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Westminster Hall

Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2024

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 12 March 2024

[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]

State Pension Changes: Women

I beg to move,

That this House has considered compensation for women affected by state pension changes.

I thank each and every Member who has come to speak in the debate, and I am greatly encouraged that they have, as are those from the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign in the audience today, who are here to ask us, as MPs, to speak for them.

This is not an issue that any of us is unaware of. My emails in the last few days have been incredible. People do not understand the unfairness of what has happened, so let me take a moment to put the issue into context and to set the scene—I am conscious of time, Sir Gary, and I gave you a commitment earlier that I would give everyone else a chance to contribute.

The WASPI women are the generation of women born in the 1950s who have been adversely affected by the changes to the state pension age in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They argue that they were not given adequate notice of transitional arrangements to adjust to the increase in their state pension age from 60 to 65 or 66, depending on their date of birth. That is the crux of this debate.

I thank the hon. Member for securing the debate and for the great work he is doing. Unfortunately, Sir Gary, I have to leave early, so I will not be making a speech. The hon. Member said that the so-called WASPI women “argue” that they were not properly advised and informed, but the stage 1 report produced by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman actually confirmed that they were not properly advised and informed.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, and he is absolutely right. I will come to that point and confirm it. The issue is all about fairness and equality, but, with respect to the Minister and the Government, they have fallen down on that.

I too congratulate my hon. Friend and colleague on securing the debate. He is a champion for women on this issue not only in his constituency but across the UK. Does he, like me, feel that last week’s Budget was a complete and total missed opportunity? The Government could have done something for these women if they really cared. They were able to step in and resolve issues to do with the Post Office, so why have they not been able to step in here, show a bit of compassion and demonstrate that they are prepared to solve this issue? Some 260,000 women have died since the campaign started in 2015. That is a disgrace, and the Government should act now.

My hon. Friend and colleague is absolutely right, which is why we are all here to make that case.

The WASPI women claim that the issue has caused them financial hardship, emotional distress and health problems. Many have had to work longer than expected, rely on benefits or use their savings to cope with the gap in their income. The hon. Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) is a strong supporter of WASPI women, and although he was unable to come today because of a prior engagement, he does support everyone else here.

I too thank the hon. Member for securing the debate. Some 8,000 WASPI women live in my constituency, and many have been in touch with me. They are at their wits’ end and do not know how they will manage financially—one constituent told me that they have had to sell their home. Does the hon. Member agree that Ministers should accept the clear findings of maladministration in the ombudsman’s stage 1 report and that the Government should commit to meeting the compensation recommendations as soon as the final report is published—if the Government care?

Absolutely, and we all say hear, hear to that.

The WASPI women also contend that they have been discriminated against on the grounds of sex and age and that they have been disproportionately impacted by the changes, compared with men and younger women. On behalf of those in the audience today, I very much agree with that assertion.

Actions to inform the women are felt to have been inadequate—I am using very gentle language in saying that—and did not go far enough. The changes to the state pension age were primarily enacted through legislative measures such as the Pensions Acts of 1995 and 2011. The Government claim that those changes were publicised through official Government publications in the belief that those were accessible to the public, but the fact is that they were not.

I too commend the hon. Gentleman on securing this really important debate. He puts his finger on the nub of the unfairness here: it was not just one Pensions Act that affected these women; many were subsequently affected by a further Pensions Act in 2011, so they were hit twice by the same injustice. It is all fine and well for the Government to say they do not accept that unfairness, but the reality is that the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has already ruled that there was maladministration in the functioning of the policy. Is it not time that the Government just accepted that and did what is right by these women?

Thank you, Sir Gary. I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman. Yes, there is maladministration, and I will use that word again shortly.

Many of the women concerned may not have been actively engaged with Government or have had knowledge of or access to Government publications. In that case, how could they have been informed to an extent that would have made a difference? That is the crux of the matter and of the debate, and it is why we are all here. This is about equality for women, and there has been a level of unfairness in the pensions system.

It is important to remember that women born in the 1950s entered a labour market and a society that was different from what young women experience today. They began working in the 1960s, in their teens, in a workforce where women were paid less than men and were expected to leave their jobs when they married or began a family.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on his powerful opening speech. I am sure he will agree that it is important that we get on the record from the Minister today that the Department for Work and Pensions accepts the findings in the stage 1 report of maladministration. Most importantly, it must also act swiftly to compensate the women and the families of the women who have passed while waiting for compensation.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Everybody’s interventions so far have added to the debate and reinforced the issue.

Back when ladies started to work, there were no remunerated childcare schemes and it was not standard practice for ladies to be offered access to work pension schemes.

With all due respect to the Minister, the DWP has fallen down on this matter. The Department admitted in 2009 that direct communication with those affected by increases in the state pension age was limited. In 1995, leaflets explaining the changes were available from the Benefits Agency, but only on request. In other words, if someone wanted to know anything—if they even knew to ask—that is what they should have asked for. The fact is that the DWP has a responsibility.

Some 16 million voluntary letters were issued in the form of automatic pension forecasts projecting state pension entitlements, including to women aged over 50 at the time. Those letters did not include any details of state pension age or mention that it was changing, so those women were not fully notified. That is what this debate is about. When we look back specifically to the years between 1995 and 2000, we are reminded that we lived in a relatively pre-internet world, where information was not so readily available at the click of a button and social media did not exist. In the late 1990s, we had only five TV channels, and 24-hour broadcasting was still a thing of the future.

The DWP survey of 2004 asked working-age adults about awareness of state pension age equalisation. The results showed that, of those who were aware, 47% got their information from TV advertising, 37% were informed by reading a newspaper and only 2%—only 2%—cited the Pension Service as their source of information. The Pension Service had the responsibility, and it failed badly. Some 98% of those who qualified did not even know from the state Pension Service what should have been happening. That is a massive issue, and it has to be addressed. Furthermore, despite the efforts made through television and newspaper advertising, access to what we see now as the most basic avenues of communication was limited for women who were not securely housed or in unstable domestic environments.

WASPI women deserve to be compensated for the injustice they have had to face, and that compensation should be based on the principles of recognition, restitution and reconciliation. We could call them the three Rs—it is almost like going back to school—but here they apply to the WASPI women and pensions.

The first principle of compensation is recognition, and quite clearly there is a lot to do. The Government should acknowledge the harm and suffering caused by the changes to the state pension age, the inadequate communication of those changes and the failure to consult the women concerned for the reasons I have outlined. Recognition is important for restoring the dignity and trust of these women and for validating their experiences and grievances. It is also a precondition of achieving justice and reconciliation, as it shows that the Government are willing to take responsibility and to make amends for their actions. That is what this is about.

To date, there has been resistance to offering a formal apology to the WASPI women, and the Government have argued that the actions that were taken were lawful and reasonable. Let us be quite clear: they were not. That stance has been challenged by the PHSO, which found in 2021 that the Department for Work and Pensions had committed maladministration, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) referred to in an intervention.

The PHSO also found that, by failing to act quickly enough to inform the women about the changes to their state pension age, the DWP had not given due regard to the impact of the changes on the women’s lives and offered them no adequate support or guidance. The PHSO recommended that the Government should apologise to the women and pay them compensation for the distress and inconvenience caused by the DWP’s maladministration —I use that word because it is the right word; it describes exactly what happened.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the speech he has made so far. People have been waiting three years since the report he has just outlined. Does he agree that justice delayed is justice denied and that the Government should, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said, compensate them now and use this Budget to deliver that compensation?

I thank the hon. Member for that, and he is right: there is a real onus on Government to reach out and help.

The PHSO also found that the DWP had not given due regard to the impact of the changes on women’s lives and had not offered women adequate support or guidance. It recommended that the Government should apologise to the women and pay them compensation for all those things, including the maladministration. The Government should take positive steps following the PHSO’s findings and recommendations and issue that sincere and public apology to the WASPI women. That would be a significant gesture of respect and remorse and a first step towards repairing the relationship between Government and the women we all represent.

The second principle of compensation is restitution. The Government should restore the affected women to the position they would have been in had the changes to the state pension not occurred, or at least mitigate the negative effects of the changes. Restitution is important for compensating the women for the material and non-material losses they have incurred and for ensuring that they can enjoy a decent and dignified retirement. Wow! How much do we all want to see a decent and dignified retirement? Restitution is also a way to correct the imbalance and inequality caused by the changes and to ensure that the women are not penalised for their sex and their age.

The WASPI women will have different views and demands in terms of what constitutes fair and adequate restitution. Some want a bridging pension or a lump sum payment to cover the gap between their expected and actual state pension age. There really has to be something, and we need to see that coming forward. The restitution that each woman should receive may also depend on their individual circumstances, such as their income, health and caring responsibilities.

I join the chorus of congratulations to the hon. Gentleman for organising this debate. Like many here, he will have constituents who are starting to receive draft reports from the ombudsman about the second report, which will trigger the payment of the restitution he just mentioned. Obviously, they are in draft and we cannot comment on them now, but does he agree that if there is a final conclusion of injustice, to go alongside that of maladministration, it is essential that there is a rapid reaction from the Government to deal with that and to respond promptly, with a proper programme of compensation? Does he also agree that this will be incredibly complicated because lots of WASPI women, depending on their age and conditions, will have faced a different level of injustice, and everything has to be adjusted to reflect that?

I do agree with that. The Minister is obviously taking copious notes, and the civil servants have not had their heads up since the debate started, so I suspect and hope that they will have the answers we need.

The Government must adopt a flexible and tailored approach to restitution, based on the needs and preferences of the WASPI women. They should consult the women and their representatives to design a system of recompense that is fair, transparent and accessible. I call on the Government and the Minister to consider the PHSO’s recommendations when it publicises its final report on the financial remedy for the women in due course. If they do that, we will have taken a step in the right direction. The PHSO has indicated that it will consider the impact of the changes on the women’s standard of living, health and wellbeing, as well as the availability and adequacy of alternative sources of income and support.

The Government should also ensure that the restitution is delivered promptly and efficiently—do both those things—and ensure that the women are given clear and accurate information and guidance on how to claim and receive their compensation. The Government should monitor and evaluate the implementation of the restitution scheme and its outcomes, and adjust the scheme if necessary to ensure its effectiveness and fairness.

The third principle of compensation is reconciliation. It is a word often used in society, but reconciliation is what we want here. That means the Government should foster a positive and constructive relationship with the WASPI women and their representatives, and address the underlying causes and consequences of the changes to the state pension age. Reconciliation is important for healing the wounds and divisions caused by the changes and for building trust and co-operation between the Government and the women. Reconciliation is also a way of preventing similar injustices from happening in the future, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) referred to. If we do it right now, it will be in place for the future and will ensure that the pensions system is sustainable and equitable for all.

The Government should engage in a dialogue and partnership with the women and listen to their views and concerns. They should involve the women in the decision-making and policymaking processes related to the pensions system and ensure that their voices and interests are represented and respected. The Government should recognise and celebrate the contribution and achievements of the WASPI women, and support their empowerment and participation in society. They have done so much, and we salute and thank them for that.

The Government should address the broader issues and challenges that affect the pensions system and the ageing population, such as the adequacy and security of pension income, the availability and affordability of social care, the quality and accessibility of health services, the diversity and inclusivity of the labour market, and the promotion and protection of human rights. The Government should adopt a holistic and long-term approach to those issues, and seek the input and collaboration of the WASPI women and various stakeholders, including other pensioners, workers, employers, civil society and the public.

Compensating 3.8 million WASPI women is not only a matter of rectifying past injustices, but a recognition of the hardships they have endured due to the sudden and unexpected changes to their pension entitlements. Importantly, it is a recognition of the place in history held by this wonderful post-war generation of women from all communities across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I apologise. I was hesitating before saying anything because I did not want to stop the hon. Gentleman in his flow setting out what Government need to do. Does he recognise that there is a vital and pivotal role for Parliament to play when we receive the ombudsman’s final report in considering it and making recommendations to Government, which the Government should then properly and fully respond to so as to uphold the office of the ombudsman?

I had not finished; I was giving way to the hon. Gentleman. I am almost there, by the way. I will keep to your timescale, Sir Gary, simply because everyone here deserves to give their input. I told you I would do that and I will do that.

Compensating those 3.8 million women is recognition of the place in history held by that wonderful post-war generation. I say that again because that is why I am here: to speak for those ladies who contact me in my office all the time. Those are the women who have collectively and individually played a pivotal role in shaping and inspiring change in society. We salute those women for what they have done over the years. They have contributed to the workforce and society throughout their lives, and they deserve to retire with dignity and financial security.

The WASPI women were the mothers, nurses, cleaners, dinner ladies, shop workers, teachers, carers, factory and farm workers—the list goes on. That is only a small group of who those people were. They were trailblazers for women in society and role models for subsequent generations of women, so when the time comes in the debate, let us do the right thing by them—it is imperative that we do.

The hon. Gentleman is paying such a beautiful and wonderful tribute to that group of women that I feel I must rise to mention the more than 4,000 WASPI women in my constituency, the 700 who signed a petition in 2016 and waited all these years, and the two who are my sisters, who very much reflect everything he says. Time is toxic—they have waited so very long. Does he agree that we cannot wait any longer? Every year we are losing our WASPI women.

It is fitting that the last intervention on my contribution was from a hon. Lady who has staff who fall into that category, along with many in the Public Gallery today. For me, and for all of us here, it is a simple thing. Wrongs have to be righted—that is our job as MPs. There is pressure on all of us, on both sides of the Chamber, but there is more pressure on the Minister and the Government. They must deliver what is right. Let us stand by the WASPI women and make sure that they get what they should.

Colleagues, all of you who have eyes will recognise that we have a dozen or so contributions to squeeze in and just under 40 minutes. It will be three minutes each, voluntarily. I will impose it if colleagues do not play ball. I am sure we will all be on our best behaviour.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate, and for his tireless work on the campaign. I also pay tribute to the WASPI organisation for its campaigning efforts across Britain. Over 4,000 constituents in Cynon Valley are affected, and I am currently working with an active group of women campaigning for justice for WASPI women.

In July 2021, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s stage 1 report found clear maladministration in the way the DWP communicated state pension age changes. The DWP has still never publicly accepted that finding. The release of the final pages of the stage 2 report will make findings about the impact of the DWP’s maladministration, and the stage 3 report will make recommendations on compensation. We have heard that both are expected in the coming weeks, and I echo colleagues’ comments for the Minister to give us an update, and a specific date on which the announcement will be made.

In January 2024, the Daily Mirror reported that 260,000 WASPI women had died since the start of the campaign back in 2015. I have heard some harrowing stories of women’s experiences, as I am sure everyone in the Chamber today has. People have even lost their houses because of the situation; there have been tragic cases. People have been plunged into poverty through no fault of their own, and have felt abandoned given the length of time the investigation has taken. That is why we desperately need action now.

I have supported, and continue to support, the case for full restitution, because that is in principle the right demand. I also welcome and support the WASPI calls for a one-off payment from the Government as fair and fast compensation. We must compensate these women, ideally at the ombudsman level 6 band of financial remedy—and the more, the better. Ideally it should be full restitution. I also welcome serious demands, such as those from the all-party parliamentary group for state pension inequality for women, and the State Pension Age (Compensation) Bill tabled by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown).

The Treasury saved over £200 billion through the changes that have been made to women’s state pensions. It is yet another example of horrific injustice, alongside the Post Office scandal, Hillsborough, and the contaminated blood inquiry. Time is of the essence. To reflect the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) earlier, justice delayed is justice denied. Please, can the Minister indicate a hard deadline for the awarding of compensation payments? Will the women receive the money before the general election? The women have waited far too long, and too many families have seen them pass on without compensation. We must deliver now.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important and timely debate. The Government’s failure to come forward with proposals for compensating the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign is a disgrace. Tens of thousands of women have been plunged into poverty through no fault of their own, and many of them now feel abandoned given the length of time that this investigation has taken. Their situation has also been severely exacerbated by the cost of living crisis. As others have said, the Government have shown that they can act swiftly to end long-running injustices when they feel the need to do so. I strongly feel that the WASPI women should be afforded the same justice and dignity as victims of the Post Office scandal, and that should happen without further delay.

We must never forget the reality of what has happened here: 3.8 million women were given the bombshell news that their state pension age would increase from 60 to 66, just as they were about to retire and when it was too late for them to do any proper financial planning. Many were already in ill health, and others had taken early retirement and were planning to hang on until age 60 when they would receive the state pension, but all their hopes were dashed.

Last week we celebrated International Women’s Day, and on Sunday we celebrated Mother’s Day, but all the fine words about women’s contribution to society mean nothing unless action is taken to compensate women who have been as badly treated as the WASPI women. In Ireland last week, we saw a salutary lesson of how a Government who try to write women off can be defeated when women and their supporters rise up to protect their rights. This Government need to remember that the WASPI women have votes, and so do their husbands, partners, children, friends and supporters.

It is important to be clear what this debate is about, because the Department for Work and Pensions sometimes has a habit of muddying the waters. The WASPI campaigners have spoken to me, and they want me to stress that their campaign is for fair and fast compensation. They have always supported pension equalisation between men and women, but their issue is the unfair way in which the changes were brought about. I would like the Minister to reassure me that when the DWP is asked for comment on the WASPI campaign in future, it will stick to the facts of what the campaign is about and will not issue misleading statements conflating it with other campaigns.

The questions that the Minister must answer today are very clear. Others will enumerate them but I make no apology for doing so now, because I want to ensure that the Minister and those advising him have the questions fully noted and that they answer them at the end of the debate. First, the PHSO stage 1 report was published in July 2021. Do Ministers accept the clear findings of maladministration in that report? Secondly, it was said around the time of the stage 1 report that Ministers could be proactive in finding a remedy. Do Ministers regret not taking that advice and moving more quickly, rather than leaving more and more women waiting and some dying with justice not being done? Finally, given that the investigation by the PHSO has taken more than five years and over a quarter of a million affected women have died during the lifetime of the WASPI campaign, do Ministers think that the system as a whole has treated women acceptably?

I shall be brief. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) who articulated many of our concerns.

There is a clear message that justice is on the side of the WASPI ladies. They are an uncomplaining group, but they have an overwhelmingly obvious case. They brought up families, often held down jobs and played a phenomenal role in many of our constituencies, including mine, through many different community groups and organisations such as the women’s institute. Not only was their rate of pay often not the same when they were in the workplace, but they now find a second injustice in the maladministration—probably—of their pensions.

We may not get a perfect situation, but my message for the Minister is very simple: if we find in the next few months, as I suspect we will, that the WASPI case is right and we need to act on it, and that the Government and the DWP have not behaved in the way they should have done, there is a simple remedy. I personally would love to see a May election, but if we go through to November, the likelihood is that there will be another financial statement this year from the Government. I beg the Government and urge the Minister to listen very closely to the voices here. If it is deemed to be the right thing to do, as it almost certainly will be, we have a chance—not only for reasons of politics but for reasons of ethics and doing the right thing, because we do not want another scandal on this issue as well as many others—for the Government to issue a recompense process of some kind in an autumn financial statement.

To sum up, justice is on the side of the WASPI women. We need to recognise that and act on it, and the sooner we do so, the better.

Sometimes we do not have a collective memory in Parliament. I will briefly go through some of the history of the last 10 years in which I and others have been dealing with this issue, because we need to learn its lessons.

In debates held here in 2015 we recognised the immense suffering people had gone through and the injustice of the case itself. Between 2015 and 2017 we tried to ger cross-party agreement for a compensation scheme, but it was rejected. As shadow Chancellor at the time I met with all the various campaigning groups, including the WASPI women, and we asked Bryn Davies—now Lord Bryn Davies—a prime pensions expert in the field, to develop a scheme, which we brought forward in 2019. In a normal electoral cycle it would have been implemented by agreement, hopefully by 2020-21, but it was not, as we had an election campaign at that time.

The scheme balanced compensation with ready implementation and was relatively straightforward and simple. However, at the time the argument against it was cost—that at £12 billion a year over a four-year period it was too expensive. The Government had already saved £200 billion from those affected women; £48 billion may well have seemed expensive, but I remind people that at that time interest rates were on the floor.

The compensation scheme was relatively cheap, would have been paid over a limited period of time and would have delivered compensation to those women. I believed it was a legal contingent liability anyway and that it should have been brought forward from the Contingencies Fund, even if we were then forced to borrow, relatively cheaply. Had that happened, that scheme would have been paid out by now and the affected women would have been compensated. The 216,000 women who have died would have received something—but tragically they are now lost.

The conclusion is that I do not want to be here in another five or 10 years’ time arguing the case. I agree with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely): we have the autumn statement. A relatively simple scheme should be brought forward so that the money can get out the door very quickly. I fear there is no sense of urgency from the Government, so we must create a cross-party sense of urgency. My other fear is that the ombudsman will bring forward its final report and the compensation levels offered will be trivial, which would be unacceptable given the suffering that people have gone through.

I appeal to the Government to listen to hon. Members on both sides of this House. The Government rejected and opposed the our earlier scheme, and by doing so they have probably enhanced the cost of compensation now. Let us grasp the nettle. Sometimes tackling injustices can be expensive, but it is right.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate in Jim Shannon hall this morning—[Laughter.] He is an assiduous supporter of the WASPI women.

There are over 12,000 WASPI women in Renfrewshire, and one is a constituent of mine whose case is currently with the ombudsman. She has worked alongside me and my office team for nearly nine years, trying to get justice for herself and the other 1950s women—that is how long this saga has been going on. Just the other week I held my thousandth constituency advice surgery, and she came along to it; we joked that I think she had been to 100 of them—but like the rest of my jokes it is not funny.

The ombudsman was in no doubt that maladministration took place under the DWP’s watch. What is scandalous is that the DWP refuses to accept those findings and instead has buried its head in the sand and left complainants in limbo. The ombudsman stated, “We would also have proposed recommending DWP provide appropriate remedy for others who have suffered injustice because of maladministration... However, DWP has refused to accept our findings of maladministration. Complainants, and others affected by DWP’s maladministration, urgently need resolution.”

1950s women have experienced huge financial detriment to themselves and their families through no fault of their own. Life-changing decisions were taken without the correct information, and only years later were those women suddenly confronted with the consequences of this issue—consequences that could have been avoided if the DWP had done its job properly.

The ombudsman said that the DWP is “not directly responsible or accountable” and that any “financial loss resulting from choices they made was not direct financial loss.” I could not disagree more with that conclusion. Women should have been taken at their word, not asked to provide counter-evidence to a standard that is utterly unrealistic and impossible for many. There has to be accountability for those failings that the ombudsman clearly highlighted, and be justice for the women let down by the system and compensation for those adversely affected by decisions taken by the DWP that were outwith their control.

My constituent has worked for 50 years, paying her national insurance contributions all the way, yet does not receive a full state pension, and the ombudsman concluded that she would be due compensation at only a low level—1 or 2. That in no way equates to the enormous impact this issue has had on her physical and mental health, following decisions she took long before she was made aware of any changes to her pension age. There are too many women who have sadly passed away over recent years before seeing some closure for the injustice they have suffered. They will never see compensation or any kind of remedy for what they and their families have gone through.

It is time for this Government—or indeed any incoming Government—to do the right thing by these women and ensure state pension justice for all the women, including my constituent, who have been victims of the DWP’s failings and who have campaigned tirelessly against this injustice.

I too congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on a very eloquent speech putting forward this case.

The two aspects I wish to concentrate on are injustice and restitution. There is a manifest injustice. Others have mentioned similar injustices that have taken place in our society: Horizon, which is ongoing, the blood scandal, Windrush and others. They may be down to individual, corporate or departmental error. In many instances, they may require criminal proceedings, or disciplinary action may be required—but equally, as a society, we need to resolve that manifest injustice. That is why we have schemes such as the criminal injuries compensation scheme. We live as a society, and a sin against one is a sin against all. The state requires to ensure that those who suffer are compensated, especially when it is because of a Government Department.

That takes us to restitution. The damage inflicted upon these women is not simply that which can be quantified, because there is also an unquantifiable loss. Therefore, the restitution must take some account of the pain and suffering. When we grow up and move from childhood to the world of work, our dreams and aspirations may often not be fulfilled—but those dreams exist. Similarly, as people reach an age where they prepare for retirement, many have dreams about what they wish to do.

Some may not wish to retire, and that is perfectly legitimate, but others feel that they have contributed their bit and they wish to have some time of their own, doing what they want. That might simply be looking after grandchildren or tending the garden; they might wish to sail around the world or write a novel—that is a matter for them. But they have those dreams that they were entitled to receive.

The problem is that the changes that were made and the injustice inflicted upon those people have taken those dreams away. Many have not been able to look after the grandchildren or tend the garden as they wished, never mind any of the other, less prosaic things I suggested, because they have required to keep body and soul together.

In damages claims in Scotland we have quantifiable loss, but we also have something termed solatium, which is for the pain and suffering inflicted on and sustained by the individual. That is very hard to quantify—one cannot say that they have not been given a certain level of benefit or that they have had to pay out some amount in some other aspect—but there must be some recognition that these women’s dreams were taken away in many instances, and that they have not simply suffered a financial injustice, but been denied the ability to do what they wanted, prepared and should have been entitled to do.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on his introduction to this important debate. I also declare an interest: my wife is one of the 3.8 million who were affected by the changes to the state pension age—although she can count herself as one of the lucky ones. Unlike hundreds of thousands of other women of her generation, this scandal did not condemn her to destitution in her retirement or undo the long-made plans she had spent her life working towards.

For others, of course, the situation is very different. One of my constituents, whose story has been recorded by the WASPI campaign, described her feelings as

“being robbed of the way of life that I thought I would have”,

after being informed that she would have to wait until the age of 66 to receive the state pension. This constituent, who was also affected by the collapse of Equitable Life, found herself unable to secure employment in a jobs market defined by systematic discrimination against older women, and thus became reliant on her husband’s earnings to survive.

There is a grim irony here. Women born in the 1950s were at the forefront of the fight for equal pay and rights in the workplace. A considerable number would have been the first women in their families to have their own job. For many, that independent income would have given them the opportunity for the first time to leave abusive or exploitative relationships. Yet later in life, many of these women, to whom all of us workers owe so much, have found themselves once again reliant on their spouses just to get by.

We cannot overstate the sense of betrayal felt by those who have been affected: a generation of women who upon leaving school were promised, as I was, that the state would be there to provide a level of safety and security later in life. Instead, they find themselves struggling to survive during the worst cost of living crisis in living memory.

Last year, the WASPI campaign found that 70% of its members had been forced to reduce their weekly spending, with more than half struggling to pay essential bills and one in four struggling to afford food. Women who have worked all their lives have been left impoverished. A covenant has been broken.

That the WASPI women have been subject to grave injustice is beyond question. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s report is absolutely clear that there was maladministration in how the DWP communicated information about the state pension age changes and the Department failed to act upon its own research, which showed that women born in the 1950s were not aware of those changes, but more than three years on the DWP has yet to come clean and publicly accept these findings.

In that time, tens of thousands of affected women have lost their lives, with one WASPI woman dying every 13 minutes. The Government’s approach seems to have been to hope that the WASPI women would simply go away—but anyone who has met the WASPI campaigners, as I have during some of their many lobbies of Parliament, will know that that that is not going to happen.

In a few short weeks, the ombudsman is expected to publish the next stage of their report, detailing its findings concerning the impact of maladministration in relation to the WASPI women and its recommendations on compensation. The Minister will no doubt urge patience, but the question that many WASPI women are asking is this: how much longer must they wait to receive some form of financial restitution, and will they even still be here by the time it arrives?

I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his persistent and powerful advocacy of the WASPI cause.

I am here to speak up for the WASPI women of Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, who I have had the honour of working with these past nine years. Their campaign has been dignified yet determined, but, while it has been an honour to work with them, it is appalling, as other Members have already said, that they and their brilliant colleagues from across the UK have had to keep fighting for so long.

Along the way we have lost some brilliant campaigners. I pay particular tribute to my constituent June Miller, a key figure in the Cumbernauld WASPI group who marched just outside this Chamber in support of WASPI women in October 2018. Tragically, she is one of about 260,000 WASPI women to have died during the lifetime of this campaign.

It is surely beyond any doubt now that WASPI women have suffered injustice as a result of DWP maladministration, for all the reasons that the hon. Member for Strangford set out. The key point is that the PHSO stage 1 report recognises precisely that, so now the DWP must recognise that stage 1 report and the stage 1 findings.

The recommendations from the PHSO should be the starting point, or the bare minimum, for the DWP. To go further would be absolutely welcome, but coming up short most certainly will not be. The PHSO has encouraged the DWP to be proactive. Instead, Ministers continue to bury their heads in the sand. Many billions of pounds have been saved by the Treasury through pension reforms; some of that must be used to put right the wrongs that have been suffered.

The other relevant context here is the ongoing cost of living crisis, 14 years of austerity and decades of entrenched wage and pension inequality. All those factors have impacted WASPI women more than anyone else, so fair compensation is not just due, but absolutely urgent.

Strong arguments have been made that “fair compensation” should mean level 6 compensation, because of the profound, devastating or irreversible impacts that the pension changes have had on WASPI women. The women in my local WASPI groups have undoubtedly endured a reduced quality of life for considerable periods thanks to DWP maladministration and they will continue to suffer in that way until their losses are recognised and compensation is paid.

The time taken to get to this stage is clearly unacceptable. The Government need to look at making PHSO and other ombudsmen better able to deal with cases of that scale. More immediately, when recommendations on compensation are finalised, every effort must be made to get it paid urgently. Those steps must start now, so that there is no more unnecessary waiting. The WASPI women are not going to go away, and neither will MPs in this Chamber today—not until justice is done.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this important debate, and for all his work on this very important matter in at least the seven years that I have been in this place

I rise to speak in support of over 5,000 WASPI women in Ceredigion, and I begin by commending the WASPI campaign group there that has done so much in recent years to support those affected by pension changes. It has also done so much to raise awareness locally, and indeed nationally in Wales, of the injustice that women born after 6 April 1950 have suffered as a result of the changes introduced by the Pensions Act 1995 and the Pensions Act 2011.

I want to reinforce the point, mentioned by others, that we are talking about a generation of women who have suffered greatly throughout their lives. The injustice that they are suffering now has sadly come upon a lifetime of many injustices. As we have heard, they will have entered an unequal workforce, and they will have suffered greatly in society due to the inequality that previously plagued the United Kingdom as they grew up and came into adulthood.

Nevertheless, they are a generation of women who have contributed so much to bringing about positive change for the benefit of us all. Not only are they the mams, the mamgus, the sisters and the aunties, but they are ones who work tirelessly in various campaign groups, community organisations and causes. Yet after a lifetime of working diligently, they find themselves at the very end having to suffer financially and emotionally due to changes introduced by the state that were not communicated to them as they should have been.

The fact of the matter is that many of these women do not complain, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) said. They live their lives according to the law and they expect, very reasonably, that the state then recognises their contribution—that social contract—yet they have been failed so terribly by the failure of the Department for Work and Pensions to communicate the changes to their pension entitlements. To top it all off, after the ombudsman found that maladministration had taken place, the Department and the Government refused to acknowledge that maladministration. That is rubbing salt into the wound—I would venture—and I hope the Minister can address that.

Others have mentioned how these women have suffered not only financial harm but social harm, and their quality of life has been severely impacted. For that reason, I believe that when it comes to compensation we have to move away from the level 5 offered by the ombudsman. It needs to be much higher to reflect the fact that not only have they suffered financially but their lives have been put on hold and, as has been mentioned, sadly many of them have passed away before seeing justice. We cannot waste any more time on this matter.

Like everybody else, I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing this debate forward, and also for sponsoring my private Member’s Bill—the State Pension Age (Compensation) Bill—which is aimed at compelling the UK Government to bring forward a compensation framework for the 3.8 million women affected by the state pension increase without proper notification, including 13,000 in my constituency.

Given that the ombudsman concluded at stage 1 in July 2021 that the DWP was guilty of maladministration, we in this place should not be having to force this issue. Would it not have been comforting to see, for once, our Government care to step in and do the right thing by way of remedying an injustice? Of course, as have others said, as with the infected blood scandal, the postmasters scandal and the green deal mis-selling, they do nothing and hope the issue just goes away. They have ignored this issue for nine years, but at least it still has not gone away, even if too many politicians have already given up for my liking.

We are talking about women who did not have maternity rights back in the day, who were paid less than men, who were more likely to work part time, and whose private pensions, if they had them, were smaller than men’s. In reality, the pension age equalisation was a further prejudice against these women, especially the many who had already retired before they got the bombshell notification that they needed to wait six years before they could access their state pension.

They then found out that the number of national insurance-contributing years required to receive the full pension had been increased, so many did not even have the opportunity to contribute enough NI to receive the full pension. That is another double whammy for these women. It really is time that the Government accepted the WASPI call for fair and fast compensation—for money that can be paid out to these women. That money will eventually be clawed back for the Government in taxes anyway, but it will also provide a local spending boost.

We also need to hear today from the Labour Front-Bench team what their position is. For too long, they have been quiet on this topic. For too long, we keep hearing that Labour is going to stick to Tory spending plans, which means austerity 2.0, including £19 billion of future departmental cuts. I hope that the Labour Front-Bench team commit to providing fair and fast compensation for the WASPI women if the Government do not step up to the plate. Let us not be kidded: we cannot have any faith in this fag-end Government stepping up to the plate.

When I presented my ten-minute rule Bill, I put a number of personal testimonies on the record. I hope the Minister will look at some of them, because they show what life is like for many people affected by the state pension increase. Unfortunately, I do not have time to go through those testimonies right now, but they talk about people losing their homes, being dependent on partners, being forced to try to get back into work, struggling on benefits to get by, and struggling on small private pensions because they did not have enough money or enough warning from the Government. Yet again, I say, pay that compensation and step up to the plate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his efforts in fighting this injustice.

There are 5,360 women in my Liverpool, West Derby constituency who are affected by the changes made to the women’s state pension age by the Pensions Act 1995. Of those, 4,000 have been further affected by the Pensions Act 2011, which accelerated the increases to ages 65 and 66. It is important that they have their voices heard in this place. Those in West Derby who are part of the 3.8 million women affected in the UK have been left in an entirely unacceptable situation as part of this historic wrong.

I firmly and wholeheartedly support the campaign for pension justice. I want to put on the record the efforts of all the campaigners for justice, including the fantastic women I have met from CEDAWinLAW and WASPI. Without their hard work, this debate would not be happening. This is something they should never have to fight for in the first place, because the Government have the power to right this injustice. I was proud to stand in 2019 on a Labour manifesto that would have righted this injustice.

It is clear from the correspondence that I have received, and from speaking to campaigners in West Derby, just how much hurt has been caused by the DWP’s actions. I want to talk about Jane, who phoned me at the weekend and wants her story heard in Parliament. She told me that the loss of her state pension, with no notice, meant that she had lost her cherished family home of 30 years. She broke down on the phone. It is completely devastating for her and her family. The plans she had made for retirement—to have a home with space for her grandchildren to visit her—are all now lost, taken away by the injustice and actions of the DWP.

After several years of investigations, it has been reported that stages 2 and 3 of the PHSO findings on the communication of the changes to women’s state pension age could be published soon. Will the Minister confirm the timeline? This is an injustice that needs to be addressed urgently. It is completely unacceptable that the Government have so far refused to take action to right this wrong. There is nothing to stop the Government taking immediate action to provide compensation, as has been outlined in this place today.

In November 2022, I went to Downing Street with campaigners and handed in my early-day motion 430. That motion was signed by 87 Members of this House and called for full financial restitution to women born in the 1950s. In the 16 months that have passed, this terrible injustice has only grown. Even more women are now facing poverty and total destitution as a result of the Government’s inaction. I ask the Minister to reflect on what he has heard and to begin the parliamentary process to provide the full compensation that thousands of women in West Derby and millions across the country deserve, without delay.

First, I want to say how much of a pleasure it was on Friday to join the WASPI Glasgow women at the Mary Barbour statue, to mark International Women’s Day. The clear message from those women is that they are not going away and nor is this issue.

I want to make three quick points. The first, which other Members have touched on, is about the historical injustices that women born in the 1950s have suffered throughout their lives, whether it is not receiving equal pay—far too many of these women are still fighting for equal pay and looking for compensation for unequal pay in the workplace—or the fact that while going about their lives they could not, for example, hire goods or services, or even get a cheque book, without the express permission of their father or husband, because society at that time decreed that it was a man who was the responsible person. What a quaint and fanciful notion that is! We have to recognise the injustices these women have suffered throughout their lives, and certainly the fact that they were not told that their pension age was changing and that many of them would have to work for an additional five years.

Secondly, it is almost certain that the ombudsman will send this issue back to Parliament to say that Parliament must now decide how to resolve the issue and how to compensate. That much is certain. The Government could have grasped the nettle. They could have recognised that this was coming and that it was time to address this issue, along with the issues of compensation for the infected blood and Post Office cases. They could have done all those things.

That brings me to my third point, which is that justice delayed is justice denied. The longer the Government wait and do not address this issue, the more the price tag will go up. That is an inevitability. We had the announcement of a Budget last week that has £46 billion of unfunded tax cuts, which is £46 billion that could have addressed all three of the issues I have mentioned. When he is on his feet, I hope the Minister will tell us how this Government should resolve this matter, because it should be up to this Parliament to decide it, instead of trying to dump it on the next Parliament.

Thank you, colleagues, for your co-operation; we are now bang on time as we turn to the Front-Bench spokesmen. I call the SNP spokesperson.

I am delighted to participate in this debate and, like so many other speakers, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing it forward. I also pay tribute to the WASPI women who have campaigned so very hard and with so much dignity and determination, and in particular to the Ayrshire and Cunninghame WASPI campaigners, whose resilience and strength in their quest for justice has been truly inspirational, especially in the face of ongoing extreme provocation through the inaction and intransigence of the UK Government on this important issue of social justice.

The UK Government have a moral duty to deliver the justice that the WASPI women need and deserve, and we need that to happen urgently. There are 10 clear and perfectly reasonable asks from the WASPI campaign to reach a fair conclusion for the women affected, all of which my party and I fully support. I do not have time to list them today, but the asks are clear and reasonable and should not in any way be controversial.

For years, the women impacted have been left not just in limbo, but in financial distress and poverty, navigating what ought to have been their retirement years after a lifetime of work, stripped of their deserved dignity in retirement. It has caused untold emotional distress. For five long years, the WASPI women have waited for the ombudsman’s investigation to end and for its final report and adjudication to be published, during which time an estimated 260,000 women have died while waiting. That is tragic, utterly scandalous and completely indefensible.

As every speaker today has said, the rightful compensation should be delivered promptly; it must be meaningful and reflect the hardship, distress and injustice suffered by the women, and it must take into account the significant sums wrongly withheld from them. There must be no more obfuscation, avoidance or excuses. The UK Government must at long last deliver for the women. There are no more hiding places.

Like everyone in the debate today, I am very angry at hearing over the years about how WASPI women have had their retirement plans upended and about the hardship they have been thrown into. That has been exacerbated by the cost of living crisis, with soaring food and energy prices, rising interest rates and higher mortgage payments. Injustices have been worsened by appalling Government incompetence and mismanagement, as well as Government arrogance and a tone-deaf attitude to WASPI campaigners.

I draw the Minister’s attention again to the private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), which would require the Secretary of State to publish proposals for a compensation scheme for women born between 6 April 1950 and 5 April 1960 inclusive who have been affected by the increase in the state pension age. Having robbed women of their rightful pension, the Government, as everybody has urged them to do today, should turn their attention to putting that right, because WASPI women feel that they have been robbed. To govern is to choose and good Governments must have justice at their core. The WASPI women, the victims of the Horizon scandal and those impacted by contaminated blood would not agree that this Government have justice at their core—why on earth would they? When Governments make mistakes, as sometimes happens, they need to be big enough and brave and decent enough to put those injustices right.

The Government must at long last urgently recompense the WASPI women, who have been robbed of their rightful retirement after a lifetime of pay discrimination. Then, they must turn their attention to pensioner poverty in general and reform our current pension system, which is not fit for purpose. Any talk of raising the retirement age further must stop because, we know that raising the retirement age has a disproportionate impact on people on lower pay and of lower socioeconomic status. We need an independent savings and pension commission without delay.

The ombudsman has been clear that the women have suffered from maladministration and injustice, so there can be no argument. There is no place left for the UK Government to hide. WASPI women deserve the retirement for which they worked all their lives. Everyone deserves dignity in retirement. That should not be a controversial statement. It is time for delivery because WASPI women will not, cannot, must not and should not go away. The Government must sort this out urgently.

It is an honour to serve under your chairpersonship, Sir Gary.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for raising this debate. He was kind enough to participate in my recent Westminster Hall debate on school libraries, and I am delighted to return the pleasure by attending his debate and responding for the Opposition. I also thank the many Members who have turned out today and spoken so eloquently, demonstrating so much understanding of this long-standing issue. I have to declare an interest because I too am a WASPI woman in my 50s. I put that on the record.

As we all know, many women get a rough deal from their pension. Women live around seven years longer than men, meaning our pension wealth needs to go further, yet on average we retire with pension savings of only £69,000 compared with £205,000 for men. Pensions were introduced at a time when the workforce was predominantly composed of men as the primary or sole breadwinner, with women expected to rely on their husbands’ pensions for an income in retirement. We were systematically denied the opportunity to achieve our own economic independence and security. Thankfully, legislation and societal attitudes have come a long way since the 1970s, but the impact of those historical practices continues to affect women’s economic status in retirement. Even today, women’s average pay is equivalent to 75% of a man’s and a lower salary will inevitably result in lower pension contributions and worse retirement outcomes.

I thank the hon. Member for giving way and also congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on bringing the debate. On the inequalities the hon. Lady talked about, although many of us are not directly affected, there cannot be a family in this country that does not have a woman or a close relative who has been affected. Does she think that perhaps the Government need to reexamine whether they fully appreciate the scale of the problem and that they should listen to those of us who have been fighting this cause since the day we were elected, which is many years now?

Yes, I absolutely agree with the hon. Member and certainly we are aware of the gender pay gap, which is getting bigger and bigger. I have referred to the fact that women generally live longer than men, so they lose out at that end as well, in that they get only half a pension if they are widowed.

Many of us have taken extended maternity leave to be with our children during their formative years, and we shoulder a disproportionate burden of care. By the time they are 46, half of all women will have taken time out of the workplace for care purposes, including stepping up to look after elderly relatives, meaning they will miss out on vital contributions to their workplace pension. Even if they are one of the three quarters of working-age women in employment, there is a 33% chance they are in part-time employment, increasing the likelihood that they will miss out on the benefits of auto-enrolment under the current regulations.

Under the last Labour Government, pensioner poverty halved. Yet on this Government’s watch it has risen so that one in five pensioners now live in poverty. That is scandalous.

The hon. Member has made some strong points so far. She is talking about the last Labour Government. The last Labour manifesto promised £58 billion over the course of the next Parliament to give compensation to WASPI women. Will that be in the upcoming manifesto for the next election?

However, I can say that I have been meeting the WASPI women regularly since I took this role just a few months ago. I am honoured to be in what I believe is a friendly and honest dialogue with them, and I will continue to do that throughout the coming months and beyond, should I be in the same position.

If the hon. Member’s dialogue is a friendly and honest one, she should be able to say whether the Labour party agrees with the principle of compensation for the WASPI women.

I believe I have already answered that. I am not here to announce our manifesto. I am here to debate like those who have already and I am here to listen, but I cannot announce our manifesto.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; she has been very generous. I just want to ask her on a personal level—forget the Labour party, forget the Government, forget all of that—

On a personal level, does she think that WASPI women should receive the full compensation they are due?

As I said, I am not going to announce our manifesto commitment. Like the hon. Lady, I am here to press the Government who are now in power and have the ability to act. [Interruption.] As a WASPI woman, the hon. Lady would probably be able to guess, would she not? That is all I will say on that subject at the moment.

Two thirds of pensioners living in poverty are women. For many of us, a lifetime of inequalities will continue into retirement. The sadness of the situation lies in how many WASPI women have lost their lives during the time the Government have wasted not doing what they should do. Many women left their careers to look after elderly relatives or to cope after years of manual work, safe in the knowledge that they could get by on their savings for a handful of years until they reached their state pension on turning 60, but found to their horror that their state pension had changed, seemingly without warning.

Over the years, I have heard harrowing stories from both constituents and friends who are truly struggling, torn between whether to heat or to eat and unable to cope with the costs of their mortgage or rent. Pensioners are among those hit hardest by the cost of living crisis, and the Government’s failure to get a grip on the situation has led to rampant inflation and food prices spiralling out of control.

Although I support the policy of state pension age equalisation, it is painfully clear that the way in which it was carried out was shambolic at best. Groups such as WASPI were formed not to reverse the policy of state pension age equalisation, but to mitigate its effects. I commend the group for its work in securing an investigation by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman and its subsequent legal victories, including securing changes to the report. As we speak, the PHSO is still investigating actively. Although I do not wish to speculate on what their findings might be, it is a fact that they found that the DWP committed maladministration in how it decided to inform 1950s-born women of the changes.

I will always listen to and engage respectfully with campaigners fighting to right historical injustices, from WASPI women to the Allied Steel and Wire workers. Although I have not been in my role long, I have met representatives of the 1950s-born women on multiple occasions, and I had already met them at previous Labour party conferences. I will be honoured to continue going forward with them and keeping that dialogue open over the coming months and beyond.

I know that the Minister, like me, has been in his role for only several months, but I am sure it is apparent to him that the injustice these women have faced is clear. The poverty that many of them continue to face is also clear. These women desperately need a resolution to the maladministration to which they have been subjected. I therefore urge the Minister to act now to put that injustice right as quickly as possible, and I look forward to continuing the dialogue with the WASPI women going forward.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate and all Members who have contributed to it.

This has been a valuable and constructive debate focused on the issues of compensation for 1950s-born women affected by state pension age changes. I recognise that there is a huge strength of feeling among 1950s-born women about the increase to their state pension age and the way in which it was communicated. We have heard today about people who have had difficult personal circumstances to manage, and their struggles are regrettable in the extreme. I am grateful to all Members who have participated. It is important that Members on all sides are able to tell the stories of so many of their own constituents. Indeed, I pay tribute to many of my own constituents whom I have sat with and listened to on a number of occasions as they explained their circumstances. It is important that such testimony is uppermost not just in my mind as the Minister, but in the mind of Government more widely.

I note that the Member in charge of the debate, the hon. Member for Strangford, is a Northern Ireland MP. For the record, I will set out how Northern Ireland manages its own system for dealing with complaints such as this; as he will know, such matters are for the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman to address. Any question relating to Northern Ireland must be directed to the relevant authorities in Northern Ireland. All DWP policy areas are transferred in Northern Ireland, including pensions. However, the equivalent Department in Northern Ireland, the Department for Communities, historically has maintained parity with the DWP on matters of social security, child maintenance and pensions.

As House is aware, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s investigation into state pension age communication is not complete. The date of publication is a matter for the ombudsman. As the investigation remains ongoing, I cannot comment on it, as the ombudsman’s investigations are confidential. The privacy rules extend to all parties involved in the investigation.

The Minister is right about probity and the fact that the ombudsman’s investigations are to remain quiet. Does he accept that after stage 1 it is still in the Government’s hands to bring forward compensation? They do not have to wait until the conclusion of further stages.

I will come on to the sequencing and the importance of the different stages shortly, but I am reminded that the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 states that ombudsman investigations that are not complete

“shall be conducted in private”.

The ombudsman has made some information about the investigation public via its website. It published the final version of stage 1 of its report on the website in July 2021. The report said that

“these women should have had at least 28 months’ more individual notice of the changes than they got.”

These findings relate to a specific window of time between August 2005 and December 2007. The report also found that

“between 1995 and 2004, DWP’s communication of changes to State Pension age reflected the standards we would expect it to meet.”

I know that there is frustration among Members of this House and their constituents about how long the investigation has been ongoing, and about the fact that the ombudsman has yet to publish his final report. It is a complex investigation that spans over 30 years, as equalisation of the state pension age was enacted in 1995. The ombudsman provides an independent complaint handling service for complaints that have not been resolved by UK Government Departments and the NHS in England. The ombudsman is managing the investigation in stages, and publication of the final report is entirely a matter for the ombudsman.

I totally understand what the Minister is saying about the timing of the report. Can he give Members of Parliament any rough indication as to when that report will land and when it will be published?

As I think I have already said, the timing of the report is a matter for the ombudsman to determine. I have received no indication from the ombudsman of the timescale to which he is working, much as we would all like to know the date when it is coming.

The Department for Work and Pensions has to be mindful of its independence, but we are co-operating fully with the investigation. We believe that it is important to let the independent process conclude, so that we can then carefully consider the findings and the recommendations that may arise from the final report.

For the record, can the Minister give us a cast-iron guarantee and reassurance that his Department is fully co-operating with the ombudsman?

I can indeed give that assurance. As I have just said, we are fully co-operating at every stage with the ombudsman’s investigations.

I understand the Minister’s position on the specifics and the dates. It is perfectly clear that we are not going to get any indication of a timeline, but does the Minister accept that the WASPI women paid their dues and did their part? We have already seen that maladministration has been found. Do the Government accept that a trust on which our entire democracy is built has been broken, and that WASPI women deserve justice as soon as they possibly can?

I very much hear what the hon. Lady says. The whole point of the ombudsman’s investigations is to determine the outcome of that process and how justice is to be delivered.

As has happened with other judgments in a legal context, will the Minister commit his Government at the very minimum to implementing the judgment of the ombudsman? Or will they try to fight it, obfuscate and kick it into the long grass?

I am sure the hon. Lady will appreciate the principle that until a final report is published and until we know the contents of that report, I—as a Government Minister with a duty to manage public money properly—cannot make any such commitment as she describes.

The Minister is hiding behind the need to wait until the final report is out, but at around the time of the stage 1 report, the PHSO said that Ministers could be proactive in finding a remedy for 1950s women. What does the Minister say to that?

I certainly do not believe that I am hiding behind anything. The ombudsman’s inquiry is going through the processes that the ombudsman itself has set out.

I have given way a number of times, and I have been very generous. I am conscious that I need to finish my contribution and allow the hon. Member for Strangford to comment. I am sorry, and if there is time towards the end I will try to give way, but I need to set out the factual information that Members have been asking me to deliver, so I will make some progress.

The announcement in 1993 of the decision to equalise the state pension age addressed a long-standing inequality between men and women. Changes to state pension age were made over a series of Acts by successive Governments, following public consultations and debates in both Houses of Parliament. All women after 5 April 1950 and all men born after 5 December 1953 are impacted by state pension age changes. The state pension age is currently 66, and is due to rise to the age of 67 between 2026 and 2028, as confirmed by the recent Government review of state pension age. The Government also committed in the last review to conduct a further review within two years of the next Government, to consider the age of 68. The further review will be able to consider the very latest evidence.

The reforms have focused on maintaining the right balance between the affordability and sustainability of the state pension, and fairness between generations. Women retiring today can still expect to receive the state pension, but over 21 years on average, which is over two years longer than men. If equalisation had not taken place, upon reaching the age of 60 women would be expected to spend on average over 40% of their adult lives in receipt of the state pension.

I will say a few words about the processes of the ombudsman’s investigation, for clarification and to place them on the record. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman published its stage 1 report on 20 July 2021. PHSO found maladministration in the steps that the Department took between 2005 and 2007 in relation to notifying the women affected. In December 2022, the PHSO submitted its stage 2 findings and the original stage 3 findings for comment, and published a high-level summary on its website, concluding that the maladministration had caused injustice.

Following the PHSO’s stage 2 findings in December 2022, the WASPI campaign initiated judicial review proceedings against the PHSO, arguing that the ombudsman’s approach to calculating when letters should have been sent ignored pauses in the DWP’s letter-writing campaign, which meant that women should have had notice far earlier than the ombudsman had assumed and could therefore have made different decisions to avoid some of the financial impact. Following an agreement between WASPI and the PHSO, the High Court granted a consent order quashing the PHSO’s final stage 2 report in May 2023. The consent order specifically requested that the PHSO revisited those sections of the stage 2 report dealing with the 28-month delay calculation. The stage 3 provisional view on remedy had not been finalised by the PHSO, so it did not require consideration by the court.

We responded to the provisional stage 3 report in early February 2023. The PHSO sent all parties to the complaint a revised provisional stage 2 report in November 2023. That is the report whose publication we await.

I have already given way, and I am running out of time. I do apologise.

I have listened carefully to the arguments that have been made today. I would like to set out further the range of support available both for those making provision for their retirement and for those who have reached state pension age.

In 2016, the state pension was reformed with the introduction of a new state pension to be simpler and more sustainable. It had the clear objective of providing the foundation for private saving. In this way, the state provides a base to which people can add to provide the pension they want through their retirement.

The new state pension improves outcomes for many women, carers and self-employed people, who often did less well in the past. State pension outcomes are projected to equalise for men and women more than a decade earlier than they would have under the old system. On average, women receiving the new state pension receive about £18 a week more than women under the pre-2016 system. Under the new state pension system, women currently receive an average of 97% of the amount that men receive, compared with 85% under the pre-2016 system.

Automatic enrolment has helped millions more women to save with a pension, many for the first time. Participation rates for women are catching up with those for men. Pensions participation among eligible women working in the private sector was at 86% in 2022, up from 40% in 2012.

Pension credit is extra money to help with daily living costs for people over state pension age and on a low income. It tops up a person’s other income to a minimum of £201.05 a week for single pensioners and £306.85 a week for couples. People with a severe disability, carers and those who are responsible for a child or young person who lives with them can get more. Pension credit can also include extra amounts for certain housing costs such as ground rent or service charges. The pension credit case load is just under 1.4 million people, of whom 66% are female; in fact, of the total case load, 63% are single women. People receiving pension credit may also get help with other costs, including rent, via housing benefit, and council tax.

The latest statistics show that by 2021-22, the poverty rate for pensioners had decreased by two percentage points since 2010. For both female and male pensioners, there was a decrease of two percentage points over the same period. In 2021-22, there were 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty, after housing costs, than in 2010. By 2024-25, working-age and extra-costs disability benefit rates will increase by 6.7%, and relevant state pension rates, including the standard minimum guarantee in pension credit, by 8.5%, following the 10.1% increase in April 2023.

I am about to conclude, because I have only a minute left before the hon. Member for Strangford needs to have his concluding say.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford for raising such an important issue, which I know concerns very many people—thousands across each of our constituencies. I have the greatest sympathy for anyone who has found themselves in difficult circumstances, but I believe that the welfare state can be and is effective in providing support for those who need it. In particular, there is a range of established support that this Government provide for people either nearing or over state pension age. Additionally, we have made cost of living payments available to those who are most vulnerable.

As I have outlined, the Government take the matter of state pension age extremely seriously. The Department is committed to giving the best service it can, and we will very carefully consider the ombudsman’s final report.

I thank each and every one of the right hon. and hon. Members present for their contributions. From a quick headcount, some 26 Back Benchers, as well as the shadow Minister and the Minister, have come along to make a contribution. Why did they do that? They did it because there is a wrong to be righted. That is the reason why.

I will make just a couple of quick comments. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) said that the Government

“could be proactive in finding a remedy.”

That is exactly what we are asking for. Have we seen that this morning? With respect to the Minister, I do not believe that we have just yet.

I encourage the Minister to continue discussions with his Department to ensure that these matters are addressed. We ask for an apology for the WASPI women. We ask for the issue of maladministration to be addressed. That is quite simple when what has happened has been categorised by the Department itself as maladministration. If that has been done, for goodness’ sake get it sorted. I cannot understand why it has not been.

The need for compensation is still outstanding. Are we moving closer to it? We cannot get a time or a date. We really need those in place. Every Member here wants it in place. The delay will have costs. The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) referred to the 260,000 people who have died. How many more will die while the Government dither about getting the job done?

On behalf of the 3.8 million WASPI women, I suggest to the Minister with respect—I always at least try to be nice to everyone in the Chamber, because that is my nature—that we really do need an answer to our request. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) has put forward a ten-minute rule Bill. Let us do that.

We speak on behalf of all the ladies who are here in the Chamber, and all those who are not here. Those are the people we are fighting for. Minister, I was going to say “Get the finger out,” but I will just say: let’s get it done.

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

Social Housing Occupancy

I beg to move,

That this House has considered social housing occupancy levels.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I shall be speaking about an important issue that my constituents raise weekly—one that I have been campaigning on for many years as a Member of Parliament and a London council leader before that. It is about overcrowding in social housing, and indeed the housing crisis. I hesitate to use the term “crisis” because that would imply that the problem was sudden, unexpected and appeared out of nowhere, but no, the housing emergency intensified after the global financial crash of 2008-09 and in ensuing austerity years under consecutive Conservative Governments.

The generation born at the end of the second world war grew up in a world where people from a range of backgrounds had the opportunity, rightly, to live in an affordable and secure home. However, that completely changed after Mrs Thatcher’s privatisation, which created a property boom, and for the first time ever, homes became a barrier to social mobility. Over the years, the right-to-buy policy has led to the depletion of high-quality social homes. Nowadays, people are more likely to own a home if their parents own a home.

In England, there are now 1.2 million families waiting for social homes. In my own borough, 13,343 households are on the housing register. To date, over 2 million council homes across the UK have been sold off, with only 4% of them replaced. The Chartered Institute of Housing found that, as of 2021, 40% of the homes sold under right to buy were owned by private landlords who could charge as much rent as they wanted. Rather than subsidising rents through millions of pounds of housing benefit, surely it would be easier and cheaper to build council homes.

In my constituency of Hornsey and Wood Green, the average house price is £630,000, way above the national average of £285,000, according to a Library briefing from March 2023. Home ownership is an impossible dream and council homes are in short supply. Young people growing up in my constituency are forced to move away, or to live with their parents, or to spend up to 60% of their monthly income on expensive, insecure and often poor-quality privately rented housing.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Will she take the opportunity to congratulate the London Mayor on trying to tackle part of the problem by building homes? In my own borough of Southwark he has built 926 homes, including on the Manor and Rennie estates in Bermondsey, in Rotherhithe, and, in partnership with the Leathermarket Joint Management Board, off Long Lane.

My hon. Friend is right that this issue takes political will. If people cannot afford to save while privately renting, they are not able to save for a deposit, so it is a Catch-22 situation.

Since becoming a Member of Parliament in 2015, I have campaigned for the building of social and affordable homes. I am particularly concerned about the level of overcrowding and its long-term impact on children and young people.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing forward this debate. It is not just an issue on the mainland; it is an issue for us back home as well. Although we have a smaller population of 1.9 million, there are still some 38,000 applicants on the social housing waiting list. There are around 127,400 social homes across Northern Ireland, only 18,000 of which are located in rural areas. Does she agree that although the figures are exceptional for the mainland, they are also exceptional for Northern Ireland, and that there is a need to build social housing not only in urban areas but in rural areas?

As ever, the hon. Member makes an extremely important point. I am aware from reading in the press that Northern Ireland also has a shortage of the correct sorts of homes. Perhaps the right number of bedrooms are available, but not in the right configuration.

In Haringey, 1,053 individuals are estimated to be living in overcrowded or severely overcrowded council homes, and 871 private sector tenants in the highest social housing priority band are overcrowded or severely overcrowded. We know that no local authority wants to place a household in unsuitable or overcrowded accommodation. However, the severe reduction in the number of homes available to let through social housing and the changes to the local housing allowance mean that councils are forced to use the dwindling private rented sector, bed and breakfasts, low-quality accommodation, and hotels.

Sadly, constituents get in touch with me all the time who are exhausted with living in overcrowded, damp and mouldy homes, waiting years or even decades for suitable social housing. Last summer, one constituent told me she lives in an emergency one-bedroom studio with her 16-year-old teenager and six-year-old severely autistic son. As well as the cramped conditions, she told me,

“the roof has collapsed, and our bulbs keep going out as there is some electrical fault here, the fridge doesn’t work, I keep feeling constantly ill because there’s no windows that work either”.

Of course, in London, we all live with the shadow of the terrible tragedy of the Grenfell fire. Another constituent told me that she lives with her elderly parents and two children aged 17 and two. She tells me she has been waiting for her own social home since 2012. She says:

“my parents are elderly, they love me and my children, but due to being overcrowded and being in each other’s space every day, it has caused a major communication breakdown and arguments. I am a single mother with 2 children trying to build a bright future for my children”.

Another constituent currently lives in two-bedroom temporary accommodation with his wife and two children. He has been bidding for a permanent three-bedroom property for eight years with no success—and the list goes on.

London’s housing catastrophe has been 14 years in the making. When London Mayor Sadiq Khan arrived at City Hall, the number of new genuinely affordable homes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) said, had fallen to the lowest levels since records began. The previous Mayor left the cupboard bare and changed the definition of affordable housing to make it even harder for working families. However, things are gradually changing. The Mayor of London is leading a renaissance in council housing development in London. Thanks to Labour, London has seen more new homes completed during Sadiq’s tenure than at any time since the 1930s.

In Haringey—a Labour authority—the council is on track to deliver 3,000 council homes by 2031 and will continue to improve the existing stock. Last year, council house building in London was higher than in the rest of the country, built almost entirely in Labour-run authority areas, where members are pragmatic and tend to agree planning applications where they fit best-practice recommendations, and get on with it over the four years of their term.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Southwark Council is the biggest landlord in London, but it also has the biggest council house building programme in the country. Does she agree that it is only with Labour working in partnership with the private and social housing sector that we will address these problems fully, and that we need a Labour Government to do that?

I completely agree. The combination of a Labour Government and Labour authorities at regional level would have a huge impact on house building. We know that it needs to be scaled up to a national level, and regional leaders need the power and backing to build more homes. Imagine the difference that a Labour Government could make.

The hon. Lady makes some really important points on an important debate that has impacted my constituency. The Conservative- led council in Darlington embarked on a 10-year programme to build more council housing and is delivering 1,000 council homes over 10 years, but that is still not enough. Social housing providers are also building homes. I want to return to one of the points she made on the cause being the right to buy. Is it her view that the right to buy should be ended?

No, it is not, but we do need to stick to a pledge—regardless of which political party is in government—to replace every single home that is sold off; otherwise, we are depriving people in future of opportunity. Social housing makes it possible for working families to save, opening up other opportunities. If they pay 60% of their income in rent, they cannot do very much, whereas if they pay a third—approximately the level of social housing rent—it gives them so much more opportunity to do all sorts of things with their lives. I was pleased to hear the examples from Darlington, an area that has deep pockets of disadvantage.

According to the National Housing Federation, as of December 2021, an estimated 8.4 million people live in unsuitable housing affected by overcrowding, unaffordability, disrepair, damp and mould. For 4.2 million of those people, social rented housing would be the most appropriate tenure to address that need. Most significant of all, overcrowding is the largest problem nationally, affecting nearly 3.7 million people. What is the impact of overcrowded conditions? I have spoken to many children and young people living in overcrowded homes who struggle to concentrate on homework and exam revision. Some are forced to work on the floor while sharing their room with young siblings; others try to study in libraries, but we know that some libraries are struggling to keep their doors open due to cuts in central Government funding. According to the National Housing Federation, almost 2 million children—one in six—live in overcrowded homes. What is more, 310,000 children in England share a bed with parents or siblings because of overcrowded homes. Children having to share a bed with their parents can have quite a negative impact on being ready to go to school and study in the morning. It is something we need to look at in detail and understand its long-term impacts.

One constituent recently wrote to me, saying:

“My family and I have been living in severely overcrowded conditions in a one-bedroom flat since 2016. Our children need their own space for learning and playing, but we cannot provide that for them. The severe overcrowding affects us and our children greatly, both socially and psychologically. The five of us are forced to share a bedroom just to separate our ‘living room’ from our ‘sleeping space’.”

We are making it very clear to children living in social homes that they do not deserve their own space: space to study, decompress and play—space to be children. According to Barnardo’s, more than a million children in the UK either sleep on the floor or share a bed with parents or siblings because their landlord has failed to replace broken frames and poor-quality homes have turned linen mouldy. I received recently a video of a mum holding up a garment—her toddler’s favourite purple jumper—that was covered in mould and had to be thrown away. The replacement cost of clothing and linen is high for people on low incomes. I have lost count of the number of parents who have contacted me to say they can no longer use the bedroom due to excessive mould on the ceiling, walls and bedding, so it becomes safer for children to sleep on a sofa with a sheet than in their own bedroom in a comfortable bed.

Last year, I visited Mind in Haringey, a mental health charity of which I am a patron. Staff told me about the different issues they were experiencing on the frontline, including speaking to more and more patients whose mental health difficulties were caused or made significantly worse by poor housing. I want to put on record my enormous gratitude to the Haringey Mind team, as well as the other fantastic organisations that support my constituents every day, including Shelter, Citizens Advice Haringey, St James’s Legal Advice Centre in Muswell Hill, Wilton Road and Wood Green, Haringey Law Centre, Haringey Connected Communities, and lastly London Councils for their continued advocacy for the people of London.

According to the Times Health Commission, poor-quality housing costs the national health service £1.4 billion a year—proof that health and housing are integrally linked. Often, when I am out in the constituency and ask a group of children, “Who here has an asthma pump, or has a friend in class who has an asthma pump?”, all the hands go up. We need to tackle poor-quality air not just outdoors, but indoors.

When Nye Bevan, as Health Minister, founded the NHS in 1948, he also had a vision for council housing. He wanted to create a housing service similar to the national health service, because he knew that good-quality, affordable homes were crucial to people’s physical and mental health. We know that those living in overcrowded homes are more likely to face problems such as damp, vermin and lack of outdoor space. According to the 2022 Marmot review for the Greater London Authority, overcrowding is associated with higher rates of tuberculosis transmission, stress and depression. Scurvy is coming back into GP clinics. All this puts more pressure on our NHS, and means that people are sicker for longer.

A house is not just a roof over one’s head, but a home that we decorate and personalise. It is a place to go after a hard day’s work to laugh, cry and make memories for life; it is somewhere we feel safe and warm. The rights to security in our home, to make our home our own and, most of all, to live in a home fit for human habitation are non-negotiable. Housing should not necessarily just be a market, but a fundamental human right.

More recently, commercial properties, such as vacant shops, restaurants, gyms and offices are being converted into houses. Those buildings, which were never designed for human habitation, are being used up and down the country as emergency accommodation while residents wait years for their social home.

The Government shamefully voted through a planning loophole, known as permitted development rights, that allows changes to be made to an existing building without planning permission. It has resulted in thousands of buildings being converted without proper checks on quality, minimum space standards, fire safety, ventilation and energy efficiency, and of course it gets around the requirement for an element of that particular planning application to be social homes. The Government will do almost anything but put shovels in the ground and build more homes. The extension of permitted development rights is not just damaging but a missed opportunity to tackle Britain’s housing crisis and produce high-quality homes. It is clear that we must prioritise council housing, council housing and council housing.

This Government can no longer be trusted to build council homes, or any homes at this rate. Fourteen years in power and they have nothing to show for it. Only a Labour Government will bring about the biggest boost in affordable homes for a generation. With social and council housing at the core of our plan, we will also ensure that developers honour their commitments in full to provide new social and affordable homes, which is something that the Government have turned a blind eye to. Last week’s spring Budget was a missed opportunity to help people on to the housing ladder. Whether they have the money to have a mortgage or not, there was nothing for them. Whether it was to tackle growing private rents and their unaffordable nature, or the long queues for social housing, the Chancellor missed a trick.

As I have outlined, social housing provides long-term stability that enables people to get on with life. Whatever a person’s situation—whether they are studying, working, have a young family or are living alone—social housing can help them to put down roots and can create community. I am proud that it was the Labour party under Clement Attlee that undertook the most ambitious housebuilding programme ever, and what is so different now from 1945? Is it that different, given all we have been through with the covid pandemic, with the war and with the energy crisis in Europe? Is that that different from the 1940s? Now is the moment and the Labour party plans on restoring social housing and ensuring that no one is left behind.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for bringing forward this debate. She has already spoken very eloquently and in detail about the issue of overcrowding in social housing and its impact on health, life expectancy and education. Although her constituency is in London and mine is in the north of England, we face identical issues and this is a national crisis. Indeed, I would say that the shortage of housing is one of the single biggest domestic issues that we face in our country.

In Bolton, the 2021 census showed that 7,000 homes were judged to be overcrowded, and of those 3,840 were households with dependent children—that is thousands of families with children forced to share beds with other family members and forced into cramped conditions without personal space. That is caused by a chronic housing shortage, which is forcing people into the private sector where the rents are unaffordable.

The Minister will tell us that homes will be built in the future. Let me remind him that when his Government came into power in 2010, they cut funding for affordable housing by 63%: the biggest cut to any capital budget. They also cut funding for new homes and social rents, thus causing rapid decline in the building of social homes. The Government have just not built enough homes, especially three and four-bedroom homes.

I have many constituents living in small houses with ill family members who need a room to themselves but they cannot have it. That of course causes a lot of disturbance and problems within the family, especially for children going to school. In fact, I was talking to a constituent yesterday who lives in a tiny two-bedroom home with three children and she is severely ill herself. She is desperate to move into a bigger home, but knows that she will have many years of waiting. That kind of thing has a lot of impact. In fact, covid impacted my constituency massively because as a result of overcrowding there was no space for the families to go and quarantine. Overcrowding affects children’s education and health. It harms family relationships and causes distress and anxiety.

The Government have had 14 years to build many, many social houses, but have chosen not to do so because they have an ideological objection to social housing. If they did not, they would have built them by now and many of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green and other Members across the country would not have to face these issues.

It is a pleasure, Sir Gary, to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for securing this important debate. She has worked tirelessly over the years to promote the interests of people and families living in social housing. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for her invaluable contribution to this debate.

Like both hon. Members, I believe that everyone has the right to a decent, safe and warm home that meets their needs. This is a subject close to my heart: I was born and raised in Middlesbrough, where I saw from an early age the vital importance of decent homes for a good start in life, providing hard-working people with the solid foundation on which good, productive lives can be built and as the bedrock of strong local communities.

I also saw the consequences for people and families when homes were inadequate, poor quality and overcrowded, particularly for the poorest in our society, as the hon. Member for Bolton South East mentioned. That is why I am proud to support the Secretary of State and my ministerial colleagues at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities as we work to reduce overcrowding by delivering not just more homes, but better homes in the right places across the country, including thousands of affordable homes and homes for social rent—good new homes that are at the heart of our long-term plan for housing and are the driving force behind our work to level up, boost economic growth and strengthen a sense of pride and belonging nationwide. We are making good progress.

Since 2010 the Government have delivered nearly 700,000 affordable homes, including 172,000 for social rent. In my constituency alone during that period, over 1,800 affordable homes have been built, hundreds of which are socially rented. In the constituency of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green in the London borough of Haringey, more than 3,400 affordable homes have been delivered, including nearly 800 socially rented properties.

Looking to the future, our £11.5 billion affordable homes programme will deliver thousands more properties for rent and to buy over the coming years. We are investing in improving the supply of good quality housing in some of our poorest communities through our £1 billion brownfield and infrastructure investment fund, which will unlock around 65,000 new homes across the country. I saw that funding in action during my recent visit to Blackpool, where we are spending £90 million to bring housing in the town centre up to scratch, helping to improve the lives of hundreds of local people.

We recognise, however, that social housing is a finite resource. Councils are responsible for allocating their housing stock through local schemes and are best placed to manage demand. That is governed by a framework set by central Government, which ensures that reasonable preference is given to those living in overcrowded homes. We want to see local authorities making full use of all these measures to deliver more good quality social and affordable housing for the communities they serve.

We encourage housing authorities to consider innovative ways in which to make the best use of their stock, such as by supporting individuals living in larger homes to transfer to smaller properties to help reduce overcrowding. Many councils are already doing so.

Will the Minister tell us whether the number of people in overcrowded social housing is going up?

I do not have that figure to hand, but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman. I should say that I am not the Social Housing Minister; I am responding on behalf of Baroness Scott in this debate. But I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets an answer to his question.

We are also working to improve the quality of social housing nationwide, taking action through the Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023, which will deliver transformative change across the sector, rebalancing the relationships between landlords and tenants, and ensuring landlords are held to account for their performance. The Act is one of a wide range of measures we are taking to drive up standards across the sector, which include supporting a new regulatory regime to improve the quality and regulation of social housing; introducing new standards on competence and conduct for staff involved in the provision of housing management services; and the introduction of Awaab’s law.

I know the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green is particularly concerned about households that struggle with damp and mould. Awaab’s law, following the tragic death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak in Rochdale in 2020, will now require landlords to address hazards, such as damp and mould, in social homes, within a fixed period. Collectively, those measures support our ambition to halve the number of non-decent rented homes by 2030, as set out in the levelling-up White Paper.

In the light of the specific case he just referenced, does the Minister regret the Lib Dem-Tory coalition decision to slash the Homes and Communities Agency’s funding by 83%, which prevented some of those home improvements happening for at least the five years of that Government?

I would say that we are acting, through legislation, in the Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023. We introduced Awaab’s law as an amendment to that Act, to ensure that such issues are tackled in a timely manner, to prevent more tragic deaths such as Awaab Ishak’s.

Turning to local housing allowance, the Government recognise the cost of living pressures that tenants face, and that paying rent is likely to be a tenant’s biggest monthly expense, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green said. From April 2024, we are investing £1.2 billion, restoring local housing allowance rates to the thirtieth percentile of local market rents. That significant investment will mean 1.6 million low-income households will gain, on average, nearly £800 per year in additional help towards their rental costs in 2024-25.

Decisive action has been taken across the UK to support households through cost of living challenges, meaning that more than 8 million of the most vulnerable households will continue to be supported through winter by additional cost of living payments. Discretionary housing payments are also available to help meet shortfalls in housing costs. Cost of living payments are also available this year to households on means-tested benefits, those on disability benefits and pensioners, with the household support fund now extended by a further six months, to help cover the cost of essentials.

As this debate has shown, we all recognise that social housing is a precious resource, which is why it must be used wisely and fairly. The British public want to know that decent, hard-working people, who have contributed to this country and played by the rules, can secure a home in their local community. That is why we are taking action to ensure that those who abuse the housing system should not benefit at the expense of those who play by the rules, and that local housing authorities do not disproportionately allocate housing to those newly arrived in the country or local area, while local families are left on waiting lists.

In conclusion, we will ensure that all applicants and tenants of social housing can benefit from a system that rewards responsible behaviour and protects local households, while supporting the most vulnerable and those most in need. That system would provide good homes as the building blocks for strong communities to be proud of, and the launchpad for people and families to get on in life.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Health and Wellbeing Services: Essex

[Gordon Henderson in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered health and wellbeing services in Essex.

I am grateful that you are chairing the debate, Mr Henderson, and pleased to see that my right hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) is the Minister responding. He has been very good on many issues that I have taken to him thus far. I will cover a wide and diverse range of health-related issues affecting my constituents and people across Essex. I appreciate that some of those issues fall outside of the Minister’s portfolio, but I know he will take them on board and will feed back to colleagues. He is an excellent Minister, and I know he will respond in a helpful way. I am particularly pleased to welcome to the debate colleagues from neighbouring constituencies, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), because we care about the provision and quality of health and wellbeing services. It is important to our constituents, and it is important that our constituents know we will work together as neighbouring MPs on some of the issues.

As the Minister and colleagues will be aware, just over a year ago, in March 2023, we were in this very Chamber having a similar debate with a similar title—I think we stretched it to the east of England last time round—and this debate follows on from that one. Everyone here will know that Essex is an amazing county. Our residents, businesses and communities are hard-working, resilient, entrepreneurial, ambitious and aspirational. They obviously back all the Conservative values around lower taxes, being a county of entrepreneurs and the engine of economic growth. We are net contributors to the Exchequer. I never tire of saying that because, as net contributors, we in Essex do not always get our pound of flesh back from the Exchequer when it comes to investment in our public services. It is fair to say that our constituents expect that from the Exchequer, particularly the fact that we should be supported when it comes to our public services, including the NHS, but also wider health and wellbeing services that do not always require medical interventions or diagnostics.

Parts of our county—mid-Essex in particular—have experienced considerable population growth and demographic changes, and that covers the constituencies of Colchester and Maldon. For clarification, we share district boundaries, so our council boundaries are intertwined—we are effectively three integrated MPs, I think it is fair to say, on many of the issues that we stand up and speak for. Those living within Essex County Council’s boundary totalled more than 1.5 million at the 2021 census, up by more than 100,000 people on the 2011 census, which is more than 7% and above England’s average of 6.6% at the time. That includes areas such as Southend and Thurrock. When we include those areas, our county population totals just under two million, at 1.9 million. We are one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, and growth in the city of Colchester, which covers parts of my constituency, continues to grow. With that, demand on public services continues to grow. We see from the census that we have over 300,000 people aged 65 or over, which is 21% of our population. That is higher than the average in England of 18.6% and, by 2035, that number will grow by up to 27%, so just under 400,000 people in Essex. The number of those over 85 will rise by 60%, so we can see that the numbers are growing. We are an ageing not just county but country and, that impacts on the working-age population of 18 to 65-year-olds which, by contrast, is set to rise by only 4%.

We can see the counter-cyclical issues resulting from the fact that a greater part of our population will be elderly. Interestingly enough, with that ageing population we are seeing increasing numbers of young families coming to Essex, which will mean more house building. Our schools are rated good and outstanding, and we are commutable territory, so our towns are thriving and growing.

As I said in the debate last year, there are pressures on social care which have had a very significant impact on the integrated care systems that have been introduced, with further integration taking place. In particular, those pressures have had an impact on spending at the county, district and city council level. We have a number of integrated care boards that cover Essex: NHS Hertfordshire and West Essex; NHS Mid and South Essex, which predominantly covers mid-Essex; and NHS Suffolk and North East Essex, covering Colchester and Tendring.

We also have a number of hospitals, the biggest being Broomfield Hospital, Colchester Hospital, the Princess Alexandra Hospital, Basildon University Hospital and Southend University Hospital. Our emergency services are provided by the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust, and the South Essex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust provides mental health services. I am shortly going to discuss those areas, and those trusts in particular.

As hon. Members have heard, we have a range of trusts, hospitals and challenges in Essex. When I was first elected we had the old-fashioned primary care trusts and strategic health authorities. Those were deeply unpopular, hugely problematic and bureaucratic and massively resource-intensive, and the changes in structures we have seen now provide greater integration. What really matters to all my constituents and residents across Essex is not so much the configuration and structure of services, but how those services work together effectively to deliver what those people and their families need: primary care, appointments and access to health services.

I commend the right hon. Lady on the debate. It is clearly about health services in Essex, and is therefore not to do with Strangford. However, to add my support to what the right hon. Lady is saying, I note that the problems in Essex she has outlined are replicated across my constituency as well. They include the closure of the local minor injuries unit, which is integral to the local community. That means that constituents have to travel further to get their healthcare—the very thing that the right hon. Lady is referring to. Does she agree that health bodies must focus more on community health and wellbeing to ensure that all constituents have the local access they deserve to efficient health and care services? Again, I commend the right hon. Lady on introducing the debate.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he has teed up the issue I wanted to raise—community healthcare provision and localised services. I have just mentioned our big hospitals in Essex, but it is absolutely vital that we have localised healthcare provision.

That brings me on to a local issue that affects my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and me—the future of St Peter’s Hospital. I raised this issue in the House last week in Health questions, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon has secured an Adjournment debate on Thursday to discuss it further. Last night I attended a public meeting hosted and organised in Witham by Witham Town Council on this matter.

I know that colleagues will say more about this issue later in this debate, but for context, to say that my right hon. Friend and I are receiving hefty mailbags on this issue would be an understatement. We are receiving unprecedented levels of correspondence and communication —emails and phone calls—from concerned and angry residents who are frustrated by the plans put forward by the integrated care board to remove services from St Peter’s hospital, which could lead to its closure under the proposed consultation. The Minister will know that the plans are subject to consultation; my right hon. Friend and I have called for it to be extended, and yesterday we were given confirmation that it has been.

The measures that we are discussing include the removal of stroke rehabilitation in-patient beds to Brentwood and Rochford, which are not local areas and require considerable travel, and making permanent the temporary removal of a midwife-led birthing unit. The ICB is also seeking views on the future removal of other services from the site, including out-patient services covering blood tests, ultrasound scans, X-rays, podiatry clinics and services to support mental health patients, with an average total of around 300 patients a day using the particular site.

I should add that this is a much-loved community site, and it is fair to say that across the generations everyone in our district would have had some kind of interaction or engagement with it. I myself have used St Peter’s and its maternity facilities. Last night, I met some of its maternity nurses, who kindly came to our public debate. They are remarkable ladies, who are wonderful in the care and compassion that they give to mothers, particularly new mothers who, quite frankly, struggle after the birth of their first child to adapt to some of the post-maternity services. The nurses are wonderful.

The hospital serves the town of Maldon and the wider rural area, including people in Maldon district who live in the Witham constituency. This part of Essex has experienced very considerable economic growth, particularly housing growth. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon cannot speak about small housing developments—we have significant housing developments in our constituencies. I will refer to the Westcombe Park development in Heybridge, which straddles both our constituencies. It is a development of over 1,000 homes, which speaks to the type of developments that we have locally. The current local plan runs up to 2029, and we will see the development of another 5,000 homes in that time. I recognise that we need more homes—people need homes to live in and we aspire to own our homes—but we also need to know that new housing and population growth will attract the infrastructure and public services to support them in the long run.

The consultation about St Peter’s is very important. The document covers a range of issues, but I have to say that it is not acceptable for us to say, “It’s fine for the services to go elsewhere and be relocated.” Our constituents would experience considerable travel times if services were relocated and there are issues with local public transport as well. I am afraid to say that trying to park a car at Broomfield Hospital is nigh-on impossible. We want to those services to remain local; that is absolutely pivotal. Importantly, they should remain within Maldon town and Maldon district.

Our constituents have serious reservations about these proposals and it is right that we, as local MPs, continue to support, champion and work with the integrated care board, and work with local authorities, Ministers and the Government to secure these services in Maldon town. We have to keep these services in our district. I know that the Minister cannot specifically intervene in matters being considered by the ICB, but I would welcome his views, and I think this issue is going to be very important going forward. This consultation also sets a benchmark for engagement with ICBs and future-proofing localised healthcare services, which we all want to see in our constituencies.

I have mentioned the need to enhance services and safeguard them in Maldon and Maldon district. The Department is very familiar with communication around Witham town and my calls over 14 years for a new health centre there. My correspondence file in the Department is large; I know that, and I thank Ministers for their forbearance and all the responses that they have sent to me. However, like Maldon, Witham has experienced huge amounts of housing growth, which means that the demand for primary care is outstripping supply.

We have four GP practices in the town and I will name them all: Fern House surgery has 16,500 patients; Douglas Grove surgery has 6,500 patients; Witham practice has 6,500 patients; and Collingwood Road practice, which I visited recently, has 2,500 patients. That is a total patient list of about 32,000 just in the town itself. The national patient to GP ratio average is around 1,700 patients per GP, but across those four surgeries there are around 13 full-time equivalent GPs, which means that the local patient to GP ratio is closer to 2,500. That is the tense situation that we have and the challenge that we face.

We also have the incredible Anglia Ruskin University medical facility. Many of us were part of the group making the business case that was made for that and we are very proud of it. In September 2023, we saw the first cohort of medical practitioners from that facility. We are desperate to make sure that we keep them all local; we absolutely want them to remain local.

However, we need to discuss the practicalities and how hard it is to get a GP appointment. That is why we need new facilities, more support for GPs and more primary care staff to improve health services in Witham. I am consistent in my campaigning for all of that.

I pay tribute to Braintree District Council, which has been on this journey with us. We have capital funding for a service, but the Minister will recognise that we need the GP practices to make the business case on how they can work together. I pay tribute also to the work of the local ICB and the NHS Alliance director for mid-Essex, Dan Doherty, who has undertaken to pursue this project with local councillors. For the first time in a decade, I feel that we have better collaboration and a stronger commitment to making this happen.

We have opportunities to redevelop locations. I cannot speak about them because some are commercially sensitive and are subject to the local councils and the ICB working together. We need the critical mass of our GPs to commit firmly to driving this proposal forward. The Minister knows that it cannot be achieved without them. We want to ensure that there is sustainability and a future business for them. For example, we are protecting prescribing, because one of the practices is a prescribing pharmacy. It is important that we give them the approach to do this.

With the game-changing dialogue that we hear in Government about localised health services, community pharmacies, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s focus on improving efficiency in the NHS, if we can knit those strands together, this could develop and lead to great outcomes for Witham town. The frustration of my constituents in Witham town is palpable; they have been waiting decades for this. We as a Government must deliver for them, and I will continue to press the Government on this.

In addition to the growing demands in Witham, we have growing demand for primary care and GP services in other parts of my constituency. These are theoretically villages but their growth means they are not analogous with the old view of what a village looks like; they include Kelvedon and Feering. Stanway in its own right is no longer a village; it has become a town within the Colchester city footprint. The beautiful village of Tiptree is famous for Wilkin & Sons and some other wonderful businesses. The Tiptree medical centre now has 12,000 patients on its books, and there are concerns that that is too many for one practice to handle. I recently received a letter from the practice explaining that their clinical rooms are full to capacity, and that they may consider options to close their patient list to new patients, formally or informally, and to reduce their patient catchment area significantly, so as not to include patients who are registered in the CM postcode area.

That is worrying and deeply concerning. Action is needed to address concerns about the impact of population growth. That is something our local authorities should be doing as they develop their local plans—they have to be much more strategic. Six years ago, a very unpopular planning application was submitted for 200 dwellings in Tiptree. It was widely opposed, including on the basis of pressures on the local health services, the Tiptree medical practice in particular. Initially the application put aside land for a new medical facility; despite local opposition, the application was granted on appeal, but in the end no site for a medical facility was included, according to the decision issued. That said that the application originally included the provision of land for a medical facility but that that was removed from the proposal because Tiptree medical centre and North East Essex clinical commissioning group no longer required the land on the site, and instead requested a financial contribution towards the provision of medical facilities. That contribution has been incorporated into the section 106 agreement. As we can see from the correspondence I referred to from the medical practice, the new capacity is now not sufficient.

What we now have in Tiptree is an unwelcome development: a growing population but no significant new investment to meet the demands. Again, across Essex, planning contributions to health facilities are inadequate. They are not delivering on the improvements that have been promised, and that is totally unsustainable. I would like the Minister and the Department to review this and, in particular, look into the provision of GP services in Tiptree, and with the CCG look at how developer contributions are secured and issued.

As well as protecting and enhancing primary care facilities, we need to talk about GP training. I have already mentioned the facility at Anglia Ruskin University, which we are thrilled to have. I think that the Minister himself may have recently visited, and I will be heading there this week as well. It is an incredible facility that we need to grow at some stage, which I am already hinting to the Minister basically means expansion. We can then grow its capacity and have more locally trained medical practitioners.

On the subject of healthcare in our community, I thank the Minister and the Government for empowering pharmacies to deliver more services, which was long overdue. I have raised that issue in previous debates and I spoke about it when we had the announcement in January that pharmacies can now support patients with seven common conditions. That reportedly frees up something like an incredible 10 million GP appointments a year, while providing pharmacies with new business activities that importantly keep their footfall going.

Our local pharmacies are at the heart of our communities. That is pivotal, which is particularly in constituencies like mine and that that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon, which as hon. Members will know, touch the coast. I urge the Minister to consider empowering pharmacies by giving them the opportunity to grow that provision around the wider conditions that they can treat. I am a great believer in social prescribing as well, and some of those pharmacies could even utilise their own buildings as social prescribing hubs, which we should all collectively look to expand.

The Minister has heard me touch on the importance of investment in primary care services, but the statistics I referenced in my opening remarks demonstrate the importance of prevention and social care services. I have to say that Essex County Council is blessed with the high-calibre leadership of Councillor Kevin Bentley and Councillor John Spence, who is the portfolio holder for health, adult social care and integrated care systems integration, and it has a strong record in supporting investment and service area improvements. I do not say that lightly because we were not there a decade ago, when none of us wanted to use the infamous term “bed-blocking” or say that it would take place in our hospitals, the implications of which we all know.

At any one time, the council is supporting around 16,000 people with social care, and 40,000 during the course of the year. Over 90% of people who use its services say that they are safe and secure, and the council is supporting increasing numbers with hospital discharges and reablement services. I visited an organisation called Medequip on Friday, based in Braintree district, that is contracted by Essex County Council. The innovation and the quality of care and equipment that it is providing for reablement services is phenomenal, and we really have to do much more to support that. For example, the Essex Wellbeing Service has helped 73% of people in Essex to quit smoking, which is an important intervention using preventative care, and it also supported the provision of 42,000 NHS health checks. We need to do much more on health checks, particularly cancer checks.

I will not repeat the numbers on the elderly population, but the population with learning disabilities and autism is also increasing. It is expected to grow by 3% by 2025—just next year—and the population of working-age adults with sensory impairments will grow by 5%. The council is spending around £500,000 a year on adult social care services, just over £200 million on people aged over 65 and just under £300 million on working age adults between 18 and 64. I welcome the funding that we have, but we definitely need much more.

I met parents yesterday in my constituency who are fighting for education, health and care plans—a common experience for all of us now. Since 2019, under Essex County Council, the number of EHCPs has increased from just under 9,000 to over 11,600 in 2023—a 29% increase in four years. Essex is doing very well at this compared with many authorities, but we are struggling to get these plans for children. That is a long-standing issue. The Minister will recognise that we are seeing greater demand from parents and that schools are raising this issue.

Another area of frontline health provision that will be familiar to the Minister is dentistry. In the east of England in particular—not just Essex—we have long-standing problems. The Library has shown that, in 2023, around 52.2% of children in Essex had seen a dentist in the past two years, which is just under the English average of 53%. Our figures are not good, and I would like to hear from the Minister how we are going to make progress in this area.

I thank the Minister for the time he gave us last week to discuss the mental health statutory inquiry. Colleagues in Essex are familiar with the concerns about this issue. When we debated health and wellbeing services last year, the inquiry was on a non-statutory footing. It was established back in 2021 to investigate 2,000 in-patient deaths that had occurred since 2000. I pay tribute to Geraldine Strathdee for her work in chairing that inquiry and for doing all she could to gather evidence and see the witnesses that participated in that work. She, families and colleagues in this place were frustrated that not enough progress was being made and, importantly, that not enough evidence was coming forward. Colleagues pressed for the inquiry to be converted to a statutory inquiry, and we now have Baroness Kate Lampard chairing it. Over the past few months, she has been consulting on the terms of reference. I thank Kate for the work that she is doing. Obviously, the Minister is familiar with this. We are waiting for the terms of reference to be finalised.

Our constituents have been incredible in their dignity, their courage and their bravery but also in their resilience. As human beings, they have been through a terrible ordeal—they really have. They want to see the statutory inquiry progress at pace. I pay tribute to my constituent Melanie Leahy, whose son Matthew died in 2012 while a patient in the Linden centre. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon will speak to this as well, as Melanie Leahy was at one stage his constituent. She is remarkable for the way in which she tackled what I call the institutional state failure of her son’s treatment. Importantly, she helped to get a statutory inquiry. The families must all get the answers that they need and see lessons learned from what happened. We owe it to those who lost their lives and to their families to change the system and to get answers. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on this in particular and on how we will come together to make time to meet the families and to work with them.

My final comments speak to the future of the NHS—the workforce plan, the growing demand for services and work on recruitment. I spoke about this in my last dialogue with the chief executive of Broomfield Hospital. I am interested in this, and I ask questions all the time. The House has heard the numbers and the statistics I put forward on how difficult it is to get an appointment and how pressed we are in terms of medical practitioners.

We should also recognise that we have an incredible international workforce locally. Our NHS would be in a much more difficult position if it was not for the staff from Botswana, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Nepal, Sudan, India and Egypt who are working in our health and social care services and contributing to our public services, our economy and our tax system. They care for elderly and vulnerable residents across our constituencies, and they should be thanked for that.

There have been interesting debates on migration, immigration and on the skills and contributions of those coming to our country. Of course there is a need to control numbers, but we have to recognise that we rely on those skills and contributions because of workforce pressures and the fact that we have not done enough as an economy and a country to grow skillsets here. I encourage the Minister to ensure that, as part of the NHS long-term workforce plan, we do much more. We have Anglia Ruskin University and other universities across the country, but we must do more.

I want the Government to recognise that we need a wider labour market strategy that addresses these issues, which sometimes unnecessarily inflame debates around immigration. They must also recognise that many of those who come to our country through a skilled worker route pay thousands of pounds in immigration health surcharges, which contributes to the finances of the NHS. Many of them are also higher-rate taxpayers and contribute to our economy, our country and important sectors.

Of course, technology also has a role to play—it really does. We can do so much more using technology, and we must make sure that we absolutely grow the workforce locally going forward.

I have presented the Minister with a long list of health and wellbeing issues across Essex, and I thank him and his team for their patience—he is a great Minister, who is very considered, and I know he will respond accordingly. With investment, innovation and support, our health and wellbeing services across Essex could be so much better. Importantly, they could meet the needs of our constituents and ensure that we have not just a sustainable NHS service that meets the needs of our population, but a happier and healthier population.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing this important debate on health and wellbeing services in Essex. Her powerful speech raised a number of issues affecting all parts of Essex, including my own, in north Essex, and specifically Colchester. Understandably, I plan to focus on north Essex and my constituency, but given that I stood down as a Minister of State at the Department of Health and Social Care only in late November, I want to start with some reflections on our NHS more generally. May I say in passing that the Minister is doing a marvellous job with a difficult brief? As he knows, it is a privilege and an honour to be a Minister at the Department of Health and Social Care and to be part of our NHS’s story.

The NHS is a universal, comprehensive system that is free at the point of use and paid for through taxation—principles that remain intact and that receive strong public and political support today. At its heart, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham set out, the NHS is not about buildings and equipment—as important as those are, and we are of course passionate about health centres, hospitals and the latest technology—but about the circa 2 million people who work in it day in, day out to deliver and facilitate the high-quality care we rightly expect. I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who works in our NHS, especially those working in north Essex and those serving patients and my constituents in Colchester.

We all have our personal experiences of our NHS and of the care that we and our families have received. When we think about the future of health and wellbeing services in Essex, we have to be mindful of the broader context, much of which my right hon. Friend set out in her powerful speech. Our NHS is under significant and considerable pressure and faces a number of challenges. We have increasing demand, particularly in primary care and in urgent and emergency care. We are living longer, which is brilliant, but it comes with challenges, including living with complex conditions and comorbidities.

Social care continues to be a challenge, especially around workforce, as my right hon. Friend set out. We have increasing demand on mental health services. We had the covid pandemic, with the backlog and the waiting lists, but also the resulting later diagnosis of cardiovascular disease and other conditions, as many people were unable to or did not come forward with symptoms or for regular check-ups.

We also have the at times seemingly intractable complexity of NHS structures and processes; the silo mentality that we sadly see so often; the multiple tiers and archaic processes; the challenges in rolling out the latest innovative technologies, such as tech, drugs, treatment and therapies, that are available in some parts of Essex or the country but not in others; and the issue of making sure that research and innovation is truly embedded in every single trust in the country.

That is not an exhaustive list, and I have not mentioned two of the biggest challenges—workforce and funding—one of which my right hon. Friend touched on in some detail. First, on funding, the NHS will always need increased funding to reflect the changing nature of medicine and the health needs of our population and, importantly, to ensure that we have the very latest and most innovative and cutting-edge medtech, treatments, drugs, procedures and therapies for our patients. Despite record revenue and capital budgets for our NHS, year-on-year real-terms increases in funding, and further significant funding—in fact, several billion pounds of funding—announced in the spring Budget, which I massively welcome, budgets remain a challenge for local systems and for trusts, not just in Essex but across the country.

Secondly, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, workforce is absolutely vital to our NHS, and she was right to mention the hugely important contribution that international staff make—they have contributed since its formation, and continue to do so. Regardless of the NHS long-term workforce plan, as important as it is, international recruitment will still have a hugely important role to play.

I was a Minister at the DHSC when the Government commissioned NHS England to produce the first ever NHS long-term workforce plan, which the Minister will no doubt elaborate on. The plan was then published, backed with £2.4 billion over the next five years by the Government. It included things like doubling medical school places, including at Anglia Ruskin University, which we are incredibly proud of; huge increases in nursing, midwifery and allied health professional training places; and a plan for retention—it is critical that it is about not just recruitment but retention and, of course, reform.

We talk about workforce and funding, but the truth is that addressing those two things alone will not tackle the challenges our NHS faces either nationally or locally. Only by innovating and transforming local systems and the delivery of health and care provision at a local level can we deliver on what we all aspire to across this House, which is our local populations living longer, healthier, happier and more fulfilling lives.

I firmly believe that integrated care systems, which my right hon. Friend touched on, are at the heart of achieving that. They are working holistically at a local level to get systems focusing relentlessly on patient outcomes and patient experiences, and breaking down the silo mentality that we have sadly so often seen in our NHS historically. Their other critical role is driving transformation and innovation at a local level, getting trusts and organisations to work together, and using all assets and capacity within health systems.

I pay tribute, as my right hon. Friend did, to the leadership of the Suffolk & North East Essex Integrated Care System—Dr Ed Garratt and his team. I know how closely they work with Nick Hulme and his team at the East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust or, as it is known locally, Colchester and Ipswich Hospitals. Our health system more broadly, and our two acute hospital trusts in north Essex and east Suffolk, face many of the challenges I set out earlier, but to their great credit, they are continuously looking at innovative ways to address them.

For example, our system in north Essex and east Suffolk is consistently one the highest and best-performing in the country. It had the fastest roll-out of the covid-19 vaccine. It is a top performer for diabetes care. It has consistently low levels of delayed discharge, an issue my right hon. Friend the Minister and his fellow Minister, the Minister for Social Care, spent a lot of time focusing on, and rightly so, because of the continued pressure on urgent and emergency care and the importance of tackling delayed discharge.

Our local system has also led on innovation. It has developed the Care Tech Campus and the challenge fund, in particular, with the University of Essex and Essex County Council. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham was right to praise the role that Councillors Kevin Bentley and John Spence have played in that, working in partnership with the health system to deliver innovation in care that is providing not just better outcomes, but a better experience for patients. Finally, our local system is leading the way on National Institute for Health and Care Research-funded research, which we want more trusts across the country to do.

Before I finish, I want to raise a handful of initiatives in north Essex and east Suffolk that I think deserve highlighting, because they are going to be transformational in terms of both patient experience and outcome. The first is the elective orthopaedic centre at Colchester Hospital, which I was fortunate enough to have a tour of recently. It is hugely exciting. It is an impressive £64 million facility serving north-east Essex and east Suffolk. It is the largest of its kind in Europe, at over 11,000 square metres, and will include eight theatres, three wards, a physio, a gym, a day surgery, a recovery centre and its own imaging department. Importantly—I know the Minister will be pleased to hear this—it will enable 10,000 procedures a year following its opening, which is due to take place this August.

The second initiative is the Clacton community diagnostic centre, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling). I am sorry he could not be here for the debate, but I want to reference it as it serves the wider area. The centre is a £25 million investment in state-of-the-art diagnostics, meaning that patients can access the full range of diagnostic services, including CT scans, MRI scans, X-rays, ultrasounds, blood scans and cardiorespiratory medicine. Importantly—I visited a lot of community diagnostic centres when I was in the Minister’s role—this facility has delivered more than 110,000 treatments in the past year. I would love it if the Minister could check this, but I think that it must be one of the highest performing centres—if not the highest performing centre—in the country.

I want to turn now to two mental health and mental resilience projects, which our integrated care system is leading on and which I think deserve a mention. The first is the north-east Essex mental health joint response vehicle, which was successfully commissioned as a three-year service following a successful pilot between January and March 2023. This unique service is a collaboration between the East of England Ambulance Service and the Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust—our mental health trust—with a paramedic and mental health practitioner manning a 10-hour service seven days a week. That service has been so successful in ensuring that those experiencing a mental health crisis are seen by the most appropriate service. I am really keen that we extend those hours, and I know that the ICS is looking at securing additional funding to do so.

The data backs up why it is a good thing to do. In 2023, the joint response vehicle attended 757 patient calls for a variety of mental health-related presentations, including suicidal threat, self-harm, depression and psychosis, with 77% of patients being redirected to another service or provided with a care plan at home, reducing by 55% the number of attendances at emergency departments for mental health-related issues. I will not need to remind the Minister that mental health is not only one of the largest drivers of attendance at our emergency departments, especially involving conveyance via ambulance, but leads to some of the longest cubicle occupation in our emergency departments, as hospitals do not have the beds to move people up and into, and often takes up additional resource, such as police officers and others.

The second initiative I want to touch on involves primary school wellbeing hubs—these are more about mental resilience, but I think that that is an important area to highlight. When I was Schools Minister and Children’s Minister, we worked closely with the Department of Health and Social Care on investment in mental health resilience support with mental health support teams, on training for schools and on the support teams that would go into schools to provide that support.

The Tendring and Colchester wellbeing hubs are a pilot project with 22 primary schools in Colchester and Tendring, which aims to improve children’s mental health and wellbeing through a prevention and early intervention approach. This programme has delivered across 22 schools, with 19 of them completing a number of questionnaires that have been evaluated by the University of Essex to demonstrate the impact and evaluate the programme over the 12 months in which it has run.

Overall, pupils who attended the wellbeing hub sessions had significant increases in their levels of resilience, wellbeing and happiness and decreased anxiety. The initiative was supported by more than 80% of parents, who said that their children communicated better, while more than 60% of children said they had more confidence and were more resilient and less stressed or anxious. I know that such programmes are happening to varying degrees across the country, but our integrated care system is really leading the way and demonstrating things that could be replicated and rolled out to other parts of the country.

In conclusion, I thank again all those involved in the delivery of healthcare across north Essex, as well as the leadership of the Suffolk & North East Essex Integrated Care System and the East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust for driving the innovation and transformation of health and care provision locally. We know that that is the future of delivering not just better a patient experience, but better patient outcomes. I once again thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham for giving us the opportunity to talk about health and wellbeing services in Essex, which, as she rightly said, we all care so passionately about. We all know that the challenges both locally and nationally are significant, and we all want and expect world-class care for our constituents. I know that I and all my Essex colleagues will continue to work with our local NHS bodies in all their guises to support them to deliver it.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) for obtaining this debate. As she said, we who represent the county of Essex work together closely on these matters, and I absolutely endorse everything that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) said.

I was elected originally for a constituency called South Colchester and Maldon, which included the areas in the Maldon district now represented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham and a number of wards in the Colchester constituency. During all the time that I have represented the area, we have been debating the problems of healthcare in the county, particularly the lack of funding.

When I first came to this place, we were part of something called the North East Thames regional health authority. My right hon. Friend is right that the record of NHS funding overall has been very good, but we have suffered consistently from a skew, with more money going originally to the areas of London that were part of the North East Thames RHA, and subsequently, through the various allocation formulas, we have lost out. The funding per head has been consistently below what is needed, and that is reflected in some of the problems we have, particularly because, at the same time that we have been underfunded, we have seen steady and continuing population growth. My right hon. Friend referred to the 1,000-plus houses being built in Heybridge, part of which falls in my constituency. I have another development on the other side of Maldon from Heybridge of another 1,500 houses. About 3,000 houses are going up in Maldon and Heybridge alone, with more houses across the district. They are putting steadily increasing pressure on the health service.

The issue of St Peter’s Hospital, to which my right hon. Friend referred, is of huge importance to the town’s residents, the Maldon district and the surrounding area. I will bring that matter to the House’s attention on Thursday in an Adjournment debate, when we will have a lot more to say about it. However, it is fair to say, in summary, that St Peter’s Hospital is 150 years old, it has been steadily deteriorating and, in all the time that I have represented the area, we have been debating a replacement. We have come very close a number of times, but each time it has never quite happened. It has now reached the point where the hospital can no longer safely provide services in some of the areas, because the original structure is not appropriate, and although money has been spent on it, the hospital has nevertheless deteriorated. We have been debating whether to refurbish or relocate it for all these years, but nothing happened until we reached the point where it is now proposed that the hospital is closed and services—particularly maternity and in-patient services—are moved to other locations far from my constituency and, particularly, some of the more remote areas. I will speak about that in more detail on Thursday, but it is an indicator of the way in which my part of Essex, particularly, has been under-provided for for far too long.

That is also reflected in the access to primary care, which my right hon. Friend mentioned. We have two GP practices in Maldon. They both have patient lists well in excess of 12,000. I know that across the country people struggle to get appointments. We all hear about the difficulty that people have—they ring at five-past 8 and are told that the appointments are all gone—but it is especially acute in Maldon. Both those practices are in buildings that are simply not fit for purpose, and that compounds the problem. In each case, we are looking to reap a benefit from this housing development by obtaining investment into infrastructure.

I share my right hon. Friend’s view that those currently trying to supply health services across the county are doing their best. I join her in congratulating and thanking the leadership of Essex County Council, whom I met last week to discuss these problems, including Kevin Bentley and his colleagues. Equally, I thank the representatives of the ICB, but we have reached a point where action has to be taken, and we are looking to the Government for help. As I say, I will talk more about that on Thursday. I know that every MP will claim that their area needs more support, but our situation is the consequence of decades of underfunding. We have been shouting loudly for too long without being heard, and we have reached a point where something has to change.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the Essex mental health inquiry, now called the Lampard inquiry. Melanie Leahy, originally my constituent but now a constituent of my right hon. Friend, and my constituent Lisa Morris have been calling attention to and ringing alarm bells about what has been going on in mental healthcare in Essex for a long time. When they first started doing so, they asked for an inquiry. For a long time they were denied it, until eventually we recognised that, clearly, something was badly wrong. The number of deaths that happened under the care of the then mental health trust was excessive and needed examination.

The Government eventually agreed and set up an inquiry, but it was not statutory. My constituents came back and said that it has to be statutory. At the time, we said to them that we had discussed this with the then Ministers, who said, “No, but our advantage is in it not being statutory. Therefore, we should not go down that road.” The Government have now accepted that the inquiry does have to be made statutory, and at last a proper examination can take place to identify exactly what has been going on. Concerns are still being expressed by campaigners who have lost family members.

I welcome the meeting that I had with my right hon. Friends, including the Minister, just a week ago to discuss how to proceed with the inquiry. There are real concerns over the timescale, which is being examined, and whether the inquiry can continue to examine deaths that are still taking place. Even very recently, there was a death.

Equally, there is concern that the lawyers, Hodge Jones & Allen, have been working pro bono on this, and they need some kind of remuneration if they are to continue. In other inquiries, lawyers representing family members have received interim payments, and the lawyers in this case also need some support, so I ask the Minister to consider that. Most importantly, however, they have been promised meetings. I know that the Minister is in the process of setting those meetings up, including with the Secretary of State so that she can hear directly from some of the families who have been affected. I know that the Minister is also looking at the terms of reference and the process under which the inquiry proceeds.

This has been going on a very long time. The Minister will understand the frustration, so we would be grateful to hear anything from him this afternoon about whether we can now press ahead and have those meetings with the families and those representing them, and get a proper, full examination of what has happened in the Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust and its predecessor bodies.

I will return some of those themes on Thursday. Again, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham; we will continue to work together with my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), and across the county, to ensure that our constituents receive the proper healthcare that they deserve.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. I thank the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) for securing this important debate; I know this is something she is passionate about. She highlighted a number of important issues and concerns regarding health and wellbeing services in her constituency and across Essex, and I am pleased to respond on the Opposition’s behalf. I also thank other hon. Members for their contributions to the debate; I have found it very insightful.

I will start with GPs, as securing the future of general practice is integral to the future of the NHS as a whole. GPs are vital to their communities and contribute hugely to keeping the nation healthy. However, the Government have broken their promise to recruit more than 6,000 GPs in the last five years. Ultimately, the NHS has lost the equivalent of 1,830 full-time, fully qualified GPs since 2015. There is a GP shortage crisis, and Essex is unfortunately on its frontline.

When we break down the numbers of patients per GP in the UK, Mid and South Essex ICB is worse than anywhere else in the country—I do not dispute that. There is one GP for every 2,281 patients. Staff shortages are a vicious cycle that leads to worsening outcomes, and we must train thousands more GPs to finally end that cycle. If we do not, we risk allowing the health of our nation, and the health of the people of Essex, to just get worse.

It is also worrying that the Care Quality Commission warned Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust last summer over failings in three Essex hospitals. It found that medical care had deteriorated, with waiting times not meeting national standards and patients not accessing services when they needed them. The people of Essex deserve better care. They deserve to be seen on time, and to have local hospitals providing quality care for them when they need it most.

In recent years, elective waiting lists have risen sharply in every region and area of England. However, there are large geographical differences, with the east of England being one of worst affected areas. When we compare the figures with January 2020, the waiting list at the end of last year was 113% higher in the east of England. At the start of last year, the Prime Minister made a promise to the country to get NHS waiting lists down. Last month, he admitted the obvious—that he had failed. However, the reality is that the Government have failed in achieving most of the waiting list and waiting time targets since 2010. Unfortunately, that is a result of 14 years of successive Conservative Governments running the NHS.

I will quickly reflect on the worrying state of maternal health services in Essex. We face a crisis in maternity services across the country, with the CQC rating two out of three maternity units dangerously substandard. For the people of Essex, all but one maternity hospital unit is failing. Following the release of the final Ockenden report nearly two years ago, I urge the Minister to respond on the Government’s progress on implementing the report’s immediate and essential actions in trusts across the country. Safe care for women, babies and their families must be the top priority for our Government. It is clear that more needs to be done to improve care and safety in maternity services in England.

The Essex mental health inquiry has been covered in this debate, and I praise the grieving families and hard-working campaigners for their efforts in securing a statutory inquiry. In particular, I want to honour Melanie Leahy, whose son Matthew died more than 10 years ago in a mental health unit in Essex. She has never given up hope of getting justice and fighting to improve mental health provision in Essex and across the country, and she is an inspiration to us all.

Labour welcomed the announcement at that time, and I hope to hear an update from the Government today about progress on the Lampard inquiry. The Secretary of State offered to meet families last year, but that has yet to happen. The Guardian reported today that bereaved families have accused the Minister of dragging their feet over the inquiry into the death of almost 2,000 patients across NHS mental health trusts in Essex. I hope to hear from him about when that meeting is scheduled to take place and when the inquiry’s terms of reference are scheduled to be published.

I urge the Government to do all they can to ensure that the inquiry finally provides answers for the bereaved families, who have been waiting for far too long. While we are most determined to find answers to the specific inquiry, we must be clear that poor mental health services and standards are worryingly prevalent across other parts of the country. We continue to hear of other tragedies in mental health services; those are unacceptable. The Government must treat those incidences as a wake-up call and act in the light of the soaring number of investigations to prevent any further suffering or loss of life.

In recent years, one of the ways the Government could have acted would have been to deliver a reformed mental health Act. Reforms would have finally modernised legislation to strengthen people’s rights and choices within mental health settings. That was a manifesto pledge by the Government, and the Bill is ready to go—“oven-ready” as some on the Government Benches might have said previously. There is no excuse for the delay, but the Government have failed to get it done and deliver those much-needed changes. Labour has committed to introducing such a Bill in our first King’s Speech. Not only will it deliver real change to mental health services across the country, but it will deliver 8,500 new mental health specialists, mental health support in every school and open-access mental health hubs in every community. Those fully funded and game-changing policies will make a real difference to tackling the mental health crisis that we face.

As we have heard, health and wellbeing services in Essex and across the country are facing extreme challenges. If we are privileged to get into government, Labour is determined to make a real difference for the people of Essex and this country by delivering more GPs, midwives, health visitors and mental health support and cutting waiting lists and times. We will deliver a mission-driven Government and break out of the current doom loop. We will push decisions out to communities and finally end the short-term sticking-plaster politics of this Government.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Henderson—I think this is the first time I have responded to a debate while you have been in the Chair. It is a pleasure to respond to the debate, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing a debate on such an important subject. My further thanks go to my esteemed predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), not only for his work supporting his own constituency, but for his tireless efforts as a Health Minister and as my immediate predecessor in the Department. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) for his thoughtful contribution and the powerful advocacy that he always conducts on behalf of his constituents.

We all know that much of the continued recovery of the NHS following the pandemic is entirely dependent on the people who work in our NHS. I commend my hon. and right hon. Friends for the tributes they have paid to NHS staff. Our long-term workforce plan, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, sets out the Government’s vision and commitment to ensuring that we have an NHS that can deliver for the future. Our plan commits to improving retention by improving culture and leadership to ensure that up to 130,000 fewer staff will leave the NHS over the next 15 years. It also sets out an aim to double the number of medical school places in England to 15,000 by 2031-32. That is our commitment to the future of the NHS moving forward, and there is cause for optimism now too. In recent months, the rate of staff leaving active service in the NHS has returned to pre-pandemic levels. In the east of England, the rate of staff leaving active service in the NHS has followed a similar pattern and is now below pre-pandemic levels. We know there is more to be done, but the plan is working.

The number of doctors and nurses is also on the rise. There are almost 6,800 more doctors and more than 21,500 more nurses in the NHS than last year. In the east of England, there are almost 740 more doctors and almost 1,700 more nurses in the NHS than last year. My hon. and right hon. Friends mentioned Anglia Ruskin University. I had the huge privilege of visiting the university on 4 March to meet some of the medical students. If there is anything that gives a person optimism about the future of the NHS, it is sitting down and having a roundtable with some of the medical students in a university such as Anglia Ruskin, which has gone from strength to strength over recent years thanks to the campaigning of local MPs who have championed investment in that university.

Medical training at our best medical institutions is an essential part of delivering the long-term workforce plan. I therefore welcome Anglia Ruskin University’s commitment to the medical degree apprenticeship and recognise that it is a trailblazer. The university can bid for additional Government-funded places, in common with all existing medical schools across England, and I look forward to continuing to work with it and local MPs to secure more investment in the university.

We know that the NHS faces pressures all over the country, including in Essex and the east of England more broadly. As a Government, we are committed to working every day to improve the outcomes and experiences of patients. A huge part of that is making sure that patients get to talk to a GP. I am glad to say that since 2019 we have recruited more than 36,000 additional staff into general practice, covering a range of roles including pharmacists. We fulfilled our commitment to recruit 26,000 additional staff a year ahead of the March 2024 target, and we have also delivered on our manifesto commitment of 50 million more general practice appointments a year, with 367.7 million booked appointments across the past 12 months.

Looking more closely at the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham, I am pleased to say that there are now approximately 105 full-time equivalent members of the clinical general practice workforce. That is an increase of 62% since September 2019, when there were about 65 full-time equivalent staff in the clinical workforce. In the east of England, there are now approximately 3,909 full-time equivalent GPs and an estimated 3.7 million general practice appointments took place in January 2024, with 72% of those face to face. In Witham specifically, 76% of appointments in January 2024 were face to face, up from 68.5% in January 2023. All the same, I commend my right hon. Friend for her tenacious advocacy of a new health hub for Witham. Her constituents are fortunate to have such a doughty champion, with a deep and genuine care for their access to the health service.

Mid and South Essex ICB has confirmed that GP practices in Witham are working together to help meet the health needs of local residents by sharing staff, teams and services. However, as my right hon. Friend acknowledged in her speech, the financial complexities of bringing GP estates together can be multifaceted and challenging. Mid and South Essex ICB has confirmed that transitioning to a new building would involve complex considerations surrounding property ownership, leasing arrangements and financial investments. The ICB is also concerned that while section 106 monies serve as a valuable contribution to local NHS healthcare provision, the money available may fall short in sustaining the entire development of a new healthcare centre. I hope my right hon. Friend and the ICB can continue to work together to think carefully through those challenges and find the best solution that meaningfully responds to the needs of Witham’s patients.

I also thank my right hon. Friend for her comments about the future of St Peter’s Hospital, which I know is a subject dear to her heart and to the heart of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon. As she said, it is generating an unprecedented reaction from her constituents. I will keep my comments on this issue brief, knowing that another debate on it will take place on Thursday. That will provide a longer opportunity for my right hon. Friends, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon, to build and expand on the concerns that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham has set out today.

Let me be clear that no decision has yet been made about the future of St Peter’s. Any decision regarding the future configuration of NHS services in Mid and South Essex should be made locally, following engagement with local communities. I am sure that local views are being listened to and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham said, an NHS consultation is currently live. I urge both her and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon, and their constituents, to participate in it actively.

I expect any subsequent decision taken by the local NHS to demonstrate improved outcomes for patients, having taken into account all of the many issues that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham has outlined today, which I am sure will be further expanded upon on Thursday.

I want to reassure both my right hon. Friends. In my constituency, an unpopular reorganisation of local health services in east Lancashire under the last Labour Government in 2007 removed a significant number of health services in my constituency and transferred them to Blackburn, so I am very conscious of the potential impacts of hospital reorganisations and I always look at these matters very closely and pay close attention to the views of local Members of Parliament.

I turn to the subject of urgent and emergency care. We absolutely recognise the pressures that these services are facing and we are working to ensure that people receive the care they need when they need it. Although we recognise that there is more to do, we have seen performance improve this year.

For example, at the Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust 67.3% of accident and emergency patients were seen within four hours in January 2024, which was better than the trust’s performance in January 2023. At the East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, 72.2% of A&E patients were seen within four hours in January 2024—performance above the national average. Ambulance handover delays, which have a big impact on response times, have reduced significantly this winter compared with last year. At the Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust, delays of over 60 minutes have fallen by 48%. Nationally, we have seen progress on ambulance response times, with the average ambulance waits for category 2 incidents down by over a third this winter.

We have heard today about the continuing difficulties that patients have in accessing a dentist. That is deeply unfortunate and it is essential that we give patients access to the dental care that they deserve. That is why, on 7 February, we published our plan to recover and reform dentistry, to make dental services faster, simpler and fairer for patients. The plan will fund around 2.5 million additional appointments; our plan to recover and reform NHS dentistry is backed by £200 million.

Hon. Members also mentioned the important role of community pharmacy. Community pharmacy is delivering healthcare, which makes an extremely valuable contribution to patients’ lives. That is why we are continuing to support the sector financially, and we are providing over £2.6 billion every year to support community pharmacy. To go further, we are now investing up to £645 million across this financial year and the next in Pharmacy First, which will allow for more blood pressure checks and more contraception consultations in pharmacy.

I will now address some of the concerns expressed regarding the Lampard inquiry, which is an issue of the utmost importance and sensitivity. I completely recognise the desire of families and other stakeholders that the terms of reference of the inquiry be finalised as soon as possible, so that the inquiry can make progress with its investigations. Let me update my hon. and right hon. Friends on the most recent discussions.

Following consultation with families and other stakeholders, the chair of the Lampard inquiry has shared her initial views on potential changes to the terms of reference. On 5 December, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care agreed to meet families and local MPs in Essex to discuss the terms of reference. On 6 March, as referred to by both my right hon. Friends today, the local MPs and I met to discuss the inquiry. We agreed that my right hon. and hon. Friends across Essex would put forward names of family members to attend a meeting with the Secretary of State, so that she could hear directly from the families herself.

We have now identified a potential date for that meeting, and that will be communicated very shortly to local MPs, if it has not been already; the date will be emailed out by my office. I hope that the meeting can take place on that date, and that we can make the swift progress that we all want to see. Families have been waiting far too long. Again, I commend my hon. and right hon. Friends for their work to shine a light on what has gone on and to ensure that the inquiry was established, and I hope that it can finally get on with its work and deliver the outcomes and justice that the families all want to see.

I will wrap up by addressing one of the most important elements in the future of healthcare: prevention. I reiterate the Government’s commitment to our levelling-up mission to narrow the gap in healthy life expectancy by 2030 and to increase healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035. To do that, we are tackling health inequalities through programmes such as the NHS’s Core20PLUS5, which focuses on improving health outcomes for the poorest 20% of the population as well as other groups.

Furthermore, we will publish our major conditions strategy this year, a direction-setting document aiming to pave the way for further action towards integrated care, co-ordinated around the needs of people. It aims to improve healthy life expectancy, reduce pressures on the NHS and reduce ill health-related labour market inactivity. Together, those programmes will help us shift the dial, both nationally and in Essex, on NHS pressures.

I thank my hon. and right hon. Friends for their contributions, and once again thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham for securing the debate. I hope my answers have helped to assure all those who have attended that we are firmly committed to delivering for the health and wellbeing needs of people in Essex and across the country.

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss these important health issues across Essex. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) for joining the debate, and to the Minister for a concise series of well-considered remarks. We have touched on a range of issues, including the challenging demographics of the county of Essex and the needs of populations, and key areas covering primary care services, GP-patient ratios, our hospitals, the need to safeguard the facilities of Maldon St Peter’s Hospital, the need to secure a health centre in Witham town, the growing needs in Tiptree itself and the significant demands on social care.

I thank everybody for their comments on the EPUT statutory mental health inquiry, which is particularly sensitive, difficult and challenging. I pay tribute to the Minister for meeting us last week, and his comments on meeting the families are crystal clear. I thank his private office, which contacted us MPs today—in less than a week—to ask for the specifics that we have discussed. It is important that we can go back to those families with the information that a meeting with the Secretary of State will take place very soon.

My final comment is to echo my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon: the inquiry has been going on for too long. We need to find the right balance of redress and parity of esteem in the whole mental health debate. However, while the inquiry takes place, we also need to find the right services and support for the families and the lawyers in particular.

It has been a pleasure to secure this debate and raise these issues. I thank all hon, and right hon. Members for their important contributions. There is more to do, and we will be back to discuss the same issues again.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered health and wellbeing services in Essex.

Sitting suspended.

Criminal Cases Review Commission

I will call Damian Collins to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

It is a particular pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Henderson. I wish to bring up the case of my constituent, Paul Cleeland, who is sitting in the Public Gallery for this debate, in relation to the work of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. I appreciate, Mr Henderson, that this is not a court, you are not a judge and I am not a lawyer. However, the CCRC is a public body, established by the Criminal Appeal Act 1995, and is subject to scrutiny by Parliament.

The CCRC has been the subject of Select Committee reports, particularly the Justice Select Committee report in 2015, which raised concerns about the threshold for the referral of cases by the CCRC to the Court of Appeal, in particular on the safety first principle. That was acknowledged in the Government’s response to the report. Admittedly, some years later it is now the subject of an inquiry by the Law Commission that was established in 2022, although that piece of work is still at the pre-consultation phase. Therefore, I think this is a legitimate area for a debate in Parliament, as the CCRC is a public body.

Mr Cleeland’s case has been presented in Parliament on numerous occasions since he was convicted of murdering Terry Clarke in November 1972 in Stevenage. The case was raised in Adjournment debates in the House of Commons in 1982 and 1988, and by me in 2011 and again today. Many regard it as a miscarriage of justice, one of a series of miscarriages of justices that we are familiar with, certainly from the 1970s, but one that remains outstanding. Mr Cleeland has always maintained his innocence and never accepted guilt; when he was released on licence from prison after 26 years he still refused to admit any liability for the offence, and he has continued to fight to clear his name since, including repeated appeals to the CCRC for his case to be referred to the Court of Appeal.

For the benefit of the Minister and other hon. Members I will give a brief summary of Mr Cleeland’s initial trial and why it was regarded almost from the start as a potential miscarriage of justice. Mr Cleeland was committed of murdering Terry Clarke, a man that he knew, had worked with and was familiar with. Mr Clarke was shot twice with a shotgun at the rear of his property in Grace Way in Stevenage—one shot in the back and, after he turned to face his assailant, a fatal wound in the chest. It was alleged that the Gye & Moncrieff shotgun was found near the scene of the crime. It was established by the Crown in Mr Cleeland’s trial that that was the murder weapon, although there has never been any forensic evidence linking the gun to the murder or to Mr Cleeland.

There was a concern shortly after the trial about the likelihood that Mr Cleeland would have murdered Mr Clarke in that location and in that way. First, it would have required him to wait for Mr Clarke to return home at two in the morning, in a road that was effectively a cul-de-sac with a series of residential properties where he could easily have been observed. Waiting for someone that he knew, the chances are that he would himself have been recognised by neighbours in the area, so many people questioned whether that seemed likely.

Secondly, there were questions about the motive for the crime. In the local reporting at the time of the murder there seemed more likely scenarios. In particular, Mr Clarke was due to give evidence in Stevenage court the following week and it was believed that he might give evidence against other criminals who he felt were complicit in charges that he faced. There may have been other people with a motive for wanting Mr Clarke off the scene.

There are particular concerns relating to the Gye & Moncrieff shotgun. In the evidence considered by the court in Mr Cleeland’s trial, looking at the spread of the pellets on the body of the victim, it was believed that the shotgun must have been fired between 18 feet and 40 feet away from Mr Clarke. That seems implausible. One of the only eyewitnesses to the murder, the man’s widow, said that the assailant shot at close range, was about 5 feet 8 inches—shorter than Mr Cleeland—and that he had dark hair, while Mr Cleeland had fair hair. There was no corroboration, from one of the only eyewitnesses, that he was likely to have been the murderer.

Later that same month, two sawn-off shotguns were found in a weir near Harlow by Essex police. They referred those guns to the Hertfordshire police investigating Mr Clarke’s death, to consider whether they might have been the murder weapons. The significance of sawn-off shotguns was that they were consistent with the assailant’s approaching Mr Clarke at short range, because a sawn-off shotgun would have produced the spread of pellets in the victim’s body consistent with a short-range shooting, but only from a pump-action gun.

Nevertheless, the case was heard in St Albans Crown court. No verdict was reached. Then it was retried and Mr Cleeland was convicted. The case was subsequently considered in 2002 by the Court of Appeal, which discredited a lot of the evidence produced in Mr Cleeland’s initial trial.

I am here to show support from the commission on the future of justice and miscarriages of justice. This is a very well-known case. Our commission, which I co-chair with the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), looks at these cases. If we can be of any help, we will be. We know about this case, and we are looking at the adequacy of forensic science at the moment. We would very much like to help.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, and I am sure my constituent is as well. I have some particular asks for the Minister at the end of my speech and they may be relevant for the work the hon. Gentleman is involved in.

I would like to consider what has become known subsequent to the 2002 Court of Appeal case. Much of Mr Cleeland’s conviction rests on the belief by the Crown, as established in the trial, that the Gye & Moncrieff shotgun was the murder weapon and the two guns found in a weir in Harlow were nothing to do with the murder at all. The view of the Court of Appeal was that the two shotguns found in Essex could not be considered to be the murder weapon, and that it might have been established that the Gye & Moncrieff gun was the murder weapon.

Mr Spencer, the forensic expert called to give evidence to the Court of Appeal, discredited a lot of the evidence presented against Mr Cleeland by Mr McCafferty of the Metropolitan Police Service in the original trial. In particular, he noted that there were no case notes for any of the assertions that Mr McCafferty made in the trial, and therefore doubt should be placed on the evidence he had given. Mr Spencer also concluded that there was no hard evidence connecting the gun with either the murder or Mr Cleeland.

There was also the question of the consideration of the other guns that had been found. The summing up of the Court of Appeal case said that it was clear that both Mr Pryor and Mr Spencer discounted the other guns. That was not true. In the transcript from the proceedings of the Court of Appeal, when my constituent was questioning Mr Pryor, Mr Pryor was very clear that he could not rule out that one of the sawn-off shotguns could have been the murder weapon. He may have said he did not believe it was, but he could not exclude that possibility.

It is also not the case that Mr Spencer could have reached that conclusion, because he had never actually examined the guns himself. The Court of Appeal wrongly stated that he had, but he had not—in fact he could not have done, because the guns were destroyed in the 1970s, when it was believed that they were no longer of any importance to the police.

It was clear from the Court of Appeal hearing, despite what was said in the summing up, that there was no forensic link between the gun and the murder and Mr Cleeland, and that the expert witnesses did not discount the possibility that one of the other guns could have been the murder weapon.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate; I spoke to him beforehand. He has outlined a very serious case that prompts a lot of questions. Of 31,300 applications received by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, 832 have been referred to the Court of Appeal and only 500 have been successful. The Government and the Minister must try to encourage more people that the process is effective by referring more cases and hearing more evidence. That would instil the confidence, as the hon. Gentleman has clearly outlined on behalf of his constituent.

I agree. The hon. Gentleman raises a point essential to the work of the Law Commission in reviewing whether enough cases are being referred or whether the CCRC is taking too much of a precautionary approach.

Since the Court of Appeal hearing, other cases have come forward. At Mr Cleeland’s initial trial, Mr McCafferty presented evidence that there was lead residue on Mr Cleeland’s clothing and that this was consistent with firearms discharge. The sodium rhodizonate test was the one used at the time—this was the theme of my 2011 Adjournment debate—but it was not a firearms residue test. It was known not to be so: as early as 1965, it was known within the police that it could not detect firearms residue, but only the presence of lead. Concerns were raised that it was not made clear at the trial that the test was extremely limited, and that the lead residue could easily have come from other environmental pollutants. Mr Cleeland was a painter and decorator at the time and worked with lead-based paints. He had also been to a fireworks party on the evening of the murder and could have picked up lead residue there, but that was never clearly explained.

Further forensic evidence produced since 2002 by Mr Dudley Gibbs has also cast doubt on the judgment. He maintained that there is no forensic evidence linking the Gye & Moncrieff shotgun with Mr Cleeland. He also pointed out, significantly, that the gunshot pellets found in the victim’s body were a different size from those found in the Blue Rival cartridges alleged to have been used at the shooting. It was believed at the time by Mr McCafferty, and presented in court to the jury, that the Blue Rival cartridges came with a highly distinctive wadding that would have linked the cartridges to the gun and to Mr Cleeland. Mr Gibbs made it clear that the wadding was not distinctive in any way and could have come from any number of brands of cartridge that could have been purchased. Again, that casts doubt.

In the Barry George case, Barry George was convicted of the murder of TV presenter Jill Dando and later acquitted on the basis that the lead residue found on his clothing and presented in court could not have been evidence of his having fired a gun. Again, it was only a small particle of lead and it could have come from environmental factors. On those grounds, the Court of Appeal overturned the decision, in what is often referred to as the Pendleton judgment, on the basis that it was not possible to know how the jury would have reacted if they had known that the lead residue itself was circumstantial evidence, not evidence of having fired a gun.

All these things apply in Mr Cleeland’s case. The concern throughout—in the subsequent cases he has brought to the CCRC and when he sought to appeal the CCRC’s decision in the divisional court and latterly in the civil court of the Court of Appeal—has been that the CCRC, the courts and the judges have consistently relied on statements that are just not true, and that have been demonstrated in court not to be true. Mr Pryor did not discount the question that one of the Harlow guns was the murder weapon. Neither he nor the other expert believed that there was any forensic evidence linking the Gye & Moncrieff shotgun to the murder or Mr Cleeland—a point that was consistently made.

Mr Cleeland is now in the position of having been accused of being a vexatious litigant simply because he is seeking to correct the record and have the CCRC clearly state these facts instead of relying on previous evidence and previous rulings that are not true and that are inaccurate. He wants the record to be corrected, and he wants the CCRC to acknowledge the complaints that have been made and consider the judgments that have been made by other judges who have relied on evidence presented by the CCRC, which continues to reassert these points.

When we look at the case now, it is hard to know how the jury would have reacted in the 1970s when they considered Mr Cleeland’s case, particularly because almost every principal area of evidence presented by the Crown was subsequently proven to be flawed. That is true even of the evidence from two policemen who described having overheard cell confessions by Mr Cleeland that implicated him in the crime. Subsequent to 2002, those policemen were discredited and regarded as unsafe witnesses, as their evidence was considered to have potentially misled another case. Had that been known at the time, their evidence would have been considered very differently in the case of Mr Cleeland. There is now substantial evidence that challenges what has gone before, but the CCRC continues to reject it. In many ways, it is presenting evidence that does not bear out the facts. Those seem to be the reasons why the CCRC will not refer the case on.

My request to the Minister, which I am happy to set out in writing to her and to the Lord Chancellor, is that there be an acknowledgment of these mistakes; that the record be put right and fresh consideration be given by the CCRC to Mr Cleeland’s case, in the light of these facts having been corrected and amends having been made; and that the Law Commission considers Mr Cleeland’s case directly in its work on the safety principle for referrals.

The hon. Gentleman is making a persuasive case. May I urge him to get involved with the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice, and the wonderful Welsh lawyer Glyn Maddox who specialises in these cases? I would very much like to introduce the hon. Gentleman and this case to him and to that group. It has been a pleasure to hear from the hon. Gentleman; we have heard many more such cases. I have to give a little bit of a prod: the commission needs more resources.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point about resources. Lack of resources may be a reason why some of the errors have occurred and why the CCRC has not considered some of the other points that have been mentioned. I am happy to take up his invitation to become involved with the APPG on miscarriages of justice and to refer this case to it.

I am calling for acknowledgment of these errors of fact; for the CCRC to correct the record and reconsider the case in the light of the points that I have made; for the Law Commission to consider the case with regard to its current and open investigation; and for the Government to consider the CCRC’s response in Mr Cleeland’s case, particularly in the light of the corrections. The Government have already commissioned a CCRC review based on another case that was launched last year, so clearly reviews are possible if the Ministry is persuaded that there is a case. I certainly believe that there is in Mr Cleeland’s case.

I would welcome a response from the Minister. I will also follow up to her in writing, setting out my requests, and I will be grateful for a response from her to that letter.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for, I think, the first time, Mr Henderson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for securing this debate.

Miscarriages of justice have unbelievable consequences for everybody involved, and they undermine public confidence in our justice system. Since its inception in 1997, the Criminal Cases Review Commission has referred 836 cases, or roughly one every eight working days, of which 571 have resulted in a quashed conviction. Each one represents a conviction that would have stood if it were not for the diligent efforts of CCRC commissioners and staff.

Recognising the importance of an independent body to investigate potential miscarriages of justice, the Ministry of Justice has ensured that the CCRC has the funding that it requires to carry out its work. That is why, since 2021-22, its budget has increased by 18% to support increasing demand and enable the commission to meet its key performance indicators. Importantly, that has also enabled the CCRC to carry out more outreach to promote its services and ensure that justice prevails.

Like everyone in this room, I am only too aware that the CCRC has attracted particular scrutiny over its handling of some recent cases in which its decision making has been questioned and challenged, along with the way it has responded to new evidence. Although my Department works closely with the CCRC to monitor its performance, its decisions are independent of the Government. It applies to each case a test set by Parliament: that there must be a real possibility that the conviction verdict, finding or sentence would not be upheld if the reference were to be made.

I cannot stand here today without acknowledging the terrible miscarriage of justice suffered by Andrew Malkinson. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Lord Chancellor has tasked Her Honour Judge Sarah Munro KC with investigating the conduct of Greater Manchester police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the CCRC, and with providing the answers that Mr Malkinson deserves. When that inquiry reports, my Department will take its recommendations extremely seriously.

In that case, there is also an acknowledgment of the wider implications of the miscarriage of justice. In the case of Mr Cleeland, he could have been wrongly convicted on the basis of flawed forensic evidence. That evidence was presented by a Mr McCafferty, who gave evidence in many, many cases in the 1960s and 1970s, so there could be other miscarriages of justice that may need to be considered as well.

If you will give me some latitude, Mr Henderson, I would like to raise one point that was subsequently discovered, but was not known about at the time that Mr Cleeland went to the Court of Appeal: CCRC raised concerns with the Forensic Science Service about the safety of the evidence presented by Mr McCafferty. That was in 2000, but Mr Cleeland was not informed of it at the time that the Court of Appeal heard his case again. I urge—I will put this in my letter—that any papers still held by public bodies relating to Mr Cleeland’s case that have not yet been released be made available to him.

My hon. Friend is quite correct that Mr Malkinson’s case turned on the presentation of the new forensic evidence, and the issue is when that was known and whether it was adequately dealt with at the time that it was brought to the CCRC’s attention.

I turn now to Mr Cleeland’s case, which I think my hon. Friend has raised in Parliament on more than one occasion. His submissions this afternoon have focused principally on new forensic evidence; he also raised issues around circumstantial evidence, motive and eyewitness and expert evidence. It is obviously not for me to draw any conclusions about all those, but I reiterate that I have noted all my hon. Friend’s points. I hope he understands that I cannot comment or intervene in Mr Cleeland’s case, but what I can say is that I know that Mr Cleeland has made multiple attempts to overturn his conviction and has had his case reviewed by the CCRC before. That is not a final point; I am simply putting it on the record.

I have carefully noted what my hon. Friend said about the evidence that has come to light since the Court of Appeal reached its conclusions in 2002. I reiterate what the CCRC has said to Mr Cleeland: he is entitled to apply again through a lawyer if fresh evidence or information has emerged. This approach aligns with the CCRC’s practice of accepting multiple applications from individuals, provided that they present new evidence or information to be assessed against the “real possibility” test.

I acknowledge the list of requests that my hon. Friend has made today. He has asked that an acknowledgment of mistakes be prepared, that the Law Commission be invited to include consideration in Mr Cleeland’s case in its forthcoming review, and that the CCRC correct the record. Obviously I can provide him with no undertakings on any of those points, other than that I will raise these matters with the Lord Chancellor for further consideration.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. If the CCRC would acknowledge that in some of its deliberations it has made factual errors or drawn wrong assumptions on the evidence presented, it might then allow Mr Cleeland to apply again based on an acknowledgment of those errors. We are now in a position where the CCRC has not acknowledged that and is therefore refusing to consider new appeals on the basis that it has already considered the evidence that Mr Cleeland has brought. His contention is that it has not properly considered that evidence and that in its findings it seems to be making the same mistakes.

I reassure my hon. Friend that I understand his point, and I will take advice from my officials. First, I will raise the matter with the Lord Chancellor; I told him in advance of this debate that I would do so. Secondly, I will have to check with my officials but, if appropriate, perhaps we can raise the case with the CCRC on my hon. Friend’s behalf.

Based on the statutory tests set by Parliament, the CCRC is fulfilling the role that it was set up to do. Although I cannot comment on how the CCRC applies the real possibility test, I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend’s arguments, and I am confident that it adopts a professional, impartial and objective approach in deciding whether the relevant test has been met in each case.

I have one final intervention, and I am grateful to the Minister for taking it. In the piece of work that it is doing, the Law Commission itself acknowledges that Mr Cleeland has also sought to challenge the CCRC’s rulings through divisional courts and has failed there. However, it was subsequently determined that those appeals were not a criminal matter but one that should be considered by a civil court, and they were instead referred not to divisional courts but the civil court of the Court of Appeal. That set a new precedent and overturned previous cases, so there is now a question about the safety of some of the other cases heard by divisional courts. It has subsequently been determined that they were not the appropriate courts to consider Mr Cleeland’s case, yet his appeals to those courts have been counted against him in the charge that he is a vexatious litigant. There should be some acknowledgment that he was making his appeal to the wrong court. The ruling has subsequently changed, and he should never have been being considered by those courts in the first place.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. That is an irregularity that I have not come across before, so I will escalate that point.

I thank the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for representing the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice. It is important that work like this happens in Parliament. These should not just be constituency cases; they need wider ventilation, particularly with the assistance of the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). The all-party group is an important organisation and I am glad that it exists in Parliament.

The Lord Chancellor has asked the Law Commission to conduct a wide-ranging independent review of the appeals system to ensure that the courts have the right powers to enable the effective, efficient and appropriate resolution of appeals. I have listened carefully with respect to the irregularity that my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe has identified, and we will take it up further. I thank him for securing the debate and for drawing this important case to our attention.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Parents and Carers of Infants: Support

I beg to move,

That this House has considered information on support available for parents and carers of infants.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. As vice chair of the all-party parliamentary group for conception to age two—the first 1,001 days—and mother to three adult children, I know how important the early days are. There is a wealth of evidence that the critical 1,001 days from conception to the age of two have a significant impact on the health, wellbeing and opportunities of babies and children throughout the rest of their lives.

The arrival of a new baby can bring huge joy to families, but it can also be a time of stress and anxiety as parents and carers adjust to the new responsibility, which can be overwhelming. There is no rulebook in parenting, and all families need some help to give their babies the best start in life. Parents are always learning and adapting to the different needs of growing children. We are all fallible. Help comes from family, friends, healthcare professionals or volunteers. There is often a huge variety of support and services available, but as my right hon. Friend the Minister found when she led the early years healthy development review, it is not always easy for families to access information about what support is available. That can make it hard for families who are juggling the demands of caring for a baby to find the support they need when they need it most. That is why I introduced the Support for Infants and Parents etc (Information) Bill on 6 February.

Before I continue, I thank the Chamber Engagement Team for their work in engaging the public on the Bill, and the Department of Health and Social Care for its advice. Interestingly, in feedback to the Chamber Engagement Team, many responders said that they were given very little information, especially on breastfeeding, and that lots of parents were paying for information from private providers, or mainly got information from online communities. Others had more mixed experiences, often saying they were given better information ante, rather than post, natal. Only a minority had much better experiences. Most people centred their responses on improving the dissemination of more consistent information. Increasing the numbers of health visitors and midwives was also a popular theme, and many said that they had heard of the family hub network, and the Start for Life programme.

My Bill is intended to support a baby’s cognitive, emotional and physical development during the 1,001 critical days from pregnancy up to the age of two by making information on the support available easier to access.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In my constituency, there is an organisation called Family and Babies Bolton. Elaine put together the organisation over a number of years. It deals with breastfeeding and breastfeeding support and information for new mothers. Does my hon. Friend agree that this debate is a great opportunity to recognise the work of those organisations, not only in Bolton but across the country, which ensure a better future for our babies and infants?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The wonderful thing is that we have so many voluntary organisations that do amazing work helping young mothers and parents with breast and infant feeding. Our family hubs focus on that, as does the Start for Life programme. It is not just one organisation; there are lots of services out there that can support parents doing this.

The Bill will achieve its aims by ensuring that local authorities publish a Start for Life offer on their websites and via other means they consider appropriate—for example, by providing physical as well as digital copies of their offer. A Start for Life offer is information on services that a local authority is aware are available in its area for infants, parents or carers of infants, or prospective parents and carers, that are provided by or on behalf of public authorities.

In particular, the Bill focuses on services that support the physical and mental health and development of infants, and that support parents and carers, or prospective parents and carers, in providing support to their infants. The services named in the Bill that local authorities will be under a duty to publish information about are maternity services, health visiting services for current or prospective parents or carers of infants, services promoting positive relationships between infants and their parents or carers, mental health services, and breastfeeding and other infant-feeding services. Local authorities will be able to provide additional information on other services that they consider it appropriate to include information about.

The Bill also includes a regulation-making power so that the Secretary of State may ensure that information on other services provided by or on behalf of a public authority that are likely to support infants, parents or carers of infants, or prospective parents or carers, are included in a Start for Life offer in the future. The Bill introduces a further duty on the Secretary of State to publish guidance to local authorities relating to those duties. It is important that parents receive evidence-based support and are provided with information that is backed by research and proven by parents, such as that of the Start for Life programme.

While I understand that guidance on Start for Life offers already exists, I know there will be a huge amount of learning from the Government’s family hubs and Start for Life programme that could be considered and taken on board as part of new statutory guidance. A duty to consult on the statutory guidance will ensure that local authorities and bodies the Secretary of State consults will have the chance to have their say on what will most help them to fulfil that duty and support families locally.

Finally, the Bill requires the Government to publish an annual report that sets out information about support that is being provided in England for infants, their parents and carers, and prospective parents and carers. The report will also include information that the Secretary of State considers appropriate to include, such as information about the impact of support on outcomes. That is very important as it will create further transparency for prospective parents, and for parents and carers of infants, so that they can understand the support available as they navigate the joys and the challenges of raising a new baby.

I will say a few words on the family hubs and Start for Life programme. Family hubs offer early support to families and young children to help them overcome difficulties and build strong relationships. East Sussex County Council was one of the trailblazers benefiting from the £300 million investment up to 2025. It is leading the way and supporting other local authorities to improve services that are offered to families so that they can be rolled out more widely across the country.

We have three family hubs in Hastings, offering support including maternity and health-visiting services, breast and infant feeding, parenting programmes, budgeting, employability and many other things. I pay tribute to East Sussex County Council’s director of children’s services, Alison Jeffrey, who is soon to retire, for all her dedication, determination and service to all families across East Sussex—especially to ensure that children’s life circumstances are not life sentences.

I commend the hon. Lady. When it comes to the issue of childcare or support available for parents and carers of infants, what she is saying is really important. Just to give a quick point of view from Northern Ireland, there has been an increase of some 14% in the price of childcare—which is part of this topic—in Northern Ireland as of 2021. My party has long pushed for an increase in the tax-free childcare allowance beyond 20%.

The pressure on working-class families cannot continue. More needs to be done to support them financially with childcare, so that they can go out and work and, as a result, make ends meet at the end of the month. The hon. Lady is right to raise this matter. I would press the case of working-class families who are under extreme financial pressure.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. The Bill is not specifically to do with childcare; it is also to do with the information given to parents and carers and prospective parents and carers of babies and infants. However, I do take on board his point about childcare. I think the hon. Gentleman will be aware that people who are in receipt of universal credit get free childcare, to some extent. That is worth noting, is it not? I thank him for his intervention.

Strong families are at the heart of communities. It is so important in Hastings and Rye to have high ambitions for and expectations of our families, because supportive families make for more stable communities, better outcomes for children and happier individuals. Investing in families and making sure they get the support they need from birth through to adulthood helps with children’s educational attainment, wellbeing and life chances, while improving wider outcomes such as poor mental health and unemployment. That is why funding allocated to family hubs must continue beyond 2025, and further funding should be allocated to extend the scheme to all local authorities in England beyond the 75 pilot authorities.

My Bill is scheduled to have its Second Reading on 15 March—this coming Friday. I hope it will be successful and that we can work together to ensure that every baby has the best start in life.

I came along this afternoon just to listen, not to speak. However, I have been so inspired by my Sussex colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), and equally so shocked by the revelation that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) does not intend to make a speech in this debate—above and beyond the mini contribution he has already made—that I will use the time available to make a few comments. I want to speak particularly in support of my hon. Friend’s Bill, which I wish well this Friday, but also in the greater context of the Best Start for Life programme that has been championed over so many years by the Minister.

It is worth reminding ourselves why the whole issue of getting the best start in life and encouraging, nurturing and supporting parents at the very early stages is so important. I speak as the chair of the APPG on conception to age two—first 1,001 days. We have a display of officers from that eminent group here today, which was set up by the Minister herself some years ago. Those first 1,001 days are critical because it is a period of uniquely rapid growth in toddlers’ brains. More than a million new connections are formed every second in a baby’s brain, and babies’ growing brains are shaped by their experiences, particularly the interactions they have with their parents and other caregivers. What happens during this crucial time lays the foundations for future development, not just during childhood but into adulthood. They are effectively lifelong.

There is a lot of research showing that the way in which parents interact with their baby predicts the child’s later development. In order to thrive, children absolutely must have a loving and secure relationship with at least one sensitive, nurturing caregiver who can respond to his or her needs. That is why it is so important to support parents and parent-infant relationships to give children the best start in life. A range of stress factors during pregnancy and early years can be communicated to and can impact on a baby or growing toddler.

The cost of not getting it right is considerable. Some years ago, when the Maternal Mental Health Alliance issued its flagship report, it costed maternal perinatal mental health problems at some £8.1 billion. That is what it is costing for not giving mums and dads the best support to ensure that they can bond with their children. One in six new mothers will suffer some form of perinatal mental illness, and covid certainly worsened that situation, with all the pressures on first-time parents in particular of babies born during covid, as they did not have access to some of the support networks that we took for granted until then. In addition, child neglect has been costed at something like £15 billion each year, so we are spending £23 billion-plus on the consequences of not getting it right by intervening at a stage when it could have the maximum impact for the parent and, mostly importantly, the developing and growing child.

Healthy social and emotional development in the first 1,001 days means that individuals are more likely to have improved mental and physical health outcomes from cradle to grave. It means that children can start school with the language, social and emotional skills they need to play, explore and learn, and that children and young people are better able to understand and manage their emotions and behaviours, leading to less risky and antisocial behaviour later on. It also means that children can have the skills they need to form trusting, healthy relationships.

It has been calculated that some 28% of mothers with mental health problems report having difficulties bonding with their children. Research suggests that the initial dysfunctioning of mother-baby relationships affects children’s development by impairing their psychomotor and socio-emotional development. As well as the direct impact on the child, it can have longer-term adverse effects on the parents and wider family. The onset of a maternal mental health condition can precipitate relapse or recurrence of previous mental illness. It has the potential to herald the onset of long-term mental health problems and is associated with an increased risk of maternal suicide, and we know how alarming the figures are for women who commit suicide soon after giving birth. It is important to say that this is not limited to mothers; there is also an impact on fathers. Post-natal depression has been linked with depression in fathers and high rates of family breakdown, so this is all about families and the children. That is why it is important not only that we have a range of services available in a joined-up way, but that those parents know how to access those services and whom to speak to.

I will give an example from all those many centuries ago when I was the Children’s Minister. One of the first things I did in the first summer recess was to spend a week being a social worker in Stockport. I went out with real-life social workers, without cameras, just doing their daily job. One of the first places I was taken to, with a really impressive social worker—I think they chose one of the most challenging cases they could—was a house in one of the most deprived parts of Stockport, where a young mum with three young boys from three different fathers, none of whom was on the scene, were living in absolute squalor. There were no carpets on the floor, and they were literally eating off the floor. There was nothing in the fridge, some furniture dumped at the bottom of the garden and dirty mattresses that the kids were sleeping on.

One of the children had a bad toothache—I remember it distinctly as if it were yesterday—so the social worker said to the mother, “Why haven’t you taken the child to the dentist?” because it had been going on for some time. The mother herself had had a tooth problem the day before. She had gone to the emergency dentist and had it sorted out, but she had not had the presence of mind to take the son with her. Before long, if things went on like that, those children would have ended up in care. The mother would have been absolutely beside herself—she doted on and relied on those children greatly, and the kids relied on her. For all her problems and challenges in being a decent mother, that was all she knew; she had had poor parenting herself.

What struck me was that a number of professionals had been going in and out of that house over a period of time, and virtually every time they went, she had to start her whole story again about the various problems. There was no real joined-up action where that mum and her kids were almost literally taken by the scruff of the neck to children’s support services at the local children centre, taken to the dentist, or given information and classes on nutrition and feeding and things like that. What was needed was somebody to take control of that family’s life, get them back on the straight and narrow, and join up all the services and all that information, and that just was not happening. A lot of money, time and resources were being spent on that family, and things were not getting any better. That is why the Start for Life programme, and the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye is putting together, are all about making sure that somebody takes control of the information around a family’s requirements and needs, points them in the right direction, and takes them physically to where they need to go if necessary, so that it does not constantly start again every time the family comes into contact with yet another agency or professional service. That is why the work on the red book—digitising it, for example—is important to make sure that information is readily available to everyone having contact with families that need that sort of help.

None of this is rocket science or, frankly, new; we have been talking about it for many years. Earlier, I dug out one of the reports from the conception to age two: first 1001 days all-party parliamentary group. “Building Great Britons”, which we produced back in 2015, is now almost 10 years old. I reread the foreword, which I wrote, and we made some recommendations. I will go through those quickly to see how many have become reality and how many can still become reality with the assistance of my hon. Friend’s Bill. We also came up with two conclusions. The first was:

“We want to create children who at the end of their first 1001 days have the social and emotional resources that form a strong foundation for good citizenship.”

Tick—that is absolutely still our goal. The second conclusion was:

“Without intervention, there will be in the future, as in the past, high intergenerational transmission of disadvantage, inequality, dysfunction and child maltreatment. These self-perpetuating cycles create untold and recurring costs for society. The economic value of breaking these cycles will be enormous.”

Tick—that absolutely applies today, as it did then. A case in point is the one I cited in Stockport, which is a textbook example of how failing to intervene properly is costing an awful lot of money.

The first recommendation was:

“Achieving the very best experience for children in their first 1001 days should be a mainstream undertaking by all political parties and a key priority for NHS England.”

I hope that the Start for Life programme, which the Minister proposed, was done with the sign-up of all the other main political parties. That is really important, because it is a long-term scheme. When there are changes of Government, it is important that one does not change everything for the sake of changing it—I was going to say, “Throw the baby out with the bathwater.” One might want a bit of rebranding or tweaking here and there, but this needs at least a decade to really take effect. I hope that the good work the Minister has done will carry over if there is a change of personnel and Government in the future.

The second recommendation was:

“Require local authorities, CCGs and Health & Wellbeing Boards to prioritise all factors leading to the development of socially and emotionally capable children at age 2, by: adopting …a ‘1001-days’ strategy”.

That is part of what the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye will impress on local authorities. Much of this is delivered through local authorities and local health professionals. It is all very well for the Government to say, “This is what needs to happen,” but it does not happen unless there is the buy-in, the infrastructure and the commitment to deliver it at the sharp end at local level.

The third recommendation was:

“National government should establish a ‘1001-days’ strategy fund to support local authorities and CCGs to make a decisive switch over the next 5 years, to a primary preventive approach”.

I think we are only part of the way on that one. The Minister may want to pick that up and explain how we can achieve that.

The fourth recommendation was:

“Hold Health & Wellbeing Boards responsible for ensuring that local authorities and CCGs demonstrate delivery of a sound primary prevention approach”,

as outlined in part 2 of our report. Again, that is what my hon. Friend’s Bill is trying to get at. We need to see commitment at a local level for local people to judge. They can do it in different ways. What might apply well in my constituency might not apply so well in my hon. Friend’s constituency, in large northern metropolitan boroughs, or in rural constituencies. It is up to local interpretation how it is best delivered, with a framework set out nationally, but with local authorities and local agencies having to describe and set out how they are going to achieve the goals and aims.

The fifth recommendation was:

“Build on the ‘Early Help’ recommendations of the Munro Review”,

which I commissioned in 2010,

“by requiring and supporting all relevant agencies in prevention to work together to prevent child maltreatment and promote secure attachment.”

As I found in office, joined-up government is an illusion. I hope that the appointment of my right hon. Friend the Minister, with a remit in several different Departments as well as Best Start for Life, achieves more of a joined-up approach in that regard.

The sixth recommendation was:

“Appoint a Minister for families and Best Start in Life with cross-departmental responsibility”,

which I hope the Minister is achieving. I hope it will survive and continue under whoever fills her shoes at some hopefully distant stage in the future.

The seventh recommendation was:

“Make joint inter-agency training on the importance of the early years for social and emotional development, for all professionals working with children and families in the early years, a priority in the ‘1001-days’ strategy.”

That is important, as I found in safeguarding. We need professionals from different bodies singing from the same song sheet. The most effective way to do that is with joint inter-agency training so that they learn about the requirements of the job sitting next to the police officer, the health visitor, the teacher, the GP, or whichever professional is involved. We do not do inter-agency joint training nearly effectively enough.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Family hubs involve partnership working. I know that East Sussex family hubs partner with police, health and education, so they really do provide whole-family support.

That is absolutely right. We had children’s centres to an extent; we must have family hubs to a much larger extent. We need a sort of Piccadilly Circus of different professionals coming together, sharing information and nominating who will act for a particular family to make sure that the job is done and that a family in need does not fall foul of memos circulating between different professionals that never actually hit the spot. Somebody must pick it up and act on it. So many safeguarding cases end badly because somebody does not take responsibility, pick up the ball and act on it in whatever way. That is why family hubs are important.

We have all the relevant people in the same place, although hopefully going out of the family hub because most of the good things happen outside a family hub. It is not all about bricks and mortar, but where the services are targeted. The problem with children’s centres in the past, great idea though they were, was that the 15% most deprived families who would benefit most from the services offered by children’s centres tended to be those who did not access those centres. Family hubs are all about getting across thresholds where people live and go, work and shop and whatever it may be.

That was effectively the eighth recommendation. Children’s centres and youth hubs should be set up to be a melting pot of different services available.

The final recommendation was:

“Research evidence and good local area data are necessary to ensure effective changes are implemented to services. Where data and evidence are not available, these should be prioritised and supported with appropriate funding.”

I hope that as family hubs are rolled out and the Best Start for Life project becomes a reality they will start to produce the evidence we need to show that the impacts we are having on babies and their parents is life changing and dramatic. It is certainly a good investment socially and financially because hopefully we can prevent all the problems by getting in at the most appropriate time, at the earliest time.

Communication, information and all the things that my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye is endeavouring to achieve with her Bill—I wish her well with that on Friday—are all about continuing the jigsaw of the Best Start for Life, which my right hon. Friend the Minister started and which I hope will come to full fruition, because we desperately need it for so many of our children, families and babies in this country.

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

This has been a small but perfectly formed debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) on securing not just the debate, important though that is, but a Bill. I wish her Bill well on Friday, because, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) rightly said, there is a degree of consensus on these issues across the House. We all understand the need for children to have the best start in life, and for parents to have wraparound support as and when they need it. Those first 1,001 days are crucial to the development of a child to ensure that they start out in life with the best chances that we can give them.

I was interested in what the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said; my ears pricked up to attention when he mentioned Stockport. Being a partly Stockport Member of Parliament, I am keen to promote it as one of the two boroughs that my parliamentary constituency sits within. Stockport children’s services are good. They provide decent support to families when they need it, and there are some challenges. Stockport is a unique borough in many ways, in that it is a microcosm of the entire United Kingdom. It has some of the richest, most prosperous parts of Greater Manchester within its boundaries, and some of the poorest parts. It is almost a perfect make-up of the country.

Although it was 14 years ago when I went there, I have been back since. I am delighted to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that Stockport had a fantastic children’s services department then and it has remained so, with some impressive, experienced social workers. Where I went was not in his constituency; I visited nearby, with the full compliance and support of the then Member.

I would hazard a guess that the hon. Gentleman visited Brinnington, which is just over the border. Irrespective of that, he is absolutely right to support the Best Start for Life programme, and he is right that we should not change it for the sake of it. We can tinker around at the edges, but the ethos behind it is absolutely right.

I would also hazard a guess that if this Government had their time again, they might well have done the same with the Sure Start programme, which was starting to make a big difference. I will talk very briefly about my experience of Sure Start in my constituency. I was given the privilege of opening one of a number of Sure Start centres. This one was in the Dukinfield part of my constituency, in the Tameside borough. It was attached to a primary school in the middle of a 1960s deck-access council estate. The centre had been open and providing services to the community for about six months before it had its official opening. As the guest of honour cutting the ribbon, I was introduced to a number of people who used the services within the Sure Start provision.

I was introduced to a young mum called Sarah. She was very young, and had been ostracised by her family because she had become pregnant. She had no natural support network around her. Her only existence had been the four walls of her flat in the deck-access estate. Understandably, she had become very depressed post pregnancy, and the life of her young baby was essentially sitting in front of the television while mum was in her dressing gown eating crisps. Her brilliant Sure Start worker eventually convinced mum to go to the new provision across the way, and got her out of those four walls of the flat.

Dukinfield is a very white, very working-class community. The Rive Tame, which runs through Tameside—the clue is in the name—is only very narrow, probably no wider than this room. On the opposite side of the river from Dukinfield is Ashton-under-Lyne, and that part of Ashton-under-Lyne is very heavily south Asian, with predominantly Pakistani and some Bangladeshi communities. Never the twain shall meet. That river may as well be a wide ocean. Those two communities did not mix, but this Sure Start centre was shared by both communities.

Sarah very excitedly introduced me to her best friend Ameena, who lived in Ashton. Those two would never have met but for that Sure Start provision. She said to me, “Mr Gwynne, let me introduce you to my best friend Ameena. Her daughter plays with my daughter. They’re best friends, and I go to her house. Mr Gwynne, before I came here I couldn’t boil a pan of water. She’s now teaching me to cook curry.” I just thought: Wow! Not only is it a safe space for different communities to come together by accessing support through mainstream statutory services, but they are informally helping one another. I thought that was great. If we could bottle that and spread it out, that is what we should be doing.

That is why I will always argue passionately that Sure Start was working and why I am pleased that the Minister has brought in family hubs. Although they are not yet on the scale of Sure Start, from small acorns grow great oaks. I believe that, whoever is in government, supporting the family and nurturing them in those first 1,001 days really matters. In terms of the Bill from the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye, some really simple changes can make a big difference. She mentions that for many it is not easy to access information for support and that local authorities should publish the Start for Life offer on its website.

I know we are not supposed to use props, but I draw Members’ attention to the website of Grow in Tameside, which has a page for key Tameside contacts for early years support and information. It is all there on the website, in part because early years has been a passion of Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council for a long time. In the 1980s, before it was fashionable, they had child and family centres in Tameside. Those centres were used as the evidence base for Sure Start when the Labour Government came in in 1997. The Minister made sure that Tameside was one of the pilots for the family hubs, so we have family hubs operating already in Tameside and doing great stuff. They could do more, but it is great what they do.

This is not just about statutory services but about the wider support network, whether that includes religious organisations, community organisations, the voluntary sector or others. There are lots of things going on. I am a very proud patron of Home-Start in Oldham, Stockport and Tameside. Sarah and the team there do great work. The Dad Matters team under Kieran does great work engaging with dads. They have a breastfeeding service, and they have Cascade, where people can donate toys and clothes to families who need them. That work is being done, but we need to turbocharge it. That is why Labour will always support any measure that means the best start in life for children and families.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. What a lovely debate! I thank all colleagues from across the House for their contributions; it has been genuinely interesting. I would like to begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) for introducing her Bill on such an important topic and for securing time to debate it today. As Members will know, I have been championing the needs of babies for getting on for 27 years—gosh, that makes me very old. Now, having the huge honour of being the Minister with responsibility for Start for Life, I remain as committed and as passionate as ever in my mission to make sure that every baby gets the best start for life.

It began with my mum, a qualified midwife, asking me to help her to write a business plan for the Oxford Parent-Infant Project, a charity that to this day helps families who are struggling emotionally to cope with the journey to parenthood. Having experienced post-natal depression myself with my first son, who is now 28 and very big, I know only too well how crucial the earliest years are.

I have spent much of the last 27 years helping to establish parent-infant partnerships and various different charities providing therapeutic support for families, and then, in Parliament, working on the cross-party manifesto for the 1,001 critical days, and championing babies in Government and in Parliament.

I have worked with many colleagues. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) for noting that this is a cross-party agenda. I totally agree with him. I had so many conversations with Dame Tessa Jowell about the fact that Sure Start went so far, but that family hubs would be the 21st-century version. That is not to denigrate in any way the fantastic work of Sure Start, but family hubs are a one-stop shop, building on that excellent work and using the potential for digital to create a digital red book. The shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), has been sending me parliamentary questions about that. I encourage him to continue doing so, because it might speed things up.

There are many different measures to create the one-stop shop for parents, in a way that did not exist with Sure Start. Crucially, we want to make sure that those services are completely universal. What every parent and carer has said is, “No.1: tell me where I can get services and what they might consist of. No. 2: don’t stigmatise me. Don’t make me feel that if I go to this place, you might start proceedings against me and my children.”

The programme is designed to improve on, build on and grow that crucial support for the early years, and I am delighted to hear that it has the support of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish.

As well as the support from Dame Tessa Jowell, Lord Field, Lord Blunkett, Lord Cameron, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), Boris Johnson and our present Prime Minister, who all support this crucial early days agenda, I pay particular tribute to the support from my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who has worked with me for so many years. We met when I was 18 and he was 19 at university. Before we were in Parliament together, we had this same interest in early years. As a former Children’s Minister, he has done so much to promote this agenda. I have mostly enjoyed working with him; sometimes I wish he would pipe down, but it is really excellent that he carries on banging the drum for early years. We have worked on it for so long together; he feels like an old pair of boots. Is that parliamentary language, Mr Henderson? I am sure it is.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham discussed, there is strong evidence that the 1,001 days from conception to the age of two set the foundations for our cognitive, emotional and physical development. Nurtured babies will go on to develop strong relationships and, as they grow up, will be better equipped to tackle the challenges that life throws at them. Investing in that critical period represents a real opportunity to improve outcomes and tackle health disparities by ensuring that millions of babies and their families have access to a one-stop shop style of family hub where all support services can be found in one welcoming universal hub.

Shockingly, up to 40% of babies are not securely attached by the time they reach the age of five to a loving adult carer. Worse still, around 10% have disorganised attachment, which is closely linked with the worst outcomes in our society.

I was delighted, back in July 2020, when the then Prime Minister asked me to chair the early years healthy development review. The goal was to create a vision for brilliance during the 1,001 critical days from conception to a child’s second birthday.

During that review, I met with families, academics, frontline professionals, charities and volunteers to understand what was going well and where change was needed. I saw excellent examples of people helping families when they needed it most, but I also heard how hard it can be for parents and carers to find timely support. I heard about the many services available to families, which are delivered by a workforce of highly skilled professionals, as well as many dedicated volunteers, but I also heard that information on those services is often patchy and difficult to find, with parents finding it almost impossible to navigate the system and understand what support is available to them.

In March 2021, the Government published “The best start for life: a vision for the 1001 critical days”. The vision set out six action areas for improving support for families during those critical days to ensure that every baby in England is given the best possible start in life, regardless of their background. It is the first action area in that vision that describes how every local authority in England, working with the NHS and other partners, will be encouraged to provide a clear and joined-up Start for Life offer to every new family.

Each local authority’s Start for Life offer would describe the essential support that every new family might need, as well as providing information on the additional support that some families require. A clear and accessible Start for Life offer will help to signpost families to the support and services available where they live, and those Start for Life offers should explain clearly to parents and carers what exactly is available and where to find it. The recommendations included in the vision are relevant to every local authority in England.

In my role as the Under-Secretary of State for Public Health, Start for Life and Primary Care, I now have the ongoing pleasure of visiting local authorities up and down the country, and I see directly some great work happening to give every baby the best start in life. Just last week I visited Uxbridge family hub, where I saw some fantastic work by Hillingdon Council and its partners to provide vital services to families with babies. That included providing a welcoming space for parents and carers to make new friends, and offering many different specialist support services, including antenatal, midwifery and health visiting, as well as infant-feeding and parent-infant-relationship support.

To support the implementation of the Best Start for Life vision, the Government are investing around £300 million to improve support for families through the family hubs and Start for Life programme. The programme is implementing many elements of the vision and is delivering a step change in outcomes for babies, children, parents and carers in 75 upper-tier local authorities in England, including most of those with high levels of deprivation.

The programme provides funding for local authorities to publish Start for Life offers and to establish parent and carer panels so that they can receive direct feedback from those using the services. There are many examples of good progress in publishing and publicising Start for Life offers right across the country. For example, Northumberland County Council has equipped every health visitor, midwife and family-hub practitioner with a QR-code keyring that, when scanned, takes users to a bespoke website setting out the local Start for Life offer. That ensures that parents and carers can be encouraged to access the offer at every opportunity.

Many local authorities that have not yet received additional funding through the family hub and Start for Life offer have also chosen to publish their Start for Life offers anyway, and to implement other elements of the vision, because they can see the huge benefits to future outcomes for families and their children. Early prevention is not just kinder but much cheaper than later interventions.

In the Government, and across parties, we all remain committed to ensuring that every baby gets the best start in life. Central to that is ensuring that parents are able to easily find the support that they need, when they need it most. The Support for Infants and Parents etc (Information) Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye, has the potential to help ensure that that is the case, so I want to conclude by reiterating my thanks to my hon. Friend for her introduction of that private Member’s Bill, and for securing today’s debate on such an important issue.

The debate has highlighted just how important the 1,001 critical days are, as well as the huge opportunity that the Bill provides to ensure that families have access to vital information about the support available to them at such a critical stage in both their lives and the life of their baby. I look forward to the Bill’s Second Reading on Friday.

5.20 pm

I thank everyone who has attended this debate and made a contribution, showing support on this very important issue. I especially thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for her comments and her interest in this private Member’s Bill.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for his valuable comments as chair of the APPG on conception to age two—first 1001 days. As a former Children’s Minister, his knowledge, passion and focus on children and families is exemplary. He highlighted the long-term aims that were in the “Building Great Britons” report—it was extremely helpful for him to draw attention to them—and how failing to intervene is not just a social and human issue, but an economic one, too, if we are going to put the pound signs in front of our eyes.

My right hon. Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham are the dream team for early years. I have to say that—it is absolutely right. I also thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), for his kind words and support, for his clear passion for children and families, and for his clear acknowledgment that children and families are not political. They really are not political.

In conclusion, I believe that the support for my private Member’s Bill, the Support for Infants and Parents etc (Information) Bill, will play an important role in helping to achieve the Government’s aim of giving every baby the best start in life. I hope that the Government will support the Bill when it has its Second Reading on Friday.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered information on support available for parents and carers of infants.

5.22 pm

Sitting adjourned.