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Westminster Hall

Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2024

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 13 March 2024

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

Planning Reform

I beg to move,

That this House has considered reform of the planning system.

The housing shortage that we face in this country is the great crisis facing the United Kingdom today. Since 1973, house prices have more than tripled in real terms, with the average house price today reaching over £284,000. Just in the last 20 years, the ratio of house prices to incomes has more than doubled. The average household faces paying more than seven times their annual income for a home to call their own; in 2000, it was three times their income. For the average individual, the statistics are even starker. The housing shortage means that the overwhelming majority of our young people simply cannot hope to afford a home. It means that people cannot move to be closer to work or to their family, and that people are stuck in cramped, unfit and often unsafe homes throughout the country.

The housing shortfall is strangling our economy and choking off the growth that we need to restore our economic fortunes. Put simply, the housing shortage is making us all much, much poorer. The only solution to this crisis is to build more homes. According to a Centre for Cities report, the UK has a shortfall of well over 4 million homes. Even with the Government’s target of building 300,000 homes a year, that deficit would take at least half a century to fill, and sadly we are nowhere near that number.

Evidence from around the world shows the power of home building to make lives better for people right across the income spectrum. In 2016, Auckland liberalised its planning system and precipitated a boom in housing construction, which resulted in significantly lower rents six years later. Across the Atlantic in the United States, new buildings attracting more affluent residents have freed up the homes that they used to live in, lowering demand and rents for homes across the entire market, even at lower income levels. A Swedish study found that the benefits of new housing are evenly distributed among residents from different income groups.

How we actually get to building more homes is clearly far from simple, but what we do know is that the planning system is not fit for purpose, so how do we reform it to get where we need to go? There is growing consensus across the House that the planning system is holding us back from delivering the homes that are needed. Fixing our outdated, top-down and restrictive processes must now be a priority for both main parties and, I hope, all parties in the House. But how do we do that?

The first and most important thing is to make home building more popular with the British public. When asked, people across the country broadly support the idea of new housing. The 2020 British social attitudes survey found that 58% of Britons want to see more home building, with only 25% inherently opposed, and yet, as colleagues will know, specific house building projects in one’s own constituency always seem to attract far more opposition. Some of that opposition is unthinking, knee-jerk nimbyism, and we should have no time for it, but not all of it is unreasonable. Despite the benefits of new homes, existing residents see very little immediate benefit when development comes to their home area. They do, however, experience real costs, ranging from crowded roads to overburdened GP surgeries, and sometimes they witness low-quality homes being unceremoniously dumped on the edge of their town.

I do not disagree with a number of my right hon. Friend’s points. One concern that people have at a local level in Suffolk, and more generally, about additional house building is that it very rarely comes with the additional infrastructure that he mentions. More houses are built, but more pressure is put on the local infrastructure—on schools, hospitals, GP surgeries and the roads. What does he suggest as a mechanism to change that, so that if people accept more house building, they actually get the infrastructure that is needed?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have seen that in my constituency, where a new GP surgery in Nunthorpe, a suburb in the south of the town, has changed people’s attitudes to new homes coming in. However, we need to institutionalise that sort of offer to residents. The planning system must deliver a worthwhile settlement that gives residents a reason to say yes to extra homes.

The Government have legislated for one important potential solution: community land auctions. CLAs allow local government to see a substantial share of the profits from new development, enabling local authorities to capture the uplift in value that comes from planning permission being granted. The value of agricultural land can rise by up to 80 or 100 times. The council getting their fair share of that increase in the underlying land value allows them to deliver benefits to local people, which they can then spend on the new infrastructure that my hon. Friend rightly says is essential to make new developments viable. Residents then get to see their fair share of the upside, too, while the country sees homes unlocked with more community support. I hope to see the Government press on and make the most of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023 by getting trials of CLAs moving quickly, because they have huge potential.

“Decisions and policies are most trusted when the people making them are representatives of the people affected by them”—that quote is from a civil service training manual. Does the right hon. Member agree that we need to ensure that localism remains in the planning process?

I think localism as a principle of good Government is very important. I am a strong believer in the mayoral devolution of the kind that the Government have introduced in recent years. I will come to the hon. Lady’s question about how we can best address the balance between local and national Government. Local government can be a very good thing, but it can also become an obstacle to actually building homes anywhere at all, which is something we need to try to balance.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate forward. Planning rules on the mainland are slightly different from those in Northern Ireland. The principles that he refers to are important, so I sympathise with his comments, particularly about the time that it takes for a planning application to be granted fully. I have a close relationship in my area with the local planners through the council and also with numerous developers and builders, because there is a tradition of building in my constituency. The frustration about timescales is understood. Does he agree that one of the most pivotal ways in which we could reform our planning system is by ensuring that councils are funded adequately to ensure a more robust planning approval process? Councils have a key role to play; let us make sure they are part of it.

I totally agree. The hon. Gentleman is exactly right: councils need to have the planning departments to process the applications, and too often, as we know, good planners are poached by consultancies when they are needed in our local government system. The answer is to allow local authorities to capture more of the upside financially from new homes being built so that they can fund the requisite staff and expertise— I see the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) nodding—to do exactly what the hon. Gentleman refers to.

The right hon. Member will be aware that there is a Government-imposed cap on how much money local councils can charge big developers when they put in applications. That led to a situation in St Albans where the constituents of a district were subsidising big developers to the tune of £3 million a year. The Government have increased but not scrapped the cap, and councils can still not recoup the full cost of processing an application. Would he support a measure to scrap the cap altogether?

That is a very reasonable question. I would need to look at the detail of the policy to see whether simply raising the cap further or scrapping it would be the best solution to the problem. Do I accept entirely that we need to make sure that councils are not cross-subsidising the cost of development, but are incentivised to welcome good development? Yes, I do.

Another important piece of the puzzle is leasehold reform, and I thought that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Building Safety spoke brilliantly on that issue in the House last week. Although nominally owners, the relationship between leaseholders and freeholders often resembles that of a landlord and tenant. There is too little protection against drastically increased service charges and few incentives for freeholders to properly maintain a building.

Secure and fair property rights are a core Conservative principle. The Government are making great strides with the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill. It is absolutely right that we fix the balance and ensure that once people get on the property ladder, their home is truly theirs. I encourage the Government to go further, and I welcome the commonhold system whereby leaseholders all own a share of the common development, but we must address the fact that leasehold reform is vital.

We should also address the fact that new homes in Britain are too often of low quality. Poor-quality designs leave new and existing residents feeling that new homes are too often nothing more than ugly boxes, and we should look seriously at how design codes can ameliorate that. For example, we could allow individual streets or areas to vote on a design code for new housing. Establishing pre-set and pre-approved design rules ahead of time would allow everyone on the street to see a large share of the potential uplift, while significantly increasing the number of homes built. Design codes could also increase housing through densification, rather than relying on outward suburban sprawl, which would also reduce the potential dependence on cars and would allow more green space to be preserved.

As we have discussed, even if the public are on board, local authorities need to be as well. Councils are vulnerable to particularly vocal activism, even if it is a minority opinion among residents. Any reform will need to empower councils to take long-term decisions in the interests of their area, giving them the tools to get the right outcome from new development and incentivising them to say yes where appropriate, while ensuring that a few bad apples cannot shirk their responsibility to allow more homes. As you know, Mr Betts, our councils really matter.

I recently had reason to feel considerable frustration at my own planning authority in Redcar and Cleveland, when the chair of that authority made the baffling decision to delay the consideration of the proposed new British Steel electric arc furnace at Redcar. That reflects the power that councils can have for good or for ill, and we certainly want to ensure that their natural incentives are to welcome investment.

To do that, we need to ensure that development plans are brought up to date everywhere. These plans allow builders a measure of certainty when deciding where to construct new homes, but they are often not up to date. Unfortunately, the consequences under current law if an authority does not have an up-to-date plan are often trivial.

One possible remedy comes from California—the so-called “builder’s remedy”. Under that policy, if an area fails to plan for enough homes, it must approve any housing project that contains at least 20% low-income or 100% middle-income housing. That solution can be extremely effective. A few weeks of the builder’s remedy in Santa Monica resulted in more affordable housing being approved than there had been in the previous seven years. I certainly favour restoring a presumption in favour of development wherever an up-to-date local plan is not in place.

I would not be a Somerset representative if I did not mention the phosphate levels on the Somerset levels and moors Ramsar catchment area, caused by phosphates entering the water system. It is stymieing the building of new homes in parts of Somerset, so we no longer have that five-year housing land supply. That means that the local plans are effectively suspended, and the local planning authority is forced to approve inappropriate new housing development in areas where it would normally be refused. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in those circumstances, the local planning authority should be afforded better protection from the five-year housing land supply requirements?

I confess that I think the issues surrounding phosphate and nutrient neutrality need to be addressed—indeed, I commented on this with my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) this morning—by looking at the underlying causes of the problems and allowing mitigation measures to be put in place and counted forward so that homes can still be built where appropriate. That would mean that we do not end up in the situation where authorities either commission homes where they are not appropriate or do not commission homes at all. We need to resolve the Gordian knot of nutrient neutrality, because it is an irrational obstacle to building new homes. It is something that we have created through policy, and we need to resolve it through policy.

The Government have rightly said that development plans ought to prioritise building in cities. I welcome the exciting plans set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for major new developments in east London and Cambridge. That is precisely the kind of visionary development that we need and should welcome, and I think it will command broad support. Demand is obviously highest for homes close to city centres, where jobs are located, so those new homes often contribute disproportionately to economic growth. Building in cities also means that less money is required to support the infrastructure needs of new residents, and it is environmentally friendlier. Urban, dense communities inherently encourage lower usage of energy, because living in a smaller space means there is less to heat, and living in an apartment building means that there is natural insulation from other units, and so on.

Estate regeneration is also a win-win way to add more housing in cities and to deliver social justice. Too often, our post-war council estates are impractical and prohibitively expensive to rehabilitate. However, redeveloping an estate with new private housing that helps to cross-subsidise a wider improvement and redevelopment of social housing can result in a plan to deliver a really good outcome for all residents. Allowing tenants to vote on these plans would ensure that their rights were protected while providing new and renovated homes of a kind that is desperately needed.

However, although the brownfield-first policy is sensible, a brownfield-only policy cannot be, and no debate on planning would be complete without my referring to the completely uncontroversial subject of the green belt. The green belt was intended to prevent sprawl, but I would submit that it has done the opposite. Today’s green belt, which is three times larger than London itself, causes a leapfrog effect, whereby individuals wanting to live in London end up settling in distant commuter towns instead, which increases transportation and climate costs. Parts of the green belt—the disused car parks, the petrol stations and the dreary wastelands that make up what the right hon. and learned Leader of the Opposition rightly calls “the grey belt”—are far from the natural paradise that some would have us believe.

The green belt, in truth, has the best spin doctors around, encouraging a widespread misapprehension that it is all beautiful green land, when in fact 11% of the UK’s total brownfield land lies within the green belt.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that some of us do not give or accept that portrayal of the green belt? Some of us are very clear that there are brownfield sites and there are developed sites within the green belt, and most of our concern is about the undeveloped green-belt sites that have natural habitats.

In response to the hon. Lady’s point, I am strongly in favour of making sure that we can better enshrine the protections for the areas of genuine natural beauty and community amenity, rather than having a reductive debate that simply suggests that the entirety of the green belt is an untouchable verdant paradise, because it is not all like the front of a box of Yorkshire Tea; we all know that it is a mixed area of land. It was a crude line on a map drawn in the late 1940s, with good intention but adverse consequences today, and I would argue that we need to have a much more sophisticated debate about what is and is not tradeable in that context.

My own party needs to stop pretending that all of the green belt is valuable, which is bad policy and bad politics, and it is time that we started to look at releasing some grey-belt land to provide us with the housing that we desperately need. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame Siobhain McDonagh), who is a fellow PricedOut parliamentary champion and a friend, has done excellent work in pointing out that some of the worst areas of blight in her constituency are characterised as being green belt.

Of course, even where the planning system does allow developers to bring forward new homes, regulations that are too strict can still strangle supply and push up prices. Year after year, conditions and requirements are added at every level, driving up costs without necessarily delivering high quality. Perhaps the most egregious example of this comes from the Mayor of London’s London plan, where the dual aspect rules require every flat to have external windows on multiple walls. Clearly, indeed inherently, that is desirable, but it comes with a cost, and if it restricts the number of homes built, that intervention needs to be balanced against the wider social imperative of creating homes where they are most needed.

Minimum space standards are another example. While young people in other countries live on their own in flats of between 20 and 25 square metres, in the UK they are forced to live with strangers in overcrowded houses in multiple occupation because we have banned new flats of that size. Politicians need to be honest with the public and with ourselves about the options that exist in this area. In the middle of a generation-defining supply crunch, we cannot afford these rules. People would be much better off in small, modern and affordable flats of their own than in ageing, chopped-up homes built over a hundred years ago. We need to nuance this debate.

We also need to talk about tax. Our main real estate taxes often feel to those priced out of home ownership as though they add insult to injury. Stamp duty land tax and council tax both need fundamental reform. Stamp duty, as it is currently constituted, penalises people every time they move house, meaning that some households remain in homes that are too small for them when others remain in homes that are too large for them—in both cases for too long.

Council tax is regressive and unfair, and fails to compensate local councils properly for increases in land or property value, undermining the incentive to add more housing. Given that all parties are, frankly, terrified of the effects of a revaluation politically, and given that there has not been a revaluation since I was a child of seven, we need to look at fundamental reform of local government taxation. That is a major issue—I do not deny it—but at the moment it is worsening the planning system as well as acting irrationally in terms of the tax system. I submit that both those taxes should be replaced with a proportional property tax, which would save households an average of more than £500 a year and result in up to 600,000 extra new homes over the next five years.

I hope that this morning I have highlighted some easy, sometimes controversial but generally win-win solutions that we could use to help soothe our housing crisis. In the long run, there is no substitute for real root and branch reform of our planning system. Ultimately, I favour a rules-based system along the lines set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark when he was Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. It was unfortunate that the Opposition misrepresented those plans as a “developers’ charter”. If only they had been allowed to do anything of the kind!

Housing has an impact on every facet of our lives. Rising housing costs suppress productivity, increase wealth inequality, worsen climate change and increase homelessness. People need to be together. Bringing people physically together is a social good, but people need homes to do so. This is not an abstract debate; fixing the issue is a moral priority and it also ought to be a top political priority for my own party, as it always was under Prime Ministers as different as Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher. I do not know how we can make the case for popular Conservatism when in too many areas of England people cannot accumulate capital in their own lives. I certainly feel that is why major political change may be brewing in parts of the country that we have long called our heartlands.

One need only contrast the recent success of the Canadian Conservatives to see the amazing difference that embracing pro-home-ownership policies can deliver, even among the youngest voters. The UK is falling behind in the quest for higher productivity and better wages, and at the moment we are only making ourselves poorer by refusing to meet one of our most basic human needs—a place to live. The UK needs innovation, we need infrastructure and most of all we need housing. We will not get enough of it under the current system. That is why the time for talking is over.

We have made too little progress on effective planning reform over the last 14 years and it has become clear to me that politicians are not holding ourselves sufficiently accountable on the issue. That is why I am delighted to announce that PricedOut, Britain’s largest campaign for affordable news homes, will publish an index of Members of Parliament in England running for re-election, ranking their performance on housing, planning and infrastructure issues. That will serve as a guide to voters up and down the country at the next election, showing just for whom the issue is a priority. PricedOut has my support in bringing all of us in this House to account. The country deserves a more serious debate than the one we have had, and we need it soon, before lasting harm is done to another generation by our collective unwillingness to deliver the serious planning reform the country needs.

It is an honour to serve under your guidance this morning, Mr Betts. This is an important debate and I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) for championing this issue generally and for raising some interesting points today, many of which I agreed with.

In my constituency the average house price is about 12 times the average household income. So much of the existing housing stock is not available for anybody to live in, make a home in and raise a family or work locally. Over the last 20 years we have seen a huge explosion in the number of second homes, owned by people from away. It is nice for them that they can do that, but they do not—bless them—contribute to the local economy to the extent that those who live there full time do. More recently, we have seen a real explosion in the number of short-term lets. That in itself is not so awful; but it is awful when we see how they have gobbled up the long-term rental market to get into that situation.

We see a decline in the number of homes available for people to live locally—wherever they are originally from—set down roots and contribute to our community. Those are evaporating, and the housing stock we already have is moving into usages that do not contribute to maintaining a full-time economy. That is miserable for families that are effectively expelled from the communities in which they grew up. It is also economically stupid, with hospitality and tourism being one particular sector we can list. It is our largest employer, but 63% of hospitality and tourism businesses in Cumbria are currently operating below capacity—not meeting the demand that is there, which is criminal in a difficult economic situation like this—simply because they do not have the workforce to contribute. That has an impact on health and social care. A fifth of care jobs in Cumbria are currently unfilled. There are a number of reasons for that, but the principal one is that the incomes that are paid in social care are not enough for people to have a home anywhere near communities in the lakes and the dales, in south and central Cumbria.

The housing crisis is real, and it is particularly acute in places like mine. We need action on both what we build that is new and what we do with the existing housing stock.

I very much agree with the diagnosis of the problem by the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and with some of what he said about potential remedies. I do not agree, however, that a free-market approach is the answer. Housing is not a normal market. To treat it like a normal supply-and-demand market is to misread the situation. If we have targets for additional housing, take away all planning controls, and allow people to build what and where they want, we will simply have a field day for speculators—people who buy homes not to live in, but as investments. The people who have something will get more, and people who have nothing will not get anything. We must understand that the housing market is not a normal market, and that the reason we are in this mess is in no small part down to the fact that we have treated it like a normal market. The problem is that, when it comes to the development of new housing, we have an insufficiently fettered free market.

For example, in Appleby, new houses are being proposed and are soon likely to be developed. As things stand, not a single one will be affordable. As somebody who has actively fought for new homes to be built—indeed, I have risked losing votes over it—that causes me great concern. I see estates of 100 houses being built, and perhaps 20 are affordable—although are they really affordable? Yes, the other 80 will sell—there is demand for them—but there is no need. I am happy to go into the trenches and fight for new homes to be built if they are needed, and I am even happy to be unpopular over it, but I am fed up of seeing developments that are basically a waste of bricks. They are very nice bricks, in a nice part of the country, but we do not need them. They will end up being second homes, investments or Airbnbs for somebody who does not need them.

Meanwhile, families who live locally are hanging on by their fingernails. As long-term lets are turned into Airbnbs and people are evicted, those families have to leave the area altogether, which is totally miserable. I have seen that happen right across my patch, from Kirkby Stephen and Kendal to Grange-over-Sands, Ambleside and Windermere: local families are evicted and expelled because of the move from long-term to short-term lets. When we build new homes, they have to meet those people’s needs, not the desires of people who have tons of money and live nowhere near Cumbria.

It is important that we begin to redefine what “affordable housing” actually means in planning law. Homes that are 80% of market value can count as affordable, so we could build a house just outside Kendal that is worth 500 grand, which goes for 400 grand. Well, I am sorry, but that does not help anybody—at least not anybody normal—and it does not help our local economy. Let us be clear that “affordable” should mean genuinely affordable; otherwise, we abuse the term, and it means absolutely nothing.

We need a rebirth of social housing. The right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland talked about Harold Macmillan, to whom we owe a massive debt for his support for the building of council housing. Whatever we call it—social rented housing or public housing—we need loads more of it. We need to build it not in the drip-drip, bottom-up way that is permitted at the moment; the Government have to act, not even as the developer of last resort, but perhaps as the developer of first resort. They need to start investing—backing local authorities and housing associations with public money, so that we build the homes we need in the places we need them. That would ensure that we have viable communities, and that families in areas such as mine can cling on—and not only cling on, but thrive and be centres of communities in the future.

The answer to the problem is not the removal of planning powers. Conversely, we need more. I am blessed to have three planning authorities in my constituency: the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District and the other beautiful bits, not in either national park, that are covered by Westmorland and Furness Council. We have seen empirically over the years that where we are really specific and prescriptive about the housing that we need in our area, particularly in the Lake district and the Yorkshire dales, we will get planners grumbling for months and years about the fact that we will only allow affordable, social rented, shared ownership or local occupancy housing to be built. Planners will grumble, but then they will realised that this is the only game in town, so they will build. That is how things work. The problem is that the lack of certainty will often lead to more speculation and land banking, actually achieving nothing.

Generally speaking, at any given time there are a million homes with planning permission that are not built. We realise that it is not the freedom in the planning regime that is an issue; it is sometimes not being specific enough. We need some specific powers. Local authorities should be given the power to enforce 100% affordability, particularly in areas such as ours, where there is extreme pressure on rural communities.

It is commendable that the Government are now moving towards turning short-term lets into a separate category of planning use, so that we can ensure that we maintain long-term homes available for communities such as ours. However, I urge the Minister to look again at something I proposed when the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill was in Committee, and on the Floor of the House, which is to make the same arrangements for second homes. Second homes should also be a separate category of planning use, so that we can have a limit on the numbers that there are in any given community to protect full-time occupancy of other housing.

As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has just left the Chamber, said, new powers are useless without a planning department that is well resourced. Planners are important and gifted people, and we need more of them. We do not need to be in a situation where they are beleaguered and run ragged by people who know if they break the rules they can get away with it. Enforcement is absolutely vital.

If we are going to build the homes that we need—and we desperately need to—we must be tight and clear about what homes we do need. We need to ensure that we build the homes that Britain actually needs—and that our community in Cumbria actually needs—not the homes that there may be demand for, and that people will speculate over and use as personal investments and land banking. We need to provide the infrastructure first, so that there is space for those homes.

Let us think of the communities that we most serve by building new homes. I think of Hawkshead, which has a brilliant primary school, but does not have the numbers that it should because we have not built the affordable, social rented homes that the community desperately need. I am committed to working with the school, the local community and the local counsellor, Suzanne Pender, to ensure that we achieve that in the coming months and years.

When we do see development, let us also ensure that we build infrastructure. Often we will see the water company saying that it does not need to invest in any more sewage infrastructure or additional capacity, and to just go ahead and build. Because water companies are a statutory consultee, the planners have to nod that through. We should hold the water companies to greater account when it comes to planning processes, so that they are not giving a green light to something that actually needed their investment—which is why they give the green light, of course.

People need a home that they can rely on and afford, that is safe and secure, and that is theirs for years to come; and in which to raise a family, if they choose, and to work from and retire in. That is an essential building block of being part of a civilised society. Without that kind of secure home, we are robbed of our basic freedoms. Communities are based on a range of people who have those freedoms, and who live and work them out together.

Our communities in the lakes, the dales and the rest of Cumbria, as beautiful as they are, will not survive unless we support the building of new homes that are genuinely affordable and meet the needs of local people. We also need to ensure that the homes that are built are used for what they were built for, and not just investments for those who will never live there.

In May of this year I will have completed 19 years of service as Conservative Member of Parliament representing my constituency. Reflecting on those 19 years, the current planning system and its ramifications are some of the greatest concerns for me and many of my constituents.

I want to highlight a very important infrastructure project in my constituency. As a Conservative, the thing that I am most interested in is value for money for taxpayers. We have been talking about Shrewsbury—a beautiful town in Shropshire with more listed buildings than any other town in England. Tourism is extremely important for us and is our No. 1 income generator, but Shrewsbury is a historic town built hundreds of years ago, and it is struggling to cope with the huge increase in house building and people moving into our community. We have been talking about completing the ring road around Shrewsbury for 50 years. I was approached some years ago by the late Graham Galliers, head of the Shrewsbury Business Chamber, who said to me, “The one thing you need to do as the Member of Parliament is to secure the funding to complete the ring road around Shrewsbury, because that is at the very centre of economic sustainability for your constituency.” I use my position in the House of Commons to lobby for funding for the completion of the ring road. Basically, 9 o’clock to 12 o’clock of the ring road has been missing for 50 years. Completing that part will free up the whole north- western segment of Shrewsbury, which is undeveloped, and its construction will be the catalyst for massive private-sector investment in that vacant north-western segment.

I was delighted when the then Secretary of State for Transport came to see me in February 2019—I repeat that date: February 2019—slightly more than five years ago. He came to see me in the Chamber and said, “Good news—you’ve got the funding for the north-west relief road.” That was five years ago. I live in Coton Hill in the centre of Shrewsbury, and I see the extraordinary congestion in my town. We are a small county town, but it takes over an hour to get from one end of Shrewsbury to the other because of the huge amount of congestion.

As I have said before, there is also massive construction. There is a huge flow of young professional couples leaving the Black Country and moving into Shrewsbury. Working practices are changing rapidly. Why live in Birmingham, Wolverhampton or the Black Country, when you can live in beautiful Shropshire and bring your family there and enjoy the countryside? People are starting to move to rural areas like ours and then commute intermittently to Birmingham and inner-city conurbations. That flow of people will only continue into Shrewsbury and Shropshire.

I secured the funding five years ago and, over the past five years, I have watched the ping-pong taking place between Shropshire Council—my democratically elected local Conservative council, which is elected by and accountable to local people—and the Environment Agency. Each side blames the other for the extraordinary delays taking place in trying to get this project through the planning process and for construction to start. In my frustration at what was going on, I said nothing for the first year, the second year and the third year, although I watched with increasing desperation and concern. Eventually, I said, “I can’t allow this to continue. I must intervene.”

I wrote to the new chief executive of the Environment Agency, Mr Duffy, who had previously worked as a civil servant at the Treasury. The Environment Agency shares the Home Office building right around the corner. I asked him in a polite letter whether I could meet him and bring some of my councillors and the portfolio holder for highways. Initially, I was told that he would see only me, that he refused to see my councillors. We went through a bit of an argy-bargy to ensure that, ultimately, the portfolio holder for highways and others were able to join me.

The discussions are all about the construction of a bridge over the River Severn. There is a segment of the north-west relief road where we need to build a bridge. Of course, as with many other construction projects, there is no alternative. The bridge comes relatively close to an aquifer from which drinking water is taken for the people of Shrewsbury, which is why, I am told, there are such significant delays.

I am going to say something controversial and a lot of people will disagree violently with me, but then again, that’s politics and that’s democracy. Do we need these quangos? Do we need the Environment Agency? Yes, of course we do. I see some snorting and guffawing from the Opposition Benches. We need the Environment Agency to work with us and our authorities on mitigating flooding. I chair a caucus of 38 Conservative Members of Parliament who have the River Severn flowing through their constituencies. We are working in a constructive way with the Environment Agency and the River Severn Partnership to try to lobby collectively for additional resources to tame Britain’s longest river.

I see relevance in that work, but do we need such a level of interference from an unelected, unaccountable organisation that clearly lacks transparency, to scrutinise a democratically elected council that is responsible for the people of Shrewsbury and can be thrown out by the electorate if it makes an environmental mistake? The council has hired some of the best environmental advisers and construction companies to try to build the bridge. Can we afford, as a nation, such a level of excessive engagement between the Environment Agency and a democratically elected council? I would argue that we cannot. I trust the local council with all its resources and good intentions, and with local councillors who are part of the community, who drink the water that we take from the aquifer, who are elected and accountable to the people. Can we entrust our councils to make decisions and build essential infrastructure projects for our constituents, or we do need this outside body?

What worries me more than anything else is that I secured £58 million for the road in February 2019. The end project will cost about £140 million or £150 million, and that is just my project in Shrewsbury. I think we will spend an extra £100 million on the project as a result of the massive delays. If that is being replicated across the United Kingdom, which I know it is—I have spoken to other Conservative MPs who have serious concerns about the lack of engagement from the Environment Agency—we really are creating massive additional costs that will be difficult to meet.

The lack of urgency is a concern. Mr Betts, I can show you a file 7 inches thick of my correspondence with the Environment Agency over the last five years on that one project. I am very unhappy with that, and I would like the Minister to know that I have serious concerns about the impact on taxpayers—my local, hard-working families who are paying their taxes. The lack of urgency and accountability from Mr Duffy and his officials on the matter is very disturbing indeed.

Last week, we had the positive announcement of an extra £244 million designated for transport projects in Shropshire, which we have got because High Speed 2 has been cancelled. I was a great supporter of HS2, because I was told that one of the reasons why we did not have a direct train service between Shrewsbury—the only county town in England without such a service—and London was “lack of capacity” on the network. HS2 was going to free up and build for future generations and increase that capacity. What the Victorians did was fascinating. They built not for themselves; they built for future generations. If we plant a row of trees, we are not going to benefit from the shade ourselves. We will be gone, but those who follow us will benefit from the shade. The Victorians understood that, and they built for future generations. The London metro system, which I use almost every single day, is a classic example of building for future generations.

I was very saddened that the Prime Minister ultimately decided to scrap the project, but I was also cognisant that there was no alternative, because the nimbys and people who campaigned against various aspects led to massive increases in costs. We have now benefited in Shropshire from an extra £244 million—thank you very much, Treasury. I will be spending that £244 million as quickly and as expeditiously as possible in Shropshire, but we have only got it as a result of the destruction of a major national infrastructure project by these environmentalists and nimbys.

The pendulum has swung too far away from Governments, councils and Members of Parliament—from people who are elected and responsible for delivering major essential infrastructure projects. The pendulum in our society has swung too far away from those in positions of responsibility and accountability. That pendulum has swung towards the environmentalists, the Environment Agency and the nimbys—we all have thousands of nimbys in our constituencies. We need to recalibrate this equilibrium to ensure that more power is brought back to engineers, architects, designers, planners, councils, Governments and Members of Parliament. Otherwise, we will sink—I want the Minister to remember this—into a quagmire in this country, whereby we cannot build essential infrastructure projects, and they will double, triple and quadruple in price. That is simply unacceptable, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister’s intentions are to streamline and improve the planning process so that examples like my north-west relief road do not occur in other constituencies in the future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) for securing this debate. If I am perfectly honest, we have more in common that I thought we might. That gives me great hope, and I hope that we might continue to work together on the reforms about which we do agree.

The Liberal Democrats are committed to overhauling this broken top-down planning system. I supported amendments tabled to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act that would have given councils the powers to force land bankers to build or sell. Unfortunately, they did not go through. We also supported amendments that would have given local councils the power to regulate Airbnbs, something that is so important to my St Albans constituency. I have also been running a campaign to get the Government to scrap the cap on planning fees, as my constituents are subsidising big developers, and our planning department has been left woefully underfunded. It is really disappointing that those amendments were not accepted for the levelling-up Act.

Today, I want to focus on the failed top-down approach to setting housing targets. The Liberal Democrats have an ambition to build 380,000 homes a year, but by adopting a bottom-up approach we would ensure that they were built in the right places and were the right homes. We would require councils to start by addressing their local housing need and identifying any local constraints. The approach would include ensuring that 150,000 homes each year would be truly affordable for social rent, and I am delighted that that is supported by research from the National Housing Federation, Crisis and Heriot-Watt University.

I want to interrogate recent reforms to the national planning policy framework. I intend to challenge the Minister to clarify whether the reforms her Government announced in December have in fact been incorporated into the NPPF at all. I am sure it will come as no surprise to Members or the Minister that I take a keen interest in the proposals to update the NPPF. The Minister will know that I have tabled scores of parliamentary questions, secured debates, responded to various consultations and tabled amendments to the levelling-up Act. I have been clear that the current Government policy and the NPPF itself do nothing to solve the housing crisis. What they do is incentivise developers to destroy great swathes of precious agricultural land, natural habitat and green open spaces on the metropolitan green belt.

The root of the problem is the Government’s top-down housing targets, which are based on out-of-date population data and which councils are required to meet irrespective of any local constraints. There is no clear guidance in the new NPPF at all about whether those top-down targets or preserving undeveloped green belt space for future generations should take precedence, and that is quite confusing.

Let us look at the history of this issue. In 2015, the then Minister of State for Housing and Planning took steps to address it in a written ministerial statement. On permitting development on the green belt, he said that unmet need is

“unlikely to clearly outweigh harm to the green belt and any other harm so as to establish very special circumstances.”—[Official Report, 17 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 95WS.]

There was a very clear instruction in that statement to local planning authorities and to the planning inspector that the protection of undeveloped green belt should be given more weight than meeting housing targets.

However, that ministerial statement was made nine years ago. There have been 12 Conservative Housing Ministers since then, and unfortunately not one of them has seen fit to incorporate that statement and that principle into the NPPF. That remarkable state of affairs has meant that the Planning Inspectorate has never been able to give that statement any weight at all when deciding on planning appeals. Nor has the Planning Inspectorate had the ability to apply that principle to its examination of local plans—in fact, the planning inspector said as much in a planning appeal heard for an application in Colney Heath in my constituency that has resulted in the wrong homes being built in the wrong place. As a consequence, many councils are not able to meet the top-down housing targets without surrendering undeveloped green belt land for development.

The Minister will know that in St Albans, we unfortunately have the oldest adopted local plan in England. Two previous drafts developed under Conservative administrations were rejected by the Planning Inspectorate. Since 2019, the Liberal Democrat administration has prioritised the local plan process. It has been put under the auspices of the leader of the council, and in recent months the district council has made significant progress by completing a call for sites, producing a draft local plan and completing a regulation 18 consultation.

The Government’s top-down approach has a real impact in St Albans, and that is the situation our district council now faces. The Government’s standard method produces a top-down target of approximately 14,000 homes that need to be built within the St Albans district. The Government’s approach does not allow for any reduction in that top-down target, even though we have been given a Government-imposed strategic rail freight interchange the size of 3.5 million square metres of green belt, equivalent to 490 football pitches, which could instead have potentially accommodated between 2,500 and 3,000 homes. Following the district council’s call for sites and the regulation 18 consultation, it is thought that only around 5,000 homes can be accommodated on brownfield or grey belt sites. Around 9,000 homes will need to be built on previously undeveloped green belt.

The district council is working at pace to put a plan in place, but the combined failure of the Government to embed that written ministerial statement into the NPPF and of previous administrations in St Albans to develop a local plan now means that the council is currently unable to defend itself and its communities from inappropriate, speculative development. As a result, developers have mostly won their cases by appealing to the Planning Inspectorate.

St Albans City and District Council remains unable to prevent the wrong houses from being built in the wrong place. For example, just in the last year 2022-23, most of the housing built in our district was four, five or six-bedroom executive housing, not the three-bedroom homes that we desperately need. After months of delay, hopes were raised that an updated national planning policy framework would finally address the scandal of local plans being required to meet those centrally produced, top-down housing targets, as produced by the so-called standard method. In St Albans, our council leader took the Secretary of State’s promises at face value, saying that that if the new national planning policy framework is changed, such that the protection of underdeveloped metropolitan green belt takes precedence over top-down targets, our draft local plan will change as well. But it seems to me that the changes to the NPPF actually make the situation worse.

The Secretary of State said on 19 December 2023 that the changes provide

“clearer protection for the green belt…In summary, the new NPPF will: facilitate flexibility for local authorities in relation to local housing need; clarify a local lock on any changes to green-belt boundaries…the Government are ensuring it is clear there is generally no requirement on local authorities to review or alter green-belt boundaries if this would be the only way to meet housing need.”—[Official Report, 19 December 2023; Vol. 742, c. 97-99WS.]

The Secretary of State said all of that, but I have read the new national planning policy framework and I am afraid that it says absolutely no such thing. Rather than softening the need to meet those top-down targets, the changes to the NPPF actually strengthen and reinforce the requirement of councils and their communities to meet them.

There are at least five examples that I can find. Paragraph 15 changes the requirement from “addressing” the targets to “meeting” them, which is a significant change in firming up the requirement. Paragraph 60 adds a new requirement that the overall aim of any local plan

“should be to meet as much of an area’s identified housing need as possible”.

Again, that is a significant firming up of meeting that top-down target. Paragraph 61 codifies the Government’s previous position that

“the standard method is an advisory starting-point”,

but the meaning of “advisory” is not clarified. It is widely understood in the planning sector that “advisory” does not mean that it is merely a suggestion, but it is actually a warning. It is a warning that, if that target is not met, the planning inspector will almost certainly throw out and fail any local plan that does not meet that target.

In paragraph 61, the accompanying footnote 25 restricts the circumstances that might permit deviation from the standard method to extreme examples, such as

“islands with no land bridge”.

It appears to deliberately stay silent on undeveloped green belt constraints. Paragraph 145 had, in the version that the Government put out for consultation, the strongest and clearest indication that

“Green Belt boundaries are not required to be reviewed and altered, if this would be the only means of meeting the objectively assessed need for housing over the plan period”.

Inexplicably to those who expected that revision to strengthen green belt protection, that change was scrapped altogether in the final version of the NPPF. Indeed, there is not one single statement anywhere in the NPPF—none at all—that indicates to the planning authorities or the planning inspector that more weight can or should be given to protect undeveloped green belt over top-down housing targets.

Planning professionals agree that, at best, the new NPPF brings nothing to green belt communities. It was reported that one very senior and respected planning barrister, who attended a Hertfordshire Infrastructure & Development Board meeting on 29 February, described the Government’s changes as nothing more than “window dressing”. St Albans City and District Council has proceeded with its local plan-making, in compliance with the previous version of the NPPF, in the expectation that the Government would honour their promise to give councils more power and the ability to protect parts of undeveloped green-belt land. It is clear that those promises have now been broken.

I am told that the Liberal Democrat administration has followed the advice of the Local Government Association, the Planning Advisory Service, the Planning Inspectorate, its own KC and external experts acting as critical friends. In effect, they have all told the council the same thing: “You must meet this top-down target or you are at risk of your local plan being failed.”

Without a local plan, communities in St Albans will continue to end up with our natural environment bulldozed over for inappropriate and oversized executive homes, with no way for the council to require developers to provide the three-bed family homes that our district so desperately needs. Indeed, the draft local plan that the district council has prepared has identified that more than 50% of the new homes in the area have to be three-bedroomed homes. Yet at the moment we have no way of ensuring that developers build them. There is now a limited window of opportunity for the Government to intervene and clarify whether St Albans District Council can move forward with the draft local plan that revises the top-down housing targets downwards, in recognition of local constraints.

To sum up, I have three questions for the Minister. Will the Minister confirm today whether the Government-imposed strategic rail-freight interchange, the size of 490 football pitches, which prevents the building of 2,500 to 3,000 homes, can be taken into account? Secondly, on 9 January, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Building Safety, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), responded to my written question on the issue of the green belt to say that the Government would consider whether updates were needed to planning practice guidance in due course. Can the Minister today confirm whether that consideration has been completed and, if not, when it will be? My third and final question is will the Government urgently provide updated guidance for local authorities and the planning inspector, making it clear that the protection of undeveloped green-belt sites—not the grey belt—can be considered an exceptional circumstance, which justifies an alternative approach to assessing housing need?

Since the new year, I have tabled 12 written questions asking for clarity on these issues. So far, not one of them has received a satisfactory response. Instead, I have been redirected back to the very statements on which I am trying to seek clarification. My constituents deserve straightforward answers on the Government’s intentions. I hope the Minister will take the opportunity to provide substantive responses today.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Betts. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) on securing this important debate, and commend him for the characteristic clarity with which he set out his position in opening it.

I would also like to thank the hon. Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), for St Albans (Daisy Cooper), and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for their contributions. I did not agree with all their points, for reasons I may come to, but I certainly agree with the need to focus the planning system on prioritising genuinely affordable social rented homes, an issue the right hon. Gentleman knows I have spoken about at length, not least in the many weeks of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill Committee stage. I also agree with the importance of properly resourcing individual local planning departments, as was mentioned, which is a huge challenge at present.

I think the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland would accept that on most matters there is a profound political gulf between us. Yet, such is the mess that the Government have got themselves into with national planning policy, we have found common cause on a number of specific issues related to it. The most obvious point of agreement between the right hon. Gentleman and Opposition Front Benchers—although not the hon. Member for St Albans, I am sad to say—is on the need for enforceable housing targets.

The right hon. Gentleman recognises, as we do, that to get anywhere near the Government’s target of 300,000 homes a year, let alone the annual level of housing supply that England actually requires, we must have mandatory targets that bite on individual local planning authorities. As a result of the revised NPPF, published on 19 December last year, it is an unassailable fact that we no longer have such targets in England. Although it is correct to say that a small number of the initial proposals in the NPFF consultation were ultimately abandoned—for example, damaging proposed revisions to the tests of soundness—many others were implemented. Those include the softening of land supply and delivery test provisions, the emphasis on locally prepared plans providing for “sufficient housing only”, and the listing of various local characteristics that can now be used to justify a deviation from the standard method for assessing local housing need. As a result, the standard method is now explicitly only an advisory starting point.

The predictable result, as Ministers surely knew would be the case when they made the concessions in question to the so-called planning concern group of Tory Back Benchers in December 2022, is that a growing number of councils with local plans at an advanced stage of development, more often than not in areas of high unmet need, are scrambling to reverse ferret and take advantage of the freedom the revised NPPF provides to plan for less housing than their nominal local targets imply. The Government’s manifesto commitment to 300,000 homes a year thus remains alive, but in name only. It is abandoned in practice but not formally abolished, and no amount of protestations to the contrary by Ministers will alter that fact.

As the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland has rightly argued in the past, the decision to overhaul national planning policy in this way was, as he said, “disastrous”. It was, as we know, a decision made not in the national interest, but as a grubby concession to Government Back Benchers who were threatening to derail the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. It was nothing less than a woeful abdication of responsibility, and it must be undone. A Labour Government will act decisively and early to ensure that it is undone so that we once again have a planning system geared towards meeting housing need in full—that is absolutely a red line for us.

Where we respectfully part ways with the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland is on the issue of whether the post-war discretionary planning system is beyond redemption. As the right hon. Gentleman made clear in his remarks, he firmly believes that it is, and that it should be replaced by a zonal planning system of the kind proposed by the “Planning for the Future” White Paper published in 2020, but eventually abandoned. We might notice a trend here in the face of Back Bench pressure from the Government Benches.

We take a different view; while we do not dispute that after a decade of piecemeal and inept tinkering the planning system the Government are presiding over is faltering on almost all fronts, we believe that introducing an entirely new system is not the answer. Instead, we believe a discrete number of targeted changes to the existing system, coupled with decisive action to ensure that every element of it functions optimally, will ensure we significantly boost housing supply and deliver 1.5 million homes over the course of the next Parliament.

As I do not have an abundance of time, I will give just one example of the kinds of changes we believe are necessary to get Britain building at the scale required. It is a change that I think might solve some of the problems that the hon. Member for St Albans identified in relation to St Albans. There is no way to meet housing need in England without planning for growth on a larger than local scale. However this Government, for reasons I suspect are more ideological than practical, are now presiding over a planning system that lacks any effective sub-regional frameworks for cross-boundary planning.

The limitations of the duty to co-operate were well understood, but it at least imposed a requirement on local authorities to engage constructively, actively and on an ongoing basis to develop strategic planning policies where needed. Its repeal last year through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act, coupled with the fact that no replacement has been brought forward, leaves us with no meaningful process for planning strategically across boundaries to meet unmet housing need, given the inherent flaws of voluntary spatial development strategies.

Indeed, the Government have now even removed from the NPPF the requirement to help neighbouring authorities accommodate development in instances where they cannot meet their areas’ objectively assessed needs. If we are to overcome housing delivery challenges around towns and cities with tightly drawn administrative boundaries we must have an effective mechanism for cross- boundary strategic planning, and a Labour Government will introduce one.

That is just one example of the kind of planning reform we believe is necessary; others include finally getting serious about boosting local plan coverage. It is appalling that we have a local plan-led system where nearly three quarters of local plans are now not up to date—that cannot be allowed to continue. Another example is reintroducing a strategic approach to green-belt release, rather than the haphazard free-for-all we have had for the past 14 years.

The important point is that we should be focused on bold evolution of the planning system in England, not a complete dismantling of it. Not least because the painstaking creation of an entirely new system, after four years of planning policy turbulence and uncertainty in the wake of the 2020 White Paper, would almost certainly paralyse housing delivery and further exacerbate the sharp decline in house building that is now under way. Reform of the planning system, rather than a revolutionary reconstruction of it, is what is needed, so Labour remains committed to an ambitious yet pragmatic and achievable overhaul of the current system, and much-needed policy certainty and stability once that overhaul is complete.

As much as the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland might wish otherwise, it is patently clear that the Government have not only squandered the opportunity to make the planning system work as needed but, in caving in to the demands of their Back Benchers 15 months ago, have actively made things worse, as the planning application statistics released last week make clear. We need a general election so that they can make way for a Labour Government who will do what is necessary to tackle the housing crisis and boost economic growth.

It is a great pleasure to respond to this debate and serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) for securing today’s important debate and for his very eloquent presentation. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for his impassioned pleas on behalf of his constituency, and the hon. Members for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and for St Albans (Daisy Cooper).

Let me make it very clear that this Government are absolutely committed to modernising our planning system and building more homes. In our manifesto, we had a commitment to build 1 million more houses, and we are on track to do that during this Parliament. We have an advisory target of 300,000. We have not achieved that, but—let me make this very clear—the highest four years of house building in the past 30 years have been since 2018, so our performance is strong.

The Minister indicated that the new NPPF uses the word “advisory”—the Government have always used that word. The hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) said that is a softening of the targets, but the advice that my local council has received from the Local Government Association, the Planning Advisory Service, the Planning Inspectorate and its own KC is that “advisory” is a warning that, if that number is not met, the local plan will likely get failed. Will the Minister please commit to provide further guidance on what the Government intend by the word “advisory”?

We are very clear that we want 300,000 more homes to be built in England every year. What we have said is that we have an advisory starting point for each local authority. To answer the question that the hon. Lady posed earlier, the framework sets out clearly that, although changes to green belt boundaries may be made where exceptional circumstances are evidenced and justified, there is no firm requirement to do so. If there are exceptional circumstances, there can be development on the green belt.

I really want to make some progress.

We are absolutely committed to modernising our planning system. We introduced the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act to enable radical improvements in the way planning works. There are numerous measures in the Act, and future support in policy and regulation, that will modernise the system, making it more efficient, effective and accessible. Local leaders will have greater powers and the necessary tools to regenerate town centres and bring land and property into productive use. That will support growth, the delivery of quality homes and environmental improvements.

Underpinning that, the Government believe decisions about development should be driven by sensible local decision making, supported by digital tools to make engagement easier and bring the current system into the 21st century. More local plans must be in place—I agree with the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich on that point—to deliver the homes and infrastructure that people need, in the places where they want to live and work. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has set out his ambition for planning performance. It is now up to those who make the planning system work—local authorities, the Planning Inspectorate and statutory consultees—to expedite delivery. We are committed to building more homes, more quickly, more beautifully and more sustainably, and we must build homes in the places where people want to live and work.

The Opposition parties talk a very good game, but the proof is all in the delivery. I am a London MP, and it really saddens me that under the Labour Mayor of London, in 2022, London had the worst delivery of new houses of any area in the country. We can compare that with the west midlands under the Conservative Andy Street: he actually exceeded his targets.

I speak as an immigrant to this country—we left communist Poland in 1978—but does the Minister agree with me that getting levels of immigration down to sustainable levels will also help in the crisis affecting housing, because a lot of the pressure on the housing stock is coming from people coming from overseas to the United Kingdom?

We have to acknowledge that a lot of the settlement in the UK in the course of the last two years has been exceptional, whether it is by Hongkongers or Ukrainians. I agree with my hon. Friend on the arithmetic. If we have big levels of inward migration, we need the housing to house the inward migration, so I agree with him on the basis of the arithmetic—absolutely.

I am glad to hear the Minister recommit to the Government’s housing target of 300,000 homes a year. She says that the Government are committed to delivering that. Does it not concern the Minister that in the wake of the changes to the NPPF, councils across England—I think an example would be North Somerset—are using the exceptional circumstances test in the revised NPPF to determine lower housing targets than are defined through the Government’s standard method? That is to say that the NPPF will result in less housing than the standard method implies and that there is no way the Government can now meet their 300,000 homes a year target on that basis. She surely must recognise that.

We have been very clear that our target is 300,000, but we want local communities to buy into it. It is very much an objective. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland has laid out very clearly, we need the new housing, and that is why Government are committed.

Will the Minister join me in challenging the Labour party? It claims that it will come in on a white horse and resolve all of this. In practice, we have seen how the socialist Mayor of London has failed to build houses. Will my hon. Friend join me in expressing a reservation about the Labour party’s silence about that rather than questioning the failure of its Mayor of London to provide essential homes?

I agree 100%. The proof is in the delivery, and London in 2022 was the worst performing region for housing delivery. An independent review has been conducted of London housing delivery, and that makes it absolutely clear that the Mayor has failed to deliver housing. It is running at 15,000 new homes per year, according to his own plan, but the actual need in London is multiples of that. That is clear underdelivery, but let me make some progress.

I will take this as a final intervention, because I do need to get quite a few things on the record.

I am incredibly grateful to the Minister for giving way again. Recent interventions have shown that there is a huge amount of confusion and contradiction about what the changes to the NPPF actually mean. A cynic could say that the Government are saying one thing and doing another, but I think that it is really important for communities around the country that we have clarity. Will the Minister please commit to the Government actually producing further guidance on what they mean by “exceptional circumstances” in relation to the standard method, and will she please commit— I ask again—to providing further guidance on the definition of the word “advisory”?

I think I have been very clear in what I have said about the green belt. The green belt should be protected except for in exceptional circumstances, as has been set out.

Let me make some progress. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023 will speed up the planning process, delivering a faster and more efficient system, and cut out unnecessary and costly delays. It will ensure that local plans are shorter, more visual and map-based, and built on open and standardised data. They will be concise and focused on locally important matters, with repetition of policies across plans eliminated. New mandatory gateway assessments will reduce the time spent examining plans. To ensure that plans are prepared more quickly and kept up to date on matters including housing supply, there will be a 13-month preparation timeframe and a requirement for councils to commence plan updates every five years.

To respond to the hon. Member for St Albans, I must put it on the record that St Albans has one of the oldest plans in the country. It has been designated. To be honest, I do not know how the Liberal Democrats can stand up and say they have a housing target of 380,000 a year when they object to every single development on the ground. I just do not get it.

Let me move on. We have had quite a lot of talk about nutrient neutrality. I must say that I was hugely disappointed that the Opposition in the House of Lords blocked the Government amendments in the 2023 Act that would have made a targeted and specific change to the law, so that there was absolute clarity that housing development could proceed in areas currently affected by nutrient neutrality. That was done at a cost of 100,000 new homes. It is unacceptable to talk the talk and not to deliver, and the Opposition did not deliver in the House of Lords.

No; I have made it quite clear that there are points I want to put on the record.

The Government continue to work to unlock housing in catchments affected by nutrient neutrality. To address pollution at the source, the 2023 Act created a new duty on water companies in designated catchments to ensure that wastewater treatment works serving a population equivalent to over 2,000 meet specified nutrient removal standards. Competent authorities are then required to consider that this standard will be met by the upgrade date for the purposes of habitats regulations assessments, significantly reducing the mitigation burden on development.

We are also boosting the supply of mitigation by making £110 million available through the local nutrient mitigation fund, to help planning authorities in affected areas to deliver tens of thousands more homes before the end of the decade. Funding will be recycled locally until nutrient mitigation is no longer needed, at which point it will be used for measures to help restore the relevant habitat sites. The fund has already allocated £57 million to eight local authorities, and round 2 of the fund opened for expressions of interest last week. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke), who is no longer in her place, raised nutrient neutrality. I want to make it clear that Somerset was allocated £9.6 million.

Building on the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act, we consulted on a range of proposed changes to national planning policy to support our objective of a planning system that delivers the new homes we need, while taking account of important areas’ assets or local characteristics that should be protected or respected. We have revised the NPPF to be clearer about the importance of planning for homes and other development that our communities need. The revised NPPF provides clearer protection for the green belt, clarity about how future housing supply should be assessed in plans, and certainty on the responsibility of urban authorities to play their full part in meeting housing needs.

We have removed the need to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply requirement where plans are up to date, providing local authorities with yet another strong incentive to agree a local plan, giving communities more of a say on development and allowing more homes to be built. To make sure that we maximise the potential of brownfield sites, we are consulting on strong new measures to boost house building while protecting the green belt. Under those plans, planning authorities are instructed to be more flexible in applying policies that halt house building on previously developed land, permitted development rights are extended, and the planning authorities in England’s 20 largest towns and cities will be subject to a brownfield presumption when they fail to deliver.

The Government are clear that having plans in place is the best way to deliver development in the interests of local communities, and the revised framework creates clear incentives for authorities to get their local plans in place. Alongside that, the Government remain on track to meet our manifesto commitment to deliver 1 million homes over this Parliament. We have announced a £10 billion investment in housing supply since the start of this Parliament, to support bringing forward land for development, creating the infrastructure and enabling the market to deliver the homes that communities need, as well as supporting local authority planning capacity. This includes the £1 billion brownfield infrastructure and land fund, launched in July 2023, that will unlock approximately 65,000 homes and target at least 60% of funding to brownfield land.

I want to give my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, who secured this debate, time to sum up, so I will close by saying very clearly that the Government are committed to housing delivery and we are on track to modernise the planning system so that we can achieve that housing delivery.

I thank the Minister for her gracious comments about giving me time to respond. This has been a very good debate and, despite the proximity of an election, a remarkably consensual one about a number of the issues that we know we need to overcome if we are to build the homes we need as a country. Clearly, there are areas of contention and big challenges that require significant political courage to be addressed.

I will briefly give credit to those who have spoken. I agreed with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) about the importance of allowing local planning departments to be sufficiently resourced to do their job. I have more faith than he does in the ability of the market to fix these problems, but that is probably not an unusual distinction between us.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for attending the debate. I wish him every success with bringing forward the Shrewsbury ring road—the 9 o’clock to 12 o’clock segment. Although I concentrated primarily on housing in this debate, it could equally well be extended to infrastructure. We must allow ourselves to build what we need to succeed. The Government need to address some of the obstacles that have progressively accreted and stop us from doing things that we know are in the national and often the local interest.

I welcome the ambition that the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) set out for 380,000 homes a year, but that needs to be underpinned by robust methodology in terms of clear national targets. As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) said, local plans need to be up to date and we need to make sure that they are resourced appropriately so that they can be kept up to date. I count the shadow Minister as a friend in this place, and he is right that there are things that we need to do to give greater accountability for local authorities when it comes to their work. We obviously disagree on nutrient neutrality: I think Labour failed to put their money where their mouth has been when it comes to the importance of house building.

Finally, I thank the Minister. I welcome the fact that we are on track for 1 million homes a year. I would clearly like to see more of that home building and I look forward to discussing with her, as we approach the manifesto-writing process, how we can best deliver it.

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

Duty Solicitor Scheme

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the duty solicitor scheme.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. In preparing for this debate, I have been particularly grateful to Rob Newman, a retired solicitor who lives in my constituency, and Tony Steiner, the chief executive of the Devon and Somerset Law Society, for their thoughts and guidance on the subject.

It would be easy to try and characterise this as a debate about those accused of crimes and their representatives, but it goes much deeper. Today’s debate is about a key part of how we deliver justice and truly serve victims of crime. The duty solicitor schemes provide essential representation for suspects at police stations. They allow investigations to move forward quickly and are critical to ensuring that victims and defendants get justice. An effective duty solicitor scheme is vital to properly functioning law enforcement. It allows the police to more quickly decide if they have grounds for further investigation and a possible charging decision; if the person they have detained is not the one they are looking for and can be quickly released; or even if the matters are not criminal matters and can therefore be discontinued.

The process ensures that our courts can then deliver a fair trial based on evidence from an effective and timely police interview, and victims can then see justice done in a timely and effective way. Good legal advice at the earlier stages can be vital for avoiding miscarriages of justice—examples of which we have been debating quite regularly in this House over the last two to three months. If the duty solicitor service fails, our justice system fails. Police interviews are delayed and victims find themselves waiting longer for justice, which may never come if the issues with the duty solicitor scheme are not addressed.

I will start with the current situation. Across England and Wales, duty solicitor schemes are in crisis. Since 2017, more than 1,400 duty solicitors have left the duty rota system and many schemes have fewer than seven members, making 24/7 coverage near impossible, and that is without making allowances for sickness or those wishing to take annual leave, creating a vicious cycle of duty rota obligations, which is likely to push even more out of the profession. We should remember that a core part of this is having someone available, for example, to attend a police station interview in the early hours of the morning. It is not just about attending court during the day.

To give the figures for my own region, in 2017 there were 109 duty solicitors operating in Devon and Cornwall. By last year, that number was 78—down 28%—and the forecast for 2027 is 64. As the 2027 forecast for Devon and Cornwall also brings home, it is not just the numbers leaving the duty scheme that suggests a need for change. Without an attractive package to encourage those at the start of their careers to join the duty solicitor scheme, or to encourage others to stay, those who remain on the duty rota are now ageing. Nationally, less than 4% of duty solicitors are under 35 years old, and the average age in 2021 was 49. If I were still working in the sector, I would be feeling very youthful at the moment. The number is higher in many regions.

I commend the hon. Member for bringing this debate forward. I spoke to him before we came in today. In 2018, the Law Society stated that there was a “chronic” shortage of duty solicitors, as he has said, and that nearly half were over 50 and due to retire soon. More than a third of all junior solicitors in Northern Ireland are now employed in large firms. Does he agree that more needs to be done to encourage junior solicitors to take up positions in legal aid schemes to ensure that those who cannot afford to choose a solicitor have readily available access in police stations and in the courts as well?

I can only agree with my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), about encouraging people to go into this area of legal aid. There are issues around legal aid more generally, but in this area, police station interviews, police station duty and the right to representation at a police station all create different challenges from those faced in, for example, providing legal aid in planned settings in the courts, particularly when it comes to timing and advice. Being a duty solicitor is literally about getting a phone call in the early hours of the morning asking to come and attend an interview immediately, while someone waits in custody, and we need to look at how to get more people coming into it.

The overall figures do not show how stark the facts are in some regions. There are literally zero practising criminal law solicitors working in the system aged under 35 in Cornwall, Lincolnshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire. Not one person who started their legal career in the last 12 years is practising as a criminal law solicitor in those four counties. Other areas are close to that figure, with only one criminal law solicitor aged under 35 in Norfolk, Shropshire and Warwickshire. In Bristol, Cornwall, Devon, East Sussex, Lincolnshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire, over 60% of criminal law solicitors are aged over 50. The result is that, with expected retirements, rotas will shrink even further, to the point where there is simply no one left to take part.

The National Audit Office recently highlighted that the Ministry of Justice

“has been slow to respond to market sustainability issues”,

and the Law Society for England and Wales echoes that view. We simply cannot wait until the final generation of criminal lawyers retires to start tackling the issue, not least as those starting law degrees today will be at least five years away from being able to fully practise. To tackle the issue of people retiring in five years’ time, we need to start now.

The issue of the duty solicitor scheme also links to one of the biggest achievements of Boris Johnson’s premiership: putting in place plans to recruit an additional 20,000 police officers as part of the national uplift programme, which has now been delivered. Extra police officers means more issues dealt with, more crimes detected, more suspects to be interviewed and more cases before the courts. It is estimated, based on a National Audit Office report, that an extra 729,000 cases could be set to enter the criminal justice system by 2030 because of the extra 20,000 police officers. A lot of cases will not necessarily require full police interviews. Some might be dealt with by other forms of disposal, but we need to think about the extra demand.

What happens if a police station cannot find a duty solicitor? First, the police might be forced to release a suspect as they cannot interview them without a legal representative. The freshness of evidence might be lost. Even the potential for early admissions, which would make the process a lot easier for victims, might similarly be lost. The pressure builds on police station cells and local court backlogs if they are waiting for a duty solicitor to attend, and victims will be forced to wait longer for justice. We might even find that innocent bystanders arrested in error will have to wait longer before they can be released.

The impact continues once a case gets to court. Nearly half of defendants appearing in the magistrates courts on imprisonable summary offences did not have legal representation recorded on their case in the first half of 2023. That figure rose from 35% during 2022.

One response to the current situation has been consolidation, with criminal defence lawyers and practices becoming part of specialist firms, rather than being departments of larger multidisciplinary teams, but that is not without its own issues. As one criminal defence solicitor working in the south-west region put it:

“The truth is that the local rota is reduced to 9 or 10 people grouped in 4 firms…The 4 firms are crime only and there are no mixed practices who do any duty work or any quantity of criminal work. The consequence of this is that each Solicitor has a 24 hour duty slot every 10 days as well as the duty slots at the court 4 days per week and remand duties over video link 5 days per week which means there is some duty every day.”

It is not clear whether that is physically sustainable, but consolidation has also produced another impact, which may be less visible. That was stated as:

“Another difficulty is with conflicts as once the four firms are used up, there is no one that the fifth defendant on the case can seek advice from. We are starting therefore to get justice deserts in various parts of the country including our own.”

Also, consolidation will remove any form of choice. Most people accept that, while there might not be wide choice around legal aid, the ability to have some choice, particularly when their liberty is on the line, is still important.

It is easy to outline problems, but we also need to look at solutions. In the short-term, we need to stop experienced lawyers leaving duty work for other, more rewarding areas of legal practice, or simply to areas where they do not have the rota obligations. As the Law Society has pointed out, criminal legal aid rates have not really increased since the mid-1990s, while most other areas of law have been able to determine their rate based on the market. The Minister will know that, back in 2022, the independent review of criminal legal aid took place. However, the Government rejected the central recommendation of an immediate increase in rates of 15% as the first step, and instead implemented a 9% rise, which would eventually rise to 11%. Since then, practitioners have continued to leave the system, and the change does not appear to have produced a recovery in duty solicitor numbers. The Minister will be aware of the judicial review, which found back in January that the decisions had been irrational and should be retaken.

To halt the decline and potential collapse of the system, it is clear that the Government must implement the recommendations of the report, particularly given the impact of inflation on the profession since the report was published in 2021. It should be noted that criminal legal aid firms undertake a range of work, so actions should be taken as a package rather than as individual items. Even that will not change the longer-term picture. Quite clearly, we need a strategy to make working in our criminal justice system more rewarding, with specific measures to encourage those learning law at university to train for the duty solicitor scheme when they graduate.

There is not time in this debate to go into all the nuanced details around creating a public defender system akin to the Crown Prosecution Service, which effectively is a nationalisation of prosecution work. It is not a simple thing to do and could be fraught with challenges, in particular around maintaining independence from the state, which will of course be pursuing criminal charges against the individuals seeking to be represented. Like the current duty solicitor scheme, it could find itself struggling to attract the resources and human capital it needs. Yet the Government should consider how they can incentivise new lawyers to train specifically for criminal law work, especially in police station and duty solicitor roles.

Given what I have outlined, there are some specific points to which I would appreciate hearing the Minister’s response. First, what is the Government’s planned response to the recent High Court ruling and its clear findings on the duty solicitor scheme? Secondly, will the Government recognise the crisis in the duty solicitor scheme and put in place the fee increases that its own commissioned review said are needed to prevent the system’s collapse? Thirdly, given the urgent need for more training for this work to prevent the rota from disappearing over the coming decade, has the Minister given any thought to incentives such as a golden hello or funded training package, which could come with requirements to be on the rota for a set number of years? That could be like the packages we see in, for example, the armed forces and other areas of public service, where people are funded to be trained to do a particular job and then have to accept a commitment to do it for the public benefit. Finally, with few entering the profession in recent years, how will the Government support training to ensure capacity while still having criminal lawyers delivering the rota?

As someone who once worked as a criminal lawyer funded by legal aid, there is a lot more I could say about this issue, but time is limited. I said at the start that the duty solicitor scheme lies at the heart of our criminal justice system. It cannot operate without the scheme, yet it is ageing and more people are leaving. This is about ensuring that victims can get timely justice, that miscarriages are avoided and that cases proceed quickly and effectively, for the benefit of all involved. Without urgent investment and action on our duty solicitor scheme, none of those things can happen.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing this debate, and for his focus on this important matter. I will begin by commending criminal legal aid solicitors for the invaluable work that they do across the whole criminal justice system. Legal aid is a fundamental pillar of our free and fair justice system. It underpins the rule of law so that ordinary citizens can uphold their rights and liberties. In the criminal justice system it supports those charged with an offence to defend themselves, and assures that the allegations made against them are properly tested. Criminal legal aid solicitors play a vital role in ensuring that the system works.

It may be helpful to explain that in England and Wales, two duty solicitor schemes operate in parallel. The police station duty solicitor scheme enables a person who is arrested on suspicion of a criminal offence to consult a solicitor free of charge, either in person or over the telephone, while in police custody. The court duty solicitor scheme allows a person who has already been charged with an offence to consult and be represented by a solicitor free of charge at the magistrates court on their first appearance if they do not have, or have simply not contacted, their own solicitor.

Turning to the funding for solicitors, we have boosted the system with immediate investment in response to the criminal legal aid independent review, known as CLAIR, and are introducing further reforms that will support solicitors. Access to justice is a fundamental right, and in 2023 we spent £1.86 billion on legal aid, of which £873 million was on crime. Investment in the legal aid sector is continuing. In September 2022, we uplifted most criminal legal aid fee schemes by 15%, including a 15% increase to the police station scheme and the magistrates court scheme, which includes youth court work. That was in direct response to CLAIR, to support and strengthen the criminal legal aid sector.

To give my hon. Friend a glimmer of hope, since we introduced the fee scheme and the new standard crime contract came into force, we have seen an increase in the number of duty solicitors registering for the scheme. In fact, between October 2022 and April 2023, the number of duty solicitors rose by about 7.5%. While I accept that that does not take the numbers to where they were several years ago, it is an early sign of at least some stabilisation in the scheme.

Will the Minister commit to writing to me, and perhaps placing a copy of the letter in the Library, setting out where the numbers have changed in each region as defined by the areas that are covered in the duty rota schemes?

If I can break it down by region, I will give my hon. Friend a full response. I will happily share the figures I have available, and I will place a copy of them in the Library.

On 29 January this year, we published a consultation on proposed reforms to the police station fee scheme and the youth court fees, where an additional £21.1 million per year has been allocated. We expect our reforms to criminal legal aid to increase investment in the solicitor profession by about £85 million every year, including a 30% increase in funding for solicitors’ work in police stations and a 20% increase for their work in magistrates courts once we introduce the additional £21 million a year.

The investment, alongside planned longer-term reforms, increases criminal legal aid spending by up to £141 million a year, which means the overall spend for criminal legal aid is expected to be up to £1.2 billion per year—the highest level of investment in criminal legal aid in a decade. That additional funding into the system will contribute to the sustainability of the market and help to ensure that legal aid is accessible in the future.

I share my hon. Friend’s concerns about the reduction in the number of duty solicitors, notwithstanding the recent increase. I meet the Legal Aid Agency regularly to discuss matters pertaining to criminal legal aid, including the duty solicitor schemes. The Legal Aid Agency regularly reviews and monitors the number of duty solicitors on each local duty scheme to ensure adequate provision and access to legal aid. It has arrangements in place to ensure that all duty rotas have cover 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I accept that in some areas that is sometimes quite a big ask, but the Legal Aid Agency works closely with practitioners to ensure coverage in areas where it is tight.

On the numbers, I want to be clear that the issue is people actively taking cases. One retired solicitor who knew I had secured this debate told me that he still gets an email each year saying that he is still licensed to do stuff, even though he has not actually practised as a criminal lawyer in 10 years. It is the numbers of people actively doing things.

I will have to double check, but my understanding is that those numbers are for those who that have signed up for the standard crime contract. I am not sure a retired solicitor would have signed, so that individual should not be captured in the figures.

I assure my hon. Friend that although the numbers of solicitors firms offering criminal legal aid and offices delivering the service have declined, police station and court duty solicitor schemes remain fully covered. I am slightly less worried about the number of offices; I think we can sometimes get fixated on that. I appreciate that in more rural areas having a physical office is important, but in other parts of the country, with mergers of firms, I do not believe we need to get hung up about physical presence as long as we have the solicitors on the ground. That is a more important measure than the number of offices.

I agree with the Minister about physical office locations, not least in an era of homeworking. My concern is not so much about the physical local of an office. If firms merge, there is still the potential for conflicts. If there are four firms doing this work in Devon, and five defendants, there is the potential for so-called cut-throat defence. It is not about whether there is a physical office; it is the fact that if those firms join together, conflicts can arise.

My hon. Friend, being a practising solicitor, has greater knowledge of the intricacies than I do, but I will take that point on board. I assure him that the provision of duty solicitors is a priority and we are actively taking steps to ensure all schemes continue to operate, both now and in the future.

I will touch on a couple of points that my hon. Friend mentioned. The judicial review relating to the funding for criminal solicitors has ended. As he mentioned, a year ago the Law Society filed a JR claim challenging the funding decision taken by the previous Lord Chancellor in response to the criminal legal aid independent review. It focused mostly on the litigators’ graduated fee scheme and the decision not to apply the full 50% uplift across all elements of it. LGFS is a remuneration scheme for solicitors undertaking Crown court work. We were clear in our response to CLAIR why we did not increase the fees for pages of prosecution evidence. That was due to the perverse incentives identified by CLAIR, whereby payments are based primarily on the volume of pages served to the prosecution, irrespective of whether they are read, and not on the work done.

The judgment was handed down on 31 January. Although the claimants were successful on a specific narrow grounds relating to the decision-making process, the majority of the arguments were rejected by the court. We are carefully considering the judgment and will respond in due course.

Furthermore, we are currently working with stakeholders through a sub-group of the Criminal Legal Aid Advisory Board on reform of the LGFS. One aim of the reform is to address the perverse incentives of pages of prosecution evidence identified by CLAIR. We are aiming to consult on LGFS reform later this year.

To answer the point about the number of younger practitioners in the sector, I understand the concern. That is why the chair of CLAAB, Her Honour Deborah Taylor, asked for the numbers on the board to be increased, to include younger practitioners both at the criminal Bar and in the solicitor sector. That has been agreed and the younger voices of the sector are on CLAAB, which will hopefully help to inform decisions so that we can ensure a flow of younger solicitors into the criminal representation side of the justice system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay also raised the issue of training and ensuring that crime pays, as it were. I accept the point that we seem to have a revolving door. In particular, solicitor firms invest in training solicitors, who then leave and move on to different parts of the criminal justice system once training is completed. We are conscious of that, and Her Honour Deborah Taylor is looking at what we can do to change how training is funded to address that revolving door. Obviously, that is still a work in progress and the sector is being consulted.

Have I answered all my hon. Friend’s questions? He is welcome to intervene if I have missed anything.

The Minister is being very generous in inviting interventions. He will know that I sometimes hear with interest the words “in due course”—they are commonly used, and it is amazing what they can cover. Can he give me a flavour of any timelines that have been set for work on the response? For example, is he aiming to publish it by the summer? I hear what he says about training, and academic years are obviously vital in that area with new trainees starting each September, so has he set himself a particular timeline for the work to be done, to allow him to respond in due course?

My hon. Friend raises a good point. The Criminal Legal Aid Advisory Board does not work to my timeline, but I will contact Her Honour Deborah Taylor to see whether she can share a timeline for when at least some initial thoughts, if not a final report, will be made available.

We have a shared aim of achieving a system that fairly reflects the work of our excellent legal professionals and sustains criminal legal aid well into the future. We appreciate that the system is under pressure, and we want to ensure that it is robust and that people have access to justice. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this debate and to the points raised by my hon. Friend. I hope that he has found my answers at least helpful and informative.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Sport: Gambling Advertising

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered gambling advertising in sport.

A couple of weeks ago in this Chamber, we debated affordability checks in gambling, and the Government Benches were rammed with those who seemed to have racecourses in their constituencies. They did not understand that affordability checks did not apply on course. I am not sure where they are today—did someone say Cheltenham?

I do not claim to be an expert on how advertising and marketing work. Like most people, I am exposed to adverts on TV, billboards and the internet. I wonder, does associating a puppy dog with a certain brand of toilet paper make me more likely to buy that brand? Do pictures of a car racing through stunning mountain scenery or unusually empty city centre streets increase the chances of me buying that particular car? Do adverts offering me free bets or extra spins make it more likely that I will gamble?

I—like most people, I presume—believe that I am impervious to such obvious and sometimes clumsy attempts at selling, and then I take a step back and see that I am also guilty of this. That is particularly obvious during an election year. I am trying to get re-elected, and I promote myself and the brand I represent through advertising. I consider how best to get that combination over to my constituents and, like most politicians, I use the tried and tested methods of leaflets, door knocking, newsletters, hustings, radio, TV and social media. I tell people, “Vote Cowan. Vote SNP.”

My experience tells me that this has worked three times before, and that I have therefore done something right. The gambling industry is simply doing the same thing, but its income is vast. It spends huge sums of money—£1.5 billion a year—to achieve a far greater reach than any parliamentarian can, and we are all exposed to it. If I see a letterbox that says “no leaflets”, I do not post one. Unfortunately, the gambling industry is less selective, and by placing adverts in and around sporting arenas and putting them on the players and around the pitch, it removes the opportunity for fans to decline the offer of being advertised to.

Despite the Advertising Standards Authority and the Committee of Advertising Practice, the gambling industry continues to stretch the rules, with 3,500 gambling logos visible during a single English premier league game, in plain sight for anyone to see. Only 7% of those were on the front of shirts, so the impending change to adverts on the front of shirts means nothing, and the gambling industry knows it. It was proposed that family areas free of gambling adverts could be established in football grounds, but one year on, nothing has changed. When it comes to advertising to children, bet365, Ladbrokes, MrQ, and Lights Camera Bingo all broke the rules.

In short, if the gambling industry—any industry—did not think that spending huge amounts of money was not generating more in returns, it simply would not do it. Self-regulation is not sufficient for any industry ever-hungry for more. Advertising increases the gambling industry revenue. Advertising normalises gambling. According to the ASA, that was a predicted consequence of the Gambling Act 2005. Advertising increases the reach and therefore the number of people who are gambling.

The hypocrisy is that while gambling benefits from the sports, most sports do not actually benefit from gambling. The gambling industry is a parasite living off the lifeblood of the sports that it uses. It makes gambling the most important factor and the sport a poor second. The game is not the same without a bet—that is the message.

That is a great shame. I remember great moments in sport with joy: Daley Thompson’s decathlon golds in 1980 and 1984; Ian Botham’s 149 against Australia at Headingley; Ovett, Coe and Cram racing against the clock and one another; Torvill and Dean at Sarajevo in 1984; and Andy Murray winning Wimbledon twice. There was not an advert in sight. And George Best just being George Best—I did not need a bet on these things to enjoy them. The sport must be the priority and gambling advertising must be curtailed. I would say that, just like tobacco, it should be completely removed from the world of sport.

Of course, this issue goes beyond that. The UK Government have said that there was “good evidence” that advertising had a “disproportionate impact” on people who already had problems with their gambling. In addition, some forms of online advertising had a strong appeal to those under 18. According to an Ipsos MORI report, more than four out of five of those aged 11 to 24 reported seeing gambling advertising on TV, and that includes the national lottery. Two thirds reported seeing gambling promotions on their social media channels.

In September 2023, a Bristol University report told us that 92% of content marketing ads sent by major gambling brands were not clearly identifiable as advertising, which breaches a key advertising regulation, and that less than a quarter of them featured age warnings. There was at least one gambling advert during any commercial break on talkSPORT radio and there were 600 gambling messages during two hours of Sky Sports News. In addition, 1,902 gambling ads on social media generated a total of 34 million impressions.

One of the lead researchers, Raffaello Rossi, said that the report showed that

“gambling marketing during Premier League weekends is inescapable”,

and that fans were

“bombarded with gambling marketing through various channels, making it a normal part of football consumption.”

He claimed that self-regulation of the gambling industry was “completely failing”.

Meanwhile, the Gambling Commission will review incentives, continue to monitor practices and work to strengthen consent for direct marketing. But in the here and now, 80,000 UK children are addicted to gambling or at risk, up to 1.4 million adults in the UK are harmed directly and 20% of the population is harmed directly or indirectly. There are between 117 and 496 gambling suicides in England every year.

The time to review and monitor has passed. We need to understand the nature of addiction and see it as a health issue. We need to slow down gambling, build in cooling-off periods and give people space and time to consider their actions and the outcomes. Advertising does the opposite of those things; it pushes, cajoles and encourages.

Finally, we need to respect the fact that some people might be triggered by adverts. We need to protect our children. Nobody is asking anyone to make some sacrifice for this; we are not asking the Government to dip into their pocket. We can ban gambling advertising and we should do that now.

As ever, Sir Christopher, it is a privilege to serve under your stewardship. May I apologise in advance to the Members here, including the Minister and the Opposition spokesman? I have been losing my voice for most of the last week. Lots of my colleagues think that is a good thing, but I give warning that if I stop suddenly, it is because I have given up on this, although not on getting rid of gambling advertising in sport, which is important. I also may not be here for the wind-ups, because—self-evidently—I have to go to a doctor’s appointment.

Alongside the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan)—my hon. Friend in this matter—I am a vice chair of the all-party group for gambling related harm. Although we strongly support the measures that the Minister has introduced—I credit him for having moved this issue along more than many others have done before him—the whole idea of voluntary agreements with the gambling industry have been proved time and again to be a waste of time. All that happens is that companies are driven by the requirement to constantly renew the users of their gambling area and, most importantly, as we know, the gambling industry targets those who lose, and lose big. That is where their money is made and where their profits are drawn from, and what they must constantly do is have their idea in front of those people, to suggest to them subliminally, but still very clearly, that if they just gamble a bit more, they will win something else. That is the nature of gambling. People say to me, “Yes, but you know, these are just adverts on shirts. Nobody remembers seeing them.” But the figures, some of which have been mentioned, are remarkable, and I will cite some of them.

Ipsos MORI and the University of Stirling found that 96% of people aged 11 to 24 had seen and could remember gambling marketing messages and that they were “more likely” as a result—their words, not mine—to bet as a result of their seeing advertising on shirts and hoardings, or wherever they happened to be. More than three quarters of young people, or 78%, and 86% of adults think that betting has become an absolutely normal part of watching sport—I will say that again: watching sport. Back in the 18th century, people bet everything on all sorts of sporting events, and it had to be brought under control because of the abuses that took place. Today, we see things that are redolent of a very unlicensed, but at the same time, desperately dangerous activity that is pushing people to spend their money and become addicted to a process that ultimately damages them and their families.

Gambling marketing in football cannot be avoided by fans of any age. I say that as a season ticket holder at Tottenham Hotspur, who do not use gambling, but I watch other teams and the marketing is all over their shirts. I know the idea is to move it away from the front of the shirt to the side or whatever, but most of the evidence shows categorically that it makes no difference, because the marketing will be on the shirts that people buy. The company that the club has a sponsor becomes part of the nature of the club. That is important.

One study found that at football matches there was a reference to gambling on average every 21 seconds. Half of the premier league’s 20 clubs and 17 of the 24 championship clubs have gambling companies on their shirts and, of course, the football league is sponsored by Sky, which has its own betting company. They all use celebrities to front up a lot of the adverts and present this as something normal and exciting. They target, for the most part, young men, but now more and more young women, who are portrayed as beating the odds. The reality is far from that. I am not against people betting if they want to bet and gamble—they can do that. The question is whether we want to see this promoted in such a way that it becomes normal. That is the critical issue that we are discussing.

Another concern at a recent session of the all-party group for gambling related harm was the failure of current ASA codes to deliver on the reduction of harm. In the opening weekend of the EPL, it was observed that 92% of content—marketing ads—sent by major gambling brands were not clearly identifiable as advertising, as has been said, and thus breached the codes, which is obvious for us to see. We know—the Minister knows—that this happens all the time, so we need to tread very carefully when we think that we can rely on agreements with the gambling industry. It is not its nature, for the most part, to abide by those agreements. It is its nature to seek to multiply the number of people that will gamble, so it will push the envelope on any agreement that is made.

The current codes are ill-equipped to deal with the online-specific forms of marketing. The ASA should consider the creation of new codes as opposed to revisions of pre-existing codes. That would perhaps ensure that social media and online marketing can be effectively regulated.

I am not one of those who wants to regulate everything, stop everything and take the pleasure out of what people choose. My view, however, is that, as with common law, when it is clear that harm is being done, we have an obligation to see whether we can restrict that harm so that people’s lives are not damaged—not before, not anticipating the event, but actually dealing with the harm that exists at present. The push of gambling advertising is huge. Nobody who watches television or a sporting event can escape the idea that this is in front of them, even subliminally, although they may not remember it. Unless advertising reform is enacted at the source of harm, the reforms will be confined to playing catch-up to the constantly evolving landscape of sponsorship, marketing and advertising, and consequently failing to reduce gambling harms.

That is why I support the motion and why this matter is cross-party. We have an obligation to deal with some of the tougher issues that come our way. Notwithstanding the amount of tax these companies pay to the Treasury, the harm to human beings is the real currency of our lives, and we need to bring that to an end.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing this important debate on an issue that I and many of my constituents care deeply about.

Almost 7,000 gambling messages were shown in six televised matches over the premier league’s opening weekend. If that does not set off alarm bells, I am not sure what will. My speech will not completely oppose gambling—in fact, I am sure I will be placing a bet on the grand national in a few weeks’ time, and my other half does a few quid on the acca for football on a Saturday—but it is clear that gambling addiction, fuelled by excessive gambling advertisements, impacts our communities. YouGov research found that nationally 1.4 million adults are harmed directly by gambling. Shockingly, the Gambling Commission stated that 80,000 UK children are addicted or at risk.

I want to say thank you to the brilliant organisations, Gambling with Lives and The Big Step campaign, which raise awareness of the harm that is being caused. They have introduced me to their volunteers, who have personal connections to the harm caused by gambling. Some had loved ones who sadly ended their lives as a consequence of their gambling addiction. Others are survivors who now campaign to ensure that other people do not suffer the pain that they did. The message is always the same: the pain is preventable. I have found many of these discussions incredibly moving.

The current gambling regulations are failing the public terribly, and there is no sign of change to protect the next generation, as we have heard from others. The industry’s voluntary whistle-to-whistle ban in football is completely ineffective, as it applies only to TV adverts. Over two thirds of fans who responded to a Survation poll said they felt it had not prevented children from seeing gambling advertisements in football. With insufficient regulation, football is often the hook to get the young into gambling, especially as they are then cross-sold highly addictive online casino products.

It is important to recognise that not just fans are impacted. We have seen the impact on players in recovery who are made to advertise the addictive products, including Ivan Toney, Sandro Tonali and Harry Toffolo. Football is so important to our communities, creating a shared identity that ties us together with a common objective, mostly just three points at the weekend, possibly six for Luton this weekend, but also seeing our team represent us with dignity. That is why I am proud of my local football club, Luton Town, for leading the way, by refusing to choose a gambling shirt and stadium sponsor. Across the premier league and the English football league, only Luton Town’s 19 home games will not feature gambling adverts, according to The Big Step. That is only 0.8% of games. It is disappointing that seven premier league clubs will still display gambling companies as their main shirt sponsor. Luton Town is part of The Big Step campaign to kick all gambling advertisements out of football, alongside other clubs such as Tranmere Rovers and Forest Green Rovers. Sadly, not all football clubs can be relied on to do the right thing, even though we know that a sponsorship ban would cost clubs only around 2.5% of revenue.

What measures are the Government considering to curtail gambling advertising in sport, especially in football? I reiterate the point already made, that this is a public health issue. Just like measures to reduce advertising of cigarettes to tackle smoking harms, would the Minister consider, as a first step, a review into banning pitch-side advertising in football, to reduce gambling harm? I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on leading the debate and speaking so diligently on these issues, as he has in the Chamber and Westminster Hall. He deserves credit and congratulations for that. He has been vocal on the issue and I thank him for that. It is such an important issue for the betterment of so many across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I too have been a supporter of further tightening gambling laws, especially within sport, given the potential dangers for young people and vulnerable adults. It is therefore great to be here to support the matter and give the hon. Gentleman credit for the debate and support his asks of the Minister. I am pleased to see the two shadow Ministers in their place. I look forward to their contribution and to others as well.

As I always do, I want to give a perspective from back home. That is good to do because unfortunately, for us back home, gambling has a bigger percentage impact on people than on the mainland. That is terribly worrying. In December 2023, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland stated that in its most recent survey, it was discovered that in Northern Ireland some 2.3% of the population was identified as having a gambling problem. That is more than four times higher than the percentage recorded on the GB mainland right here. That worries me incredibly and it reflects my contact with some of my constituents on the issue as well. That is why what the hon. Member for Inverclyde is bringing to the fore is important and he deserves credit for that.

The impact that gambling has on young people is incredible. Whether they see that through social media, ads on TV or even live at football games, the encouragement is there for them to feel the need to partake and participate. I commend the football club of the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), Luton Town. I know of it because I have been reading about it in the paper—and the team’s manager was on TV this morning as well. It is really good to see the club leading the way. I just wish other teams, including my own, would be as diligent in the matter.

The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency has revealed that three in 10, or 30%, of under-18s took part in some form of gambling in the last 12 months. That is a worrying trend, with young boys being more likely to partake. Of those, 15% of children said that they were encouraged to do so by the adverts they had seen on TV while watching football matches. We should never think that watching matches and the advertisements that viewers see do not have an impact. Those figures state it clearly and that influence once again underlines the issue we have before us today.

There was some movement in 2022 whereby footballers, celebrities and social media influencers were to be banned from participating in gambling adverts. There is no doubt in my head that watching those people encourages young people to find a way to gamble. Seeing their sporting heroes, such as ex-footballers, ex-football managers and so on promote gambling does not, in my humble opinion, do much for the cause of protecting young people against the dangers of gambling. It is also great that that applies not only to sporting events but to online gaming advertisements.

I have met and spoken with many families in the past who have sadly lost their children due to the impact of online gambling. Many have rightfully made the point that young people are taught about the dangers of excessive drinking, drug use, smoking, road safety and sextortion online, but they are not taught nearly as much about the dangers of gambling and betting. They should be, because the dangers are just as real. Issues can start small, from something as simple as playing a card game with friends, but the addictive nature of gambling makes the risk of winning addictive, and that is harming so many young and adult lives.

Gambling, along with alcohol consumption, smoking and so on, is one of the things in life that most people will be inclined to try, and just by the very nature of the society that I was brought up and lived in, it was the norm for the weekends and a Saturday afternoon. Yet I believe we have a responsibility to raise awareness of the dangers of gambling that come with misuse, especially for young people out there who are not aware of the long-term damage that can be caused.

I am therefore pleased that some of the correct steps have been taken, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. He always encapsulates well our desires for change and for highlighting these issues, so I look forward to his comments. Some of the steps taken to combat this include regulating ads on social media and restricting betting company ads on TV to certain times, but there is much more work to be done on this matter.

To conclude, there are some fantastic support services out there for people who feel that their gambling is becoming or getting out of control. I urge people to take advantage of all these services for the sake of their own health and wellbeing. This debate is twofold: it is about reducing the impact of advertising in sport, but it is also about helping those people who have those problems to try to beat their addiction. If we can do that through this debate—even if it is a step in the right direction—the hon. Member for Inverclyde deserves credit and is to be commended for it. Others who make contributions will endorse that.

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate with you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. I think it is the first time in 14 years that I have been called after the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), but I am delighted to have been, because he made a fine speech. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing the debate and on how he introduced it. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on struggling through against illness to make the case, which I know he feels passionately about.

It is certainly timely that we debate this issue now, in the context of the gambling reform that is following on from the White Paper. It is important, because we need to look at the context in which we saw the White Paper and in which we are having this debate, which is the increasing level of gambling addiction. I am a Sheffield United season ticket holder. It is not easy. [Interruption.] I have to say to the hon. Member for Inverclyde that there are not many moments of joy at Bramall Lane at the moment. I have watched them for 61 years now, but over the past couple of decades I have seen the increasing dominance of gambling advertising throughout the game, and that is not simply when we are having one of our fleeting moments in the premier league. I am conscious that that is only the tip of an iceberg in terms of the online promotion of gambling.

Over that same period, I have seen the increase in gambling harm. Jack Ritchie, my constituent, of whom many people here know, was also a passionate Sheffield United fan, but he took his own life due to gambling addiction—one of an estimated 400 each year, according to Public Health England. A survey by YouGov found up to 1.44 million adults in the UK harmed directly by gambling. The NHS is picking up the pieces, setting up specialist gambling addiction clinics across the country. Last year, the NHS announced seven new clinics, with one opening in Sheffield this month.

What we are dealing with is recognised by the Government and the NHS as a health issue, and what do we do with other health problems? We treat them, but we also have prevention strategies. The Government’s White Paper provides a strong prevention strategy and, like the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, I commend them on it. There is much in there that takes us significantly forward, but it sidesteps one important point, which is advertising and how betting ads flood our sports—football in particular.

Others have pointed out the estimate that 3,500 betting logos are visible during a single televised premier league match; that is extraordinary. That is a gambling logo every 16 seconds during the average game. According to calculations from Gambling with Lives, which my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) mentioned, out of 2,370 premier league and English football league games this season, only 19 will not feature gambling ads. I join others in commending Luton, and I hope that they might, along with Sheffield United, escape relegation.

I mentioned harm to adults, but the hon. Member for Strangford and others were right to also focus on the harm to young people. That should worry us even more. According to the Gambling Commission, 80,000 UK children are addicted to gambling or at risk of gambling addiction. The commission says that 40% of 11 to 17-year-olds have engaged in some form of gambling over the last 12 months, which is a higher proportion than those who participated in other risk-taking activities, with 20% vaping, 9% having smoked a cigarette, and 8% having taken illegal drugs. On all of those other high-risk activities we take action, and we certainly do not advertise those products.

The 2023 study by Sheffield and Glasgow universities found that the more people are exposed to betting advertising, the more likely they are to gamble—that should not be a surprise; it is what the gambling industry spends all that money for—and that increases the risk of developing an addiction. We know that children and young people are most likely to be affected. According to a study from the University of Bristol, gambling ads are almost four times—I think it is 3.9 times—more appealing to children and young people than they are to adults. They say that 11 out of 12 gambling content marketing ads triggered positive responses in children and young people, compared with only seven out of 12 for adults. The Gambling Commission reports that most gambling exposure for children is when watching TV, primarily sport, or being at a sports event.

It is not just an issue for campaigners; fans themselves want more to be done. A study by Survation found that a third of football fans are less likely to buy a shirt with gambling sponsors on it, and 58% think that too many clubs are sponsored by gambling companies. Everton and Aston Villa fans have already shown that shirts without betting sponsors are more popular. When, at the end of the 2019-20 season, Everton and Villa ditched their gambling sponsors, shirt sales rose by 60% and 50% respectively.

Others have touched on self-regulation, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green in particular, and some cite action by the Premier League, but that is not working. Football has had every chance to address gambling advertising. Premier league clubs voted to ban sponsorship deals with betting companies from 2026-27, but the ban does not include bans on shirt sleeves, pitch-side hoardings or other sites around the stadium. That is significant, considering that only 7% of the 3,500 logos are visible on the front of the shirt. Furthermore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South pointed out, the industry’s voluntary whistle-to-whistle ban is completely ineffective. Research produced by the University of Bristol’s hub for gambling harms showed that football matches remain saturated by gambling messaging, and that over two thirds of fans feel that children are not prevented from seeing gambling ads at football.

Action must come from the Government, and indeed the Government in waiting. The Government publicly stated recently that online slots are one of the most addictive products. That is correct, but they still allow them to be promoted through football. The White Paper proposed gambling ad-free family areas in football grounds, but one year on nothing has been done. More matches are set to be screened every week from next season. It is clear that without Government intervention, more people, and particularly more children and young people, are going to be at risk of gambling harm.

The industry is running out of arguments to defend gambling advertising in sport. I am surprised that no Members are here to make this point—perhaps they are at Cheltenham—but we can anticipate, and we are already seeing, the industry pushing sports bodies and sports fans to press the case that their sport depends on the revenue that they get from advertising. That is an argument from scoundrels, and we have heard it all before. Big tobacco said the same about the importance of cigarette advertising in protecting individual sports, but we know that they were trying to limit damage to their reputation by association with sport. As we took action on cigarette advertising, so should we take action on gambling advertising. The industry will say, “Well, it’s not the premiership. It’s lower levels and it’s grassroot sport—the money is needed to sustain football.” Let us be clear: there is plenty of money in football. It is not distributed very well—we need more effective governance, and more of the money at the top to be shared right down the tiers of football—but football and other sports do not depend on the money from advertising.

I urge the Government to heed the wealth of evidence of the need for regulatory action and to deploy a precautionary approach, as with fixed odds betting terminals. Without action, the Department risks undermining the good progress that can be made from the White Paper. As the hon. Member for Inverclyde pointed out, sport is so important. It is hugely important to children and young people, and it is a force for so much good. We cannot let it be used anymore by the gambling industry for so much harm. Let us end advertising and sponsorship in sport without delay.

This has been an excellent debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing it and starting us off in his own style—it is always fun to sum up his speeches. He questioned whether some of the Conservative Members might be at Cheltenham, present company clearly excluded. He spoke about puppy dogs and toilet roll, and then got to free bets, but he was absolutely right. He also mentioned the hypocrisy—I would not say “rank” hypocrisy—from MPs who seek to advertise. He mentioned that he will be seeking to encourage folk to vote “Cowan” and vote SNP. Hopefully, that will be made easier by the fact that he is stealing a significant chunk of my constituency at the next election, so there are some SNP voters waiting there for him.

My hon. Friend made a good point about the consent of spectators and viewers. Those images and adverts are everywhere; not everyone wants to see them, but they are in their face regardless. He then spoke about all the moments in sporting history when we were not subject to such adverts. I can understand Torvill and Dean, the battles between Coe and Ovett, and of course Andy Murray, but I found Ian Botham to be a stretch too far. That is at least two Tories that a younger Mr Cowan idolised, and I am not sure that will go down well. [Laughter.]

I am being a bit flippant about the very serious issue that lies beneath today’s debate: problem gambling and how we end it. I remember very well when, I think in the first year that I had been elected, a chap came along to my constituency surgery in Linwood. He was there for the whole surgery, essentially 45 minutes, talking to me about his story, his gambling past and how he had been at death’s door; he had ruined his life, ruined his family, and so on. He had been offered no real assistance in trying to stop, certainly nothing from the gambling industry, and he was looking to try to help others from going down the same path. Fixed odds betting terminals were certainly part of his path, and we have legislated on those, but it progressed into all sorts of different forms of gambling. He manged to turn his life around, but that is not the norm.

The former Conservative leader, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), the quiet man who once said he was turning up the volume, turned it down today, due to his voice trouble. I was going to say that he had my sympathy, but he is a Spurs season ticket holder, so things are looking up—I will come on to the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) in a minute! The right hon. Gentleman made a very good point about subliminal messaging through advertising that says, “If you gamble just a bit more, then you’ll win.” All of us have probably been suckered into something at some point or another, whether it is gambling, a purchase, or something else, by of subliminal advertising. He mentioned that there was a reference to gambling every 21 seconds in premier league matches, but I think the hon. Member for Sheffield Central said it was every 16 seconds. I do not know whether those are conflicting figures or I just misheard, but either way, it is a significant number; I just wanted to recognise that there were two figures there for Hansard.

The hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) mentioned that she might put a bet on the grand national, and that her partner puts on an acca on occasion. That makes me think back to my younger days and how much gambling used to play a part in my pre-rugby rituals. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde, I used to play rugby, and my friends and I would meet on a Saturday morning and “put lines on”, as we said —that would be called an acca now. Then we would go and play pool, at which we invariably gambled a bit against each other, and then go downstairs to play the puggies, which is a term for fruit machines in western Scotland. I had not given that any thought until the hon. Member for Luton South said that. I very rarely do any gambling these days, but in my younger days, we thought nothing of gambling as a matter of course. For the benefit of Hansard, the hon. Lady is pointing to her phone, and she is absolutely right that it is so much easier to access the internet on phones these days as well. She also said that two thirds of fans said that the voluntary regs have not prevented children from being able to access or see TV advertising, and I think we all see that. She mentioned Luton Town, one of the very few teams in sport to ban gambling from not just its shops, but its stadium, which is to be commended.

Yesterday morning, I said that Westminster Hall should be named in the honour of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), because he is always here and always puts in a shift. He praised Luton Town, and said that all teams should perhaps reflect on its gambling ban, including his own. He neglected to mention which team that was, but we might hazard a guess. One of his better points—or best points; better points sounds as if he did not make any good points, and he made some excellent ones—was on the fact that we teach our young people and young adults about excessive drinking, smoking, excessive speed in cars, and so on, but we do not seem to talk about gambling as much, which we should.

The hon. Member for Sheffield Central noted that this was the first time he had been called after the hon. Member for Strangford in all the time he had been here. If it had been anybody else, that might have sounded like a moan or a challenge to the Chair, but having worked with the hon. Member for Sheffield Central a few years ago, I know it certainly was not that. He mentioned that he was a Sheffield United season ticket holder. I have to say that I do not think they have troubles to seek this season in a footballing sense, but as a St Johnstone fan, I share his frustrations, given that St Johnstone is near the lower end of the table for the moment. He also mentioned the study by the Universities of Sheffield and Glasgow, and their findings that the more people are exposed to advertising, the more likely they are to gamble, and the more likely people are to gamble, the more likely they are to fall into problem gambling, seem obvious. He also mentioned big tobacco. It fought advertising bans, and so on, but a lot that we have done about smoking has paid dividends. If we put in the work on gambling, we can see dividends there as well.

It is fairly clear that gambling regulations must protect vulnerable people from harms, regardless of where they are exposed to gambling adverts. The time has beyond passed for action to tackle the shocking rise in gambling advertising. The Government have been praised for the work they have done in some areas hitherto, but we need to look pretty sharpish at their failure to address this problem, because advertising revenue has grown massively since the passage of the Gambling Act 2005. The National Audit Office estimated that there was a 56% increase in advertising spend by gambling operators between 2014 and 2017, driven primarily by online and social media advertising. If that was the proportion in 2017, goodness knows where it is now.

The Government’s White Paper on gambling is obviously to be welcomed. Its proposals include tougher restrictions on bonuses and direct marketing; making advertising smarter and safer; a new approach to safer gambling messaging; and socially responsible sport sponsorship—which is one of the main issues we are here to talk about. The Premier League has announced that front-of-shirt advertising for gambling is to end by the end of 2025-26 season, but the Culture, Media and Sport Committee said, as we have discussed, that:

“The withdrawal of gambling sponsorship from the front of Premier League players’ kit is welcome, but it will not significantly reduce the volume of gambling adverts visible during top-flight matches.”

It is pretty clear that there is a need for the Government to regulate gambling advertising, and we need to have a comprehensive conversation about how, if at all, gambling adverts should be allowed. Ultimately, this is a policy debate about the reduction of harms, and what is the point of us being here if we are not going to try to reduce harms for all of our constituents? We call on the Government to actively consider legislating to restrict the amount of advertising that gambling firms can procure in public broadcasting and sporting events.

The only slight caveat—not to that previous point, but in general terms—was to something that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central said. He said that there is absolutely no need for this form of advertising in principle—I agree 100%—and that there is enough money in football so football does not need that money. The only slight caveat I have, having met Scottish clubs and umbrella bodies, is that the Scottish game is not awash with the same level of money as the game in England. Advertising revenue is much harder to come by in Scotland, with it being a much smaller market in comparison with England, so restrictions could cause problems. That does not mean we should not address and tackle this issue, but we should put on the record that it is not as straightforward in Scotland, Wales and so on as it perhaps is south of the border.

In 2018-19, gambling companies yielded more than £11 billion, which raised about £3 billion for the Government in gambling duties. The industry has been transformed by social and technological changes, and licensed gambling has grown by 57% in real terms in the last decade. But British gamblers lose £14 billion a year, according to the Gambling Commission, and Britain is home to the world’s largest regulated online betting market, with £14.2 billion in profits each year. Other countries, such as Germany, have introduced limits on how much customers can deposit. In our view, the 2005 Act must be modernised and made effective for the digital age, to provide adequate protection against gambling-related harms for problem gamblers and children.

To conclude, for problem gamblers the impact of gambling can be harmful and massively addictive. We have heard already that more than one person a day commits suicide in the UK because of gambling-related harms. Sadly, as we heard, that includes Jack Ritchie, who lived in the constituency of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central. Two million families are blighted by problem gambling, and more than 55,000 children between the ages of 11 and 16 are addicted to it. Those are pretty shocking statistics.

I will finish with this: according to a YouGov survey of 18,000 people, commissioned by GambleAware, gambling addiction rates may be nine times higher than the betting industry claims. GambleAware estimates that 1.4 million people are being harmed by their own gambling, with a further 1.5 million at risk. Although this debate’s attendance has not been as good as it perhaps should have been, we have had five Back Bench speeches, and now one Front-Bench speech, all speaking with one voice on this issue. It is time for the Government to act, or indeed for a new incoming Government to do so, if one is elected at the end of the year.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) for securing this important debate. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

The relationship between gambling and most sports is complex and, in many ways, symbiotic. However, given the growing knowledge of the impact of gambling harms on people’s lives, many have raised concerns about that connection. They worry that football and other sports might be playing a role in exposing vulnerable fans, sportspeople and, in particular, children and young people to the gambling market. Having met some of those receiving treatment for gambling addiction and families bereaved by gambling-related loss, I have seen the devastating effect that gambling can have on people’s lives.

In 2020, it was estimated that 7% of the population, including adults and children, were negatively affected by someone else’s gambling. That is even more concerning in a modernised world in which most people have the ability to gamble anywhere, at any time, on their phones. I am therefore pleased that the Government are finally under way with the implementation stage of the long-awaited gambling White Paper, which looks to make our gambling regulation fit for the modern digital era. Indeed, it has cross-party support, as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) outlined.

The White Paper was, though, relatively light-touch on the issues that relate to gambling advertising in sport. It identified sports governing bodies as best placed to drive up standards regarding their gambling sponsorship deals. That is not to say that no action has been taken in this area: outside the White Paper, regulators, the industry and sports have made progress to increase protections. Last week, I met the Advertising Standards Authority, which told me about its work to regulate gambling advertising, particularly with a view to protecting children and young people, including the “strong appeal” test.

The gambling industry has signed up to a voluntary code of socially responsible advertising, which bans gambling adverts before 9 o’clock. The most recent version covers most live sport from five minutes before it starts to five minutes after it has ended. That is known as the whistle-to-whistle ban, and it has reduced the number of TV betting commercials viewed by children during live sporting events before the watershed by 97%. The Premier League has also announced that front-of-shirt gambling sponsors will be withdrawn from the start of the season in 2026.

However, those measures have received their fair share of criticism. Viewers are still exposed to a high number of gambling adverts and logos during sporting events, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) highlighted. That happens through a number of visuals, from hoardings and perimeter boards to players’ kits. Indeed, the Premier League’s commitment does not cover sponsorship on the sleeves and backs of shirts, and is not yet enforced.

As already discussed, the revenue from gambling sponsorship is crucial to some sports. However, the prevalence of such adverts poses a particular issue for children and those vulnerable to problem gambling as they are difficult to avoid, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said. As with the online space and direct marketing, it is not possible to opt out of such adverts. That makes it hard for those with personal experience of problem gambling to follow the sports they previously enjoyed, and it is hard for parents to know the best way to protect their children from harm.

In that context, we need the sports sponsorship code of conduct to be published. That code, required by the Government’s White Paper and led by sports governing bodies, would recognise that the relationship between gambling and sports needs to be conducted responsibly in order to prevent gambling harm in both sportspeople and sports fans. I understand that it will be based on the principles of reinvestment, sporting integrity, protecting children and vulnerable people and socially responsible promotion. In practice, it could include things such as a requirement that replica kits be available without gambling logos, a commitment to reinvest sponsorship funds into grassroot activities, the use of sponsorship to promote safer gambling messages and the protection of those in family areas in stadiums from being able to see gambling advertising.

I understand that as part of the development process there will initially be one main code to cover all sporting bodies, and after that each governing body will be able to develop a short sport-specific code, whether it be for racing, cricket, football or others. However, there has been no sign of the main code, let alone the sport-specific commitments. I therefore ask the Minister whether he will call on the governing bodies to publish the codes without further delay, perhaps in time for the first anniversary of the White Paper. That is something that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee recommended in its report published last year, to which the Government have yet to respond. That is a concern, because without the code the White Paper seems to hardly address the relationship between gambling and sport. It is only through a combination of measures, from giving the Gambling Commission powers to crack down on the black market to restricting bonus and free bet offers, that we will bring our regulation into the modern age and better protect people from harm.

There is no question but that gambling advertising on the whole has increased in the past two decades. The impact of gambling harms could be better understood and researched. That is one reason why I would like to see the statutory levy for gambling get under way soon, so that levy funds can be used to conduct the research needed to aid effective prevention and treatment methods going forward. It would therefore be helpful if the Minister provided an update on the levy consultation and when the Government might expect to publish a response.

To conclude, I hear the concerns about the impact of gambling advertising in sport on children and young people, as well as those vulnerable to harm. Given the reliance of many sports on gambling sponsorship for revenue, it is crucial that the governing bodies reflect on that relationship and issue their code of conduct as soon as possible. I hope the Minister will reaffirm his commitment to ensuring that the code is published, and to the implementation of the White Paper more broadly.

Order. Before I call the Minister, I note that the hon. Lady began her speech by referring to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, but she did not expand on that at all. People who are following this debate, and others like it, need to be informed about the nature of those interests; would the hon. Lady like to spell out them out?

I have previously taken hospitality from the gambling industry. I would have to check the dates to say specifically which body it was, but I am happy to inform the House at a later date if needed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) for securing this important debate. His SNP colleague, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), complained that his hon. Friend is pinching part of his constituency; as someone whose entire constituency is to be abolished, I certainly have some sympathy.

In all seriousness, it is important that we are having this debate, which raises the issue at a crucial moment in the Government’s commitment to tackling gambling harms. I thank all those who have contributed for their thoughtful comments. It has been valuable for me to hear the range of perspectives. Indeed, in my time as the gambling Minister I have welcomed the constructive engagement we have had, because I am keen to hear from all sides. I recognise that many people gamble safely, but equally I am always mindful of the families—I think we have all met them—who have gone through some of the most unimaginable pain.

The Government recognise the concerns that many have raised about the presence and impact of gambling advertising in general, and particularly in sport. Gambling advertising clearly remains an issue of vibrant debate, and rightly so. Colleagues have raised it with me directly and in the media since I took on the gambling brief just over a year ago. The debate on advertising encapsulates the balance we are aiming to strike on gambling regulation. We are looking at regulating an innovative and responsible gambling industry on the one hand, and at the duty of the Government to protect children and the wider public from gambling-related harm on the other.

As colleagues have mentioned, developments in technology have undoubtedly led to rapid changes in the gambling landscape. The smartphone era comes with risks and opportunities, so we need to strike the balance between freedom and protection. That is why we committed to a root-and-branch review of gambling legislation. We took an exhaustive look at the best available evidence, including on advertising, as part of our Gambling Act review. The White Paper that we published in April last year captures our vision for the sector, with a robust package of reforms aiming to mitigate the risks of gambling-related harm and seize the opportunities to prevent it as early as possible.

It has been said that we sidestepped the issue of advertising. I think that is slightly unfair. The evidence-led action on advertising forms an important part of that vision. The liberalisation of gambling advertising was one of the major changes introduced in the Gambling Act 2005, and we have undoubtedly witnessed the continual growth of gambling marketing since then. However, it is important to note that we have not seen an increase in gambling participation rates or population gambling harm rates over the same timeframe. Those have remained broadly the same. None the less, I recognise that a parallel change has been the increasingly visible integration of gambling advertising with sport. That is especially relevant to me as the Minister responsible for sport, alongside civil society.

In our Gambling Act review, we considered evidence that gambling brands provided 12% of sport sponsorship revenue. Gambling brands are most strongly present in top-tier football, as has been mentioned, where eight out of 20 premier league teams this season have front-of-shirt gambling sponsors. In fact, gambling sponsors contribute around £45 million a year across the English Football League’s three leagues, and a significantly higher proportion of revenue in the Scottish football leagues, as the hon. Member for Inverclyde mentioned. Gambling sponsorship also represents a significant source of income for sports other than football, with around £80 million in sponsorship revenue.

We know that sponsorship by gambling firms can have a level of impact on gambling behaviour. The Gambling Commission’s consumer journey research shows that seeing sponsorship is a “passive influence” on gambling behaviour, although it is far less influential than winning a significant amount of money or hearing about someone else’s big win. The evidence to date therefore shows that while gambling advertising around sport is widely noticed, it has a background effect when it comes to having an impact on gambling behaviour.

I accept that the Minister is making an argument with integrity, but if advertising has such a marginal impact, why does he think the gambling industry spends so much on it?

We have had this discussion before. One of the reasons that our White Paper has landed as well as it could do in a challenging policy area is that it has been developed through use of the very best evidence. I will come on to that point later, because I think there is further work to be done in this field.

The industry’s whistle-to-whistle ban has cut the number of pre-9 pm betting adverts to around a quarter of their previous level, as the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) mentioned, and further cut the average number of sports betting adverts seen by children to just 0.3 per week. None the less, we also know that gambling sponsorship is one of the main ways children are exposed to gambling, and that gambling marketing can have a disproportionate impact on those already experiencing gambling harm. That is why the advertising rules have been strengthened since October 2022. Content that has a strong appeal for children, such as that involving top-flight footballers, and that creates a sense of urgency to gamble is banned from appearing in gambling adverts. This measure further protects children and vulnerable adults.

Following on from the gambling White Paper, we are in the process of implementing a comprehensive suite of protections, ranging from action on advertising, products and the way that gambling is provided to prevent gambling-related harms. In line with existing gambling advertising rules, as has already been mentioned, the Premier League’s decision to ban front-of-shirt sponsorship by gambling firms will commence by the end of the 2025-26 season.

I can also confirm that a cross-sport code of conduct for gambling sponsorship has been agreed by a number of the country’s major sports governing bodies, from the Premier League and the English Football League to the British Horseracing Authority, the England and Wales Cricket Board and others. Indeed, the Rugby Football League sought to build in the code’s provisions as part of its renewed agreement with Betfred. This landmark code fulfils a key commitment from the White Paper ahead of schedule, and will bind all domestic sports governing bodies to four core principles. First, all sports will ensure socially responsible promotion. Education and awareness will form a key part of all sports’ marketing activities, including in stadiums.

The Minister has just acknowledged the need to build education support. Will he acknowledge the fact of the potential damage that has been done by this product in the first place? The gambling industry cannot have it both ways; these companies are causing the damage and at the same time painting themselves as the good guys because they are helping to support people out of addiction. They cannot own both organisations.

As I said, I will come on to further research that I feel we need to do, but I want also to emphasise that we are trying to do a considerable amount of work here as part of the wider White Paper reforms. In essence, we are trying to deal with 15 years of digital progress, which is quite significant.

At this point, I want to pay tribute to all the team over at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. They are working extremely hard to meet the commitment we made to get the majority of the code done by the summer of this year, recognising that its implementation will have the greatest impact on tackling gambling harm.

The second core principle is the protection of children and vulnerable people. Sponsorship has to be designed to limit reach to children and those at risk of gambling harm, and this will see adult replica kits, as was mentioned, available without the front-of-shirt gambling logo.

The third principle is one of reinvestment into sport. The commercial income raised from gambling sponsorship will provide grassroots services that genuinely serve fans and communities.

Finally, the code will ensure that gambling sponsorship maintains sport integrity. Sponsorship arrangements will build in appropriate requirements that they do not compromise the integrity of sporting competitions nor harm the welfare of participants. Together, those principles will establish a robust minimum standard for gambling sports sponsorship across all sports.

Of course, commercial arrangements and fan-bases differ across the industry, and that is why individual sports governing bodies will also introduce bespoke arrangements to fulfil these principles in a way that is tailored to maximise their impact. Some sports, including football, intend to have their arrangements in place as early as this year ahead of the next season. Ultimately, this will guarantee that, where gambling sponsorship does appear, it is done in a responsible way and that fans, especially children, are better protected.

There is no single intervention that effectively prevents gambling-related harm, and that is why we have taken an evidence-led approach to implement a package of reforms targeted at different levels, including advertising. We absolutely recognise that advertising can have a disproportionate impact on those experiencing gambling harms. Technological advances and developments and the increasing dominance of online gambling have necessitated a doubling of efforts from us as a Government. We and the Gambling Commission are now taking targeted action to ban harmful practices and to ensure that advertising remains socially responsible wherever it appears.

The commission has recently consulted on strengthened protections to ensure that free bets and bonuses are constructed in a way that does not encourage excessive or harmful gambling, and that is in conjunction with new rules to give consumers more control over the direct gambling marketing they wish to receive. Together, the measures will empower customers and prohibit harmful marketing practices to further prevent the risk of gambling harms. The commission will set out its response to the consultation in due course.

Our holistic approach also includes action on the products themselves. We recently announced the introduction of stake limits in online slot games, as was mentioned, where we have seen evidence of elevated levels of harmful gambling. But we are also pursuing broader protections, such as financial risk checks and further strengthening restrictions on game design. I am clear that effective and innovative collaboration to get the right mix of interventions for the population as a whole and those with specific needs is required to tackle this issue.

Evidence has been a key theme in this debate, and I want to end in recognising that further work is needed in this area. A concerted effort to build the evidence base to ensure policy and regulation are able to deal with the emerging issues is paramount, and the Gambling Commission’s important work on the gambling survey for Great Britain aligns with this priority. The survey will in time provide us with a better picture of gambling behaviour and the nature of gambling-related harm.

However, developing quality evidence is also a key priority for the Government’s statutory levy. Increased and ring-fenced funding will be directed towards high-quality, independent research into gambling and gambling-related harms, including on advertising. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear at the launch of the White Paper, if new evidence suggests that we need to go further, we will look at this again.

I again thank the hon. Member for Inverclyde for securing this important debate and all the Members who made valuable contributions. I am committed to tackling gambling-related harms and I am confident that the action we are taking will have a real impact in reducing those harms across the country. The new levy will provide us with even more evidence. As I have already committed, if further action is needed we will look at it again.

I thank everybody who has taken the time and effort to be here today and spoken so well, and I thank the Minister for being here. I understand the hard work that staff are putting into resolving the gambling issues that we have. We all have constituents that are damaged and families that have been torn apart. I am sure that in some cases individuals have committed suicide because of their gambling addiction. It is not always obvious because gambling addiction tends to be a hidden addiction.

I did the Big Step and Gambling with Lives walk—I have done it a number of times. The last time one of the guys came up to me during the walk and said, “If I was an alcoholic and my local landlord came to my door at night and said, ‘Have a case of beer, have a bottle of whisky, have a bottle of gin’, people would think that behaviour reprehensible. I am a recovering gambling addict and people still send me adverts saying, “Do you want a free bet? Do you want five bets on this?” It is exactly the same thing.

I thank all the organisations and individuals that have helped me gain a better understanding of the situation, none more so than Martin Paterson. As a recovering gambling addict, he sent me a message today. He said,

“Can I add, as a person in recovery like millions of others over the years the ads are triggering so many back into the hole of gambling addiction.”

Martin, stay strong. We will keep up the fight.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered gambling advertising in sport.

Sitting suspended.

5G Masts: Greater Manchester

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the impact of 5G mast installations on communities in Greater Manchester.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue, and appreciate the time given by those who are here today and by the Minister who will reply to the debate.

The debate covers the powers given to telecommunication companies to instal infrastructure on and around a public highway in residential areas, and covers the roll-out of 5G and wireless broadband through masts, cabinets and telegraph poles across Greater Manchester. For Oldham, that includes installations primarily by IX Wireless, BT and Vodafone.

The British people work hard to provide a good life for themselves and their families. Many are first or second-generation homeowners, investing everything they have to form a community with others who share the same hopes, fears and determination to make it the best it can be. Those very places, however, are seeing change across the board, on the matter we are here to talk about, but also the loss of local pubs, too often being converted to houses in multiple occupation, and even family homes lost to the same use. There is a decline of many high streets and town centres and loss of community facilities that ought to bind people together.

Rather than giving people power in the places where they live, the past 14 years have seen power taken away from communities. It is that issue, perhaps known only to those who are impacted directly, that must be addressed. We are here to discuss the installation of equipment, whether 5G or wireless broadband, and I shall cover three main areas: first, planning policy and permitted development; secondly, guidance on the siting of cabinets and poles; and thirdly, access to the existing network. On planning policy and permitted development, I ask Members to imagine a 15-metre mast and cabinets being placed outside their home.

I thank my fellow Greater Manchester MP for raising such an important debate. I have residents in Astley Bridge, Bradshaw, Harwood, Bromley Cross and Egerton who are royally peeved off about the installation of some of these masts, which are going up around the constituency. As the hon. Member said, they can be 15 metres high, looking like something out of a North Korean military base. My residents are completely opposed to this. Does the hon. Member agree that the Government and these providers, such as IX Wireless, need to listen more to residents, and should go through a consultation process?

I share entirely those concerns about the impact. I will come on to some of the interventions we made in Oldham to try to bridge that divide on consultation, communication and co-production.

I commend the hon. Gentleman on bringing this forward. To support him and his claim, to which others have referred, I can give an example from back home. In Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, the very same issue has arisen. It involves health and safety concerns about the installation of these masts, as residents felt there was a lack of consultation. I understand that we all need 5G, but does the hon. Member agree that we need better communication from local planners on installation and the safety of masts that have been approved? That is what the hon. Member wants, and that is what we want back home.

That is the crux of the issue. Not many people object in principle to the installation of new equipment that makes life easier and better for people. Connectivity in the digital age is important for that, but how it is done is critical to garnering community support.

I want to paint a picture of what this means. Imagine someone sitting in the house they have worked hard for, where they are raising their children and where they have put down roots. It could be a normal two-storey house. The proposal is to erect a 15-metre mast outside. In context, that is the height of four double-decker buses stacked on top of one another. The cabinets that go alongside them are as tall as a standing adult. These are huge installations on residential streets, on cul-de-sacs, and on corners where people live. People are quite rightly concerned about the impact of that.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way; he is making a very powerful speech and I congratulate him on it. He represents Oldham West while I represent Oldham East, and this is also an issue across Oldham East, going from Shaw up to Grasscroft. Indeed, it is a massive issue. One constituent I called on said that literally overnight a mast had appeared at the end of their garden.

Will my hon. Friend support our right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), who has introduced a private Member’s Bill on this issue that is scheduled for discussion next week? She is trying to get Government support to ensure that there is mandatory consultation before such masts are erected.

Absolutely—I recognise the impact of these masts. I spoke to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) about her private Member’s Bill, which is scheduled for debate. The general view is that it is quite far down the Order Paper and it would require the Government to lend their support for it to progress it. I believe that there is cross-party support for such a measure. Across the political spectrum, there is a need to address the imbalance affecting local people, and I hope that the Minister will consider the matter.

The wi-fi companies are not doing anything that is not allowed or permitted by the Government—that is the point. These changes were introduced in 2019 in the national planning policy framework, which has created this permitted development. The impact has been the complete removal of the requirement to seek prior permission from the local authority, along with the public consultation that would go alongside that.

Operators not only have free rein on the siting of masts but, with the permissions that are in place, they can also send cables over people’s homes with a clearance of just 2 metres without requiring any further permissions or legal agreement. Someone can have a mast erected outside their home and the cable can go across their roof, and they have no legal right to stop that at all, because it is all permitted development and it is all licensed under the regulator.

The reality is that councils are left powerless and communities are left voiceless. On the siting of cabinets and poles, the House of Commons Library is clear:

“The Government’s 2016 cabinet and pole siting code of practice states that companies should consult with local residents, but it is entirely voluntary. Broadband companies are not legally required to follow the code of practice and Ofcom, the regulator, does not have the power to enforce it.”

Councils are left powerless, communities are left voiceless and the regulator is left without the power to regulate.

Moreover, we know that there is scope to upgrade the current 4G masts rather than having additional 5G ones. Working in this way would minimise the disruption caused by new installations. This has been the case with, say, BT locally in Oldham.

What about shared use? What many people find staggering is how weak the requirement for shared networks and facilities really is. First, the requirement to share existing equipment only rests with BT Openreach; in areas such as ours, where there is cable, it does not rest with Virgin Media, with what was then the 9X network or with any other new operators coming into the market. The operators themselves say that that is nonsense. Why not allow just one 15-metre mast, rather than a second, or a third, to go alongside it, because under these rules it is not just one operator that can instal equipment? Another one can come along, then another one, and another one, and there is no requirement at all to make them work together so that they share the equipment that is installed. The operators say that is wrong and I think local people say it is wrong too.

What happens if any one of these companies, or all of these companies, go bust? Who would be responsible for the legacy equipment that is then left on the highway? The fact is that the responsibility falls to the local council, which had no say in the equipment being installed to begin with, but which now has the financial liability placed on it to deal with the aftermath.

We also need to consider the rapid pace of change in technology. SpaceX is significantly reducing the cost of its Starlink satellite system, and other companies will follow—none of us knows today what practical commercial lifespan the current 5G masts and fixed wireless units will have in the future, given the rate of technological change and the technology that is coming down the line.

The community impact is heavy for many people in Greater Manchester, including constituents of mine in Oldham West, Chadderton and Royton. Many of the 5G masts installed by Vodafone, for instance, are on main roads or junctions, but that is not always the case. The masts are large and they change the character of an area. For instance, at Chadderton Hall Park, where the installation abuts a children’s play area and community café, no effort whatsoever was made to minimise the impact on visual amenity, so houses that once looked out on a very beautiful park across the road now look out on the huge telephone equipment that has been installed.

However, it has to be said that most complaints in Oldham West, Chadderton and Royston relate to IX Wireless broadband installations. Some of those are up to 15 metres high, and mast installations do not require any kind of prior planning approval from the council.

I have raised the issue constantly and have pushed for change. I reached out to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in April last year, but did not even receive a response on this important issue. That fuelled the mistrust that is already there in the local community. It was central Government who brushed local communities to one side and ignored legitimate representations from MPs, but it did not help—I will be blunt about this—that the same company was recently reported to have paid donations of £138,000 to 24 Tory MPs in the region. At a point when we should be rebuilding trust in politics, things like that undermine that effort.

My approach is always that we have to bring competing interests together to find common ground. On that issue, we have to find a way that balances the need to expand connectivity with the need to bring local people on board. I wrote to Oldham Council and IX Wireless asking for intervention and a different approach. I will be honest that it was not without challenges, as is often the case with these things, but eventually we got an agreement on a more inclusive way forward, first by working through sites that were of concern. In July, we held a meeting with the support of my fantastic constituency staff in Chadderton town hall, where we held a residents workshop to arbitrate between the two sides. I am grateful to BBC Radio Manchester for reporting on the same issue late last year. The workshop gave an opportunity for residents to meet IX Wireless and go through its impacts site by site. Some changes were made, such as using more underground cabling, relocating cabinets and masts or removing the need for them at all.

The hon. Member is being generous in giving way again. We have been successful on a couple of occasions in relocating the masts, with one example in Bradshaw recently, but unfortunately it was moved only 50 metres. We have to keep constant pressure on IX Wireless. The same is true in Egerton, where Councillor Nadim Muslim was successful in ensuring that a pole was not erected there. What level of success has the hon. Member had in ensuring that since July’s meetings the masts are not placed where residents do not want them?

The approach we tried to take was, where possible, to use the underground ducting that was there through the BT Openreach system. We were able to remove some masts and cabinets completely because of that. Residents were clearly delighted that the proposed cabinet was eventually withdrawn. In some cases, we were able to move a mast around the corner if that meant it would be near a garage site, rather than outside somebody’s living room window. It would still be in the locality, but at least its impact would be diminished.

In other cases, where equipment could not be moved at all, we even got an agreement to paint it the colour of the background—if it was against a wall to paint it the colour of the wall, or if it was by a park to paint it green like the park—or even to be creative. We have suggested to IX Wireless that Royton has a proud history of remembering its veterans, and the British Legion in Royton have done a fantastic job pulling together the histories of servicemen who lost their lives in the second world war. The company is open to vinyl-wrapping some of the cabinets that cannot be moved to commemorate the sacrifice people made for our freedom. If we can secure a compromise like that, we can bring people with us.

In the end, some people just do not want this equipment outside their home, and that is difficult, but we should always try to find common ground. What I struggle with is that the system is almost designed to write local people out of the process. At a time when there is so much mistrust in politics and politicians, we should be using every opportunity to bring people together in the same room to work through these difficult issues together. Hopefully I have explained what we were able to do in my constituency, thanks to the hard work of my staff and the willingness of the operator and the local authority, but it should not be voluntary. We should have that hard-wired into what we do.

We have been able to make a degree of progress. The law does not require prior approval, but we have managed to get an agreement with IX Wireless and Oldham Council that they will apply as if they were required to have it. They will make the application and give the notice, and the public consultation that would be natural and normal in a planning application will take place as part of that process. Even though it is not required, we see that process under way in Oldham. It is important that a consultation is genuine, and not just an admin process that does not deliver the outcome that local people want. It must be seen as a partnership.

There remains work to be done. Although we have made progress, I urge IX Wireless to remove, relocate or redesign the remaining contentious proposed installations, including one on Denbydale Way in Royton, where local people have a legitimate concern about its implications and disruption to the street scene in that area. Digital inclusion should enhance communities and bring people together. It should not increase tensions and hurt our neighbourhoods. Consistent Conservative top-down implementation has to change, and community power must be respected—not to block, but to build the future together.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) for arranging this debate on a huge issue that is impacting so many of our constituents in Greater Manchester. He has already made important points about the technicality of the law on this issue, and how changes to permitted developments have caused chaos on the streets of Bolton and across our borough.

I have been raising my concerns about poorly sited, low-quality masts and wooden poles placed across Bolton since 2019. They are tall, ugly monstrosities, blighting our landscape and causing much distress to my constituents. It has become a case of whack-a-mole, with the masts, boxes and poles popping up everywhere; we get one re-sited, and another appears in a different area. We have had them placed on private land, on dangerous road bends and right up against residents’ walls, making access for essential pointing impossible.

All that causes huge distress and a sense of powerlessness for our local residents. Indeed, in my Saturday drop-in advice surgery last week I had a constituent come and talk about a recent installation placed so near his side wall that, if there was a problem with his wall, he would have to break down the whole wall to repair it. The companies do not give any warning that works are going to commence in the area. There is no consultation done with anyone. The first people see of it is these stupid, horrendous things outside their homes.

The main point I want to emphasise to the Minister is the economic value of allowing all those companies to dig up our roads and pavements without any oversight. I have written letters and asked the Minister several times whether the Government track the commercial viability of the companies that they have allowed to place infrastructure on private land. The reply is always, “No.” The Government are not even collecting data on whether the policy of permitted development is driving the growth it was meant to, whether any of the companies sticking up those ugly things are commercially viable, or whether they are using technology that is viable even in the short term. Many argue that the appearance of these things suggests that they are not exactly at the cutting edge of industry innovation.

In Bolton, for our part, we do not need or want these installations. Bolton is well served by broadband providers, and we already have ample coverage in our area. We do not need the masts. I do not think the public of Bolton will forgive those who have allowed companies free rein to blight our landscape for no economic benefit, other than someone somewhere making a quick buck. I urge the Minister to revisit this, and, if there are going to be any such placements, to ensure that there is a proper consultation, with permission to be given before they are installed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I hope we will not be interrupted by votes. I thank the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) for securing this debate on the impact of 5G connectivity on communities in Greater Manchester. I am grateful for the attendance of his constituency neighbours. It is very useful to hear what is happening on the ground, and it sounds as though there is some very good partnership work going on, thanks to the hon. Gentleman’s efforts to get the council, the community and the provider to work together more productively.

Like the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), we feel like a whack-a-mole team in Bolton North East: councillors Toby Hewitt, Hilary Fairclough and Mudasir Dean have to go out every week or month to try to whack the mole. It is great that we are having this debate, and I hope the Department will consider reviewing the current legislative measures to ensure much more consultation with the providers, especially IX Wireless in my constituency. These massive masts going up are almost like a middle finger to the local community, to consultation and to a peaceful living environment.

It sounds as though my hon. Friend has some very hard-working councillors. I commend them for their efforts, but they should not have to play whack-a-mole; that is very time-intensive and likely unnecessary.

As Minister, I am trying to establish the extent of the problem. I know it is an issue in pockets of the country—the number of Greater Manchester MPs here today is testimony to that. Although this debate is about a specific area, there is also a challenge in relation to the whole area. Reference was made to the private Member’s Bill tabled by the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) and to specific issues with the way the market operates in the Kingston upon Hull area. It seems that there are also particular challenges in Greater Manchester with specific operators. I am holding a roundtable with colleagues next week, I believe, and I hope we will get a better sense of how geographically widespread this issue is, and whether we need to take action against particular providers or deal with specific issues on the ground, particularly in Hull. When I meet Ofcom next week, I hope to discuss this issue in some detail.

I will set out the general policy aim, and then the next steps that we will take to address communities’ concerns. It is absolutely right that they are addressed, because this is not what we want to happen. There is an overall and well-supported policy aim on connectivity, and we do not want the broad support for the connectivity agenda to be undermined by bad practice. As the House knows, reliable, fast digital connectivity is vital for the prosperity of our country. We are working hard to ensure communities across the UK can get those services at prices they can afford.

That is not just about connectivity needs now; increasingly, healthcare will be delivered in a technologically enabled way, more education will be provided in that way and so will economic opportunities. For me, it is important that we ensure every part of the country has fantastic connectivity. I do not want a digital divide to emerge.

The hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton said that this issue is disempowering for communities, but that is precisely the opposite of our intention. The policy intention is to empower communities by ensuring they have the infrastructure they need. I do not want them to feel that this is leading to a deterioration of the overall amenity of their areas.

I think there is agreement on the need for the roll-out of digital connectivity; that is a welcome investment. The frustration for local people and the industry is that there is not co-ordination across Government. I had a call earlier today with a provider that would love nothing more than to install the devices in the lamp post infrastructure that is already in place on the streets, but cannot do so because it cannot get an agreement here or through the local authority. That would seem very logical. We need to look at charging points for electric vehicles and wireless connectivity, and that requires joined-up thinking from the Government on making best use of what we already have.

That was an interesting intervention. I have never discussed the idea of sharing lamp posts or infrastructure of that nature. Not long after becoming Minister in this policy area, I put through the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Act 2022, whose intention was to make it easier to share existing infrastructure, to crack open some of the telecoms monopolies and allow new companies and new entrants to provide connectivity. Community connectivity was falling behind because of that monopoly interest, and ultimately there has been a much faster roll-out.

The whole intention is for that roll-out to be done, not through new poles, new masts and all the rest—notwithstanding the fact that they will be required in some areas—but through much better sharing of existing infrastructure. I will take away the point raised by the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton about other types of infrastructure.

The Minister is being very generous in taking interventions. On that point, the Act in itself was a good piece of work, with the exception of the guidance that followed, which essentially allowed the sharing requirement to be one of request and then consideration, rather than requiring it to happen. The Government should be more directive and say, “No, if it’s there, you ought to use it together.”, rather than just asking for people to have a conversation about it.

I do not want to mislead the House in any way. My understanding is that there are requirements on some companies, particularly Openreach, for infrastructure sharing. That is not universal, and we may come to review that in the future. I want to set out the overall success levels, because I do not want this debate to be about only the negative side. Ultimately, the 2022 Act has driven roll-out, but, as I alluded to, it is just that there are particular problems in particular geographical areas where I think we need to be doing something, whether that is ensuring that infrastructure in Hull is better shared or addressing the particular operators acting in a way that is certainly not the intention of the code and guidance.

In 2019, 6% of UK premises had access to gigabit-capable broadband. That is now 81%, so we can see there is a massive difference in connectivity. We all understand from the pandemic just how important that connectivity is to people’s life chances. It is effectively akin to a key utility, and we want to ensure that people are not disadvantaged by poor connectivity. I am very proud of that achievement, and we must ensure that infrastructure deployment can continue at pace.

We know that the legislative framework has been supportive of that, and we want operators to be able to install infrastructure quickly, but that is not some kind of one-way street. We must ensure that operators understand that that is not without restriction. The legislation rightly recognises that there can be an impact of network deployment on communities and the environment, and there is a balance to be had and rules to which telecoms companies ought to adhere. Good operators understand that, but I think there is an issue with bad actors and bad examples, which we are very keen to drill down into.

The hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton will be aware of the legislative framework—he spoke about it in some detail. It ensures that the vital infrastructure can be deployed quickly, while ensuring that communities can have their say. That is supported by best practice guidance on where new infrastructure should be placed and how best to limit the impact on the landscape and our streets. The legislation also ensures that either Ofcom or the local planning authority can take enforcement action when either the regulations or the planning rules are not being adhered to. Local planning authorities have powers to take enforcement action where they believe planning regulations are contravened.

I understand that has already happened and is actively underway in some parts of Greater Manchester. I think there is a piece of work to do about helping local authorities to understand how and when they can push back on some of those applications. From the feedback that I have had from local authorities, some of those applications are being put forward by planning consultants rather than the companies themselves, so they do not use that local knowledge or have that accountability.

I am conscious of time, so I will just set out some of the extra steps that we will be taking. As I mentioned, the policy aim now is to ensure that there is better infrastructure. On Monday, I will be meeting Melanie Dawes, the chief executive of Ofcom, to ask that her officials work closely with mine to bring about a swift resolution to some of the challenges raised in this debate and previously. That follows a letter from the Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), which asked Ofcom to set out the conditions under which they would take enforcement actions if the regulations are not being adhered to. As I suggested, I will also be holding a roundtable for concerned colleagues on 25 March, and the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton is very welcome to join me. I look forward to hearing his constituents’ concerns in more detail, and to picking up some of the issues that he raised that we do not have time to go into today.

We will be working closely with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to support local planning authorities, exploring what extra steps are needed, and I will write this week to operators and their representative bodies to ensure that they are aware how seriously we are taking this and what we expect them to do to minimise unnecessary infrastructure. I hope that provides some assurance on the immediate next steps, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are listening to the concerns raised in this House and we are open to slightly tougher steps if we are dissatisfied with progress. I am conscious of time, so I will wrap up.

Question put and agreed to.

Children’s Cancer Care: South-East

I beg to move,

That this House has considered children’s cancer care in the South East.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. In 2020, Jackson’s parents received some of the worst news a parent possibly can: Jackson had been diagnosed with leukaemia, at just two years old. He soon began treatment at St George’s Hospital in Tooting; and after three years, in April 2023, he finally rang the bell that signified the end of his treatment. It was a very difficult experience for Jackson, but his family are extremely grateful for the treatment they received at St George’s Hospital. Reflecting on the experience, Jackson’s mum, Samantha, said:

“Thank you St George’s for being such a great hospital and to everyone who works there, you have made our journey so much easier to deal with because you’re the best team.”

Tomorrow, NHS England will make a decision about where to place a new children’s cancer centre, which will serve south-west London and the surrounding areas, such as Surrey, Sussex, Medway and Kent. NHS England will decide between two proposals: one submitted by St George’s Hospital, and the other by the Evelina London Children’s Hospital in Lambeth. After listening to staff, patients and others affected, I am here, with colleagues from both sides of the House, to make the case that children’s cancer care must remain with St George’s.

I thank the hon. Member for making a powerful speech and for referring to Jackson. Does she agree that the independence of NHS England is important, that any decision it makes tomorrow has to be based on the clinical knowledge of medical experts, that the decision must be free from any political interference and that the world-class facilities at Evelina, which the hon. Lady has seen at first hand, should be considered alongside the other hospital? Does she agree that we must ensure that the decision is independent, and that we do not undermine the public reputation of NHS England or put undue pressure on it?

This is not about political interference; it is about ensuring that there has been a fair, balanced and transparent process. I will talk about the process in a moment, but that is the concern. The hon. Lady talks about clinical input. The consultation, albeit that it was run in a very flawed way, had 2,500 responses—some were from clinical experts, and many were from patients and their parents—and it provides very strong evidence that St George’s is best placed and that the Evelina has been predetermined. I have nothing against the Evelina, and in fact I was just about to sing its praises, because I have had personal experience.

To make myself clear, the Evelina is a brilliant hospital that does incredibly important work in treating children. My own daughter, who is nine, is currently undergoing treatment at the Evelina and has received outstanding care. This is not about pitting hospital against hospital; it is about looking at the process and the evidence before us. As the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) has alluded to, I would like to personally thank the medical director at the Evelina, who showed me around its excellent facilities on Monday. However, as I have mentioned, the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that, in this case, St George’s is best placed to deliver for this highly specialist cancer service.

Before I come to that evidence, I want to raise serious questions about the decision-making process to date. [Interruption.]

Order. There is a Division in the House. I do not know whether there will be just one Division. If there is only one, we will come back in 15 minutes; if there are two, we will come back in 25 minutes.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

To pick up where we left off, before we look at the evidence and arguments for keeping this precious service at St George’s, I want to raise the serious questions that have been highlighted around the decision-making process that has brought us to this point. NHS England first publicly expressed its preference for the Evelina proposal at the start of last year, long before it had even launched its public consultation. This has raised concerns that NHS England has created a process in which the views of patients, clinicians and patients’ families have not been seriously listened to and taken into account.

The hon. Lady is quite right. I congratulate her on this debate. I have spoken to the Department and NHS England about the process, as there have been real concerns about the scoring and whether that has been based on evidence or preference. There is also real concern that clinical outcomes are not being given quite the highest priority they should be, which will be key if we are looking at the cancer survival rates for young children.

Absolutely. There is the point about transparency, the fact that it has been predetermined, and the point about outcomes, which I will touch on briefly in my speech.

In a consultation response submitted by Healthwatch Richmond and Healthwatch Merton, the groups concluded that the consultation design was insufficient because it “fails the legal test” for consultation and appears to have no prospect of altering the decision to award the new service to the Evelina. I am therefore keen to hear from the Minister what assessment her Department has made of how NHS England has carried out this process. Further, can she give an absolute assurance to Members that the decision made tomorrow will have been made fairly?

Regardless of the way in which it was carried out, the consultation received over 2,500 responses from affected groups, such as patients, their families, clinicians and professional organisations. Those voices must be heard, and I will seek to ensure that they are. One of the most important themes raised was specialist knowledge and experience of children’s cancer care. It is undeniable that St George’s has invaluable experience to offer: it has already been treating child cancer patients, in partnership with the Royal Marsden, for over a quarter century. Not only is that experience highly valued by patients and their families, but it has resulted in excellent outcomes, as the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) said. According to national data collected from intensive care units, St George’s children’s cancer intensive care outcomes are the best for a large unit in the UK. All the institutional knowledge, specialist expertise and professional networks that have been built over decades risk being lost if cancer care were to move away.

Another key theme that was repeatedly mentioned in responses was that the centre should be conveniently located. Travelling via public transport with a vulnerable and immunosuppressed child is both stressful and very risky, so patients and families have repeatedly stressed that a new centre must be easily accessible by car. Anyone who has lived or worked in central London knows how difficult and unpredictable driving in and out of central London can be. However, located in Tooting, St George’s is much easier to access, and has strong road links to parts of the south-east. That is particularly appreciated by those travelling from afar.

Finally, responses highlighted the importance of having most specialisms on a single site. One service that is particularly vital to child cancer patients is neurosurgery, which is required by one in four of them. Currently, out of the two options, only St George’s offers neurosurgery. According to the Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group, the fact that the Evelina does not currently provide cancer surgery is not an issue that can be resolved quickly, and relocating surgery services comes with associated risks to both patients and staff. In its consultation response, the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons notes that where that has happened in previous cases, a lack of support and structure has resulted in staff “leaving the relocated unit.”

Further, clinicians have shared concerns that, if children’s cancer care were to move from St George’s, other services could be disrupted, which may create unforeseen consequences for the many areas served by St George’s. By contrast, placing the new centre at St George’s would ensure that NHS services are not overly centralised, but rather evenly distributed across the region. What assessment have the Government made of this crucial clinical evidence and the associated potential risks to the cancer service and other children’s services?

The decision is such an important one because at its heart are children with cancer: a group who have dealt with the most challenging and frightening of circumstances so early on in their lives. In many cases, the children can go on to lead full lives. One such example is Zoe, a teenager who was treated by St George’s when she was just four. She has since recovered and now has dreams of becoming a children’s nurse. She says:

“I’m so grateful to the paediatric staff at St George’s Hospital for looking after me, and for always being there for me throughout my life. Thank you to the nurses who told me to follow my dreams and never give up.”

The experience, expertise and convenience that St George’s offers are extremely valued by patients and those who care for them. That must be reflected in the final decision that is made tomorrow, and that is why it is so crucial that no doubt is cast over whether the decision is being made fairly and transparently. Yet, as I have set out, the way that NHS England has handled the process means that it is very difficult to make that judgment at this point.

Last week, together with my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) I wrote to the Secretary of State requesting that she uses her formal powers to call in this decision should NHS England press ahead tomorrow with awarding the children’s cancer service to the Evelina; and a group of cross-party council leaders from across south-west London and Surrey have done the same.

I conclude by urging the Minister in the strongest possible terms to join that call and to support us in saying that this decision must be called in tomorrow if the Evelina is chosen, because of the serious process and clinical arguments that I have laid out today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this debate. As a constituency MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on cancer, I am particularly pleased to take part in today’s debate, and I absolutely agree with what has been said so far. Like the hon. Members for Twickenham and for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey), my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) and I have also written to the Secretary of State requesting that this decision be called in.

I do not want to repeat much of what has already been said, as many other hon. Members wish to speak, but I want to emphasise a few points, particularly the fact that paediatric cancer is incredibly rare and that treating it is a highly specialised service that the NHS provides. I understand that the NHS is concerned about co-locating the deliverables of that care on one site, but as has already been pointed out, and as St George’s keeps saying, that hospital is standing ready to be able to do that. St George’s is investing a lot into its campus, as is the University of London. St George’s stands ready to provide what parents are asking for, and it has 25 years of specialist experience, alongside the Royal Marsden, to do so. Therefore, it would be a mistake to take the decision to move the children’s cancer service to the Evelina.

Like the hon. Member for Twickenham, I am confident that the Evelina is a fantastic hospital with amazing staff and that it does amazing work, but this is about clinical deliverables.

My hon. Friend is right: the Evelina is a great hospital. The other point about St George’s is that it not only has a specialism in paediatric cancer; it also has a wider specialism in neonatal and paediatric services. There is a concern that those would be lost if the co-location was based at the Evelina.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is a key concern, which is precisely why we want to avoid that happening.

It is also worth stating that St George’s does not just have 25 years of experience. The data really does speak for itself. It has been rated outstanding by the Care Quality Commission for delivering cancer services for children. St George’s proposal is to consolidate the primary treatment centre on to the St George’s site in a new state-of-the-art children’s cancer wing, delivering outstanding facilities to match the outstanding care already provided. The services that matter most for children with cancer are already available at St George’s. For some 80% of children with cancer, St George’s campus can already provide or is poised to provide key treatments that the Evelina will have to take time to develop.

Through its experience and expertise, St George’s can already deliver what parents say they want. The hospital is reliant on that experience and incredibly rare expertise. Only about 20 paediatric oncology surgeons with that uncommon skill are registered in the UK, and three of them are already at St George’s. Parents have consistently said they would prefer the children’s cancer centre to be outside the city centre, with better parking provision; again, that is something that St George’s is already able to provide. We do not need to wax lyrical about how awful the traffic is in central London—we say that every day anyway as we try to get into work.

Consolidating the children’s cancer services at St George’s will be easier and less costly for the NHS to deliver. A large part of the service is already there and the existing non-clinical space can, at relative speed, be transformed into a new state-of-the-art cancer centre. But beyond the financial impact of the individual institution we are talking about, there will be wider costs to the NHS as a whole if it is relocated. St George’s has estimated those costs to be around £2.5 million in the first year alone if the service is moved. That could have an impact on other children’s services, and indeed wider services, that are at St George’s at the moment.

Children’s cancer is distressing, but it is also, from a clinical perspective, not neat or stand-alone and addressing it requires incredible skill. The expert staff supporting these children could end up leaving St George’s Hospital and that would weaken the multidisciplinary teams who are there.

Now, with the increasing investment in the campus—with City, University of London, and St George’s, University of London, having agreed to merge and develop ambitious plans for the campus—the opportunities are stronger still. That is not to mention the expansion of the Institute of Cancer Research in the London Borough of Sutton, which we are so excited to see, and the development of a new acute facility. We have the ability to turn south-west London into a world-leading hub for cancer services, beating the United States in a sense. This is incredible news; we need to be grasping this opportunity, so taking the service away would be a huge mistake.

Given all this, I fail to see a compelling reason why the Evelina would provide better care for children in my constituency of Carshalton and Wallington and further afield. Accordingly, I request that the Secretary of State consider using her call-in powers to review the decision on a reconfiguration if that is the decision taken tomorrow.

I do not want to take up too much time—I know that lots of people want to say things in this debate—but I would like to speak on behalf of some of the parents and children who have been involved in the consultation. They have made it clear that they want the cancer services to remain at St George’s Hospital—as we would imagine—for practical reasons and particularly transport and parking.

It is St George’s that offers dedicated parking spaces and a drop-off zone directly outside the entrance of the proposed new state-of-the-art children’s cancer centre. We can just look at Angela’s case to see how critical that is. A children’s nurse at St George’s, she has cared for hundreds of kids during her decades-long career, but her worst fears were realised when her own teenage daughter was diagnosed with cancer. Angela has been staunchly opposed to plans to move the services. She said:

“I can’t imagine travelling to Central London for cancer care with a vulnerable child is in anyone’s…interest.

Luckily we were able to drive to St George’s when Meg was here, and for our family it was invaluable. We were able to keep some semblance of normality.”

This is not just about Megan and Angela. Philip has a 10-year-old son, Daniel, who has just finished cancer treatment and spent countless days and nights at St George’s. Philip said:

“You can’t use public transport when your child is immuno-suppressed, and I can’t imagine having to drive into central London every time Daniel needed urgent care.”

Little Jackson Hall was diagnosed with leukaemia in February 2020 after a rash appeared on his skin and would not go away. He was treated by an “amazing team” at St George’s. His dad, Shaun, said:

“If we had to transfer to Evelina it would be added stress and worry and take away what we can give to Jackson.

When we come here there’s a network and protocols in place and it takes the weight off us knowing that we have that here.

If he has a temperature the protocol is to get Jackson to St George’s or the…Marsden within an hour so being forced to go further into central London means there’ll be traffic and nowhere to park and we might not make it in an hour.”

Shaun summed up my thoughts when he said:

“Why change something that’s not broken?”

The services are excellent. They provide a service more cheaply than the proposed changes would. Leave things alone. Let children’s cancer care stay at St George’s.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on obtaining this debate. It is a little interesting that we are having it before we have got the report. We cannot really add to or comment on the report, because we do not have it, but one thing that we will all agree on is that there is no doubt that a centre is required, so, like everybody here, I am waiting for the report with considerable interest.

I listened to the story from the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame Siobhain McDonagh) about Jackson. It is always a delight to hear these stories—cancer treated by St George’s, with a delightful story to follow it. Equally, however, every hospital that I know of that treats cancer and children’s cancer has similar stories, and St George’s has more than just the few that she has given.

I am a huge supporter of St George’s Hospital. As Members will know, I spent a considerable number of years on its health board when St George’s was being rationalised, reorganised and rebuilt. St George’s is world-class in many respects, although not all, right across the spectrum of medical treatment. The rebuilding that taken place at St George’s has centred on making the buildings as welcoming as is feasible for adults and children and for medical and surgical care. I know St George’s well; it is a delightful, functioning national health service hospital that gives much to our community and that will, if the hon. Member for Twickenham has her way, give much to the whole south-east.

However, access to St George’s is by tube and then by foot or by bus. If someone goes by car, they then have to hope they can park. Hon. Members have said that parking spaces are easily available, but I can remember sitting for ages in the car park at St George’s, especially in the morning, and not being able to park. Some of the consultants I know at St George’s drive in hours early just to get a space for their car in the consultants’ car park. So parking at St George’s is not as simple as has been said.

Public transport to St George’s from many areas of the south-east would be a nightmare. Those coming from the coast would have difficulty; they would not even know where Tooting is, let alone St George’s in Tooting.

I apologise to the hon. Lady. I will write to people who say they do not know where Tooting is to explain, and I will give them a picture of her.

I have also got to know the Evelina hospital, which is an absolutely amazing place. It is not designed and built for adults; it is designed and built for children. When you walk in the front door, it strikes you that it is a children’s hospital. You immediately go into a tall, spacious atrium, which goes right up, floor after floor after floor—I hope the hon. Member for Twickenham went up and looked down into it when she visited. It is a magnificent building, and one whole floor has been left, waiting for building, in case the report comes forward and says that the Evelina is the choice for the cancer centre. The Evelina also sits next to St Thomas’ Hospital and has access to it. There are specialist carers, along the lines people have been talking about, from St Thomas’ Hospital if required.

It is correct that anyone travelling to the Evelina has to come into central London. Driving in is a problem but, as I understand it, the hospital is prepared to provide specific parking. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden mentioned specific parking at St George’s, so the two hospitals are doing the same thing. For special cases, the Evelina will provide special cars for individual patients.

We await the report. It will put the cases together, and we will see what the experts say. I am the nearest thing to an expert here, which is a great big smile, but I have treated children, and treating children, especially east end children, is an art. That is why I would like us to look very strongly at the Evelina if it comes through as the choice. It would be best for kids, and kids are who we are looking at now—kids with cancer and the accumulated diseases and conditions that go with cancer. I am sorry to disagree with just about everyone here at the moment—I emphasise “at the moment”—but, as far as I am concerned, the Evelina is the choice, and I await the report.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing the debate. I should declare an interest of sorts, because my disabled son, John, has been treated at both these hospitals. A few years ago, he had a very successful operation at St George’s, and for most of the last two years he has been attending a weekly clinic at the Evelina. My wife and I are grateful to both hospitals; they are both excellent hospitals, and we regard them very highly. So the fact that I strongly believe that NHS England should choose St George’s is no reflection on the Evelina—not in the slightest.

I have approached this issue from the start by looking at the facts, talking to clinical experts and listening to both sides. I have also looked at the risks of each of the options, because that is what we really look at when we take big decisions: which is the least risky option to make sure we have the quality of services? I have looked at the facts and the evidence, and talked to clinical experts, and they suggest to me that St George’s is easily the less risky option for locating these specialist children’s cancer services—for my constituents and for people across south London, Surrey, Sussex and beyond.

I want to take everyone through some individual cancers and how risks lay for those. I will start with neurosurgery. Twenty-five per cent of children with cancer have a brain or spinal tumour, and many of those will need neurosurgery. St George’s currently delivers that; the Evelina does not. The Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group, which is the UK’s professional association for those involved in the treatment of children with cancers, said in response to the public consultation that if the Evelina was the option chosen, it

“would be the only Principal Treatment Centre in the UK where neurosurgery is not carried out on site”—

the only one—and that there is

“evidence that suggests that Principal Treatment Centres for childhood cancers should be co-located with neurosurgery.”

In other words, with respect to neurosurgery, the Evelina option is the most risky. The Evelina’s solution to that—to use King’s—defeats the purpose of uniting children’s cancer services.

Let us move to oncology surgery. Another 15% of children with cancer will have a neuroblastoma, renal tumour or germ cell tumour. Those children often require major surgery by a paediatric oncology surgeon to remove or reduce the tumour. That expertise is rare. There are around 20 such surgeons in the country, three of whom are at St George’s. The Evelina does not have that expertise at all and will need either to rely on surgeons from St George’s going to work at the Evelina or to build a new surgical team from scratch.

If St George’s surgeons were to travel to the Evelina to operate on children with cancer, there would remain the question of the wider, non-surgical expertise required to manage those children, including the specific anaesthetic skills. Furthermore, it would be much more challenging to manage post-operative complications. In other words, for oncology surgery, as for neurosurgery, the Evelina option is the most risky.

Let us go on to bone marrow transplants. Another 42% of children with cancer will have leukaemias, other blood cancers or lymphoma. For those children, bone marrow transplants and, increasingly, chimeric antigen receptor T-cell treatment, where a patient’s cells are modified to help fight cancer, are key treatments for any new primary treatment centres to be able to deliver. Those treatments are complex, high risk, heavily regulated and difficult to set up without experience. Indeed, the process to do that probably takes years, not months. St George’s has a bone marrow transplant programme for adults and is accredited to provide CAR-T for adults, so it is well placed to extend that offer to children. The Evelina partnership, including Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals, does not currently have a bone marrow transplant programme and is not accredited to deliver CAR-T. Developing such a programme there and delivering it with the required quality, without the adult service, will cost much, much more and be much, much more challenging.

I could go on with other examples of specific cancer treatments for children, but I will end by focusing on some wider issues where, once again, it is clear that the Evelina option is just more risky. Which of the hospitals has the most experience with paediatric cancer? As my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham said, St George’s has 25 years’ experience of caring for children with cancer. The Evelina does not have the experience of caring for children with cancer—nothing like the experience of St George’s.

On staff, where are the specialist cancer staff currently working, and what would they do if there was a change? There are 432 staff at St George’s who are involved in caring for children with cancer. They are from a wide range of specialities and professions. The vast majority of those staff and the expertise they have built up in caring for children with cancer over the years will not move to the Evelina if the primary treatment centre is moved there. Why? Because most spend only a proportion of their time caring for children with cancer and the majority of their time caring for children with other conditions. St George’s estimates that only four whole-time equivalents, out of 432 staff, would be likely to transfer under TUPE regulations. Not only would the skills be lost, therefore, but they would need to be redeveloped in another group of staff. At a time when the NHS is facing one of its most substantial staffing and skill shortages ever, is that really a risk that NHS England wants to run? That type of basic medical risk analysis points clearly to St George’s being the solution.

But let us look at the financial risk too. NHS England itself has assessed the St George’s proposal as involving lower capital costs—£13.5 million lower—representing better value for money and having a better revenue impact. By 2030-31, the St George’s option would be breaking even, whereas the Evelina option would be running a £2 million-a-year deficit. Even taking into account the charity funding envisaged for the Evelina option, it would cost the NHS £3.5 million more in capital funding than the St George’s option, and the charity funding could presumably be used elsewhere. If the PTC were moved to the Evelina, St George’s would lose the income but would not be able to lose the associated staff. The trust estimates that that would leave a £2.5 million financial gap to close in the first year. Given that NHS finances are under real strain, why take the capital and revenue risk of opting for the most expensive option?

I have listened to the counter-arguments brought forward by the Evelina, some experts and NHS England. A big focus of those arguments is on research into developing new treatments into the future, so let us look at that. Cellular treatments such as CAR-T are likely to be central to the future treatment of children’s cancer. St George’s is accredited and commissioned to provide CAR-T, whereas the Evelina is not. Research into using vaccines to treat cancer is at an early stage, but St George’s, University of London, co-located with St George’s, is an international leader in research into vaccines, infection studies and clinical trials, with the long-term potential for vaccine technology to be developed to support the treatment of cancer. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) was right to point to the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden being in close proximity to St George’s. Again, they are part of the research offer that only St George’s can provide.

To conclude, I think this is a no-brainer. I am staggered that anyone has any doubt about which is the right option. I listened to the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), and I take him very seriously. He is a great professional in dentistry—he offered my wife some treatment in a previous debate, and I was grateful for that. He is right that we are all looking in expectation to see what happens with tomorrow’s decision. However, having listened to the experts and spent a lot of time looking at the issue, I just do not think there is any doubt: yes, the Evelina is a fantastic children’s hospital, and my son goes there every week, but it is not an expert in cancer services or in children’s cancer services, which is the point of this decision. St George’s can offer those specialities and the expertise, and it can do it more cheaply and in a more accessible way. It is by far the less risky option. I am grateful to the Prime Minister for saying that I can meet the Health Secretary to discuss this issue, and I look forward to that. I hope that tomorrow, given the arguments set out in this debate and elsewhere, NHS England will decide for St George’s.

I let the right hon. Gentleman finish his speech, but I am told that there are now going to be two Divisions, which means the sitting is suspended for 25 minutes.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. Thank you very much for giving me time to speak; I will not detain hon. Members long.

I congratulate my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this important and extremely timely debate. As she has already highlighted, the Evelina is an excellent facility and I commend the incredible work its doctors do every day. I do, however, share her view that the weight of evidence shows that St George’s Hospital would be a better home for paediatric cancer care in south London and the surrounding counties. I had an excellent experience of in-patient paediatric care there when my daughter was in the Frederick Hewitt Ward for a short period last year. I can confirm that the paediatric care there is excellent, and I would like to say to the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) that I had no problems with parking any of the times I visited my daughter.

One of the less well-known but most dangerous side effects of cancer treatment is the extreme increase in patients’ susceptibility to bacterial and viral infections. While most children with cancer are able to overcome minor infections, the mortality rate from infection is three times higher in cancer patients than in the general public. Because of that risk, many children living with cancer cannot take public transport or even smaller private hire vehicles. In the most extreme cases, visitors and carers are expected to shield so that they do not bring a risk of infection. Travelling by car is the only option available to many of these young people and their families. As such, any plan to bring paediatric cancer treatment in south London and the surrounding counties under one roof must ensure that certain patients can access the hospital safely.

The point was driven home to me when one of my constituents contacted my office after her daughter was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. During the six months that her daughter received chemotherapy and radiotherapy at University College Hospital, they had to travel from Richmond to the hospital in Euston several times a week for her to receive treatment. Due to the very limited parking at the hospital, and the need to avoid public transport because of the risk of infection, the family were forced to hire taxis to make the journey. Each round trip cost the family close to £100. That is not a unique situation.

On average, the families of children with cancer have to spend £250 and travel 350 miles each month to get their specialist treatment. Three in four struggle to meet those costs, and one in 10 miss or delay their treatment because of the expense. St George’s Hospital has two visitor car parks, and it has presented a plan to create a series of dedicated parking spaces and drop-off zones for the families of children with cancer. [Interruption.]

Order. We now have another Division in the House. I put on the record the fact that the Minister has profusely apologised for her absence; she was misled on whether there was going to be a gap between the Divisions. There was a gap, and although we have exploited it as much as we could, it is now time to suspend the sitting again. I am told that there will be two more Divisions, so it will be suspended for another 25 minutes. That means we will start again at 6.27 pm.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

The hon. Lady was talking about transport. Yes, the Evelina has amazing facilities, and parents can stay in Ronald McDonald House just opposite. However, the point is that it is easier to get to Tooting by car none the less, especially for people coming from outside London. Patient transport to the Evelina from Brighton takes more time to get into London from the outskirts than from Brighton to the outskirts of London in the first place.

I suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) gets a new “A to Z”; the journey is not that much more difficult.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but my personal experience is that it is a lot easier to get from anywhere in the surrounding counties to the outskirts of London than from the outskirts of London to central London.

As I was saying, the Evelina’s parking facilities are, in the hospital’s own words, “very limited”. Patients are advised that there is often a queue for parking, which of course can only add to the stress of parents trying to get their children into hospital for urgent treatment. Given that the Evelina sits in central London just over the river from here, I am concerned about its ability to significantly expand parking provision.

The Evelina also sits within the congestion charge zone, meaning that any family member who wishes to visit an in-patient will be charged between £15 and £17.50 every time they come to the hospital. I acknowledge that TfL will reimburse the cost to patients with compromised immune systems, for families visiting on a regular basis who are not covered by the exemption, the expense could become significant; there is also a significant additional administrative burden for those families.

Admission to hospital can be a terrifying prospect for a young person. Parents often take shifts, keeping their child company during an unimaginably difficult time. If each day they drive to and from the ward, they could end up paying more than £100 a week in congestion charges alone. The NHS was founded on the principle that everybody should have easy access to life-saving medical treatment, regardless of their economic circumstances. I believe that St George’s meets that criterion in a way that the Evelina simply cannot. Both are world-class hospitals and both teams provide an excellent standard of care, but St George’s offers both parents and children a solution that truly meets their needs.

Before I call Karin Smyth, I should say that this debate has to end by 6.54 pm according to our new timetable. That includes a maximum of two minutes for a response to the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher—it has been severely tested this afternoon, but you have done remarkably well in getting us all to the end of this important debate, particularly for local people, on the issue of children’s cancer. I commend the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing it. The hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame Siobhain McDonagh) and the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey) all spoke on behalf of their constituents with the diligence that we would expect.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is always distressing and deeply worrying for anyone; for a child and their family it can be particularly devastating. Watching a child go through that is a difficulty that most parents, fortunately, do not have to face, but my thoughts are with the many who do, who are being talked about today—particularly those who have lost a child to cancer. I pay tribute to the many families campaigning for good cancer care for children and young people.

Every year, 4,000 children and young people are diagnosed with cancer in the UK; sadly, it is still the biggest killer by disease of children and young people in our country. As we have heard this afternoon, the needs of children and young people with cancer are very different from those of adults. They can face real challenges in cancer care. It is crucial that they get the right treatment and family support. Often that treatment takes place in dedicated specialist treatment centres far from home: children can travel on average 350 miles to get their cancer treatment.

According to research by Young Lives vs Cancer, distressed and vulnerable children often travel across the country to receive care. As we have heard, the location of the centres is important for local people seeking the best care for their children. My city, Bristol, is home to the paediatric haematology/oncology programme, which serves the whole south-west region, working with shared care centres from Gloucestershire to Cornwall to ensure that children receive care as close to home as possible.

What should that care look like? We know that children receive the best care with early diagnosis and access to treatment from well-supported and trained staff, based on the latest research. Sadly, under this Conservative Government swathes of targets have not been met, and children are left waiting for a diagnosis when every second is vital. Those missed targets include the faster diagnosis standard, with three in every 10 patients waiting longer than 28 days for a diagnosis or to have cancer ruled out in 2022-23. Waiting lists have risen to a record high, with over 400,000 children awaiting consultant-led treatment. Prolonged waits have a detrimental impact not only on children’s health, but on their education and overall wellbeing. Although I welcome the children and young people cancer taskforce announced last month, without a properly functioning wider health system, children with cancer will continue to be vulnerable to those missed targets and delays in care.

The root of the crisis is the failure to provide the NHS with the staff it needs to treat patients on time. Indeed, the Royal College of Radiologists, which represents specialist paediatric radiologists, has said that after years of underinvestment, the workforce is stretched, causing backlogs and delay. That is why Labour is committed to providing the staff, the modern technology and the reform that are crucially needed to bring down those waits to safe levels. We will provide 2 million more appointments a year for planned surgery, diagnostics and out-patient care, and double the number of CT and MRI scanners, speeding up diagnosis and access to treatment for children.

We know and we have heard in the debate how important it is for people, and particularly for their families, to be confident that they will receive the right care in the right place. The guidelines produced by NHS England are very clear about the processes to be followed and the clinical case to be made for major service change. Indeed, that was much discussed in the Bill Committee for the Health and Care Act 2022, on which I sat. I look forward to hearing from the Minister—I will give her plenty of time—about any assurances that she can give to local people on the decision, and to the Members of Parliament who have spoken today on both the process and the substance of decision making in the NHS.

Thank you, Sir Christopher. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in what has been quite a drawn-out debate on such an important topic. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) has raised an incredibly important issue. I hope she and all hon. Members accept that clinical assessment and knowledge are crucial to making vital decisions that affect children’s health at such a difficult time for them and their families.

I am responding to this debate on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), but I will endeavour to respond to each colleague and commit to writing where necessary. The debate has understandably stirred some strong emotions, because every colleague has had direct or indirect exposure to some of the questions it has raised. I am therefore grateful to all hon. Members for their contributions, which demonstrate the huge importance to us all of getting the right outcome.

Each of us has helped a parent who has called our constituency offices seeking help at an incredibly difficult time. I want to assure everyone that each person in the Government, from the Prime Minister down, knows the importance of getting this right. That is why cancer services for children are an absolute priority. From my own work in the Start for Life programme, and in the few months I have been in my current role, I have seen a collective determination to ensure that children right across the country receive the highest possible standards of care. Children with cancer are the key priority.

The Royal Marsden Hospital and St George’s Hospital currently care for most of the children with cancer in south London and the south-east. I pay tribute to the work of those dedicated doctors and nurses who do everything they can to look after the children entrusted to their care, and I want to be clear that NHS England’s proposed changes do not reflect on the stellar service that those staff members have given and continue to give. Rather, the proposals follow advice from Professor Sir Mike Richards’ review, which made it a clinical requirement for cancer services to be placed in the same location as an intensive care unit in order to give critical life support to the most unwell children.

Sir Mike’s reasoning was simple. First, we need to end transfers between hospitals for very sick children, which add risks and stress for them, not to mention their families, during what is already an unimaginably difficult time. Secondly, while we will not compromise on safety, we need to ensure quality of care. As every Member will agree, children deserve to benefit from the very latest technology available. Thirdly, we need to ensure a seamless, joined-up approach.

NHS England has listened to patients, parents and clinical experts to hear how we might best improve their care. The NHS England process has been rigorous, and it has been immensely important for all those patients, parents and specialists to put forward their own significant insights. Last year, NHS England carried out a 12-week public consultation on two options for the future location of the principal treatment centre for south London and much of the south-east: Evelina London Children’s Hospital and St George’s Hospital. Under both options, all radiotherapy for children with cancer would be at University College Hospital.

Both Evelina London and St George’s deliver outstanding-rated children’s healthcare. They also provide outstanding-rated education in their hospital schools. Both are capable of delivering a future principal treatment centre that meets our high standards. They are also both adept at listening to children, young people and their families to improve on the care they deliver.

The experience and expertise of specialists working side-by-side with intensive care and surgical teams will make a real difference: enabling children to get care where they need it, when they need it, on a specialist cancer ward; bringing down the number of children admitted to intensive care; making it easier for different specialist teams treating the same child to work closely together; improving care for children; upskilling the workforce and supporting new kinds of research. Importantly, it will also mean that the future cancer centre will be capable of offering the most innovative and cutting-edge treatments, which may bring precious new hope for children and their families.

The centre will build on the strengths of the existing service, including high-quality care by expert staff and access to clinical trials. It will be a family-friendly centre for children and young people, at the forefront of groundbreaking research and continuing the close relationship with the Institute of Cancer Research.

The Minister said a moment ago that the new centre will build on the service and the experience. The point that I and many Members have made is that St George’s has that experience. While the Evelina is brilliant in many paediatric specialisms, it does not have children’s cancer experience, so what will it build on? On the point about process, it was already predetermined, as I pointed out. It has been made clear in meetings we have had that a lot of the responses will not be taken into account unless there is new evidence. The views of children, their parents and clinicians are not being listened to in the consultation.

I am afraid I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Lady on that point. The consultation has been open, with an open mind and following the best principles of open consultation. I think she is taking quite a liberty to suggest it is a foregone conclusion. I do not think she is correct in her belief. It is essential that clinicians can take all the inputs from those consultations to come to the right decision.

Knowing quite a number of consultants at St George’s, if they heard that they were at a standstill position and not building on what they have now, they would be insulted.

Like several colleagues, I thank the existing hospitals for the amazing care that they have given over the years, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley: I do not think this decision is necessarily a no-brainer. We need to look at the final decision and report, and weigh up what is good and what is bad. Who knows what the final decision and its reasoning will be? I agree with the Minister that it has been a proper process. We should allow it to come to its conclusion very shortly, look at the evidence, and look at the decision in that light and with an open mind.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friends that the consultation is critical, that it has been an open consultation and that all views are being taken into account. I am grateful to them for supporting the process. As Members of Parliament and constituency representatives, we all want the best for our constituents, but in the case of clinical care, it is vital that those with specialist knowledge and understanding should be able to make such important decisions that will affect life and death outcomes for children.

The new centre will be a family-friendly centre forusb children and young people at the forefront of groundbreaking research, continuing a close relationship with the Institute of Cancer Research. The centre will lead joined-up working between different children’s cancer services so that children get proper access to care, wherever they live. Importantly, it will have many more services on site, reducing the need for some families to travel, which will be particularly helpful for children with complex needs and families that struggle to speak English.

I assure colleagues, and anyone who might be watching at home, that once the decision has been taken, there will be no sudden changes to how patients receive care. Of course, some families will naturally be worried about what the change might mean for their children. That is entirely normal, and NHS England will carefully involve every clinical team currently providing care, keeping parents and families closely updated at every stage. NHS England will encourage experienced staff to move to the future centre so that they can continue to provide a friendly and familiar face to the children they serve. No one from among the clinical staff will be made redundant in any future changes resulting directly from this decision. NHS England has met staff to listen to their views, and they assure me that that will continue.

The consultation heard from children, their carers, and families who have received the worst news. They have talked about their own experiences selflessly to try to help others. The consultation closed in December last year, and an independent research organisation published its findings in January. NHS England has taken into account every word of feedback and every inch of evidence to inform the decision-making process. NHS England leaders are meeting tomorrow to decide the future location of the centre. The meeting will be livestreamed so that everyone who is interested can hear the discussion and the decision.

In conclusion, wherever the future centre is placed, I am confident that tomorrow’s decision will offer the right outcome for our children and take all views into account.

No, the hon. Lady will have her chance in a moment. Throughout this process, the guiding principle has always been safety, quality of care and the best outcomes for children with cancer, now and for the long term. The children and their families deserve nothing less.

I am sorry that the Minister would not give way again; I wanted to ask her a direct question, but I do not believe that she has the opportunity now to come back to me.

I start by thanking all the right hon. and hon. Members who have participated in this rather drawn-out debate. I particularly thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey). I thought the clinical case that he made was forensic; he went into great detail in making the compelling case of why this service should be placed at St George’s, where it already exists and is being built upon. I did not quite understand the intervention of the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), in which he suggested that I was insulting clinicians; I was merely explaining that it is already there and it is being built on.

The hon. Member for Mole Valley and the hon Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), who is no longer in his place, laid out the huge research opportunity we have. The Minister talked about innovative therapies. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton talked about CAR-T and all the other innovative therapies that they are already working on at St George’s. He also highlighted staffing concerns, and both he and the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame Siobhain McDonagh) talked about the cost implications of moving the service.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for highlighting the travel issues. I strongly agree with what they said, which came through very clearly. I want to repeat this again, because I think some Members have suggested that we are knocking the Evelina: everyone agrees that it is an outstanding children’s hospital. The point is that St George’s also has paediatric services that are recognised by the CQC as outstanding. The royal college of paediatric surgeons also recognises it as having some amazing specialities.

There is deep concern—not just from Members of Parliament and politicians, but from professional groups and local Healthwatch groups, as I mentioned in my opening remarks—that this consultation has not been transparent and fair and that the process has not been fair. I ask the Minister again: if the decision is made tomorrow by NHS England to move the service to the Evelina, will she urge the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to call this in and have it looked at once again by Ministers so that all the very compelling arguments we have heard today on the clinical case and, most importantly, the risk to children’s cancer care and other services are taken into account? The voices of children, parents, clinicians and patient groups must be heard, and I do not believe that they are being heard at the moment.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered children’s cancer care in the South East.

Sitting adjourned.