekly shop, identifying the healthiest products is not always easy. That is why we have to ensure the labelling of products in shops, cafés, restaurants, coffee shops, fast-food outlets and the rest, so that individuals can make an informed choice. Essentially, the healthy option should also be the easier option on the menus for everyone. Research shows that when Governments act on this issue, they have a positive effect. Our own Government have done excellent work in this area. The voluntary traffic-light scheme, which was introduced jointly by the UK Government and devolved Administrations in 2013, has been incredibly successful. Restrictions on the placement of unhealthy foods in supermarkets and shops have been hugely popular, and they stop shops using children and pester power to hassle adults into buying those items. The soft drinks industry levy has had an impact by encouraging reformulation and decreasing the volume of sugar in soft drinks.

However, more needs to be done, and advertising on television is still a real concern. Restrictions before 9 o’clock are due to come into effect in October 2025, having been originally planned for 1 January 2023. That delay is disappointing but understandable. These actions need to be taken, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister will take them on board in the dynamic way that she does in her role.

In conclusion, serious action is needed, and tackling the obesity epidemic is a responsibility for all of us—the Government, schools, families, industry, and politicians—whether local, regional, national or whatever. Everyone has a part to play. It is also something that I think we can unite on across this House, because it is an issue that affects everyone’s constituents and every person in the country. I know that the Opposition and Government would want to work together with the Scottish nationalists, and others in the Chamber, to ensure that we do this. If we do not, it will cost our NHS billions of pounds a year and have a huge detrimental economic impact. Most importantly of all, it affects our constituents, and particularly our children.

With strategic policy interventions, we have an opportunity to turn the tide against obesity, improve our nations’ health, enhance people’s quality of life, prevent needless early deaths and secure the economic future of our nation. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will carefully consider what I have said, and that colleagues on both sides of the House will endorse the fact that action is required.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship this afternoon, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) on securing this important debate. Whenever possible, I like to talk about the accomplishments of my constituents. One constituent of mine made an outstanding contribution to tackling obesity eight years ago, and I am glad that the hon. Member has recognised their efforts, because that constituent is the former Chancellor, who introduced the soft drinks levy in 2016.

That policy has meant a 46% fall in average sugar levels per soft drink product since 2015. Sales have not been affected; actually, they have increased by 14.9% over 4 years. That levy has been a remarkable success. The Medical Research Council estimates that it has prevented about 5,000 cases of obesity in year 6 girls, and 5,500 hospital admissions for children with tooth decay within five years. This is unambiguous and indisputable. Interventionist health policies are the only way to solve our obesity crisis, because the food system in this country is rigged against us.

This is not just a crisis. In Somerset, 34.6% of children leave primary school overweight or obese, but 21.8% of five-year-old children start primary school overweight or obese. In 2021, 60% of adults in Somerset were overweight or obese. We should be one of the healthiest countries in the world—we have an NHS that covers every citizen, a mild climate and a high level of economic development—but we are not. Thirty years of failed Government obesity policies tell us that we must change. A University of Cambridge team analysed 30 years of Government obesity policies in England—14 obesity strategies with 689 individual actions. Eight per cent fulfilled seven criteria identified by researchers as necessary for successful implementation, and 29% did not meet a single criterion.

We have tried blaming the individual, and it has not worked. It is not just remiss; it is wrong. The charity Beat reported that

“strategies harmful to people with eating disorders appear…to be ineffective at reducing obesity.”

By refusing to change the system and telling people that they are to blame, we are killing people who are already vulnerable, and there is a consensus. Polling last September from the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission and More in Common showed that 77% of participants wanted Government to put health standards over cost, and 67% thought that the Government were not doing enough to safeguard children against unhealthy food and drinks. The status quo simply cannot continue. Our farmers are underpaid, undervalued and underused in a food system that does not prioritise healthy local food of high standard. Small and medium UK agrifood businesses cannot compete with cheap, ultra-processed food. Our NHS staff are so overwhelmed in dealing with the results of obesity that they have little time or budget to deal with the causes.

We Liberal Democrats want a robust, thorough obesity and food strategy that meets all seven standards specified by Cambridge. We want junk food advertising restricted on TV and online, as the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford has mentioned. We want public sector food procurement strategies that benefit the farmers and local businesses producing the food. We want to extend the “polluter pays” principle that we have for water companies. We want to make junk food giants either change their ways or pay their way.

As a serving Somerset councillor, I know how vital it is to empower local authorities to develop and manage tailored strategies in their areas. We should give local authorities more power over planning to prevent high streets being clogged up with cheap fast food outlets, and to restrict junk food advertising. Let them develop food partnerships with farmers and agrifood businesses. We must have a new, interventionist approach to our food system. All other approaches have failed. It makes economic sense, environmental sense and moral sense. Let us make a better food future.

I am going to give Members five minutes each. The Opposition spokespersons will have five, and the Minister will have ten.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett), and I agree with pretty much everything that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) has just said as well. In July 2020, the House of Lords produced an excellent Select Committee report, “Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food”, which is pretty shocking. We are one of the most overweight nations in Europe, and that is not an accident, because our diet is pretty appalling. Page 19 of that report says:

“In the UK, more than half (50.7%) of all total dietary energy from purchases came from highly processed foods, compared to only 10.2% in Portugal and 13.4% in Italy.”

Our diets are so much worse than those of our fellow European nations. We are bombarded with advertising for unhealthy food. In 2017, £300 million was spent on the advertising of less healthy foods, compared with only £16 million a day on fruit and vegetables. We are doing really badly at even getting our five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Only 31% of adults, and only 8% of teenagers, are achieving that; parents in the room will recognise that challenge.

All these figures are worst for the poorest members of our society. I commend The Times on its excellent health commission report and on some of its recommendations. It thinks it is outrageous that some of these highly processed foods can have “natural” and “organic” on the front of the packaging. That is deceptive and misleading, and many of the big food producers have a lot to answer for. The Times says that all children should learn to cook properly and that those lessons should be inspected by Ofsted with as much rigour as maths and English. This matters. If people turn up to university able only to open a packet and put it in the microwave, they are probably not set for the most healthy life and it will probably cost them more as well.

Children are bombarded with these images. Bite Back, with which I have worked very closely, wants to get rid of the use of cartoon characters and other tactics that appeal to children, which hook our young people into unhealthy food. The Times also says that we should not have just environmental, social and governance for our businesses; it should be environmental, social, governance and health because employers can do their bit as well.

How do we know how many calories we are eating each day? I, as a man, am supposed to eat no more than 2,500 calories a day. For women, it is 2,000. How do we know? The signs in some of the restaurants are tiny. Let us make it easy for people to do the right thing. That is a generally quite a good strapline: make the right thing the easy and affordable thing to do. I salute my local markets in Leighton Buzzard, Dunstable and Houghton Regis, which provide fresh fruit and veg and often at very good prices; I have to say that my supermarkets do so as well. We all know that exercise is important, but I have a little caveat on that: you cannot outrun a bad diet, but exercise is always brilliant for all of us and we should all do more of it.

It was great to hear the speech from the Liberal Democrats because this is not a nanny state, entirely private matter. This is why: children don’t get to choose what they eat. They get fed what their parents give them; what we feed our children really matters. We have to be honest; there is limited supply in the NHS for all of us, so if other people eat really bad food, that means that NHS capacity is being taken up with dealing with type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart problems and other issues. We all have a stake in us all eating well, and I hope we can combine on that issue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) on securing this important debate. As he said, it affects all MPs because it affects all our constituencies. It affects families across the country.

I am here because I recently visited Putneymead Group Medical Practice in my constituency. It is a really large surgery, which serves 25,500 people and employs 23 GPs. They know what they are talking about; it is an excellent facility. I asked the doctors what the main issues were they were facing, and they said that the main issue was childhood obesity. They were worried that the current state of the NHS meant that it was unable to provide services to combat childhood obesity, and they were also worried about the lack of services for primary school children. Early intervention is very important in tackling childhood obesity, but they were also concerned about secondary education. They mentioned Wandsworth Borough Council provision for primary school children, but that ends at year 6. In secondary school, there is even less provision and support for tackling obesity, and they identified that as a key issue.

Today, two in every five children in England are overweight or obese by the time they finish primary school. That has lasting consequences for their physical and mental health and for their quality of life. The national child measurement programme found that in 2021-22, 10% of reception-age children in England were obese. The proportions were higher among year 6 children, with 23.4% being obese. Something is going wrong in our provision and support programmes for primary school children.

Childhood obesity is a significant concern in my borough of Wandsworth, where more than one fifth of children in reception are overweight or living with obesity. In year 6, that figure rises to 37.7%, which is higher than in the rest of the country. Wandsworth Council has several programmes to tackle the issue. The Health4Life team runs the Mums, Minis and KickStart programmes for primary school-age children and their families. The children’s school food strategy and the campaign targeting takeaways near secondary schools are also having an impact, but that needs to be amplified and supported by having the same programmes across the country. As I said, this support needs to be maintained and to continue through secondary education, as well as through primary. In the United Kingdom, the prevalence of obesity among year 10 children is still 23.4%, so one in four children are still classified as obese—in London, the figure is still 37.4%.

It is essential to continue promoting healthy lifestyles, but there are also significant infrastructure issues. There is an issue around planning and having shops with healthy produce in the right places so that they are easier to access for people who do not have the same transport options as others. We also need to tackle takeaways near secondary schools, which Wandsworth Council is starting to do, and there are elements of good practice that can be learned. In addition, we need to tackle inactivity in schools. Many playing fields have been sold off, which has reduced access to physical education classes in school. I have seen that with my own children, who have gone through secondary school with significantly less access to PE lessons than I had when I was going through school.

There is also the issue of healthy eating and teaching cookery. I pay tribute to a great community organisation in my constituency called Bags of Taste, which teaches people how to eat better for less. It has a really high take-up, and people really enjoy making the kind of food they would get from a takeaway but can cook for less money in their own homes. That is to be applauded and supported.

There could also be much more action taken by supermarkets, and action on advertising unhealthy food. Another excellent programme that I have seen really working, but that is not taken up comprehensively enough, is the Daily Mile. Having started off with a school in Stirling in Scotland, it has been taken up by many primary schools around the country. It is tackling this issue and making a difference.

To conclude, Labour will tackle childhood obesity through a range of measures, including by implementing the 9 pm watershed for junk food advertising, getting kids moving through a mandatory national curriculum with a wider range of physical activities, providing free breakfast clubs in every primary school and taking action to end the promotion of junk foods targeted at children. We will take action. The current obesity figures are a damning indictment of 14 years of Tory rule that have not worked. It is time for Labour.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) on securing this debate. Tackling obesity is preventing ill health; I want to make it very clear that it is not nanny state, because good health provides choices.

We are already looking at these issues through the way we are tackling smoking, and I commend my right hon. Friend the Minister for her proposed actions on that. Smoking is an addiction, and obesity is becoming an addiction—an addiction to food high in fat, salt or sugar. We need similar, world-leading action to tackle obesity. The Obesity Health Alliance has said that obesity is the new smoking.

We have already heard that 30% of adults are obese, and 25% of children starting school are either obese or overweight, so we need to take serious action. The food giants are making us addicted to food that is high in fat, salt and sugar, so we need to tackle that in the same way we are tackling smoking.

Obesity causes cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. The reason the food giants are spending huge amounts on advertising chocolate, crisps, biscuits and ice cream—much of which is marketed at children—is that those products make them huge amounts of profit. I am not against profit, but I am when it comes at the expense of people’s health, and particularly the health of our children.

A recent study by the University of Oxford shows that, for seven of the top 10 global food manufacturers, two thirds of their food and drink sales in Britain came from unhealthy foods. In 2022, it was estimated that the biggest manufacturers spent £55 million on online adverts for food and drink products associated with childhood obesity. I have no doubt that that did not decrease in 2023, and I do not think it will decrease this year either.

In addition to the marketing, the packaging of unhealthy food is designed to appeal to children, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) implied. In a way, the issue is similar to the way disposable vapes are marketed to children. That is another issue my right hon. Friend the Minister is tackling, but we need to sort out the way unhealthy foods are marketed to children too. Children and young people do not ask to be bombarded with the ads they see time and time again, yet they are being bombarded—they cannot escape them at all. That is why Government action is needed, and needed now. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to update the House on the progress being made to implement the measures in section 172 of, and schedule 18 to, the Health and Care Act 2022 on the advertising of less healthy food and drink and to ensure that we are on schedule to deliver those messages.

Going back a number of years, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) mentioned, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced the soft drinks industry levy. People at the time said it would not work, but it has; it has cut huge amounts of sugar out of soft drinks across the board. We need to look at how we replicate that measure for other foodstuffs. I am proud that I was a member of the Health and Social Care Committee when it asked for it to be put in place. It is one of the Committee’s great achievements, and we can do even more. We need to apply that type of measure across food and drink production to incentivise healthier food and drink. Manufacturers and retailers want a level playing field, so it is important that we do that.

In conclusion, we need to tackle obesity, which the Government first identified as a priority in the early 1990s in the “Health of the Nation” White Paper. Over 30 years on, we are still only talking about tackling obesity. The health of our nation is running out of time. We need action, and we need it now.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) on securing this debate. In the context of the ongoing Tory cost of living crisis and an increasingly unhealthy population, it is important that it takes place, so I welcome his bringing it to the Chamber. Huge financial pressure and high food prices are forcing families to eat less healthily, getting cheaper calories from unhealthy foods. There is a clear link between deprivation and obesity, which is why tackling health inequalities and poverty are top priorities for the SNP Scottish Government.

We have heard lots of interesting contributions. The right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford touched on junk food advertising, and I discussed that exact issue with the University of Glasgow earlier this afternoon. We need to be incredibly mindful of where, what and when we are advertising; otherwise, we will have an often detrimental impact on health inequalities.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) spoke a great deal about child obesity, which I will come on to. I very much agree with her on that point, but I would welcome an intervention from her on how the Liberal Democrat party’s abandonment of free tuition is impacting household budgets, and thus people’s ability to access healthy foods.

It was hugely welcome that the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) mentioned the Daily Mile, which originated in Stirling. It was nice to hear a non-Scottish Member cast light on a project that originated in Scotland, so I certainly welcome that comment.

Obesity is a problem that is escalating on a global scale, but sadly the effects are being felt severely in Scotland. According to a survey, 67% of adults are deemed overweight and a third of children are at risk of becoming overweight. That same survey found that obesity was more common in households with lower incomes—a correlation we know and recognise all too well. That is why I and my SNP colleagues are consistently calling on the UK Government to take action to tackle the cost of living crisis, improve universal credit and reverse their policies that deny families crucial support.

The Scottish Government do not have the levers to be able to do those things at the moment. They therefore mitigate the bad political decisions made in this place, reducing family household costs by providing free prescriptions, free school meals, free childcare, free period products, free university education and free bus travel for those under 22 and over 60; freezing council tax; providing the young carer grant, the Scottish child payment, and both adult and child disability payments; and mitigating the bedroom tax, the rape clause, the benefits cap and real-terms cuts to social security.

Earlier today I met Professor Iain McInnes of the University of Glasgow, whose project, “Creating Healthier Places: A Place-Based Approach to Research & Partnership”, factors access to healthy foods into its research on 20-minute neighbourhoods. It is a fascinating project, and I urge the Minister to have a look at it—I think she would be just as impressed as I am.

Through the best start grant and best start foods applications, the Scottish Government have also provided over £180 million to low-income families to help with expenses during their children’s early years. The eligibility for best start foods will be expanding so that a further 20,000 people can access support to buy healthy food. Such steps are essential to ensure that support is there for the least well-off families to be able to make healthy food choices.

In my constituency, new data from Cancer Research has shown that 22.5% of four to five-year-olds are overweight or obese—that is four to five-year-olds who are already increasing their risk of serious illnesses. That is not a choice by those children or their parents, but a symptom of families not having the resources to provide healthy options. It is a symptom of 14 years of austerity. It is a symptom of being tied to this broken Westminster system.

I know that the Minister cares deeply about these issues and will give a compassionate and considerate response. I simply urge her to mirror some of the policies the Scottish Government are taking on tackling health inequalities. That is why in Scotland, all pupils in primaries 1 to 5, all children in additional support needs schools, and eligible pupils in primary 6 through to S6 can benefit from free school meals—the most generous free school meals offer anywhere in these isles, saving families—

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd. I thank the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) for securing this debate. He has been a strong campaigner for tackling childhood obesity over many years, and I thank him for his remarks today.

As many colleagues have rightly highlighted, the obesity epidemic is a genuine crisis. It will be the next big public health issue that we will all be talking about in a few years. Some 60% of us are now overweight. One in four children in England are now obese by the time they leave primary school. That means that those children are five times more likely to go on to develop serious and life-limiting diet-related conditions in adulthood, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, liver disease and certain forms of cancer. Of course, that means more pressure on the NHS, which, as we know, is already buckling under the weight of demand after years of mismanagement by this Government. It is a disaster for the taxpayer: Frontier Economics estimates the impact of obesity to be £98 billion a year in NHS and social care costs, lost productivity, workforce inactivity and welfare payments.

I thank many Members for rightly focusing their remarks today on the poor food environments in which children are growing up, and what we as policymakers can do about that. In recent decades, action on obesity has overwhelmingly focused on measures to get people to change their behaviours without tackling the structural factors that influence them. We know that that is not enough. For example, 99.9% of us know that it is important to get our five a day, most of us can tell each other what a healthy diet looks like, and every week there seems to be some new fad diet. The bottom line is the nation’s waistline: Britain is getting fatter.

It is therefore disappointing to see the Secretary of State say that she believes the priority for preventing obesity is to give people information about nutrition with no measures to fix the food environment. It appears to be at odds with her views on tobacco, where the Government have rightly taken up measures to further protect children from tobacco harm. She does not believe that measures to inform children about the dangers of tobacco are alone sufficient to solve that issue, so why does she believe this for obesity? If giving people more information is the solution, can the Minister explain why obesity rates are twice as high in our poorest areas than the richest?

Labour believes that every community in the UK should be a healthy place for children to grow up, learn and play. Businesses need a healthy workforce to drive economic productivity and sustainable growth. It is the Government’s job to make the healthy choice the easy choice. There was a moment in 2020 when it looked like every party across the House believed this. The Government brought forward the 2020 obesity strategy, welcomed by doctors, parents and health charities, and as the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford said, it received cross-party support.

The strategy contained evidence-based measures to begin to fix the food system by stopping our children from being bombarded with junk food adverts as part of a major commitment to halve childhood obesity by 2030. I would like to ask the Government today what has happened to that commitment, since they kicked that flagship policy into the long grass, delaying the policy for the next Government to deal with in October 2025. Are the Government still committed to halving childhood obesity by 2030, and what have they done since delaying the junk food advertising policies?

The need for action has not gone away, as we have heard today. The health of our children is in a dire state, and it is getting worse. It was once thought that it was essentially impossible for children to develop type 2 diabetes so early in life as a result of their diet, but as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford, we are now seeing thousands of cases of children developing the condition, with more every year. Nearly four in 10 children with obesity are estimated to have early stage fatty liver disease, and tooth decay remains the single largest cause of hospitalisations for young children in England.

The Government assure us that the regulations on junk food advertising were delayed merely to give industry more time to prepare. If this is the case, why have the Government refused to bring out the supporting secondary legislation for these regulations, which are now months overdue? Surely the Minister agrees that it would help the industry prepare for these regulations to have this detail available to them now. Industry will want to tackle the structural drivers of ill health and be led by evidence, not ideology. That starts with delivering the measures the Government have failed to implement to protect children from junk food.

We will restrict adverts for foods high in fat, sugar and salt in favour of healthier options. We will improve children’s diets by finally implementing the 9pm watershed for junk food advertising on television and ban paid-for advertising of less healthy foods in online media. Tackling health inequalities is a central part of Labour’s health mission. We will not resort to the tired excuses that would blame families in Blackpool for having poorer health than someone in Banbury. Instead, we need to focus on making healthy food more affordable and accessible. Schools will have a role and responsibility within that, which is why our fully funded breakfast clubs in every primary school in England will serve healthy and balanced food to embed healthy habits and boost children’s concentration and development.

The Government undertook some assessments of the health impacts of the national school breakfast programme when it was running. It would be really good to hear what some of the evidence was. We heard from schools that it improved pupil behaviour, their readiness to learn, social skills and their eating habits. To conclude, I want to leave Members with a statistic to reflect just how stark this issue is. Not only are our children fatter than their peers in other European countries, but they are actually shorter than their European peers.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) on raising this important issue. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. There is no doubt that this country faces an obesity challenge. I am reassured by the contributions from everybody that none of us underestimate the scale of the task ahead.

As others have said, two thirds of adults in this country are overweight or living with obesity, increasing their risk of many serious diseases. Tackling it head on is not just the right thing for patients but makes good economic sense too. Obesity-related conditions cost our NHS £6.5 billion directly every year and the cost to wider society is a staggering £57 billion. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford said, some estimates put it at over £90 billion.

My great passion is for giving every baby the best start for life. There is no doubt that prevention is not only kinder but much cheaper than cure. Food given to babies and young children helps establish food preferences at an early age, so it is vital that we build healthy eating patterns as soon as possible.

Nearly one in 10 children starting primary school are already living with obesity, doubling to nearly one in five by the time they leave. Growing numbers of children with excess weight are, as hon. Members have said, developing health conditions once rarely seen in childhood such as high blood pressure. Every child needs an environment that helps them to thrive and reach their full potential. Of course, that is easier said than done. There is no single solution, no magic bullet to solve the problem. That is why we are delivering an ambitious programme with four strands: first, we are supporting families to make healthier choices through more advice and better information. That starts at the very beginning of life with our national breastfeeding helpline for parents who need support. The Start for Life website is a rich source of helpful advice.

We are backing family hubs with £300 million so that new mums and dads have the best advice, including on children’s nutrition, with one-stop shops across England. Weaning is a critical time for establishing healthy eating, so we are working on voluntary industry guidelines to reduce levels of sugar and salt in commercial food and drink aimed at children up to 36 months. We have begun a four-week period of engaging with industry to make sure we get that right.

For older children, families and adults, we provide a range of materials, tools and apps to encourage eating better and moving more. That can all be found on our Better Health website. I encourage all hon. Members to recommend it to their constituents.

I am proud of action that we have taken to mandate calorie labelling on websites and delivery apps for all large restaurants, cafés and takeaways. We have prohibited the promotion of less healthy products at key selling locations to help people stave off impulse buys, because we all know that people are not making those choices consciously. They are unconscious choices being hugely promoted by incredibly strong advertising and marketing. We know it can be very challenging for some families to make healthier choices, so we are investing over £200 million a year on three health food schemes: healthy start, the nursery milk scheme and the school fruit and vegetable scheme.

Secondly, we are promoting more physical activity, which helps people maintain a healthier weight. The Government are investing over £600 million in school sports over the next two years via the PE and sport premium and School Games Organiser network so that children can get more active. We also have the Couch to 5K and Active 10 apps to promote everyone getting more active.

The third measure is supporting those already overweight or obese to achieve and maintain a healthier weight. We have delivered a free NHS weight loss app, and local authorities are funding local weight loss services from their public health grants. The NHS provides a digital weight management programme and many specialist services. We are now exploring ways to increase access to the newest weight loss drugs for more people who are eligible.

Fourthly—a really critical point, as lots of right hon. and hon. Members have raised—is our work with the food industry itself. Sadly, there has been a long-term trend towards producing and marketing foods high in calories, saturated fat, salt and sugar—a race to the bottom. We will reverse that trend. Our soft drinks industry levy has already made huge strides in bringing down the sugar content of soft drinks by almost half between 2015 and 2020, removing a staggering 46,000 tonnes of sugar. Our voluntary reformulation programme requires all sectors of industry to reduce levels of sugar, calories and salt in the everyday food and drink that people buy. If we can see this through, consumers will have many fewer calories in their diet without them having to consciously change what they eat.

Although the salt and sugar reduction programmes have brought some progress, there is much more to be done. The calorie reduction progress report published this month showed little change in calorie levels between 2017 and 2021. I have asked industry to meet the reduction targets for calories and sugar by the end of 2025. We will leave no stone unturned if they do not live up to our expectations.

I am pleased to assure the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) that we remain committed to introducing further advertising restrictions to reduce the marketing of less healthy foods to children. We will also bring in restrictions on volume price promotions, such as three for the price of two, on less healthy foods in October next year, and we will back local government in using its powers to support a healthy local food environment.

Obesity is a significant challenge, not just in the UK but globally. We all have our part to play. I have personally been engaging with industry throughout my career, from the Treasury, to the then Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Business people say they want a brighter future for all our children. I plan to make sure that they deliver on that.

I thank everyone who has participated today in a very constructive way. That is the way we should all be addressing such an important issue. I particularly thank the Minister for her excellent response. We have had some really good issues raised by colleagues on all sides, and by the Minister.

I look forward to us all doing something to make sure that the crisis of obesity is overcome. It is so important, particularly for our children, but also for adults, and for quality of life. I am grateful for Members’ participation and for the ideas that have come forward, which we will look at and consider. I know the Minister will take them away, and I particularly thank her.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered tackling obesity.

Sitting adjourned.