Tuesday 10 January 2017
[Mr David Nuttall in the Chair]
Children’s Wellbeing and Mental Health: Schools
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of supporting children’s wellbeing and mental health in a school environment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall, I think for the first time. It is timely to be discussing the incredibly important issue of children’s mental health and wellbeing, particularly in the context of schools, given what the Prime Minister said yesterday. I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister of this country chose to make a speech that was significantly about mental health. That in itself is quite a novelty and should be acknowledged as such. She spoke powerfully about the “burning injustices” in society and focused particularly on those who suffer mental ill health.
My problem is that the response must match the scale of the injustice, and I think that the response has ultimately fallen short, but as a society we are on a journey and it is an important step that the Government are now saying the right things. I suspect that it is acknowledged by many Conservative Members that there is still a gap between the rhetoric and the reality for many people throughout the country, particularly families experiencing mental ill health, who sometimes have to wait horribly long for any access to treatment.
I will briefly describe my own family experience. This goes back to the last decade, which makes the point that the situation we are discussing is not the fault of any individual party or Government. When our oldest son required treatment and as a family we were fairly desperate, we were told that he would have to wait six months to start treatment, so we did what I guess any family would do and paid for treatment. Of course, very many people cannot do that. I do not want to live in a country in which people who have money can access great care, but those who do not are left waiting. That for me is the injustice that we must confront, but I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has raised this incredibly important issue.
One in 10 children are estimated to have a diagnosable mental illness, and 75% of mental health problems in adulthood started before the age of 18, so there is both a moral and an economic case for dealing with mental ill health among children and teenagers, because by neglecting it we store up enormous problems for people later in life, at enormous cost to the state—that is the key point that we must recognise. However, despite the prevalence of illness among children and teenagers, three in four children and young people with a clinically significant mental illness are not in touch with appropriate mental health services, and sometimes it can take up to 10 years before the first symptoms are diagnosed and addressed.
I stress that I do not want to over-medicalise this problem; we do not want to drive everyone into treatment. What we want to do, of course, is prevent the need for that, so we must shift the system so that it focuses much more on preventing ill health and deterioration in health, and schools are necessarily central to that.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree, in relation to mental health and schools, that it is important that young teachers are trained to recognise the difficulties that some children have, so that there can be early intervention to try to prevent the need for all the children to go into treatment.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I totally agree. As I will explain later, giving professionals the tools to manage the issues in front of them seems to me to be fundamental to a sensible approach.
There appears to be growing evidence of increasing mental health problems among young girls. In August 2016 a survey for the Department for Education found that rates of depression and anxiety have risen among teenage girls in England, although the rates appear to be more stable among boys. The survey found that 37% of girls reported feeling unhappy, worthless or unable to concentrate; that was more than twice the percentage for boys. According to the Children’s Society’s latest “Good Childhood” report, a gender gap has opened up between girls and boys in relation to both happiness with life as a whole and appearance. One in seven girls aged 10 to 15 felt unhappy with their lives as a whole, and the figure had gone up over a five-year period. We need to seek to understand that situation better in order to make the right response. I pay tribute to the Children’s Society, which has supported me in bringing this debate to Parliament. I also thank, as I should have done at the start, the MPs who joined me in applying for the debate.
There also appear to be problems among women between the ages of 16 and 24, according to a major report by NHS Digital. Reports of self-harm in that group trebled between 2007 and 2014, so something very serious is going on. Research is urgently needed to understand the causes of the trend. Social media appear to be part of the picture—there are concerns about sexting, cyber-bullying and so on.
We must also remember the issues that relate to boys and young men. Horrifically, suicide remains the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK, and the rate has been increasing in recent years. In 2014 the male suicide rate was three times higher than the female rate. I am pleased that the Government focused on suicide in yesterday’s announcements. Ultimately, there is nothing more serious or important than seeking to prevent lives from being lost in that horribly tragic way, with the impact that it has on families—my family, along with many others in this country, have gone through that experience—so we need to give it the greatest possible attention.
The overall lifetime costs associated with a moderate behavioural problem amount to £85,000 per child, and with a severe behavioural problem they are £260,000 per child. That is why it is so important to deal with these issues early, rather than allowing them to become entrenched.
The Children’s Society has highlighted school-based counselling, which can be highly effective for children experiencing emotional difficulties. It can be used as a preventive measure, an early intervention measure, a parallel support alongside specialist mental health services, and a tapering intervention when a case is closed by the specialist services to help a child or teenager through to recovery. Research shows that children perceive it as a highly accessible, non-stigmatising and effective form of early intervention.
Studies have also shown that attending school-based counselling services has a positive impact on studying and learning. In 2009 Professor Mick Cooper assessed the experiences of and outcomes for 10,000 children who had received counselling in UK secondary schools. More than 90% reported an improvement, which they attributed to counselling, and 90% of teachers reported that counselling had a positive impact on concentration, motivation and participation. So we end up achieving better academic attainment if we make the investment for those children who need it. It can be cost-effective, given the long-term cost to the economy of problems that continue into adulthood; some studies have indicated that the long-term savings can be in the region of £3 saved for every £1 invested, and data from Wales indicate that the average cost of school-based counselling is significantly lower than the specialist treatment children get if that is the only alternative. So we save money by giving children access to school-based counselling rather than delaying intervention and referring the child to a distant service, probably with a long waiting time, which is also far more stigmatising.
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy has estimated that the overall cost of statutory provision of school-based counselling across all of England’s state-funded secondary schools would be in the region of £90 million per year. On the basis that 60% of schools are already delivering it, the additional delivery would cost around £36 million. I suggest that that investment is well worth making given the improved preventive care.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and apologise for being a few minutes late for the start of his important speech. I am sure that he, like me, will have had the privilege of visiting a number of schools, not only in his own constituency but across the country, that are really committed to their students’ mental health and have invested in school-based counselling. Does he share my concern that in this past year we have already seen cuts to those services within schools because they have seen their budgets reduced and they are having to incur the additional costs of pensions, for example? The prospect for the years ahead is to see some schools that fund counsellors five days a week going down to three, or three days down to one, and some having to scrap the provision altogether because they simply do not have the resources to make this very important service available in their schools.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention and pay tribute to the tremendous campaigning work that she does on mental health. Her point highlights the gap between the rhetoric, which is often well intentioned, and the reality. There is now a much greater focus on prevention in the Government’s argument, but what too often happens with a system under impossible strain is that the preventive services are cut first because there is a desperate need to prop up acute services within the system. She makes an important point.
Let me address the issue of stigma in schools. Stigma can exacerbate mental health conditions and prevent people from speaking out and seeking help. In October 2016 the YMCA launched a nationwide campaign aimed at tackling the stigma associated with mental health difficulties and to help to encourage young people to speak out. It found that more than one in three young people with mental health difficulties had felt the negative impact of stigma. School is where most young people experience stigma, and more than half of those who have experienced stigma said it came from their own friends. There is often a lack of understanding among young people—teenagers—about what mental health really is. That is why it is so important that we get this on the curriculum so that every teenager learns about their mental, as well as physical, health and wellbeing, and about how they can become more robust in coping with the challenges they face.
The impact of stigma is profound and pervasive, affecting many areas of a young person’s life. Young people reported that the stigma affected their confidence and made them less likely to talk about their experiences or to seek professional help. I can remember the moment when our eldest son said to me, “Why I am the only person who is going mad?” I just thought that here is a teenager feeling that and having stored it up inside himself, having not been able to talk about it for a long time. We can just imagine the strain of trying to cope with that on top of all the normal pressures of being a teenager. We have to do far more to combat stigma if we are to improve young people’s experiences.
I want to mention “Future in mind”, which is the blueprint we published in March 2015 just before the coalition Government came to an end. It was widely welcomed across the sector. We involved educationalists, academics, practitioners and young people, in particular, in the work we did. Central to the recommendations was the role of schools, and among the recommendations was the proposal that there should be a specific individual responsible for mental health in every school to provide a link to the expertise and support available, to discuss concerns with an individual child or young person and to identify issues and make effective referrals.
There should be someone taking responsibility but also a named contact point in specialist mental health services—too often we find that schools do not have the faintest idea who to contact when a child needs support—and also joint training. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) made the point about the training of teachers. If we can get teachers working alongside specialist mental health workers in schools, everybody will benefit.
Will the right hon. Gentleman also pay tribute to the work of the Samaritans? It has a scheme called DEAL—developing emotional awareness and listening—which it is rolling out across Wales in particular. There is a resource pack available for teachers if they want to take it into schools, or the Samaritans will send volunteers into schools to undertake, separate from the school system, talks and raise awareness for young people. That is the sort of low-cost—not expecting lots of money to be involved—involvement of people and organisations such as the Samaritans, with their specialist knowledge and awareness, that is extremely helpful in reaching young people.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the incredibly valuable work that she has done, particularly on suicide. I join her in paying tribute to the work of the Samaritans and the army of volunteers who give up their own time to save people’s lives. The sort of initiative that she described is incredibly important. Do the Government remain committed to implementing “Future in mind”? There is a danger in Government that we just replace one initiative with another. There is a very good plan there, which has all the right principles, and the important thing is just to do it and make sure that the money—I will come to that in a moment—actually gets through to where it is required.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for kindly giving way again. May I echo his very important points? “Future in mind”, the report for which he was responsible, was released in March 2015. We are nearly two years down the line and, despite the fact that the “Five Year Forward View” explicitly stated that it accepted the recommendations of the “Future in mind” report, we are yet to see the vast majority of them implemented. I echo what he said and urge the Government to address that very important point in their response.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Given that I was responsible for that report, I feel very strongly about its absolute importance. I chaired a commission for the Education Policy Institute that reported last November, and we were pleased that the Secretary of State for Health came to speak at the launch, which I thought was important in itself. We looked at what has happened since “Future in mind” and in some parts of the country they are doing great work, but in others very little is happening. Very little has changed, with the bulk of the money still going to the acute end of the spectrum and not being reinvested in preventive care.
Critically, in many areas of the country, as the YoungMinds survey showed, 50% of clinical commissioning groups are not spending all the money—the additional investment secured in the coalition Government’s last Budget. They are not spending the full allocation on children’s mental health. I think that is scandalous. It amounts to theft of money solemnly pledged by the Government for children’s mental health, yet in many areas it is being diverted to prop up local acute hospitals. We cannot tolerate that. The Government have to find ways of ensuring that all that money is spent as intended. I know that the Government plan to have greater transparency, with Ofsted-style ratings for CCGs, but frankly there needs to be more than that. When a CCG is under financial stress, it is just too easy to shave a bit off children’s mental health to spend it where the public are clamouring for action, because ambulances are stacked up outside the A&E department.
In the first year after “Future in mind”, the system that we designed meant that local areas would get the money only if they produced a transformation plan to show how the money would be spent on changing the system to focus more on prevention. My proposition to the Government—the EPI commission report said this—is that every year the money should be tied to a commitment from the CCG that every penny of it is spent on children’s mental health. The CCG must also demonstrate that it has stuck with the plan from the previous year and that it has a plan to continue the change in the subsequent year. Unless we use the money to drive change in local areas, it will not happen because the system is under so much strain.
The other point argued for by the Education Policy Institute commission was that the Prime Minister should launch her own Prime Minister’s challenge on children’s mental health, as the former Prime Minister did on dementia, because that sort of prime ministerial stamp of importance for this subject would be incredibly valuable. Yesterday was a start, but I challenge the Prime Minister to go further and launch a formal challenge of that sort.
My final point—I am conscious that other Members wish to contribute to the debate—relates to the importance of ensuring that when a child needs specialist treatment, they get it on time. This goes to what I regard as a discrimination within the NHS, because anyone who has a physical health problem benefits from a maximum waiting time. Whatever their issue is, they know that a standard maximum waiting time applies nationally. It is accepted that those standards are under strain, but at least they exist, and I know that they drive the system, from the Secretary of State’s office downwards, in looking at every individual hospital’s performance across the country.
On mental health, however, apart from the two maximum waiting time standards that we introduced in the last two years, there are no other maximum waiting time standards. There is no standard for children. Families across the country can be left waiting, sometimes for months, to get any treatment at all, and when they get referred too often they have to clear high thresholds. In other words, someone has to prove that they are really sick before they get any help at all. That dysfunctional and irrational approach completely contradicts the principle of early intervention.
When you have a child aged 15—as I did, a girl—who had an eating disorder and was turned away from treatment because her body mass index was not low enough, and who then got admitted as a crisis case two months later because the problem had been neglected, you are left in a state of despair. We need to ensure that children with mental health problems have the same right to timely, evidence-based treatment as anyone with a physical health problem does, and that they should be treated close to home rather than being shunted sometimes hundreds of miles away.
These are the burning injustices that exist for many families across the country who cannot pay to opt out of the system. We have a duty and a responsibility—the Government, in particular, have a duty—to ensure that those children get the treatment they need on a timely basis.
Five Members wish to speak in the debate and I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 10.30 am, so if Members could keep their remarks, including interventions, to about seven minutes each, I calculate that we should get everyone in and share the time equally.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) on securing this debate, which is so important and timely, and I am pleased to be able to speak in it. I noticed last week that the debate was going to take place and I started to prepare my comments then, but of course, in the light of the Prime Minister’s excellent and welcome speech yesterday, I have had to change them somewhat.
I think it is pretty much agreed across the House that we need to put more emphasis on mental health, putting it on a par with physical health, as we have heard. We also need to do much more work on removing the stigma that seems to be attached to mental ill health, especially among young people. Another universally agreed principle is that prevention, or at least early intervention, is much better than cure. Obviously, that is where the school environment can really come into its own, and where I truly believe we need to focus a lot more effort.
To be positive for a moment, many Members from across the House have worked on bringing to the Government’s attention the fact that we needed a fairer funding formula for our schools. I am delighted that that is happening, and particularly that rural areas, such as mine in Somerset, will receive a much fairer share of funding per student. Although that will not solve mental health problems, it will alleviate the situation for many schools. They will have slightly more money to go around, which may mean that they have money to pay for consultants, advisers and specialist services, should they need them, for mental health. That is just one small thing, but if there is better education across the board, that has to be better for children growing up.
We know that a vast amount of mental health problems begin at school age, with 50% of lifetime diagnosable illnesses beginning at the age of 14, so it makes perfect sense to start dealing with those at that young age. I want to point out some positive initiatives that we could learn from and that perhaps should be copied on a wider scale. One is community engagement and involving young people in activities so that they really feel part of something. To give an example, I was very proud to go to the recent Somerset elections to the Youth Parliament in my constituency, where I was really taken by the assuredness of the students. Not only were they having great fun, but how well they conducted themselves, and how interested they were in life! I got talking to the chap who runs that—Jeff Brown from Somerset County Council—who said, “You should see the state that some of these children come to me in, when they are quite young—about age 11—and how this involvement, engagement and working together has really changed and helped them.” He also said that many of them had mental health issues, so if we could encourage children to get involved in such areas, it would be very helpful. Obviously, that means that we have to keep giving funding to organisations such as the Youth Parliament.
Another area that I am especially interested in, given my gardening and environmental background, is schools that are running gardening and outdoor projects to involve children in activities out of the classroom. I recently went to North Town Primary School in Taunton Deane; it has an excellent, innovative gardening set-up for a primary school. It is really involving children and giving them an outside interest—especially those who, perhaps, are not so academic—in growing and in watching the seasons change, watching nature and watching wildlife. The Royal Horticultural Society has many statistics to prove that that has a really beneficial impact on people’s mental health, and anything that any schools can do to get involved in such projects is worth while and to be encouraged.
Similarly, the Somerset Wildlife Trust, of which I am a vice-president—I am very proud to work with it—does an awful lot of work with local primary and secondary schools, enabling children to connect more with nature and the outside. According to national wildlife trusts’ statistics, 93% of schools said that outdoor learning improves people’s social skills, and 90% of children said that they feel happier and healthier when they are doing these activities outside. Interestingly, 79% of teachers in the surveys that they did said that outdoor learning had a real impact on their teaching practice, so I think there are real lessons to be learned there. Those are all excellent examples of what has already been done.
When I met the people from YoungMinds, they stressed the importance of placing wellbeing and all the activities that I have mentioned alongside academic learning. Again, I welcome what the Prime Minister said, and I was especially pleased to see that a review will be done of child and adolescent mental health services; I hope that it will begin swiftly.
Now for my negative bit: in the south-west, young people’s mental health is a significant issue. I am sure that all Members could give examples; I have many from my casework. People come to me with heart-rending stories exactly like the one that the right hon. Member for North Norfolk told about his daughter. I could list handfuls of people who are affected, including my children’s school friends, my son’s sports mates—guys with aspirations—and neighbours’ children. It is absolutely shocking how many people we can think of offhand. It is not only awful for the child; it puts so much pressure on families, especially if they must go long distances for treatment. It is awful for the child and awful for the parents, but it is also difficult for other siblings to carry on a normal life, and for parents to bring up all their children. I do not know if the right hon. Member for North Norfolk has other children, but I know that the impact makes things difficult for siblings. This is a serious issue, and this House and the Minister need to deal with it.
I welcome the introduction of mental health first aid training in schools, but will the Minister liaise with the Department for Education on an issue relating to the budget cuts for sixth-form colleges? In Taunton Deane, we have an outstanding sixth-form college called Richard Huish College, which has just been shortlisted to be The Times Educational Supplement’s sixth-form college of the year. I wish the college well in that, but when I spoke to its principal, he told me that the school had had to cut all its enrichment courses: sport, drama, music. He was at pains to stress that we need to send the message that we should not expect children to excel only at academic things such as maths and English. Obviously, those are important, but there are other ways for children to show that they are good at something, and for us to celebrate what they do. He pointed out that it is often the children who do not get such opportunities, or who think that they are not good at anything, who fall into a trap and start on a downward spiral. That is how we end up with a spike in mental illness. I urge the Minister to go along to the Department for Education and see whether we can have a bit of joined-up thinking.
I am delighted by the renewed focus on children’s mental health, especially as children spend a third of their time in school. Much good is already being done, as I have pointed out, and I would like to see some of those models copied, especially the ones relating to outdoor activities, the environment and even sport. Some schools run a daily mile; I believe that started in Scotland. Pupils go outside at a set time every day with their schoolteachers, in whatever they are wearing, and run a mile. They might get a bit sweaty, which I believe the girls do not like terribly—
—although my hon. Friend’s daughter does. What a terrific idea. If everybody does it, nobody worries about what they look like. It is simple and cheap; it does not cost a penny. I will also throw in that on Radio 4 this morning, we heard about shared family meals. There is so much benefit in things like that.
To conclude, I stress that the long-term benefits of addressing mental health issues at an early age will be to everybody’s advantage. I applaud the Government for what they are doing, but it is just the start—the building blocks or foundations on which I hope we will build a better future, in which we do not have to debate this issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I thank the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) for the opportunity to have this debate. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on suicide and self-harm prevention, one thing of which I am very aware is that change only comes when there are champions, at the local and national levels. He has certainly been a champion in this House for mental health. When he was a Minister, it was always a delight to speak to him, because I knew I was talking to somebody who understood the problem, and I pay tribute to that.
I welcome the publication of the latest national suicide prevention strategy—I am particularly pleased by its recognition of the work of the all-party group—but one of the big problems is that there is no new money for local action plans. If we do not start on a local basis, we will not get the change that all of us want.
The all-party group works only with academics; on the whole, the people who come to speak to us come from an academic background. Their work is fully researched, and the way forward is understood. Just before Christmas, two researchers from the National Centre for Social Research, Sally McManus and Caroline Turley, addressed the all-party group. They discussed the findings of the recently published adult psychiatric morbidity survey, which examined trends in mental health and well-being since 2000.
It was extremely depressing. One of the first things that they mentioned was self-harm. The all-party group considers both suicide and self-harm prevention, because self-harm is often an early indicator that someone is suffering from mental health problems. If we ignore it, we just build up problems for the future. Self-harm among 16 to 24-year-olds has doubled since 2000. One in four women and girls aged 16 to 24 have self-harmed, rising to one in three among over-18s. In 2000, one in 15 young women between 16 and 24 reported having self-harmed. By 2015, that figure was one in five.
Young women are twice as likely as young men to self-harm. They do so for a number of reasons, but it is often to relieve tension, anxiety and depression. For them, it is a coping mechanism. Triggers vary from one individual to the next, but bullying via social media, low self-esteem and anxiety are often cited. Some care must be taken in considering those figures, as the rise might be due to increased willingness to report, but the increase is borne out by other studies. Clearly, that level of distress cannot be ignored.
Of the 16 to 35-year-olds surveyed, one in 10 asked for help but did not receive it. Someone aged 16 to 18 with anxiety and depression has only a one-in-five chance of accessing help. The older someone is, the more likely they are to receive help. Some 37% of those who reported having self-harmed had received medical or psychological help, leaving two thirds who had no help. If an individual presents at hospital after an incident of self-harm, they will not necessarily receive the help that they need.
The highest rate of access to help was among 35 to 54-year-old white British women. If young people come from a black or ethnic minority background, their access to mental health support decreases. That is incredible and totally unacceptable. Findings published recently in The BMJ, drawn from the multi-centre study of self-harm, 2000 to 2012, considered hospital admissions for self-harm and concluded that despite NICE guidelines, only a little over half were offered a psychosocial assessment.
Sadly, another issue that we must consider is that all too often the criminal justice system picks up the failures of the mental health services. Too many young people are sidelined into youth offending teams and ultimately into young offenders prisons. Staff at those young offenders prisons have told me that some of the most tragic cases that they deal with are of young people with mental health problems who are being criminalised at an early age. That has to stop.
The Department of Health is diverting its failures to the Home Office and to the Ministry of Justice. I cite as an example a young girl in my constituency who, very sadly, has quite severe mental health problems. Over the years, she has appeared in front of the police and the courts more than 140 times. She has served numerous prison sentences; she is in and out of prison all the time. The police and the probation service recognise that her problems are linked to mental health. She has been involved in the mental health system since she was a very young child, but now that she is a young adult, she is being sent back and forth in the criminal justice system and is not receiving the mental health support that she needs. She is now out again; she has already tried to take her own life by jumping from a bridge and has broken her ankles. The likelihood is that she will be back in prison before we know what we are doing.
I agree that we need to start early. The work in schools is essential. Young people need to know what is normal—“I’m going through adolescence, my hormones are all over the place; what is normal and what is actually a problem that needs dealing with?” We need to look at NICE guidelines on psychosocial assessments, which need to be in place more often. The Department of Health informed me in response to a parliamentary question that it does not keep records on where a psychosocial assessment has been offered, but that would give us an idea of how often we are failing.
Another important thing that needs to happen is a triage system. For a GP’s letter to a consultant asking for an appointment to just sit on a secretary’s desk until the secretary has done that assessment is nonsense. Dr Robert Colgate has set up a triage system for mental health that allows direct access to a consultant, so that help and support are available to GPs, mental health nurses and psychiatric social workers straight away and medication, help and appointments can be given straight away.
This has gone on too long. We know what the problem is, and it needs money and investment. Let us make sure that we start from today.
It is a pleasure to serve under you chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I thank the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), with whom I share a mental health trust, which we are both glad to see is out of special measures. I congratulate the staff on that, but there is much more work to do. I concur with other Members who have said that prevention is better than cure. There could be no more opportune time for this debate, which comes a day after the Prime Minister highlighted mental health, and particularly children’s mental health, as a problem. We have been talking the talk, not walking the walk, for quite long enough.
Why have I chosen to speak today? Mental health is one of my top three surgery priorities. Week after week, in surgery after surgery, I see families whose lives are breaking down because of waiting times. Very often, it is not only the child at the centre. Often Mum has given up work, so there is an economic impact; Dad has stopped doing overtime, so there is a further economic impact; and the siblings do not quite get the activities that they used to, because everybody is focused on the child who has the problem at that time.
I have four children; the last left school last year. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), I have been somewhat horrified over the past 10 years, as they have travelled through their teenage years, to see how their contemporaries have struggled with mental health and to see the help that has been available for them. As a governor some 10 years ago, the fact that some of my children would be sent hundreds of miles away, when we know that closeness to the family gives better outcomes in the long term, filled me with horror. We really need to drill down into the issue of tier 4 beds and the local availability of child and adolescent mental health services.
As governors and teachers, we instigated sessions with parents on eating disorders and resilience. The World Health Organisation’s whole-school approach is the right one, but we actually need a whole-system approach of teacher training, actual connectivity and knowing where the services are. School-based counselling is excellent, but as the right hon. Member for North Norfolk said, we need to ensure that the funds are there at the right time. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, I welcome fairer funding, but the fairer funding formula for Suffolk still leaves us short of the national average, so for us it will make a slight difference but not enough. Suffolk’s population is rural, and delivering issues rurally causes problems. It is much harder for us, with a sparse population in which more than 40% are scattered around, to deliver those scattered services.
Why do only 25% to 40% of children and young people currently receive input? Some 50% of lifelong mental health illnesses develop before the age of 14, and 75% before the age of 25. Young people with mental health problems use other coping strategies: self-harm is one that is familiar to me, unfortunately, and they are four times more likely to turn to alcohol. All these are destructive. They are 20 times more likely to go to prison, as we have heard. Tragically, they are six times more likely to die before the age of 30.
One in seven adults has a common mental disorder. If we capture these problems earlier on, we will be doing ourselves and the country a great service, saving people’s lives and building resilience within their families. I was glad to hear the Prime Minister placing importance on mental health, but at the schools and colleges I go to, particularly my sixth-form college, the pastoral care teams reckon they spend up to 70% of their time on mental health issues. I have talked to teachers in the primary sector, who are seeing issues earlier and earlier. We need that teacher training and we need that funding.
How do we improve? We must build resilience, both personally and emotionally. We must focus on young women, who are three times more likely to experience common mental disorders than young men. However, our young men have less ability to express themselves and we see greater suicide numbers in young men, so we need a comprehensive approach. I encourage schools to reach out. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, I support volunteering and using green spaces. The Green Light Trust does a great deal locally; Westgate Community Primary School does the daily mile. Exercise and sport improve outcomes, because children are within a team—research backs that up. Reducing the hours children spend in front of a screen, ensuring they eat together—all these things are part of resilience building.
When things go wrong, we do not want to medicalise, but we do not want to wait. People need services locally, and we need our children not to be sent all over the country. We have to look at the provision of funding and the allocation of resources. The lack of the family unit locally undermines short and long-term recovery.
I pay tribute to the fantastic work of the Prince’s Trust, of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and of Heads Together, which aims to destigmatise and shine a light on the area. That is to be welcomed. I will not give the statistics about body image and coping with work for young people, because we have already heard them, but we need to understand where the money goes. When I spoke to my local mental health trust recently, I discovered that some £363,000 went to eating disorders, but that there was no more money for any additional services. That worries me.
I ask the Minister the following questions. Young people’s mental health needs prioritising. How do we scrutinise those who commission those services? I welcome the £67 million investment in digital connectivity, but many of my constituents do not have access, and there is a broader issue with telecare and prescriptions. How are we locking into the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the fourth utility is there? Will she assure me that rural areas will be fairly treated? As in everything, we sit in the lower quartile both for education and for health, and that is not a good combination. How can we ensure that cuts in community care and local government support, which often give support services the money they are looking for, are considered effectively? Many trained professionals have moved out from children’s services into adult services. We need to capture that skill and bring it back.
It was my birthday when “Future in mind” was announced. I want to understand how we will properly evaluate whether the money that was announced yesterday—most welcomely—and the money announced in “Future in mind” is being spent where we need it to be spent, so that we can understand what is working. I was also glad to hear the Secretary of State for Health announce that sustainability and transformation plans will not be passed without mental health being high on the agenda.
Many have said that the journey to better mental health starts with a conversation, so I hope that this is our conversation and that by 2020 there will be shorter waiting times and talking therapies in every region, and particularly for my young people.
It is an honour to serve under you as Chair, Mr Nuttall, and I thank the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) for securing this timely debate, which he opened excellently.
Mental health in schools is devolved to Wales and provision there is often used as an example of good practice. Today I would like to draw Members’ attention to certain areas of good performance in supporting children’s mental health services in Welsh schools, particularly in Gwynedd, the county in which my constituency is located and that I served as portfolio leader for education between 2008 and 2012. There is always room for improvement and there are still areas of concern, some of which infringe upon non-devolved competencies and impact heavily on the wellbeing of children and young people.
I will just point out that student union presidents at Grwp Llandrillo Menai, the three-college further education institution for north-west Wales, are so troubled by the prevalence of mental health issues among 16 to 19-year-olds that they have chosen Mind as this year’s cross-college union charity. The Children’s Society’s “Good Childhood” report for 2016 highlights the issues affecting children’s wellbeing, as well as the connections between wellbeing and mental health. It calls for the introduction of statutory provision of emotional wellbeing and mental health support within schools in England, to act as a point of early help and to provide referral to specialist services if necessary.
Although they were conveniently timed during a row surrounding the “humanitarian crisis” in health, I am sure that we all welcome yesterday’s announcements about reform of mental healthcare, particularly the pledge to offer mental health first aid training in schools. The Government are making the right noises, but the detail is yet to be communicated. The real-terms increase in health spending is unlikely to meet the requirements created by health inflation over the coming years, so it is by no means a silver bullet solution, and of course it has implications for the Barnett consequentials that Wales receives.
As I have said, counselling provision in schools is already on a statutory footing in Wales. During the Plaid Cymru and Labour “One Wales” Government of 2008, the goal was set of ensuring that every secondary school child could access counselling as needed. In addition, in our first few months as an Opposition party last year we secured a landmark budget deal with the Welsh Government, whereby we realised a manifesto pledge to increase spending on mental health services by £20 million a year, and to improve access to trained counsellors and therapists in the community.
An example of a successful school counselling scheme is being implemented by Plaid-run Gwynedd and is operating in both Gwynedd and Ynys Môn. Since its instigation in 2008, 500 children a year have received counselling, and I am glad to say that very few of them have gone on to be referred to child and adolescent mental health services. In fact, in 2014-15 more than 11,500 children and young people across Wales received counselling, and 89% of those seen did not require onward referral after the completion of their counselling.
However, despite significant progress in that field in Wales, there are still areas of concern. A number of issues remain about the provision and delivery of CAMHS, including the transition from child to adult services and the support offered to children and young people who do not meet the clinical threshold for CAMHS but who still need support. In Wales, the comparable waiting times for child and adult mental health services are such that four of every 1,000 children and young people are waiting for treatment, which is eight times greater than the equivalent number of adults.
A particular point to which my attention was drawn came from my surgeries, as I am sure is the case for many Members here today. It seems that those children and young people who cannot attend school because of mental health issues fall between the cracks. Olivia Hitchen is 15, and I am glad to say that she was happy for me to mention her name—of course I asked her first. She lives in Corris in Dwyfor Meirionnydd and has explained how better support needs to be provided for young people who suffer extreme anxiety when they are placed in the crowded environment of a school classroom. It struck me as interesting that we expect children to operate in social groups for the purpose of education in a way that is strikingly different from the operation of most working environments; we do not usually put people in large groups with one person addressing them. If individual children do not fit into the conventional classroom, there seem to be precious few alternatives for them, particularly if they have mental health issues as well.
Olivia is highly intelligent and articulate. Her issues with anxiety appear to be reduced when she does not attend formal education, but she now needs to achieve formal qualifications, such as GCSEs, through examinations. Surely our education system should match the needs of the child and not expect our children to be moulded to the needs of the education system.
My final point today relates to the non-devolved ways in which children’s wellbeing may be improved. Of course, poverty increases the risk of mental health problems; it can be both a causal factor and a consequence of mental ill health. My constituency of Dwyfor Meirionnydd has one of the highest poverty rates in the United Kingdom. Of the 11,312 children living there, it is estimated that 2,510 live in poverty. Increasingly, those children who are in poverty live in a household where at least one adult is in work—there are 1,958 children in that situation in my constituency. A move into work is not automatically a move out of poverty. The impact of this Government’s punitive universal credit moves is hitting children in my area hard. Families in my constituency face a four-year freeze in their benefits, and the cumulative effect of the changes to support will mean that many families lose out overall, thus aggravating mental health-related issues.
Every child must be given a chance of achieving robust health and happiness. Despite the gains created by the examples I have cited from Gwynedd and from Wales overall, more must be done at both Welsh Government level and UK Government level to ensure that the best opportunities exist for all our children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall; it is the first time I have done so. I congratulate the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) on securing the debate. During his time in office he really helped to highlight the challenges in mental health and he continues, quite rightly, to put the spotlight on mental health now. We are all grateful to him for the work that he has done in this area.
It is clear—obviously partly because of the Prime Minister’s speech—to all of us who have tried to make some efforts on young people’s mental health over the last year that it has become a major issue. For me, it became absolutely clear that it was a critical issue around 18 months ago, when I had a group of about 10 young people come to Parliament for an induction day. In a gap in the Q and A session, I decided to ask them what they thought was the most pressing challenge that their generation faced. In unison, those 10 young people, who were studying for their A-levels and had great prospects ahead of them, did not talk about tuition fees or debt; they talked about mental health. They said that mental health is the challenge we need to deal with.
As I started to explore this area in more detail, I went to an event at a school—it was a Christmas party, I think—and spoke to one of the parents who happened to be involved in dealing with pupils with pastoral issues in another neighbourhood. She talked about the increased incidence of self-harm, particularly among young women, which the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) mentioned. I then had the chance to speak to a number of children who were not actually dealing with mental health challenges in their own life but who were really worried about how they could help their friends who were. They were coming home and asking, “How do you deal with a friend who is involved with self-harm, or who is considering it?” Trying to come up with those solutions is a heavy burden for a 12 or 13-year-old, so these issues need to be tackled urgently.
I am grateful to YoungMinds for the work it is doing. As I have spoken with its chief executive, Sarah Brennan, and her team, it has become clear that mental health is now not just a challenge for the one in 10 children who we have heard about, or the one in 12 to one in 15 children who are dealing with self-harm; the latter figure could even be higher, according to the hon. Member for Bridgend. It is clear that young people’s mental health is a growing challenge. It is not just static; it is growing. Therefore, because of the increase in the number of referrals and because of the challenges that exist—from talking to my local mental health service provider, Cheshire and Wirral Partnership, I know that they exist—we must tackle the issue. As I have said in previous debates, the issue is amplified by social media. Feelings of low self-esteem and low self-worth need to be tackled and we need to help build resilience.
Although, obviously, not everything has been done yet, the Government took an important step forward with the “Future in mind” report, and credit needs to be given to the Prime Minister for her efforts and for the initiatives she put forward yesterday: mental health first aid training for teachers and staff; a thematic review by the Care Quality Commission, with Ofsted support; a new Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health; and the absolutely key aim—it has not been mentioned in this debate but we must ensure that it is delivered—that by 2021 no child will be sent away from their local area to be treated for general mental health disorders. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) highlighted that concern. The Prime Minister was honest enough to highlight that treatment is only part of the answer. What we need to do now is prevent mental health challenges and build resilience.
Something else that has not been mentioned today is the important investment of nearly £68 million in digital mental health services to provide online therapies. It is absolutely critical that we can multiply the expertise out to as many people as possible, making it easily accessible through digital technology.
In the couple of minutes I have remaining, I want to highlight what else we need to do next. We need to learn from best practice. Peer-to-peer support does not cost a huge amount and we need to ensure that we do it. The Emotionally Healthy Schools programme in Cheshire East has been particularly helpful. We must also ensure that there is counselling support and space available at school.
I know that you are keen for me to wind up, Mr Nuttall, but let me just say one thing in conclusion. We need to ensure that the digital funding that is available pushes forward recognition for greater support from social media themselves. Often social media are a cause or an amplifier of mental health challenges. We must ensure that easily accessible apps are in place to support these young children.
Finally, given what the Prime Minister has said, it is time for our various third sector charities to come together with a clear set of asks for the Government and a clear plan of action that they would like to see us take forward; YoungMinds, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardo’s and all organisations that have clear expertise bringing to bear a clear plan of action that will deliver for those young people who are suffering and those we do not want to see suffer in the years ahead.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. As a former secondary school teacher with more than 23 years’ experience, I am pleased to be speaking in the debate, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) for bringing it forward. He has direct personal experience of the issue and has spoken movingly about it. I think that we would all agree that he has moved the debate forward, certainly in England, where much more focus has been placed on the matter.
There is no doubt that over the past 20 years we have all started to become more aware of mental health, and of how widespread its challenges are in our society. The right hon. Member for North Norfolk articulated the importance of continuing to move the agenda forward, and that is a very good thing, because the greater our awareness of different mental health issues, the forms they can take and the challenges they pose to our society, the better equipped and educated we are as we try to deal with them, and that is never more true than in a school setting.
We know that the teenage years can be challenging in and of themselves, as young people grow, discover who they are and try to find their own path in life, and mental health issues that are not addressed in those formative years can scar a young life forever. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) pointed out, the whole family unit is scarred and caused real pain and anxiety.
We often hear Governments talking about attainment, teaching and learning, nurturing and citizenship, and inclusion, but none of those things are possible in their truest sense unless our children and young people enjoy good health, including good mental health. The statistics outlined by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) are truly shocking. Apart from the human cost, we of course need to consider the huge economic cost.
All those who have contact with young people are charged with creating a supportive, positive and fostering environment. Of course parents have a role to play, but things might manifest themselves in school and not at home, so all those who have contact with children must be vigilant. Schools have a privileged and important role in child protection. I can think of examples from my time in education when it was through the vigilance of a teacher that a young person who was struggling was identified and offered vital support, shielding the young person from falling into a downward spiral of problems and despair.
In Scotland, child and adolescent mental health services are linked to schools, and they work with young people referred to them by schools. The number of mental health professionals in those services has more than doubled under the current Scottish Administration. We all of course welcome the extra £15 million announced by the UK Government to help tackle mental health issues in young people, because we know that it is important in achieving positive outcomes.
I want to say a word or two, if you will permit me, Mr Nuttall, about some of the work that has been ongoing in Scotland for a number of years. In Scotland we have already built up support networks at the early intervention level to ensure that young people, parents and health professionals, as well as schools, are much more aware of how to help young people who begin to show signs of mental distress. In addition, we have already seen good examples of staff in schools being upskilled in areas such as mental health first aid, and some schools have involved young people themselves in the training programmes, so that they can support their peers. That might go some way towards tackling the stigma, which the right hon. Member for North Norfolk outlined.
In Scotland we are getting better at this work. The demand for child and adolescent mental health services has increased year on year, with 10% to 20% more young people starting treatment every year. That is being driven in part by the unmet need that we know has always existed across the entire UK, which is now being picked up by GPs, staff in schools and other children’s services. We are getting better, but we are not there yet, and there can be no room for complacency on such a serious, widespread and important issue. I will point out, however, that for a number of years now Scotland has had a dedicated Minister for mental health, which is a symbol of the kind of commitment required by the enormous social issue with which we are confronted.
The new measures announced by the UK Government are good—of course they are, as far as they go—but let us not forget that, as the fierce advocate for mental health, the right hon. Member for North Norfolk, has already pointed out, mental health funding has not always made it to the frontline services where it is desperately needed, and that must be addressed. I note the comments about waiting times, and I say to the Minister that Scotland was the first nation in the world to introduce, in 2010, waiting time targets for child and adolescent mental health services. That is a good path that the UK Government should think about going down. Unfortunately, in 2015 people in England were told that it was not feasible to have such targets. Why is it not feasible? If it can be done in Scotland, there is absolutely no reason why it should not be done in England.
Every constituent part of the UK needs a coherent, ambitious and bold mental health strategy to address the scourge of poor mental health, which has a huge effect on society. The Scottish National party Government is in the process of setting out their vision for mental health for the next 10 years, to transform mental healthcare in Scotland—including for children and young people—funded to the tune of £5 billion over this parliamentary term, funding that has been prioritised despite enormous budgetary pressure.
It is that kind of big thinking—that joined-up thinking—that is needed by those living with poor mental health wherever they live in the United Kingdom. I am interested in the plans that the Minister will set out today. Will she look at some of the excellent work being done in Scotland to see what lessons can be learnt to improve the situation in England?
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Nuttall. I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) on securing this debate.
We have heard from Members of all parties: my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), who was here for a short while; my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon); and the hon. Members for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), for Macclesfield (David Rutley), and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). We have heard much today much about the state of mental health services for children and young people, which was the focus yesterday, and about some of the causes and challenges. I, too, welcomed the Prime Minister’s intervention on children’s mental health yesterday. It was a step in the right direction, but inadequate without work on existing resources, which I will come on to. If mental health treatment is a burning injustice, it needs more than what I have seen summarised as teacher training, a review and a Green Paper.
Providing mental health first aid training in secondary schools will help some young people, but given that 50% of mental health problems start by the age of 14, why is that training not being extended to primary schools? A further commitment could fund a counsellor in every school, as we have heard in this debate when it was discussed by the right hon. Member for North Norfolk. We have also heard about the excellent results of school counselling in Wales.
The Children’s Society has stated that school-based counselling is seen as accessible, non-stigmatising and effective by children and pastoral care staff. As we have heard, it estimates that the additional cost of ensuring a counsellor in every school would be around £36 million; that is an overall £90 million cost when we include the current use of counselling by schools. That is not a great sum and it could make a great difference.
Personal, social, health and economic education should be statutory in our schools. That already has the support of the House. The Chairs of four Select Committees, including the Health and Education Committees, supported that as a
“crucial part of preparing young people for life.”
Importantly, the most recent Ofsted report on PSHE provision found that in two fifths of schools where learning was weak, pupils have gaps in their knowledge
“in the serious safeguarding areas of personal safety in relation to sex and relationships, mental health, and alcohol misuse.”
Does the Minister agree that if the Government are serious about tackling the stigma around mental health, making high-quality PSHE lessons statutory would be a good place to start?
Clearly, schools can play an important role in identifying vulnerable young people who may be living with mental ill health, such as those in care or those who have experienced abuse and neglect. Schools need to be supported to identify and respond to the safeguarding and emotional needs of young people affected by abuse and neglect, yet according to the Children’s Society, less than half of mental health trusts have clear pathways set up for referrals of children who have experienced sexual exploitation. If we think of the number of places in this country where that has been an issue, that is a serious gap.
Given the emphasis on the role of schools, it is deeply worrying that the National Union of Teachers’ analysis of Government figures for the national funding formula consultation found that funding would be cut from a very large percentage—98%—of England’s schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, referred to the impact of cuts on schools’ budgets and their ability to fund counsellors. Some Conservative Members feel that their budgets will improve, but for many schools, they will not. Does the Minister agree that putting greater financial pressure on schools will, as we have heard, damage their ability to employ counsellors and take on other vital work to link schools with mental health services?
If schools and teachers take on a role in mental health, they need to be able to make a referral to mental health services quickly. On average, nearly one in four young people are turned away due to high thresholds for accessing services. It is unacceptable that vulnerable young people are turned away from the services they need. When young people do get access to services, they can still experience wide variations in waiting times across the country; average waiting times for treatment range from two weeks in Cheshire to 19 weeks in north Staffordshire. Such disparities must be addressed.
I turn briefly to the issue of young people in crisis waiting long periods for a bed, or being admitted to units hundreds of miles from home; as we know, that includes young people with eating disorders being sent to Scotland for treatment. It is clear that the stress and sense of isolation that that causes can damage a young person’s chances of recovery.
The Prime Minister said yesterday:
“By 2021, no child will be sent away from their local area to be treated for a general mental health condition.”
That is simply not soon enough. Will the Minister tell us whether that target of 2021 for out-of-area bed placements can be brought forward?
I turn now to CAMHS funding and the £1.4 billion of extra funding promised from 2015 to 2020. YoungMinds found, through freedom of information requests, that in 2015-16, only just over a third of clinical commissioning groups had increased their CAMHS spending by the full amount allocated to them, and this year only 50% of the CCGs had increased their spending to reflect the additional funds. As we have heard in this debate, it is totally wrong for such funding to be used for other NHS priorities. We have also heard that it is important that we know what commissioners are spending the CAMHS funding on. The hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds was right to talk about Members of Parliament being able to drill down into CAMHS spending.
There has been an issue with the way that CCGs have reported their CAMHS spending to NHS England. The Royal College of Psychiatrists reported that CAMHS funding ranges from £2 per child per year in NHS Luton to more than £135 per child per year in NHS Birmingham South and Central. When pressed, the CCGs with the lowest expenditure levels said that they had reported only the figure for the additional spending allocated to them, rather than their total CAMHS spending.
In our debate on children’s mental health in October, the Minister talked about delivering “accountability through transparency” on spending. I wrote to her on 7 December about the confusion among CCGs on the figures that they should be reporting on their CAMHS spending. I asked her to investigate and, if necessary, issue guidance so that we have the accurate figures on CAMHS spending that we need if we are to monitor that important area. I have yet to receive a response, so perhaps the Minister will respond on that issue.
Given that one in four young people are being turned away from services, we should be prioritising practical and measurable solutions to make sure that young people who need to access mental health services can do so. The Government can start the improvements, as a springboard from what the Prime Minister covered yesterday, by ensuring that the entire £250 million that was promised in each year of this Parliament is spent as intended. This spending should be ring-fenced for CAMHS and not used elsewhere in the NHS. If the social care precept can be ring-fenced, why not funding for children’s mental health?
Some schools in some parts of the country are doing excellent work on the “Future in mind” programme. In Salford, we have an emotionally friendly schools programme to support our teaching staff. We have approved registers for schools counselling. We have established school champions and young ambassadors for peer support. We are doing a review of transitions from primary to secondary school. We have developed an emotional health directory of services for children and young people, which sets out the services available and resources on websites. We are establishing a rapid response advice line for frontline professionals in schools to give them advice and guidance in times of crisis or if they lack understanding.
So much is going on, but as the right hon. Member for North Norfolk said, things are not even across the country. The Government should make it a priority to ensure that young people have timely access to clinically effective mental health support when they need it. “Future in mind” set out
“A five year programme to develop a comprehensive set of access and waiting times standards”
to bring rigour to mental health. I feel that a five-year programme is too long. It does not seem fair to spend so long developing access and waiting time standards when young people are not receiving the treatment that they need. Does the Minister agree?
Yesterday’s announcement could have been of a counsellor in every school, statutory PSHE and the ring-fencing of funding for children’s mental health. The things that we have discussed in this debate and to which I have just referred would have more impact on the burning injustice of mental health treatment than what has been summarised as teacher training, a review and a Green Paper.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I thank the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), his colleagues and the Children’s Society for initiating this debate. As ever, I pay tribute to his continuing personal commitment to improving mental health services, not only as my predecessor but also through chairing the commission on children and young people’s mental health for the Education Policy Institute. That work has been extremely valuable to us.
The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that today’s debate is both timely and hugely important. As many colleagues have demonstrated in their comments, we know the distress that mental health problems cause to individuals and those who care for them. Some 10% of children have a diagnosable disorder—700,000 in the UK—and they are twice as likely to leave school with no qualifications, four times more likely to become drug dependent and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. He could not have put it better. There is a compelling moral, as well as social and economic, case for change. We know that if we can get our children and young people the help and support they need early on, when problems first arise, we can make sure that the problems do not become entrenched. That is why the Prime Minister was clear in her determination to improve mental health services and tackle the burning injustice of those with mental ill health having a shorter life expectancy.
As has been discussed, the measures announced by the Prime Minister particularly tackle children and young people’s mental wellbeing and build on the substantial work already in train to implement “Future in mind”. We will continue that work, so that we can go further and faster in intervening earlier more often. In driving those reforms forward, one of the challenges we still face—the right hon. Member for North Norfolk identified this when he was a Minister—is the “fog” when trying to identify and pinpoint the best treatment and support for those with mental health problems. We need to base policies on the most robust evidence possible, so that we can be sure that we are providing the care that people need at the right time and in the right way.
That is why the Department for Education is conducting a large-scale school survey on the activities and approaches used in schools to support children and young people’s mental health in order to find out what works best, and why the Prime Minister requested that the Care Quality Commission undertake an in-depth thematic review—the first of its kind. That is also why we are carrying out a prevalence survey on children and young people’s mental health—the first since 2004, which was before YouTube, Twitter or Snapchat. The survey will look at issues such as cyber-bullying and the impact of social media for the first time, and it is on course to report in 2018. It will fill an important gap in our understanding.
As the right hon. Member for North Norfolk knows, I believe very strongly that transparency in mental health services has lagged behind that in acute services. At a national level, data on children and young people’s mental health services were included in the new mental health services data set for the first time in January. It is still early days, but as collection improves, new metrics to monitor delivery are becoming available. We know from experience in acute services that that does improve accountability, standards and safety for patients. I will respond in detail to the comments of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) about her letter—I do not have time to do that properly right now—but we are looking at how we can drive accountability, eradicate all shadow of confusion from clinical commissioning groups about how they should be reporting, and make sure that we get that data set exactly right. As recommended by the taskforce, we will publish a 10-year research strategy to ensure that the evidence-gathering is sustained. A new policy research unit for mental health will be established in 2017 to make sure that the research continues to become a reality.
While all the evidence-gathering is going on, we cannot stand still. That is why we will press ahead with the implementation of “Future in mind”. As the right hon. Member for North Norfolk said, some areas are performing well and improving, some need to get the message about why this is important, and others are coming from such a low base that they are still working on capacity building, so we are not seeing evidence of improvement yet, but we are clear that we are ambitious not only to deliver “Future in mind” but to go further upstream and intervene earlier to prevent problems. The evidence base that we are building will come together to support the publication of the Green Paper, with increasing focus on preventive activity across all delivery partners. The Prime Minister committed initially to a new focus on schools, colleges and local NHS services working more closely together to provide dedicated children and young people’s mental health services. We are supporting schools and the NHS to develop work by evaluating models and approaches and exploring the impact that closer working can have. We will initially support that by funding the provision of mental health first aid training for teachers in secondary schools—we know that that works. That is our start. I am going to do the training in the next few weeks, to see exactly why it works.
As we know, the Prime Minister also launched a refreshed programme of activity on peer support in schools and online to help young people, through providing access to well-trained mentors, as well as comprehensive support structures to help identify issues and prevent them from escalating.
Absolutely. We are also looking at increasing support for schools by finding the evidence of what is proven to work in their approaches to mental wellbeing. That will be achieved by a programme of randomised control trials of promising preventive programmes across the country. As the hon. Lady also mentioned, the refreshed suicide strategy has a particular focus on self-harm, which is causing so many problems in schools.
To make the measures work and to see the progress that we so desperately need, we have to work closely with colleagues across Government. As colleagues have said, schools and colleges have an important role to play in supporting children and young people’s mental health. That role is not only laid out in statutory safeguarding guidance but is one of the four areas of Ofsted judgment in the new common inspection framework.
Colleagues are right: if we are to expect schools to play this role, we must give them the right training and resources. In 22 pilot areas, which include 255 schools across the country, NHS England has been trialling a single point of contact in schools. That programme has tested improvements in joint working between school settings and specialist mental health services—particularly improvements in local knowledge and identification of mental health issues—and it aims to develop and maintain effective local referral routes to specialist services to ensure that children and young people have timely access to specialist support where required. It is also testing the idea of a lead contact in schools and specialist mental health services and examining how different areas choose to put that into practice. The work is being independently evaluated by Ecorys, and the final report will be available in the spring. The question is whether that system is more effective than having an individual counsellor in every school. We are looking at that.
Other support available includes Government-funded PSHE Association guidance, and lesson plans on how to teach mental health across all four key stages. A range of training on how to recognise specific mental health issues is available to all professionals who work with young people through the MindEd website; our analytics have shown that teachers are the largest single group of registered users on the MindEd tool. As the shadow Minister said, mental health and wellbeing is an evolving and vital area of education, and we need to make sure that it is fit for children growing up in modern Britain, so the DFE is looking again at the case for further action on PSHE and sex education provision, with particular regard to improving quality and accessibility. I am sure that it will keep the House updated on that.
The right hon. Member for North Norfolk is absolutely right that school counselling can turn around a child’s whole life trajectory, so schools are encouraged to provide counselling services, and the DFE has produced guidance on good school-based counselling as part of a whole-school approach to wellbeing. It has also published advice on behaviour and mental health, which provides teachers with information, and with tools to help them identify pupils who need help and to give effective early support in understanding when a referral to a specialist mental health service may be necessary. An advisory group, including sector experts and young people, looked at what good peer support for mental health and wellbeing looks like and considered how to encourage good practice in schools, community groups and online. There is much greater recognition that the earlier we pick up these things, the better it is for young people and their mental health.
The “Children and Young People’s Mental Health: Time to Deliver” report from the right hon. Member for North Norfolk found that we are making progress in many areas of the country, but not nearly enough to be complacent. I agree completely with that. We are restless in our ambition not only to drive delivery of “Future in mind” in all areas, but to go further and deliver upstream interventions to prevent problems, rather than waiting until the need for treatment. I hope that I have convinced the right hon. Gentleman that this is an area to which we are fully committed, and that we will continue to drive forward with his agenda.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of supporting children’s wellbeing and mental health in a school environment.
Leaving the EU: European Social Funding in Scotland and the UK
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the UK leaving the EU on European Social Funding in Scotland and the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. During the EU referendum campaign last year, great importance was attributed, and a lot of time was given, to the debate about how much money the UK contributes to the EU. One spurious and now debunked claim was plastered on the side of a now infamous bus. However, seldom spoken of before, during or after the referendum campaign were the funds that come back from the EU to the UK, where they go and the difference they make. We live now in post-vote, pre-Brexit uncertainty, in which the vacuous slogan “Brexit means Brexit” is accepted as satisfactory political discourse, although it has little meaning. Indeed, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, stated last week that even after high-level talks with the UK Government she is no further forward in understanding the UK Government’s negotiating plan.
The debate during the run-up to the referendum became so shrill and engulfed in dog-whistle politics that the many benefits of EU membership were ignored in favour of focusing on borders and migrants, even though those benefits make a huge difference to many communities in many constituencies, including mine. I am, of course, referring to European structural investment funds, which bolster and boost economic development across the EU’s member states and regions. Since their inception in the 1970s, European structural funds have enabled great progress to be made in reducing economic and social inequalities among the EU’s member states and regions.
My remarks, and indeed my concerns, focus predominantly, but not exclusively, on the European Social Fund. Like other nations across Europe, Scotland has benefited enormously from European social funding. That great investment in our people has created invaluable opportunities in employment and education in the city of Glasgow and across Scotland and the UK. In the current period—2014 to 2020—Scotland will benefit from the European Social Fund to the tune of £464 million. Those funds, matched by the Scottish Government, will see millions of pounds invested across the country to improve sustainable and quality employment, to promote social inclusion and combat poverty, to create opportunities in education and employment, and to fight youth unemployment.
It is easy to distil facts and figures into rhetoric while missing the impact on the lives of real people in our communities, for whom European social funding helps to bridge a gap. In communities in my constituency, partnership working with local housing associations, such as that between Parkhead Housing Association and Glasgow Kelvin College, uses outreach to teach computing skills to people in their own communities and community centres, which lowers digital exclusion and helps people to attain the confidence and skills they need to achieve their potential. The system would otherwise leave behind many of those people.
The last round of European social funding—2007 to 2013—supported fantastic and worthwhile projects across Scotland. Glasgow City Council helped people out of gangs and into work. Coatbridge College provided employability services to school leavers. Glasgow Met worked with ethnic minorities to improve employability skills. The Wise Group helped people find routes out of prison. Fife Council tackled worklessness. Glasgow Clyde College provided community-based training. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce offered business mentoring. Dundee College helped people not in education, employment or training. ENABLE Scotland supported people with learning difficulties into work. The Glasgow Centre for Inclusive Living helped people with disabilities to secure work.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling case about the impact of the loss of European social funding on Glasgow and the surrounding area. Does she agree that the loss of ESF funding will have serious consequences right across urban and rural Scotland, including on my constituency, whose fragile economy benefits greatly from ESF funding and whose people voted overwhelmingly to remain within the European Union?
Before coming to this place, I worked at South Lanarkshire College, and I saw for myself the immense difference to people’s lives that ESF funding can make. Does my hon. Friend agree that there are many people in our local communities, including mine, whose lives are on a very different and more positive trajectory because of the benefits of colleges such as South Lanarkshire and the work they do with European funds?
The hon. Member makes a very important point. The post-Brexit discourse has focused on higher education and other sectors, but not much on further education and the invaluable work that is done in local communities—at the very coalface, in the sense that people in colleges and community groups go into the very hearts of communities, where people are hardest to reach. That work is invaluable, and the hon. Member’s point is well made.
The projects that I mentioned are only a few of the many supported through European funding that make a tangible and real difference to the lives of people in Scotland and across the rest of the UK. This year alone, Glasgow Kelvin College, a further education institution that serves my constituents and has a campus in the Easterhouse area of my constituency, secured £1.5 million-worth of European social funds, on top of £1.9 million last year, which enabled it to continue its fantastic work on employability and vocational skills across Glasgow. That European social funding directly supports real jobs—more than 10 of them—and helps to create opportunities for many more.
In the past few months, I have met the principals of colleges in Glasgow with groups and organisations whose work relies on European social funding. They are worried about the future. They should currently be considering future bids for funding, but little or no information has been forthcoming about where they stand. The Government can provide certainty to Nissan and talk about guaranteeing research and technology funding to appease the higher education sector, but European social funding is the Kevin McAllister of the Brexit rush—drowned out by louder voices, trampled on in the rush to get out the door and left home alone.
The elephant in the room is, of course, the fact that the UK is leaving the EU, and that no non-EU country has ever received European social funding. Brexit is not the circumstance of Scotland’s or Glasgow’s choosing. Organisations across our city and throughout our country stand to lose hundreds of millions of pounds. Our people the length and breadth of Scotland and the UK stand to lose invaluable services and support, which will be to the detriment of their lives and our economy.
My constituency—indeed, our entire city and our country—voted to remain, yet our further education and communities face Brexit’s damaging consequences unless the Government stand up now and guarantee that they will protect the funding for projects at an equitable and comparable level. The true and full impact that the projects financed by the European Social Fund have may not be fully realised during one round of funding, but it will be undoubtedly real and lasting. That cannot be said of the impact that taking it away will have—it will be immediate and painful. EU funding has been an integral feature of Scotland’s educational, employment and economic landscape for so long that the removal of those key resources cannot be easily done—at least, not without substantial damage.
The hon. Member has pre-empted almost my next sentence.
Worse still, because structural funds are targeted at poorer regions and areas of higher socioeconomic disadvantage, the impact will be disproportionate if such gargantuan funding gaps cannot be filled. Of course, the UK Government have announced that they will underwrite all EU structural and investment fund projects signed before the autumn statement last year, and that they will assess whether to underwrite funding for certain other projects that are signed after the autumn statement but before the UK leaves the EU. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that the UK Government were
“determined to ensure that people have stability and certainty in the period leading up to our departure from the EU”.
That statement, however, is at odds with the Government’s position, and their rhetoric is far from reconciling with the reality facing organisations in Glasgow, across Scotland and, indeed, throughout the UK. The Government’s position falls far short of what is needed. It is a limited guarantee for a narrow number of schemes for a restricted number of years, and it will leave Glasgow and Scotland hundreds of millions of pounds worse off than if we were still members of the EU. Organisations throughout Scotland that provide invaluable services do not have the certainty or security that the Chancellor has promised them.
In December, at Education questions in the House, I expressed those specific concerns. After I asked my question, the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), who had campaigned to leave, asked:
“Given that all EU spending in Britain is simply returning part of our gross contribution to the EU budget, would it not be sensible for the Government simply to commit now to replacing EU funding with UK Exchequer funding, thereby keeping everyone happy?”
The Minister for Schools replied that the
“the United Kingdom Government will decide how best to spend the money that was previously going to the European Union.”—[Official Report, 19 December 2016; Vol. 618, c. 1164.]
That was certainly more substantive than “Brexit means Brexit”, but no more enlightening.
With an eye to the future, what assessment have the Government made of the impact of losing EU structural funding on economic growth, output, productivity and employment in Scotland and throughout the UK? Does the UK intend to adopt a similar social and regional development programme to that of the European social fund and the European regional development fund? If so, would the UK Government match the existing allocated structural fund budget in absolute terms? Would any new programme have the same priority areas of focus as EU structural funds? The EU structural funding programmes allow for long-term planning over a seven-year period. Would the UK Government commit to a similar seven-year funding structure, or would it be different?
In the here and now, will the Government confirm that European social funding will not be frozen during the negotiations for the UK to leave the EU? Will the Government confirm what discussions they have had with the EU to ensure that structural funding that has been allocated to Scotland for 2014 to 2020 will not be clawed back? Finally, will the Government commit to undertake an evaluation of the European regional aid lost to Scotland during 1975 to 1995 because of the Government’s deployment of a subtractionality funding model?
The UK Government can, should and must do more. Ignorance, or indeed arrogance, will simply not suffice. It would be unforgivable for Scotland to be punished for a situation not of its own making; to suffer for an ill-judged Westminster gamble to appease Eurosceptic Back Benchers. Now is not the time for uncertainty for the further education sector or invaluable community projects. The Government can end that uncertainty now.
Guaranteeing existing levels of support and match funding is not subject to treaty negotiations with EU partners; we are talking about the here and now, and about what the Government choose to prioritise. The Government cannot hide behind empty slogans because this is about the Exchequer and the Government’s spending priorities. The Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street and said that she wanted a Government who would work for all. Prove it. She should not disregard Scotland and not ignore our interests, and she should show us her plan and that she is serious about protecting Scotland.
It is a great pleasure again to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) on securing the debate and on her thoughtful contribution. I also thank the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for their additions to the debate, which has been useful and interesting.
The European social fund was set up with the objective of creating a more cohesive society, as well as a more prosperous economy throughout the EU. Projects throughout the UK, including in Scotland, have received funding from the fund. Under the ESF programmes for 2014 to 2020, a total of €466 million was allocated to Scotland. Funding for some 123 projects has already been agreed. The previous ESF programme in Scotland saw more than 430 projects funded and completed, and more than 390,000 people supported. In England, 86% of participants said that they had, for example, developed skills required in work.
Leaving the EU means that we will want to take our own decisions about how to spend our own money, which will continue to deliver the policy objectives previously targeted by EU funding. That is the context in which we have gathered for this debate. I would like to start by saying that I recognise the concerns of the hon. Member for Glasgow East and others who have spoken so passionately in the debate. She asked for certainty. I agree that it is essential that we provide certainty for recipients of ESF funding. That is why in October my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced certain guarantees.
All European structural and investment funds projects signed before last year’s autumn statement will be guaranteed, including those funded by the ESF. That also includes those projects that will continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU. Moreover, funding for projects signed after the autumn statement, but before we leave the EU, will also be guaranteed—that is, providing that the responsible Department is content that the projects provide strong value for money and are in line with domestic strategic priorities, which are both reasonable points.
All those assurances were very welcome when they were made, but the problem remains that we have an issue beyond that. We need to look to the future. We need a guarantee of funding—a pot of funding that will still be available for further and higher education way into the next decade.
I recognise the hon. Lady’s point, which I will cover. It is important that we have a long-term objective, that we spend money wisely and that we get the best possible solution.
The Government will ensure that the devolved Administrations are funded to meet the commitments they have made under current EU budget allocations. Given that the administration of EU funding is devolved, it will be for the devolved Administrations to decide the criteria used to assess projects.
I would like to respond to some of the specific points made. I want to reassure the hon. Member for Glasgow East about the guarantees, to which I referred, announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor—specifically, to ensure that recipients of funding throughout the UK, including Scotland, will have payments guaranteed. After Brexit, they will continue to be guaranteed. They will not be frozen or clawed back during the negotiations. That is an important point. The Government have committed to consulting stakeholders to review all EU funding schemes in the round. In the meantime, the Chancellor has made two guarantees, which I have mentioned. The hon. Lady’s questions are the very types of question that we hope and anticipate stakeholders will raise in the consultation, and the Government will listen carefully to everyone’s contributions.
It is also worth putting it on record that the UK Government’s decision to focus on investment, which was announced in the recent autumn statement, will result in the Scottish Government’s capital budget being increased by some £800 million by 2021—money that can be used to boost productivity and promote growth in Scotland. Significantly, the Scotland Act 2016 also enables the Scottish Government to raise more than half of its own funding.
In conclusion, as we are all very aware, the UK will leave the EU. The Government are determined to make a success of that for all of the UK, including Scotland. We have been clear about the contribution of funding secured through the ESF, but leaving the EU means that we will want to take our own decisions about how to spend UK money. Brexit will allow us to do that. The Government will work closely with the Scottish Government to get the best possible deal for all parts of our United Kingdom. We will give the Scottish Government every opportunity to have their say as we form our negotiating strategy, and the Government will continue in the coming months to consult stakeholders to review all EU funding schemes in the round. We are very much in listening mode.
Our aim will be to ensure that any ongoing funding commitments best serve the UK’s national interest while ensuring appropriate certainty. The Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations will be fully involved. In the meantime, it remains important that recipients of ESF funding continue to implement good value projects. The coming years will present a number of opportunities, which we must grasp and maximise. I am encouraged by the commitment of those who have spoken in support of vital schemes in their constituencies, and we will continue to work closely with all partners to ensure that every part of the UK prospers.
Question put and agreed to.
Soft Drinks Industry Levy: Funding for Sport in Schools
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the allocation of funding from the soft drinks industry levy for sport in schools.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David? This is a subject that I am passionate about. Since becoming an MP, I have spoken in a number of debates on the power of sport to influence good behaviour, create opportunities and provide enjoyment. I must stress that the purpose of the debate is to focus not on whether we are right or wrong to have a sugar tax, but on how we should spend the levy, now that the decision has been taken. With a £500 million pot, that is a significant amount of money that can make a genuine difference.
I must thank all the organisations that have contacted me in recent days ahead of the debate, including: the Sports and Recreation Alliance, which is understandably keen to see sporting opportunities increase; Sustrans, which wants to see more funding for walking and cycling programmes to and from school; Youth Sport Trust, which has also focused on the sports element and the link between greater physical activity and greater academic performance, which I know the Minister for School Standards will welcome; and ukactive, which has done a huge amount of research, highlighting in particular the cliff edge fall in activity during school holidays, which I will come back to. I was also contacted by health organisations such as: Diabetes UK, which is obviously in favour of reducing the amount of sugar being used; Cancer Research UK, on the same principle; and the Royal College of Surgeons, on behalf of dental surgeons, obviously to reduce tooth decay.
This is an important subject, because one third of children are obese or overweight by the time they leave primary school. To me, that was a staggering statistic to read. When I was growing up, it seemed that all of us were active and charging around, so I was staggered by the figure of one third—one in three. That is not only an alarming figure; social norms start to be created. If an increasing number of children are overweight or obese, that becomes acceptable and therefore it starts to increase. On a topical level, through the NHS we currently spend £6 billion a year helping people with illnesses linked to being either overweight or obese. How we could better spend that money if there were fewer obese people. And an obese child is five times more likely to be an obese adult than an adult who was not obese as a child.
The Youth Sport Trust highlights that only 21% of boys and 16% of girls meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity. I recognise that we are competing with video games, shrinking gardens—back gardens are now one third smaller than they were in the 1960s—and cautious parents. When I was growing up, parents did not think anything of children disappearing on long bike rides, playing in distant parks and going to their friends’ houses far afield, whereas nowadays parents are understandably worried if their children are out of sight. Again, that limits the opportunity to be active.
The Government recognise that we have to do something. In August 2016 they published “Childhood obesity: a plan for action” with the aim of reducing significantly the rate of childhood obesity. The plan included the soft drinks levy, which is worth £520 million a year, and clearer food labelling—something I pushed for in the previous Parliament through my work with the British Heart Foundation—because we have a duty to allow consumers to make informed decisions. Another fact that surprised me—I say this as someone who does enjoy drinking sugar-laced fizzy drinks but who wishes to be informed—was that a five-year-old should take in no more than 19 grams of sugar a day, yet one can of Coke contains 35 grams. How many consumers actually know that? If they did, would they change their habits?
Crucially, the plan was announced as part of a nudge policy, where we gave the industry two years to make changes. I recognise that many of the leading manufacturers and retailers are already making changes—as I said, I am not focusing on whether the levy was right or wrong, but clearly part of the strategy is to influence behaviour—but, as we have recognised that physical activity is good for health and good for improving academic performance, I welcomed that the money would be ring-fenced to spend on activities connected to schools. If we are to have a tax and get extra money, let us ensure that that money is spent in the right way. The best way to do that for children is through schools.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this important subject to the Chamber. Given his enthusiasm for sport in schools, which I share, would he like to comment on the coalition Government’s decision to scrap the school sport partnerships in 2010, which has had a really detrimental effect on sport in our schools? I do not see the sugar tax as going all the way to replacing the excellent school sport partnership scheme that we had.
Actually, that was the very first time I rebelled—I was rewarded by sitting on some obscure European committees thing for five years to think carefully about my actions. The funding was not scrapped. There was a change and initially a proposal to remove the ring-fencing, but the money was then once again ring-fenced, though schools were allowed to choose how to spend it on sports-related programmes. I supported that because we have got some fantastic school sport partnerships that are still thriving today—including my local one—but there were also some pretty poor ones, which have gone by the wayside, and those schools have now spent that money on individual sports coaches, sports clubs and things like that. We got there in the end, and funding has increased in this area since 2010.
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the issue of sport, no one is against using some of the sugar tax revenue for encouraging greater sporting activities, but does he not accept that in his constituency, in mine and in everyone else’s, during the school holidays large numbers of children who would have free school dinners during term time do not get any food from the school or free school dinners? Might not one of the ways of making the sugar tax progressive be to earmark part of the revenue to ensure that schools could at least lay on the facilities for voluntary bodies to provide school dinners during the holidays?
That is a powerful point, and I agree with the sentiment of it. I would not necessarily use the sugar tax money, but that is something that the Government could consider as a wider point. It is a fair point, and actually some of the head teachers in some of the more deprived parts of my constituency have raised similar concerns about what happens to the children not just with regard to eating, but on wider issues throughout the holidays.
As it stands, there will be £285 million to extend the school day in secondary schools in relation to sport, £160 million to double the primary school physical education budget, and £10 million to expand breakfast clubs. That was welcomed by Emma Boggis, the chief executive of the Sport and Recreation Alliance, who said it will
“deliver more opportunities to get children of a young age active”
“to stay active in later life.”
That is an important point. We must recognise that the opportunities we create must be regular and sustainable, because we also recognise that if the Government’s intention for the sugar tax works out and all the manufacturers reformulate their products and customers switch from full-sugar versions to zero-sugar versions, the amount of money will diminish. We must therefore ensure that the money is spent to seed regular sustainable activities. This is where I bring forward my rather reasonable—in my unbiased opinion—asks.
This has all come about from a visit to Oakhurst Community Primary School, which hosts the Draycott sports camp, run by Mark Draycott, a PE teacher at the school. The school runs after-school clubs, weekend clubs and school holiday clubs. There are lots of sports camps and I am sure that all of us as MPs have visited them at some point, but this one sets itself apart by a country mile. More than 200 primary schoolchildren were being active each and every single day in the last summer holidays, of whom slightly more were girls than boys—that is something for Sport England and the Sport Minister to recognise and celebrate, because that is a particular area of challenge—and they were engaging in all sorts of different sports.
A summary of how the camps work is that they run during every school holiday from 9 am to 6 pm, costing £12.50 a day, which is probably the cheapest childcare that a parent will find. They create an active environment that is inclusive and engaging for all abilities. That is vital, because a particularly sports-minded child probably has sports-minded parents and will already be signed up to a football, rugby or netball club. The camps are for the vast majority of children who are not necessarily sports-minded and who are the most likely to become obese.
The camps focus on helping children to be more active and introducing them to new sports—not only football and netball, but cricket, athletics, golf, lacrosse and so on—so that they can replicate what inspires them on the television. I visited a camp during the Olympics and saw them recreate the things that were inspiring them on the TV—it was amazing. Because Mark Draycott is a teacher, and because the majority of his support staff have connections to the school or are teachers themselves, they have the expertise to identify and support those children who are starting to fall by the wayside, and who are not naturally gifted or naturally enthusiastic about sports, to make sure that they remain engaged. They concentrate on killing the fear factor that some children have when playing sports and ensuring that they enjoy the activity. They are increasing participation among girls and bucking those national trends.
I highlight that because we have an opportunity to replicate this. As Mark Draycott said when he was interviewed on “BBC Points West” this morning, the camps should be not only at Oakhurst in Swindon, but all over the country; there should be hundreds and hundreds of them. They are sustainable, because the taxpayer is not paying him to do this—he is running the camps as his own organisation. However, the Government can help. First, anybody who wishes to set up one of these camps will need to build up numbers. We could therefore look to incentivise other people to do the same sort of thing as Mark by reducing the charge for hiring the school facilities at the beginning, until they build up the numbers and become sustainable in their own right and can keep going.
We also need to attract more good quality physical education teachers into the profession. We had a chronic shortage of PE teachers, although more are beginning to come in now. The beauty of this situation is that Mark Draycott came from a sporting background—he was a non-league sports player. The coalition Government tried to attract troops to become teachers, but it turned out that there were not millions of troops who wished to become teachers. However, there are many non-league sports stars who are minded and who, with the right incentives and the right instructions, could go on to become very good PE teachers in schools. I urge the Minister to look at that potential wealth of talent from whom, if we advertise to them, we could potentially recruit some very good people.
There could be lots of Draycott sports camps all over the country, which would be fantastic for those who wish to pay and can afford to do so—as I have seen, for 200 children every single day. That is something that we can replicate. However, I wish to go even further. I would also like to see all school facilities made available for free between 4 pm and 6 pm to any voluntary organisation that wishes to use them. For example, if some parents get together and wish to put on a netball, football or basketball club—I do not mind which, so long as it is a constructive activity for young people—between the hours of 4 pm and 6 pm, we should not charge them. Some of the sugar tax money can then be used to compensate the loss of income to schools. That is not a peak time for school hire fees, because school sporting facilities are generally used when offices and factories shut at 6 pm, which is when schools would expect to make their income. I therefore suspect that compensation would be only a modest part of that income, but it would remove the barrier that many enthusiastic parents find.
I know that, because I spent 10 years as a borough councillor in Swindon representing a new build area with private finance initiative schools. There were limited leisure facilities, yet there were fantastic sporting facilities that the taxpayer was paying for but which we could not afford to access at a time when they were simply not being used. That does not make sense. We can find people willing to give up their time; there are hundreds of sports clubs across all of our constituencies that would seize the opportunity to provide constructive opportunities that will make our children active, that will remain in place once the money starts to diminish and, crucially, that will help busy parents.
I absolutely pay tribute to teachers, parents and people in the local community who are prepared to give up their own time to provide constructive activities for young people. I want the Government to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit that Mark Draycott showed so that others can set up their own holiday camps and there are regular, good and exciting opportunities for young people.
In conclusion, I urge the Government to seize this opportunity. It is not often that a Department is given a significant increase in funding. I know from my time as a Minister that it is normally a case of wondering how on earth we can find money to do all of the worthy things we would like to do. However, this is an opportunity to benefit children by making them more active and therefore less obese, and to improve their academic achievement, because there is a direct link between those who are active and their ability to progress academically. It will also be a welcome blessing for hard-working, busy parents, whose biggest challenge is often what to do with children after school, during the long school holidays and at weekends. This offers the opportunity to deliver those long-term, sustainable solutions. I want every child to have as much fun as those children who go to the Draycott sports camp, and now is the time we can make that a reality.
When I first heard about the sugar levy, I was naturally against it; I am against taxes and I am against extra levies. However, as a member of the Health Committee, I saw the evidence for myself, and I realised that the issue of obesity is too great to ignore. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) has already alluded to some of the data, which show that one in five children start primary school either overweight or obese—that doubles for children in the most deprived parts of the country—and that one third of children now start secondary school either overweight or obese. However, what is really frightening is that children are now being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, which until recently was seen as a disease of older age.
Along with the Health Committee, I came to the conclusion that we must do whatever we can to combat this epidemic. Even though I am against taxes, this is part of a whole raft of measures that we need to take on board to protect the future health of our nation. We should not see the sugary drinks industry levy as a tax and as money that will always be there; we need to use it as part of a method of helping families to change the way they live and their current habits. As part of the plan is to encourage the industry to reduce the amount of sugar in drinks, the levy will decrease year on year, so we need to look at ways of ensuring that whatever uses for that money are set up now are sustainable, and that the young people do not fall off the cliff edge once the money is no longer there.
I am delighted that the money is going to be spent mainly in schools. Let us face it: children spend most of their time in the school environment. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon alluded to, they could spend even more time there and undertake some of the activities we have talked about. The school environment is perfect for creating new habits and for helping those habits to go to the home environment as well. We need to tackle obesity at every age. It is a huge problem in the adult population as well as in children. If we can change those habits in the children now, we will be changing those habits for life. That is really important.
There are two sides to how the levy can be spent. Today we are focusing on exercise, but it is also about nutritional education as well. That is why I am delighted that some of the money will be spent on extending breakfast clubs. I would like to see that not only for breakfast clubs, but for after-school clubs that can help children learn more about how to cook further meals, not just how to eat breakfast. We have a long way to go on that.
Let us focus more on how the money can be spent on activity within schools. As chair of the all-party group on adult and childhood obesity, this issue is very close to my heart. I have said before that the plan launched in August does not go far enough. It needs to be braver and bolder and to include more measurement. We can continue to have that argument. The plan set the ambition for children to have 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous exercise a day at primary school age, and for at least 30 minutes of that to be in the school environment. It also recommended expanding breakfast clubs, which I mentioned, and for secondary schools to be open longer, with some of those extended hours including sports clubs and groups. As my hon. Friend said, that could extend to the school holidays and not just be at the end of the school day.
It is important we are able to measure the outcomes of anything we put in place, because we need to know what works and what is cost-effective. As I said, the levy will reduce over time, so we need to know what is and is not worth investing more money in. Whatever we do should have a tick box for sustainability.
I have come up with some ideas. We have heard in the past about the daily mile, whereby children run or walk a mile every day within school time. However, some schools do not have the right environment for that. Some have playing fields, but at this time of year they can be very muddy. Investment in all-weather paths would be useful for the future, so that children are not discouraged by getting very muddy; sometimes children do not like to get dirty, and at other times they do. If they had a good environment, they could get out there and be active. Once that surface is in place, the activity becomes free and sustainable, and it could be used after school and in the school holidays, not just during school time.
Only last week I visited one of my schools in Ilkeston, Hallam Fields Junior School, which is a very fortunate school. It is built on the hillside and its playing fields and grounds have fantastic views, so the kids love going out to play. Not far away is another school that is enclosed by houses. Its outdoor facilities are just not as good. We need to encourage kids in schools where facilities do not lend themselves as easily to exercise and help those schools. Perhaps we can look at schools joining together in some way.
We need to extend this debate to what children do outside school. They can form habits within the school environment, but if those habits are not continued once they get home, it is not good for the children, for the parents or—let us face it—for the taxpayer. A number of family activities can be done at very low cost and with little investment. Once again, we could look at using some of the levy from the sugary drinks tax for that. As I said, schools need to provide at least 30 minutes of exercise per day, but that means parents need to provide more exercise as well every day.
Improving some of our parks could be one answer. I know that parkruns are very popular. In fact, Long Eaton parkrun has just received an award for being a good community group for the whole of Derbyshire, which is really encouraging. It does not cost anything, and it caters for all abilities and ages. If we could encourage more voluntary groups such as that to provide activities, that would be really good and in keeping with what my hon. Friend is talking about.
We have seen some great successes within the senior school environment through the “This Girl Can” campaign. One of my other schools, Kirk Hallam Community Academy, has been very successful in encouraging more girls to get involved in exercise. That has now filtered down from the secondary school to the local primary school, which is really good. Local authorities have responsibility for maintaining parks, but they also have responsibility for public health. If they were encouraged to invest more in outdoor activities that helped the public health side of things, it would be a win-win situation. It is important that there is joined-up government to ensure that we tackle the problem of obesity head-on. If we just leave it to one Department or another, I am sure it will fall through the net.
Cycling is another activity that allows parents to lead their children by example and helps to form lifetime habits. My hon. Friend talked about barriers. The cost of a bike could be a barrier to many families. We are all familiar with the Boris bike, so why not use that concept and have community bikes? Schools could play their part by providing a hub for community bikes. Families could book bikes, go out for a 5-mile or 10-mile cycle and then return them. There could be a range of bikes for all abilities and ages, and children could get some exercise and continue a habit formed in the school environment. That would benefit children and adults as well. It has been estimated that in the first year the sugary drinks levy will raise £520 million. In this context, that is not a lot of money, so it must be invested wisely and effectively. We must also be able to measure the impact.
I want to finish by painting a picture, which hopefully will help people to understand just how important it is to do whatever we can to tackle the obesity crisis. The sugary drinks levy is just one way to tackle this. Cancer Research UK recently revealed that teenagers drink almost a bathtub full of sugary drinks on average every year. That is shocking, and it needs to be changed. The sugary drinks levy must be just one part of a whole raft of measures, to ensure that our young people stop drinking that bathtub full of sugary drinks annually. Whatever we think about the sugary drinks tax, the money must be spent wisely and in a sustainable and measurable way.
It is Mr John Mc Nally. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I thank the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) for securing this debate and congratulate him on his rebellious nature. We are probably all very grateful for that. He might be welcome in our party in the not-too-distant future.
Well, you never know. We are growing as we go.
I welcome the introduction of the sugar tax with open arms. I was glad that the Chancellor looked at this issue and introduced this possibility, so that today we can look at how we best use this money. It is one of the biggest changes to benefit our communities in general.
I have to declare an interest. In the first instance, my three great-nieces, Liv, Honor and Celi, were all under the scholarship and tuition of Elaine Wyllie at St Ninians Primary School. I have seen that initiative working at first hand. I have also taken on board what Maggie, MP for Erewash, said about how to put in the proper surfaces—in fact, at that time, I was quite instrumental in helping the person who was laying the surfaces—and how to reduce the number of puddles on the surface so that people can train and walk on it. That initiative has been one of the biggest successes in the whole area, so I am very grateful to Elaine Wyllie.
At the last meeting of the APPG, where I am proud to serve under Maggie Throup, Elaine Wyllie came along to explain how successful the daily mile has been, and not only in Stirling and my own area of Falkirk, where all the schools are participating. I think that Barack Obama became involved in the initiative; it has spread through the whole world. It grips the imagination. We only have to stand and watch the children going to school to see the benefits in how they act. They are eating better and looking better, and their attention to school matters is better. Everything from that initiative is a plus.
We have also had the benefit—again, through Maggie—of the drinks industry coming along to the APPG. It was interesting to hear from a vast company such as Coca-Cola what it was trying to do and the effect that the measure would have in terms of how it reformulates not only its cans of drink, but its whole way of thinking. This is not just a simple step from one thing to another; it is a huge investment that these companies have made, and we must be mindful of that.
There is another thing that Maggie has understated. I know for a fact that she got—
I am probably the opposite of pompous, and “Maggie” is easier to say than “Erewash”. Anyway, to be serious, the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) managed to get representatives of the drinks industry and the British retail industry along to the meeting, and it was fantastic to hear the exchanges between the audience and the drinks industry. There was a bit of honesty, which was great to hear.
I want now to move on to the second thing that is very close to my heart. One of the most striking things about the various meetings hosted by the APPG on adult and childhood obesity is that they are all extremely well attended—any of the other, side events are also extremely well attended. They have involved a huge variety of people with a background in medical knowledge. All the contributions have been superb and worth listening to, and the rooms are always full, but one thing that I find striking every time I hear it is that there are, I believe, only 12 health visitors in the whole United Kingdom who have any in-depth professional knowledge of how to give advice to a mother and child on childhood obesity and how to deal with it. My wife, who is a recently retired health visitor and master of public health, has become extremely interested in pursuing that.
That is a great intervention. Being a man, I sometimes miss these things, but my wife has pointed out to me very often that there are—[Laughter.] She is never shy and, being a good husband, I always listen to what she has to tell me—I learned early that that saves an awful lot of grief.
The serious point is that there are not enough health visitors across the UK who are sufficiently well trained and educated on this matter. My wife is now preparing for a correspondence course. To reiterate the point, we need to look seriously at this: could we take some of the money from the sugar tax and apportion it towards training health visitors to a better level and to have a better understanding? That is really the point that I came here to make today.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) and my fellow Health Committee member, my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup). I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) for bringing this very important debate to the House.
I realise that this is not a debate about the sugar levy per se, but I would like to state at the outset that I fully support the levy. In fact, if anything, I would like it to be extended to include milk-based sugary drinks. It addresses a very important issue, and it is worth reminding ourselves of the data on health inequality from obesity. Now, in the most disadvantaged areas, 26% of the most deprived children are leaving year 6 not just overweight but obese, with extraordinary long-term consequences for both their mental and physical health, so we should remain focused on what the purpose of the measure is.
Let me also stress that we should not think about tackling obesity as just about sport; it is also about nutrition. We should not lose sight of that in the debate. Reducing calories has to be the mainstay of addressing childhood obesity. That said, we should also have a message that exercise and physical activity matters, whatever one’s age and weight, and has extraordinary benefits. I fully support the words of my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon about how we can incorporate sport as part of the anti-obesity strategy and about the importance of hypothecating the money raised by the sugary drinks levy so that it goes to these types of project and is focused on the most disadvantaged groups.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the 26% in the most deprived areas are probably children from the families who are least able to afford some of the things that have been mentioned, such as the £12.50 a day for sports activities, and that the cost of things should not rule out children who probably need that activity more than others?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I absolutely agree. It is essential, if we are to address some of the accusations that this is a regressive tax, that we ensure that it becomes progressive in the way the money and the resources are allocated. I think there has been a commitment to that. We can look at how the Government have stated they will spend the money—providing up to £285 million a year to give 25% of secondary schools in the most disadvantaged areas the opportunity to extend their school day, and £10 million of funding to expand breakfast clubs in the most disadvantaged areas. I absolutely agree with the hon. Members who have already commented that that could be extended into holiday periods. I am talking about how we look at nutrition, and expanding nutritional education and, in particular, targeting that on the most disadvantaged areas. We know that Mexico’s experience is that those on the lowest incomes end up spending more of their income on products such as sugary drinks, so we must be absolutely clear that the benefit returns primarily to the most disadvantaged, and of course it is the most disadvantaged areas that have the highest levels of childhood obesity, so I absolutely agree with what the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) has said.
This is primarily about school sport and how we hypothecate the money for activities in the most disadvantaged areas, although not just in the most disadvantaged areas. We have already heard the hon. Member for Falkirk pay tribute to Elaine Wyllie, and I add my tribute to her extraordinary achievements. She told me when I met her recently that if directors of public health take this initiative on board, that gives it much a greater impetus. She has looked at where it has been most successfully rolled out, and it is where directors of public health work together with education to push for it and see the benefits. Of course, the benefits are not just for children. The initiative is now being rolled out to families and staff in schools, so there is a whole-community approach to changing attitudes to mobility.
I would also like to make a point about active travel. The all-party parliamentary group on cycling, of which I am a member, held an inquiry in the last Parliament, “Get Britain Cycling”. One issue that was very clear from that was that active travel is one of the forms of activity that people are most likely to engage in over the long term. I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider how schools can engage with the programme and get children cycling to school and college. My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash pointed out that the cost of a bike can sometimes be a deterrent, but there are many things we can do about rolling out Bikeability to all ages across schools and ensuring that we focus on active travel, because that is the form of activity that people are most likely to sustain throughout their life.
I would also like to pick out the importance of play. I pay tribute to Play Torbay, in my constituency, and the work it is doing. That has been pointed out by the all-party parliamentary group on a fit and healthy childhood. I do not know whether the Minister has had the chance to read its excellent report, which considered how we can use the money effectively. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash that evaluation is critical. We need to see what delivers results in the long term, particularly because, if the tax is effective in the way we hope it will be, the revenues raised from it will decrease as a result of behavioural change. We need to ensure that the money available is targeted in the most effective ways.
We should also look at the difference in activity rates between girls and boys. Girls are not as physically active; particularly as they go through the school years, activity levels decline. I urge the Minister to continue to support Sport England’s “This Girl Can” programme, which has already been referred to. We need to look across the piece and make sure we engage children at every level in a way that they are most likely to continue to keep active. I have a concern that if we just talk about sport, we risk taking our eye off the ball. Tackling obesity first and foremost has to involve calorie reduction. We must take empty, wasted calories out of children’s diets. There are other harms; obesity is not just about sugar levels. The biggest single cause of admission to hospital for primary school children is to remove their rotten teeth. The benefits of reducing sugar in children’s diets go beyond tackling obesity.
Will the Minister liaise with his colleagues on the rest of the money from the sugary drinks levy that we are raising? As it stands, the Government have indicated that a significant proportion will go towards the academisation programme, but now that there has been a change to the policy objective of forced academisation, I think the sugary drinks levy would command far greater public support if every penny of it was hypothecated to public health measures to support children, particularly at a time when public health grants are being cut and measures to support children who are already obese are being cut back in local authorities. I hope to see even more of the sugary drinks levy being hypothecated to progressive measures to target children who are already obese and to help prevent children from becoming obese in the first place. I support my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon in saying that sport is a key part of that, and that matters whatever a child’s weight and whatever a child’s age.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and it is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), given her experience in these matters. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). He is not from Scotland, I hasten to add, so I doubt he will be joining the Scottish National party any time soon. He is a champion of many causes, and I know he feels particularly strongly about helping young people in many different ways. I am delighted that he secured this debate, which I welcome.
As co-chairman of the all-party group on mountaineering, I have been doing a lot of work over the past few years to try to encourage outdoor recreation. It is vital to encourage more people to get involved in it, so that we improve participation in sports-related activity and help rural tourism. Most importantly, as I have been working on these issues, it has become clear that outdoor recreation is a vital tool to help tackle obesity and physical inactivity, which we have talked about at length today. That is important for adults and, particularly in relation to this debate, young people. Given the powerful debate we had this morning on young people’s mental health, it is important to add that outdoor recreation and sports more widely can help with young people’s mental wellbeing, which is absolutely key.
Before I go into my suggestions for how the money could be spent, it is worth looking at lessons from other countries. I will focus on Finland for a minute. The Finns feel so strongly about physical activity that it is now deemed, as of 1999, a basic cultural right. I am not sure exactly what that means, but it sounds incredibly important. Their Government have focused on this, as an area for improvement across the board, in a strategy called “On the Move”, which has four guidelines. I will not go through all of them, but the first one is interesting: reducing sitting in daily life, across the course of life. Perhaps we should have more debates standing up. The second one is increasing physical activity across the course of life. They have rolled this down to different age groups. The Finnish National Board of Education has got funding and support available to ensure that many schools have clubs, 85% of which are related to physical activity and sports.
We want to improve participation in sports and physical activity, and the Finns have made huge strides in that arena. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes said, the issue is also about active travel and being active in the workplace and the classroom.
I welcome the soft drinks levy; it is an opportunity. Some have said the funds are not significant, but hundreds of millions is significant and can make a difference in the lives of young people. Some may dispute how much of the funding will be put in place, but if it is of the order of hundreds of millions, we need to make sure we use it purposefully and invest it wisely on behalf of young people. I am pleased that it will be focused on primary and secondary schools, particularly in areas that are disadvantaged. It will help secondary schools to have more activities and sports available after school.
I am a big supporter of the daily mile, sometimes called the active mile. I have been working with ukactive to promote this further. It has been referred to several times. It is a simple, basic initiative that encourages and inspires children to take 15 minutes out of the day to run, walk or jog. It is as basic as that. It is fun, non-competitive and inclusive. I support competitive sport, but this initiative is something that everybody can engage with, and it helps to encourage more children to get more of their 60 minutes of physical activity a day done in school. Various initiatives are being taken forward by different providers. The daily mile is promoted by the Daily Mile Foundation and the golden mile by Premier Sport. Of course, there is junior parkrun. I was able to do my first park run with my 10-year-old daughter at the end of last year. There is also Marathon Kids, supported by Nike and Kids Run Free.
The daily mile has demonstrated that children who participate are healthier, less overweight and more alert. As the Minister for School Standards will be pleased to hear, they are also more focused on their lessons, so it is a win all round. My daughter is benefiting from her daily mile at Upton Priory School in Macclesfield. I look forward to promoting the initiative much more actively in March when I work with Active Cheshire to encourage more schools in Macclesfield and across east Cheshire to benefit from the initiative.
I would warmly welcome the Minister or one of his colleagues setting up a meeting with ukactive and the providers of the different schemes to work out how we can encourage more schools to get involved and to adopt daily mile or active mile initiatives during 2017. It is a low-cost programme. If we want to leverage the funds that come out of the soft drinks levy efficiently, I cannot think of a better initiative. It would be incredibly easy to leverage and would help hundreds of thousands of children from a wide range of backgrounds. It would be easy to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) raised concerns about some schools not having sufficient space, but let us consider the walking bus or other activities that we can do to encourage kids to walk to school; that is easy to do, and I hope that the Minister takes that on board.
I cannot keep away from active outdoor recreation too long, so I will spend a few moments on that. So often when we talk about sport, it is traditional sport: rugby, football, hockey, netball. If we want to appeal to the widest possible group of kids, we must remember that not every child will be interested in those traditional sports. We have to find other ways of engaging those kids in physical activity. I know that the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), has strong views on this; I look forward to hearing from her.
The daily mile is one activity, but “Reconomics”, a very important report taken forward by the Sport and Recreation Alliance, highlights that there is plenty more we can do. There is orienteering, Duke of Edinburgh schemes, walking, cycling, which I know is a passion for the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), and climbing, which is a passion of mine; they all have a lot to offer. If we want to reach—and that is the operative word—the maximum number of kids, we shall have to think more innovatively about how we spend the money. Traditional sports alone will not do that.
I am delighted that the Government have a new sports strategy—perhaps it is not so new; it is a year old. It is a wide strategy that includes a focus on outcomes—physical, health and mental wellbeing outcomes. Its focus is not just on sports; for the first time, at least five of its 20-odd pages focus on outdoor recreation. This is a perfect opportunity for the Department for Education and the Department for Communities and Local Government to work together to ensure that those health and mental wellbeing outcomes are achieved, through funding from the soft drinks levy.
This debate is important and timely. I encourage the Minister to look at those two areas—the daily mile and outdoor recreation—as well as others that have been mentioned, and at linking these things through. It is vital that we work not only with Ministers but with health-related bodies and third-party sector bodies. We want to make sure that there are genuine improvements in the quality of young people’s lives, and this is the opportunity to do it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) in the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) on obtaining an important debate which is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield said, timely, given the subject matter.
My views on the sugary drinks levy are well documented, and this is not the right debate in which to go over them. If anyone wants to, there is an article online, entitled “Ten reasons why the sugar tax is a terrible idea”, setting them out. Today, however, is about the allocation of the money. I have concerns that can be wholly set aside from the debate. Both sides, whether in favour of the tax or against it, are well meaning; the issue is whether it will work, how much money we shall get, and what we shall spend it on. I have an issue with dedicated or hypothecated taxes in principle, because we do not really have an idea, apart from some presumptions and assumptions, about how much money will come in.
I accept all the points made by hon. Members about obesity. I know, from just one Christmas when I have come back to Parliament feeling that my suits have shrunk considerably—that is the excuse I am using—that we have an issue with obesity, and childhood obesity in particular. We must take measures to tackle that, without question. My worry is that this is an instance of “Something must be done. This is something, so let’s do it.” Parking that worry, however, and accepting that we must address the problem of childhood obesity, I agree with all the points that have been made about sport, including sport in schools, and fantastic initiatives such as the activity camps that my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon mentioned, as well as the use of school premises out of school hours. They are fantastic ideas. Driving past secondary schools in the evening or at the weekends, one can see that many are being used. However, primary schools are less used. They have beautiful fields, and in some cases astro pitches or multi-use games activity centres, which would be perfect. They sit unused when members of society, and in particular young people, would desperately love to go and kick a ball around or play basketball. There is a huge public health gain to be made from the principle of using the money to fund measures that will reduce obesity and get more children active.
However, if we accept that there can be such a massive public health gain, and that the right thing to do for the health of the nation is to invest the money as I have described, we should be funding it through general taxation. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said when the policy was announced:
“We are going to use the money from this new levy to double the amount of funding we dedicate to sport in every primary school. For secondary schools, we are going to fund longer school days for those that want to offer their pupils a wider range of activities, including extra sport.”—[Official Report, 16 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 964.]
The figure mooted at the time was some £520 million. I want, as does, I believe, every Member of the House, £520 million or thereabouts to be spent on school sports; but we have no way of saying how much of that money will be raised from the sugary drinks levy. That is my fundamental concern. If we are saying that the issue is important and that we should invest in it, and that it will have a massive impact on childhood obesity and public health, we should invest in it. We should not be giving schools and other organisations, such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon, funding that is not sustainable.
We should treat the issue as important, and commit the money to it. I am worried because, on my calculation, reformulation, portion size, illicit sales and such things as cross-border shopping will mean that the figure raised will be more like £200 million to £300 million. That is a considerable shortfall on the amount quoted in the Budget last year. We must ask questions about hypothecated taxes and direct taxes. I would love to ask the Minister what the budget is: what is the expectation, and how much money do we think will come from the sugary drinks levy?
I have two concerns. One is that we shall have to top the levy up from general taxation—and if that is the case I support doing it. It is a worthwhile thing to do, and we should finance it. I am also concerned, as are many people in the food and drink manufacturing industry, that we have just set a figure of £520 million. That is what we need to fund the initiative, and that is what we are going to raise. If we cannot raise it through sugary drinks we shall start looking at other products. Perhaps there is an argument for doing that, and for applying the levy to sugar across the board. I discussed that at some length with my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). However, we are not there now, and we must be clear about what our ambition is. Perhaps we are thinking about a tax that applies to more products. I take some issue with that in principle. Nevertheless, if that is the direction of travel we must make sure we are clear.
If we are going to raise £520-odd million, I should like to know that it will go into school sports. For all the reasons that have been given by Members of different parties in the debate, that is very important. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon on obtaining the debate, but I have concerns about whether that money will be pulled through from the soft drinks levy to be spent in schools. I know that the tax is direct and hypothecated so to some extent it is out of the Minister’s hands, but perhaps he can give some commitment about how much money there will be to spend on sports in schools and on some of the great initiatives that have been mentioned. That would be helpful and would set minds at rest.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) on securing today’s debate. After a fortnight spent in overindulgence, this is a particularly timely debate. Of course, part of the over-indulgence of Christmas is fizzy drinks. Like many of those present, I remember that in the past fizzy drinks were an occasional treat—a luxury at Christmas and Easter only. However, now it is fairly commonplace for people to consume a can of Coke or other juice on a daily basis. The average consumption has gone up from 45 litres per person a year to more than 210 litres. That is 22 bags of sugar—fairly horrendous.
The hon. Member for North Swindon opened the debate by presenting some challenging figures. He told us that one in three children would be obese by the time they left school. He talked about the importance of early activity, and I agree that habits formed early have a lifelong impact. I was particularly interested in the sports camps that he talked about. For many parents £12.50 would seem a good deal for childcare; however, as other hon. Members have pointed out, it might also be a barrier for some people. Perhaps we need to be more creative about how we fund such things. Possibly some of the levy could go to providing places for children who would otherwise be unable to go, because of finances. As well as causing obesity, sugary drinks affect teeth. They affect concentration in school and can have a massive impact on how well a child learns and performs in education.
I happened to take my two youngest children to the cinema on Sunday. When we were queuing up there were bucket-like containers of soft drinks and I calculated that one of those containers—not the biggest—would have 12 teaspoons of sugar in it. If any of us saw someone putting that into a cup of tea or coffee, we would be horrified. We are all aware that urgent action has to be taken here. I support the introduction of the soft drinks levy as an extremely sensible first step in tackling the crisis, but I do not believe that it is going far enough.
It is good to see the Chair of the Health Committee, the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), here. Some of the Health Committee’s other recommendations were tougher controls on the marketing and advertising of unhealthy food and drink. I believe that would make a big difference to what young people want, or think they want, to eat. Another recommendation was early intervention to offer help to families of children affected by obesity and further research into the most effective interventions. The hon. Lady talked about the importance of nutrition, active travel and active play and how all of those play a role in tackling obesity. The hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) also shared her expertise from the Health Committee and explained that she was usually against taxes but, in this case, supports the levy because its purpose is to change habits that have been formed. I was pleased to hear her mention the “This Girl Can” campaign. I was a sports coach, as well as a teacher, for many years and was very positive about the benefits for young girls, and teenage girls in particular, of participating in sport.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) talked about the excellent work of the APPG on adult and childhood obesity, and about using the levy to train health visitors and health professionals in educating parents, both male and female, about the importance of nutrition. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) raised Finland’s approach to physical activity. It is possible that his suggestion that we spend more time on our feet in this place would greatly shorten proceedings. I know that there is a vote coming up, so I will try to speed up and will come back to the hon. Member for Macclesfield.
Although I have said that I welcome the creation of a soft drinks levy, in isolation it cannot address the levels of obesity that we see. I am disappointed that further restrictions on junk food, as recommended by the Health Committee, have not been developed further. I would like to see that happen—possibly we will see it during this parliament. Banning those adverts would make a big difference.
In Scotland, the obesity crisis is no different. We are committed to addressing Scotland’s excess weight—personally, and generally as a nation—and the Scottish Government have undertaken to consult on the development of Scotland’s new diet and obesity strategy in 2017. Scotland is already investing in sports facilities and ensuring that PE is provided in schools and that active schools programmes continue. Proposals to increase physical activity using the revenue are indeed welcome, and we welcome any ideas that will help to boost physical activity in schools. In Scotland, we have seen a massive investment in PE and school sports. In 2005 10% of children were doing two hours of physical activity a week; we now have 98% of children in Scotland doing two hours of PE a week, which is a massive improvement.
For me personally the most exciting development, which has been mentioned by almost everybody who has stood up, is the daily mile. It was first developed by St Ninians Primary School in Stirling because the children were too tired after the warm up in PE to do the actual lesson. It takes only 15 minutes and does not require any specialised equipment. In fact, they do not even change into their gym gear—out they go and they do their daily mile. The hon. Member for Erewash talked about the difficulties with some of the facilities available in schools. My own children do the daily mile and they just do it up and down the tarmac playground. I have said to them, “Is that not particularly boring?” They love it and they talk about being energised and feeling refreshed when they go back into school. Coming back to the points made by the hon. Member for Macclesfield, I am a keen hill walker and love the outdoors, but my children do not always share that enthusiasm and would sometimes rather sit in front of the television. They have been doing the daily mile since August, and it was really interesting over Christmas when we went hill walking—suddenly they were chasing up the hill ahead of me. I could not keep up with them. What a difference a few months of the daily mile has made to their fitness.
The Scottish Government have made a commitment that Scotland will be the first daily mile nation with a roll-out to schools, nurseries, colleges, universities and workplaces. Every school will be offered help and we already have more than 800 primary schools doing the daily mile programme, which is a massive step forward. As to the impact that that has had, St Ninians primary—the instigators—talks about the children thriving on being outdoors and of its national success in cross-country running. It says that the children are sleeping and eating better—parents know straightaway that with a bit of exercise during the day children will go down no problem at night. Children are more focused and ready to learn when they return to classroom, but most important of all, there are no overweight children in primary 1 at St Ninians, which is a massive step forward.
To finish, and not to leave the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) out, he raised concerns about how the sugar tax could be spent and talked about whether, if funding sport was worth doing, it should be done through general taxation. I found myself actually agreeing with some of the sentiments that he raised but, as I said at the start, we have something that is a sensible first step. If we can put some of this levy towards some of the things mentioned today, that would be great. This is a first step in tackling obesity, but it should not be a tax that the Government want to collect. This should be a tax that we aim not to be collecting at all, like the duty on cigarettes or alcohol. We need to be raising our children as fit, active and healthy citizens now and in the future.
The hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) reminded us about the importance of outdoor recreation, so I rise to my feet very tenderly, having just participated with the MP parliamentary football team for 90 minutes over in Chelsea. We played the press lobby. It was a one-all draw, and there was no love lost between the two teams when we came off the pitch.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) on securing the debate. Why he is not in Government, I do not know. I thought that he did an extraordinarily good job with disability confidence in the last Parliament. I was pleased to support that with my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), in putting on one of the biggest events in the north of England, and I hope that impetus carries on even though he is no longer at the Department for Work and Pensions. The hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) has already laid out the facts, and I congratulate her on her chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on adult and childhood obesity.
One in five children are overweight or obese before they start primary school, and the figure rises to one in three by the time they leave year 6. That puts children at serious risk of developing serious conditions such as heart and liver disease, cancer, related mental health problems—I think that the hon. Member for Macclesfield is the only Member who has mentioned mental health today—and diabetes.
Let me make an observation about health in my constituency, where I have the world-class Wythenshawe hospital, run by the University Hospital of South Manchester NHS Foundation Trust. Its outcomes are unbelievable, but I say to consultants that my constituency has one of the worst levels of public health outcomes in England and Wales, and what we are really doing is triage in the trenches. My population is ravaged by hypertension—I am looking to the doctors in the Chamber to help me out here—chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and, in particular, type 2 diabetes, which is having all sorts of impacts on NHS costs—somebody has already pointed out the £6 billion cost to the NHS.
I am starting schemes in all those three areas and, as the hon. Member for North Swindon said, using civil society as best as I can to tackle them. With the British Heart Foundation’s work on hypertension, Diabetes UK’s diabetes groups and the British Lung Foundation’s Breathe Easy campaign, we know that we can keep people out of our A&Es, which is a huge issue this week, whichever side of the political fence hon. Members are on. People can self-help and self-medicate, which is important because by the time they go to A&E or to their doctor or health professional, it is almost too late.
I concur with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) and by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who chairs the Health Committee: some areas do not have such a strong civil society and they need a leg-up from Government through the hypothecation of taxes. We have seen a link between the scale of poverty and obesity in children, in particular. The Government recognise that but have taken away the targets along with the unit that looks at child poverty, which is rocketing, and not just under this Government—it was going up previously because of the economic and financial crisis.
In 2016 the Government introduced a new levy on soft drinks through the sugar tax. In England the new levy revenue will be invested in programmes to support physical activity and balanced diets in school-aged children. I want to talk for a moment from my personal experience as a primary school teacher for 10 years. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), who is not currently in his place, pointed out that children go to school for only 40 weeks a year. It is important for politicians to remember that, because I used to get frustrated at this place when I was a teacher in the classroom. We all think that we can change society by changing our schools, but it is only a small, if important, bit of how we change society.
I used to eat with the children before and after the Jamie Oliver meals came in. I patrolled the free school meals kids in particular, not because I was the sugar police—although, we did had very firm policies in my 500-place primary school about what they could have in those packages—but because I knew what the afternoon would be like if they had had a can of Coke, a load of chocolate and a packet of crisps. It is almost impossible to get really extraordinary teaching and learning going on with poor diets. Everybody in the Chamber has made the link between good food and good mental health in children.
There is a clear link between sugar intake and childhood obesity, as illustrated by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s 2015 report on carbohydrates and health. With 30% of the sugar in children’s diets coming from sugary drinks—the point has been made that children are consuming a bathtub of these drinks annually—action is clearly needed. The levy is expected to raise more than £500 million in the first year. It is a good policy. I will come back to why I disagree with the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) in a second, but I thought that the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) articulated well why it is a good policy and why we should support it. The amount raised is likely to fall over time as manufacturers remove sugar from their products and the consumption of sugary drinks falls.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Colchester because he has stated that this is a nanny state-type tax, but what we now have, particularly with school budgets, which I shall come to later, is a postcode lottery. For example, look at what Britvic is already doing to avoid the sugar tax. It is changing its behaviour and remodelling the formula so that it does not pay the tax. Surely that is a good thing. Surely that is how Governments should intervene to make the world a better place, particularly for children.
Not at all. I accept that point, but I think that the hon. Gentleman has reiterated what I was saying. We all accept that if the industry reacts and reformulates products, that will be a great thing. However, if it does so and takes the action we know it is taking over a shorter period of time, rather than a longer period, that will mean we have less money ultimately to spend on this programme.
But over the longer term people will hopefully be consuming less sugar, which I think is the key objective. However, the hon. Gentleman is right; reformulation not only will reduce the tax take and therefore be a measure of the success of Government policy—we need measures relating to public policy—but will have an impact on reducing consumption, which is just as important. He also pointed out that it is important that the impact is comprehensively evaluated, so that it can be refined and adjusted continually to keep getting public health gains.
Let us move on to schools and sport, where I have a few things to say to the Minister. Doubling the PE and sport premium fund to £320 million a year from 2017 is good news and shows a commitment from the Government that this is important. The premium has shown that it can enhance the quality of PE teaching and increase pupil engagement and participation in sport. Continued investment in sport was also highlighted by school leaders as the most important factor in maintaining quality PE provision in a Youth Sport Trust survey published last year.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) on what she said about teachers. This is not just about civil society. Tens of thousands of selfless teachers give up their time after work to run such clubs—during a decade of primary school teaching, I ran the football club and the cross-country club—and all the other clubs that are part of what is expected of schools but are not in the job description. It is right that we praise the teachers up and down the land who do that.
However, as essential as all these things are, a legacy for school sport is about looking beyond primary-age provision and competitive sport initiatives. Everyone has talked about the daily mile, outdoor recreation, walking to school and our physical environment. Increasing the number of pupils of all ages who are participating in school sport—competitive or not—across all phases of education and the amount of time that they spend doing so should be fundamental to a comprehensive strategy, yet the Government have gone backwards on the issue.
Take, for example, what my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) said about the previous coalition Government’s decision to remove £162 million of funding from school sport partnerships. Those partnerships were terrific—there is no doubt about it. The Government are embarking on breaking up our estate by privatising and nationalising it, and there are a spread of school campuses across the country. What the partnerships did was link combinations of local primaries to their secondary school, which usually had the expertise, resource and field capacity to do really joined-up work and get a system going where those clusters could really begin to make a difference.
When the money went, there was a negative impact, as opportunities for young people to participate in more school sport decreased, as the Education Committee noted. As I said to the hon. Member for Colchester, that decision has created a postcode lottery relating to good provision, because we had a national system but we now have local systems in which local schools are trying to do their best to keep up good practice. It has been particularly evident in secondary schools that do not have ring-fenced budgets for sport.
We also know that, unsurprisingly, since this Government removed in 2010 the requirement for pupils to have at least two hours of sport a week, the number of pupils taking part in sport has collapsed. From personal experience, there is an over-expectation of sport in schools. A teacher who is timetabling two hours, as I used to have to do, must think about their relevance as a classroom teacher. Sometimes we in this place do not think about that. It can take 10 minutes to get the children changed and five minutes to get them to the playground or field—if the school is lucky enough to have one—or to the hall. The curriculum focuses mainly not on physical activity but on skills, and then the children need to be warmed down, get changed and go back. I saw teachers selflessly giving up their play times and breaks so that the children could get the best hour possible.
The situation will be exacerbated by school budgets, which will be cut by £3 billion between now and 2020—an 8% cut in real terms. Schools are not the panacea for the policy. Despite the fairer funding formula, they will be reducing staff in all areas of our country in the months and years to come. I have had the indication that I should leave it there.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) on securing this important debate.
Childhood obesity is a national problem. Data from Public Health England’s national child measurement programme shows that, in England, a third of children are obese or overweight by the time they leave primary school. As my hon. Friend so ably said, we run the risk of creating new social norms in which obesity is the new normal. Sugar consumption is a major factor in childhood obesity, and sugar-sweetened soft drinks are now one of the biggest sources of dietary sugar for children and teenagers. A single 330 ml can of cola can contain nine teaspoons of sugar—more than a child’s daily recommended intake of added sugar—often without any other intrinsic nutritional value. The introduction of the soft drinks industry levy is a clear indication of this Government’s commitment to addressing this vital issue.
Reducing sugar consumption alone, though, is not enough. It is also important that all children have the opportunity to engage in sport and physical activity. This debate is therefore timely, as it allows me the opportunity to set out our plan further to improve physical education and school sport using revenue generated by the levy. The Government understand that high-quality PE is a route to instilling a life with health, wellbeing and exercise at its core. That is why PE is compulsory at all four key stages in the national curriculum and why, through the primary PE and sport premium, we have invested more than £600 million since 2013 in ring-fenced funding to primary schools to improve PE and sport.
We know that that funding is making a big difference. Independent research by NatCen has found that since the introduction of the primary PE and sport premium, 87% of schools have reported that the quality of PE has increased, and the vast majority of schools have introduced new sports and extracurricular activities. I join the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) in paying tribute to those teachers who go the extra mile, almost literally, to provide extra sporting activities.
The NatCen research also shows that 84% of schools also reported an increase in pupil engagement in PE during curricular time and in participation in extracurricular activities. The number of qualified specialist PE teachers in primary schools has increased by 50%, covering almost half of all schools. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon will undoubtedly be aware that primary schools in Wiltshire received around £1.8 million in additional funding in 2016-17, and that primary schools in Swindon received an additional £611,400.
We know that there is more to do. The soft drinks industry levy will be used to double the primary PE and sport premium to £320 million a year from September 2017. The funding will continue to be ring-fenced to assist schools in developing PE and extracurricular sport activities and to make long-term improvements that will benefit pupils joining the school in future years. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) that that funding is committed to 2020 and will help drive up the quality and breadth of PE and sport provision.
The increased funding will allow schools to build on the progress made through the existing premium. It will enable them to hire qualified sports coaches to work with teachers, provide existing staff with training or resources and introduce new sports and activities that encourage more pupils to be healthy and active. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon told us about the PE teacher Mark Draycott and his excellent initiative, Draycott sports camp, established in 2013, which operates out of Oakhurst primary school, where Mr Draycott is also a teacher.
The idea behind the camp was to create more opportunities for primary-age children of all abilities to participate in sport and physical activity during the school holidays. The programme offers extracurricular clubs after school and during the holidays. I commend my hon. Friend on championing that great work and taking the time to visit the camp last year, where I am reliably informed that he acquitted himself creditably in a netball shoot-out and a game of lacrosse. My hon. Friend pointed to the importance to schools of recruiting qualified PE teachers such as Mark Draycott. The Department continues to recruit well in physical education. In 2015-16, we recruited 1,235 new teacher trainers, against a target of 1,227.
My hon. Friends the Members for Erewash (Maggie Throup), for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and for Macclesfield (David Rutley), as well as the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) and others, praised the daily mile initiative and its success in ensuring that children exercise every day. It is the brainchild of Elaine Wyllie, whom I look forward to meeting in February. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes emphasised the importance of active travel and encouraging children to cycle to school where it is safe to do so, and I agree.
My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield pointed to the importance of being active in the workplace. Perhaps we as MPs should sit less and stand more. We run for office, stand for election and take our seats, but of the three, the most important is obviously running for office. He asked for a Minister to meet ukactive. The Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Edward Timpson) or I would be delighted to do so.
A positive experience of sport at a young age can create a lifelong love of sport and physical participation. That is why we are focusing on primary-age children, as we want to help them develop healthy habits and a love of sport at an early age, as my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash emphasised. Secondary schools have specialist PE teachers already on the staff and can access programmes such as Sportivate and satellite clubs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes raised a concern about children from disadvantaged backgrounds. We want all pupils to be healthy and active, and we know that many schools are already using their sport premium funding to target disadvantaged pupils, who are traditionally the least active. In many schools, that will include providing additional support to children who might not be able to attend after-school clubs and activities, but we know that there is more to be done, which is why we are doubling the funding from September 2017.
We have also announced that £10 million a year in revenue from the soft drinks levy will fund the expansion of healthy breakfast clubs in up to 1,600 schools from September 2017 to 2020. The programme will ensure that more children benefit from a healthy start to their school day and is a fitting accompaniment to the primary PE and sport premium.
We are anxious to ensure that schools continue to use the funding wisely and have a number of accountability measures in place, as has been mentioned in this debate. Schools are held accountable for how they spend their funding through Ofsted whole-school inspections and a requirement to report their spending plans and the impact of that spending online. Furthermore, we have updated grant conditions and guidance and continue to work with our partners to disseminate best practice and examples of innovative uses of funding to schools, ensuring that they are best placed when the doubling of the premium comes into effect.
The Government aim to reduce England’s rate of childhood obesity significantly within the next 10 years. I firmly believe that a cross-governmental approach is key to success. In addition to the soft drinks industry levy, two landmark strategies have been published in the last 12 months: the Government’s sports strategy and the childhood obesity plan. We continue to work closely with a range of other Departments to deliver those strategies.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
St Michael’s Gate, Peterborough
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered housing benefit and tenancies at St Michael’s Gate, Peterborough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard—not for the first time, I think. I thank the Speaker for giving me the opportunity to share with the House this issue, which relates to housing benefit and in particular to a loophole that has given rise to a very unfortunate and regrettable situation in my constituency. The BBC’s “Look East” programme has covered the case, and my local newspaper, the Peterborough Telegraph, and its parent company, Johnston Press, have launched a campaign to highlight the loopholes in housing benefit regulations in respect of St Michael’s Gate and other areas.
We are talking about a pleasant residential area of 74 flats and houses in the Parnwell area of Peterborough, which I know well, not least because my parents live very close to it. The site’s owner—Stef & Philips, a residential estate agent based in North London—has decided to invoke section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 to obtain vacant possession, effectively evicting and ejecting the families who live there. Earlier today, an hon. Member said to me “Isn’t this rather a narrow, niche subject?” I beg to differ; I believe that it goes to the heart of what the Prime Minister meant when she spoke about people just managing.
These are decent people, doing their best on modest incomes, who for whatever reason have not been able to afford to buy a property so have rented. Many of them have assured shorthold tenancies of six or 12 months. Frankly, a calamity has befallen them. They have been thrown out of their homes, which some of them have lived in for many years. They include families, young people, older people and children. Their situation goes to the heart of what is moral and what is right, and it is important that I bring it to the Government’s attention.
I would be remiss not to thank Councillor Wayne Fitzgerald, the deputy leader of Peterborough City Council. Despite the fact that the council has received considerable negative publicity in this case, he was courageous enough to appear with me at a public meeting in October and face the wrath of residents and local people who, naturally, are very upset.
Stef & Philips has used a special company vehicle known as Paul Simon Magic Homes Investments Ltd in order effectively to evict these people. In simple terms, it has evicted long-standing tenants, who have paid their way, to house homeless people to whom Peterborough City Council has a statutory duty. We are in a crazy Alice in Wonderland world; we have created homeless people in order to house homeless people. You can understand why a lot of my constituents are very angry about that, Mr Pritchard.
Since 4 December, the vacant possession proceedings have been pursued. We are talking about 68 assured shorthold tenancies, two assured tenancies—the holders of which are fortunate enough to have legal protection, so they will not be evicted—and four vacant properties. The unscrupulous landlord is evicting private tenants in order to turn some of the properties into bedsits. It tried to increase the number of properties from 74 to 98, but that was refused by Peterborough City Council. Nevertheless, it has increased the number to 88 in order to get more housing benefit, paid for by the taxpayer, having inflated rents and charged a management fee by using a loophole in the housing benefit regulations.
Peterborough City Council has been placed in a very difficult position. It has had to discharge its statutory responsibility to homeless people with local links—I have checked that they have those links—who have hitherto been housed in local hotels, particularly the Travelodge. The council has had to do that under section 188 of the Housing Act 1996, as amended by the Homelessness Act 2002, and it has had to divert money for that purpose on a three-year contract with a two-year break clause, which will pull in the thick end of £3 million over those three years.
What Stef & Philips has done is legal, but frankly I believe that it is morally dubious and unethical and so is the company’s business model. Such companies masquerade as confederates of local authorities, seeking to ameliorate the problems of homelessness and provide social housing solutions; far from it, they are part of the problem. In fact, in the rather self-serving statement that it belatedly issued to local media on 21 November, the company made a virtue of the fact that it is upgrading these residential units. But of course it owns them, having purchased them, so it is not doing it out of the goodness of its heart for benign, charitable reasons; it is doing it to support its own investment in its particularly dubious business model.
As I say, the company has sought to subdivide the properties. It has created a situation in which, out of the families living in the 74 units, 17 have already presented as homeless, 12 have been placed in the position of declaring themselves formally homeless and nine have been accepted as homeless by Peterborough City Council. Those were the figures on 4 December; they may be different now.
The situation is not unique. Stef & Philips recently tried the same modus operandi in Luton. Thanks to “Look East”, which was able to look into the company’s activities, Luton Borough Council said that it was not interested. The council said that it was not willing to see the taxpayer’s pound gouged and the taxpayer fleeced, and it sent Stef & Philips away with a flea in its ear. Unfortunately, Stef & Philips re-let those units, which are in Milliners Court in Luton, to Barnet Council. So it is not as if Stef & Philips has stepped in to assist Peterborough City Council out of the goodness of its heart; it has seen a niche business model, unethical as it is, and has taken action accordingly.
At this stage, it is appropriate to step back and try to understand why we have been placed in this position. The Minister may wish to dwell on that in his reply; his officials may also want to look into the matter, and perhaps the Minister will write to me in due course if he is not able to answer my questions now. At some stage, St Michael’s Gate was owned by what we now call a registered social landlord—a housing association. It was effectively social housing, and it was a very nice, pleasant settled estate in Parnwell, but at some time—we do not know when—it passed from the public sector into the ownership of a company called Akelius and then to Stef & Philips, which pursued the actions that I have mentioned.
The reason why that is important is that it would have needed the sign-off—the sanction—of the housing regulator at the time, whether that was the Housing Corporation or the Homes and Communities Agency. We are not talking about a couple of bedsits or flats; we are talking about a significantly large housing estate. Why that change was allowed to happen is an important issue, and the Minister might want to ponder it.
There was also a failure of intelligence by Peterborough City Council, in that it allowed this set of very good quality social housing units to pass into private hands. I know for a fact that, quite rightly, the council is actively pursuing the option of establishing a joint venture housing company with the largest residential social landlord in the area, which is Cross Keys Homes, a stock transfer company of some 13 years’ standing in Peterborough.
The council has £13.6 million of right-to-buy capital receipts. Why was it not possible for it to use some of that money to purchase or lease the property at St Michael’s Gate, so as to discharge its homelessness obligations under the appropriate legislation? That did not happen, but it is only fair to observe also that the council, in response to the uproar caused by the St Michael’s Gate debacle, is now accessing Government money, as a result of bids to the homelessness prevention strategy and migration funding, to deal with homelessness specifically.
The other issue is the increase in homelessness. Despite what I think are sometimes the ill-judged comments of the city council, which blames the Government’s welfare reforms and specifically universal credit for the spike in homelessness, there is no evidence to suggest that those reforms are the reason why we have suddenly been overwhelmed by an upsurge in the numbers of homeless people in the Peterborough area. There are other reasons for that increase.
One is the large scale of immigration. Incidentally, that is an issue that the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), is discussing in my constituency, at Paston Farm Centre in Peterborough, as we speak. That large scale of immigration has had the effect of saturating the private rental market in Peterborough and it has caused some difficulty. Also, the introduction of a selective licensing scheme in the city has meant that many of the more dubious landlords have opted out of the private rented market, which has obviously put pressure on the number of properties that are available. Of course, we have also seen a national phenomenon, which is that people are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet, and therefore they do not pay their rent and are being evicted. All these things have come together, but neither the benefit cap nor universal credit have been an issue.
There has been a failure of intelligence and a failure of governance, and I regret that I was given erroneous information by the leader of the council, Councillor John Holdich. He is an honourable man, and I believe that he genuinely made an error, but he told me that if Peterborough had not signed this three-year contract then Luton would most assuredly have done so. As I say, that proved to be an erroneous statement, because Luton subsequently denied that it was true. Nevertheless, it is certainly the case that, given the modus operandi of Stef & Philips, the company would have touted round these properties to other local authorities that needed to discharge their homelessness duties, whether that was Stevenage, Harlow, Milton Keynes, etc.
There was a call-in of this case on 19 October last year. However, the councillors present at that call-in meeting were placed in a very difficult position, because this deal was a fait accompli. It had been made and the council had no option but to accept it, because if the council had pulled out of the scheme with Stef & Philips, it would not have been able to house its homeless people in the Travelodges, and the company would have touted the properties around and taken other people from outside Peterborough.
I will finish by asking the Minister to examine the loophole in the housing benefit regulations, because effectively it means that instead of 74 families having assured shorthold tenancies that generated an income of £659,000 a year, Stef & Philips—by treating each unit as a temporary overnight homelessness unit, with the £60 per week management fee, inflated rents and the local housing allowance subsidy level—is able to bring in £966,000 of taxpayers’ money a year. In short, the key issue is the disparity in the housing benefit levels that are paid between rented accommodation in the private sector and what is achievable when the accommodation is utilised by the local authority for temporary accommodation.
As I say, I ask the Minister to review those regulations and particularly the management fee, because this site is not a foyer for young people or a housing association property for people with special educational needs or mental health problems. To all intents and purposes, it is de facto mainstream normal housing, albeit that it is temporary and is now being used to accommodate homeless people.
I would also like the Minister to work with the Local Government Association to tackle the issue that is growing across our country of local authorities shuttling round the most vulnerable homeless people to different local authority areas, because they are unwilling or unable to house those people themselves. I know that Lord Porter of Spalding, who is the chairman of the LGA, takes this issue very seriously.
There is also a lack of accountability. It should not be the case that we have to pursue freedom of information requests to obtain information from Stef & Philips, which is in receipt of large amounts of public money, and local authorities need to work together to make sure that they develop and put in place protocols to prevent this situation from happening again.
Peterborough City Council is between a rock and a hard place. It is not solely at fault and in fairness—although I hate to say it—neither is Stef & Philips. I feel very bad about what has happened. I apologise to my constituents that I could not do more to help them and to a certain extent I feel that the system and I have let them down. The current situation is unfair and morally repugnant, and I hope that this debate and the Minister’s response to it will ensure that, to all intents and purposes, decent people are not treated like this again and this situation will not be repeated in the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, for what I believe is the first time.
I would like to start my response by praising my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) for raising this issue in Westminster Hall today. It is not the first time that he has raised it with me or with my Department; I believe he presented a petition to the House and I have just signed off our response to that petition. As all Members of the House will know, he is a highly diligent constituency MP, and it does him great credit that he has raised this particular issue today. I also join him in congratulating his local newspaper, the Peterborough Telegraph, on the interest that it has taken in this issue.
As my hon. Friend said, and as I understand it, nearly all the current tenants at St Michael’s Gate hold assured shorthold tenancies under the Housing Act 1988. That gives them the right to live in the property as their home and to get repairs done, and they cannot be made to leave within the first six months of the tenancy. However, the legislation also enables a landlord to regain possession at or beyond the end of that six-month term, with two months’ notice.
Before assured shorthold tenancies were introduced by the Housing Act 1988, the private rental market in this country was in decline. Regulated rents and lifetime tenancies meant that being a landlord was simply not commercially viable for many property owners. Since the law was changed in 1988, the private rented sector in this country has grown steadily, from just over 9% of the market at that time to 19% today. It now fulfils a major role in providing housing to people in Britain. The sector is not without its problems, but it is worth saying that both the quality of accommodation in the private rented sector and the satisfaction of the people living in that accommodation have increased over time.
There are certainly problems, with which my Department continues to grapple, but overall that story of deregulation has been a success and has allowed more people to access accommodation in the private rented sector. The difficulty here is that although we know people want the stability of a secure home, the Government’s view is that more restrictive legislation of the kind that would have prevented this company from doing what it did would mean fewer homes available to rent, which would not help tenants.
My hon. Friend posed the right question in his speech. What happened may well be legal, and we may well have to accept that if we want a thriving rental sector we must allow landlords to ask people to leave a tenancy, with notice. The question my hon. Friend posed is whether the behaviour of the company in this situation is moral or right. I very much share his concern, and I think that anyone listening to this debate or reading the transcript will ask that same question about what has happened, which has, as my hon. Friend said, a sort of Alice in Wonderland quality to it: a group of people essentially being told that they need to leave their homes, resulting in many of them being made homeless, to provide housing for the homeless. That seems to be a highly irrational way for a company and a city council to behave.
Accepting that if we want a thriving rental market in this country we must accept the ability of landlords to regain possession of their property, what can the Government do to try to make the situation—
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Before I was so rudely interrupted, I was trying to address the concern my hon. Friend raised. If we accept that to have a thriving rental market in this country, we need to allow landlords to regain possession of their properties, what can we do to make the kind of situation that his constituents have experienced far less likely? The key answer is to increase the supply of housing. Many of the issues that he referred to—I will answer some of the detailed questions in a second—come back to the point that for probably 30 or 40 years, we in England have not been building enough homes, so the demand for housing far exceeds the supply.
Those constituents who had to approach the council and seek protection under homelessness legislation are an example of a wider problem. Historically, the main causes of statutory homelessness—when people go to their council and ask for help with rehousing—have tended to be relationship breakdown and those kinds of issues. The most common cause of statutory homelessness in this country now is the ending of a private rental sector tenancy. My hon. Friend describes a particularly strange and indefensible situation, because of the role that the company played in provoking it, but it is a fairly common one in a general sense. People lose a private rental sector tenancy and find themselves unable to find alternative accommodation in their area, and therefore have to present themselves to their local authority.
To try to alleviate that problem, the Government are doing two things. In addition to supporting the largest affordable housing programme by any Government since the 1970s, we are investing very large sums of public money in trying to help local authorities prevent homelessness and support those affected by it; we are investing £149 million in central Government programmes and giving £315 million over the course of this Parliament to local authorities.
The House is also playing a part, and we should put that on the record. The private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), which is currently before the House, does two critical things. First, it looks to widen the safety net. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough did not touch on this, but it is possible that some of his constituents find themselves outside the safety net; single people who are not vulnerable in any way are not currently covered. The private Member’s Bill would widen that safety net. It would also get councils to intervene much earlier to prevent people becoming homeless, rather than just dealing with the problem when it occurs.
The second main thing the Government are trying to do is increase the supply of housing. The fundamental solution to so many of the housing problems we face in this country is to build more homes—in this particular instance, more homes for rent—to offer people greater security than is often the case currently, without forcing landlords to offer that security. In the forthcoming housing White Paper, my hon. Friend will see a lot of measures on that. I will mention two briefly.
First, the Government are very keen on build to rent. In this country, most of our private rental sector properties are owned by individual landlords, many of whom are responsible for only one property. We are keen to see institutional investment in building new private rental sector homes. That brings not only a degree of professional management and a very welcome new supply, but the potential to offer longer assured shorthold tenancies, because we are not talking about individuals who may need to access their assets six, 12 or 18 months down the line, but major pension funds and the like who are interested in a long-term, secure return on their investment. That would address some of the concerns of his constituents. Secondly, the Department is also promoting a model tenancy agreement, which encourages landlords to offer longer tenancies and therefore greater protection to people.
I want to address three questions that my hon. Friend asked on behalf of his constituents. He told us that the properties in question had at some point been what we would call social housing; they had been owned by a registered provider. He asked why that housing had been allowed to pass into the private sector. I cannot answer that question for him today—my briefing was unclear about the history. My officials believe that, if it was owned by a housing association, that was some time in the past. He is right to say that if that was the case, the transfer would have to have been authorised by the housing regulator. I am very happy to see if we can find out, without disproportionate effort, when that occurred and what the rationale was for approving that decision. That is clearly something that his constituents would want to know the answer to. It is a highly relevant question.
My hon. Friend raised two other questions to which I think he deserves an answer. He talked about the management fee, and the distortion whereby somebody can earn more money renting out accommodation to local authorities looking to place homeless families than renting it out as normal, general-purpose, private rented accommodation. The management fee is not paid directly to the landlord—it is paid to the local authority—but my hon. Friend is right that, because many local authorities are so short of emergency accommodation to place homeless households in, the rates that landlords charge them are often of that kind. The long-term solution to that is to get more housing in our country, so that local authorities are in a much stronger position in the market when trying to secure accommodation and do not have to pay such high fees.
Given the way that the management fee, which is managed by the Department for Work and Pensions, works at the moment, it may reassure my hon. Friend somewhat to hear that the Government are replacing it, and will move to a grant to local authorities, which will be administered by my Department. The overall pot of funding for that grant will be £617 million. That will give local authorities much more flexibility in how the money can be used, and may prevent the appalling situation that he has reported today from recurring.
My hon. Friend’s final point is very difficult. It is an issue that many of my predecessors have had to grapple with: local authorities are placing families that they have accepted as statutorily homeless outside their area. Many hon. Members have raised that concern with me in the nearly six months that I have been Minister with responsibility for housing. Let me reassure him at least partially. Local authorities have to secure accommodation within their own borough as far as is reasonably practicable. We have changed the law so that councils have to take into account the impact that a change in location would have on a household, including possible disruption to things such as employment and schooling.
In some circumstances, accommodation in another borough may be more suitable for a household. I cannot say to my hon. Friend that that can never happen, but I can assure him that we have made it more difficult. Again—this is probably the right moment to draw my remarks to a close—the long-term solution to the problem of councils placing families in different boroughs is to end the housing crisis in this country. We must ensure that we build more homes and build up our housing supply, so that each local authority has the ability to place the families it accepts within the area in which they live. Clearly, in most cases, that is the right thing for those families, because most people have friends, families and personal relations, whom they risk losing if they are placed at a distance. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very disturbing case.
Question put and agreed to.
Stormont House Agreement: Implementation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered implementation of the Stormont House Agreement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I know you have taken an interest in these matters over the years. I welcome colleagues who have taken time out to attend the debate, including the Minister. I look forward to his response.
Although policing and justice issues are now devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive—at least for the next few weeks—the legacy of our troubled past remains a matter for this Parliament and the Government of the United Kingdom to deal with. Let me remind colleagues that, during what we call the troubles in Northern Ireland, there were more than 3,500 deaths, of which more than 2,000—60%—were murders carried out by republican paramilitaries, mainly the Provisional IRA. More than 1,000 murders were carried out by loyalist paramilitaries, amounting to 30% of the overall total. British and Irish state forces were responsible for 10% of deaths during the troubles, almost all of which occurred as a result of entirely lawful actions, where police officers and soldiers acted to safeguard life and property. Let me restate that for the record: the paramilitary terrorists were responsible for some 90% of the deaths in the troubles, and state forces on both sides of the border for 10%. I want hon. Members to hold that statistic—that fact—in their minds during this debate. I apologise to colleagues, because this is a very complex issue and I need to take some time to go through the background and the issues we are still dealing with in Northern Ireland.
There are some 3,000 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland linked to our troubled past. What a terrible legacy that is—one of pain, loss and in many cases a deep sense of injustice. It is a well-accepted principle that in a democracy no one should be above the law and yet, as will become clear from my remarks, there appears to be one rule for those who have served our country and the Crown and another for those whose objective was to destroy it. Unfortunately, those legacy issues were not adequately addressed, never mind resolved, in the Belfast agreement on Good Friday 1998.
Instead, in that agreement, the Government of the day agreed to release early from prison those prisoners sentenced for offences linked to the troubles in Northern Ireland and who were members of a terrorist organisation on ceasefire, in support of the peace process. In effect, the terrorists who had been found guilty of crimes including murder were released from prison after serving only two years in jail. For many of them, that was the limit. They included, for example, the notorious Shankill bomber, from the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). Sean Kelly was convicted by the courts in Northern Ireland of the murder of nine innocent people in a bomb explosion on Shankill Road in Belfast. He was sentenced to nine life terms in prison, but under the terms of the Belfast agreement he was released early, having served less than one year for each life that he destroyed.
In addition, and beyond the terms of the agreement, in September 2000 the then Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson, announced that the Government would no longer seek the extradition of Provisional IRA prisoners who had escaped from prison, including several who escaped from the Maze prison in my constituency in 1983. They were allowed to return home; they were no longer sought to be brought back and put in prison, where frankly they belonged. They included convicted terrorist Dermot Finucane—the brother of the late Pat Finucane, about whom we have heard a lot in the past—who was the former head of intelligence and the head of southern command of the Provisional IRA. He was a very senior figure in the Provisional IRA, and he escaped from prison and was allowed to return home. Kevin Barry Artt, who was convicted of the murder of the deputy governor of the Maze prison, escaped and yet was allowed to return home without having to go back to prison. I could go on with the list of the concessions that have been made to Sinn Féin and the IRA over the years in relation to those who were convicted of, or are alleged to have committed, very serious crimes.
In 2001, the then Labour Government sought to extend that further to introduce an amnesty for all members of terrorist organisations on ceasefire. On 4 May 2001, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Dr John Reid, wrote to the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and said:
“In the Hillsborough statement of 8 March we accepted publicly for the first time that it would be a natural development of the Early Release Scheme to discontinue the prosecution of pre-Good Friday Agreement offences allegedly committed by supporters of organisations now on ceasefire.”
Crucially, Dr Reid went on to say that the proposals, which would be enacted into legislation,
“should exclude members of the security forces from the amnesty arrangements”.
In other words, a terrorist who had committed crimes, including murder, before the 1998 agreement would be granted an amnesty, but a soldier or a police officer alleged to have committed an offence would not be the beneficiary of such an amnesty. Thankfully, through parliamentary opposition, that reprehensible scheme was defeated and the secret deal that had been done was thwarted.
But it did not stop there. Having been frustrated in that attempt to bring in an amnesty for terrorists, the Government of the day did another secret deal, issuing letters to paramilitary prisoners and suspects wanted for questioning about terrorist offences to say, “You may now return home. The police will no longer question or arrest you in connection with offences committed before 1998.” We did not know of the existence of that scheme, and it was only finally exposed when John Downey was brought before the courts here in London on charges linked to the murder of four soldiers in the Hyde Park bombings of 1982. What happened? Downey produced his letter—that “get out of jail free” card—and the courts threw out the case against him. He was allowed to walk free, without being prosecuted for the offences he is alleged to have committed.
When I was serving in Northern Ireland, my regimental band was blown up in the Regent’s Park bombing on the same day. A few hours later, I took a patrol out in the New Lodge area of Belfast, as the news of the bombing was coming through. The soldiers under my command showed unbelievable restraint in the face of taunts about that terrorist incident. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand the feelings of the people who showed that restraint, day in, day out, only to see now a one-sided judicial process that could take people of that era—people of my age and older—into court for alleged crimes committed during that period?
Yes, I do understand entirely the strength of feelings. I have many comrades with whom I served in the Ulster Defence Regiment in Northern Ireland, and they are daily subjected to headlines in our local newspapers such as “Off the hook” over pictures of convicted terrorists. The hon. Gentleman can imagine how my comrades feel too, having put their lives on the line to bring some of those people to justice. Similarly, members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who went out to investigate the crimes, now find that the people they put behind bars can walk free, some of them as the result of the use of the royal prerogative of mercy.
As the result of a report prepared by Lady Justice Hallett into the on-the-runs issue, the Secretary of State of the day, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), told the House of Commons in a statement in 2014:
“The Government…will take whatever steps are necessary, acting on the basis of legal advice and in conjunction with the police and prosecutors, to do everything possible to remove barriers to future prosecutions.”—[Official Report, 17 July 2014; Vol. 584, c. 1041.]
She was referring to the future prosecution of terrorists. Since that statement was made, I am not aware of a single terrorist suspect being brought before the courts in Northern Ireland in relation to those matters. The Secretary of State also identified 36 priority cases highlighted in the Hallett report. Those were to be the subject of a review by the legacy investigation branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Will the Minister tell us in his response what has happened to those 36 priority cases that were to be reviewed? Are the suspects still wanted for questioning, or have they been told, “No, you’re okay, we don’t need to talk to you”?
I want to highlight a case that I find particularly appalling. Kieran Conway is a self-proclaimed member of the Provisional IRA from Dublin. He claims that he was a senior intelligence officer at the time of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings, in which 21 innocent people lost their lives. Conway asserts that he is aware of the identity of some of the IRA members involved in that mass murder, but he has refused to disclose that information. In addition, Conway admitted that he had been involved in a number of shooting incidents, perhaps as many as 100. He claims that a number of British soldiers were killed in some of those shooting incidents that he witnessed.
Kieran Conway is so confident that the UK authorities will not pursue him that he has written and published a book setting all that out and putting it in the public domain. Not only that, but he has appeared on the BBC “HARDtalk” programme, openly boasting of his involvement in those crimes. Has Kieran Conway been arrested and questioned about the claims he makes in his book and has broadcast on other media? No, he has not—far from it. Today, Kieran Conway is a solicitor in Dublin, who acts on behalf of so-called dissident republican suspects in the Special Criminal Court. Imagine the conversations that Mr Conway has with his clients—“Don’t worry, boys. One of these days the Brits will cut a deal with you too. Just keep on doing what you’re doing, just like I did, and I’m walking the streets and advising clients how to evade justice.”
Soldiers and veterans look at all of that and they think, “What is going on?” We know is going on: veterans of our armed forces are getting the knock on the door early in the morning. They find a large number of police officers outside their homes; their homes are invaded and searched. The veterans, sometimes just out of bed, are marched off to a police station, subjected to cross-examination and interrogation about crimes that occurred sometimes 20 or 30 years ago. Those are the men and women who served our country, who put themselves on the frontline and who were prepared to go out and face the terrorists; today, they are waiting again for the knock at the door.
I hesitate to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, because he is making a powerful speech, and I congratulate him on it. Given the number of years that he has cited—20, 30 or 40 years—does he agree that if we accept this principle about harrying and pursuing members of the armed forces, then there is no reason to stop there? Some of my constituents who served in Cyprus and Korea, or even further back, are saying, “In the fullness of time, perhaps we will be questioned about what we got up to, under the rules and norms of today rather than those that applied at the time.”
As a former Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Gentleman worked with me and others on such legacy issues, so he is well aware of the background to the situation. He is absolutely right. Earlier in the main Chamber, some of our colleagues made the point about what impact this might have on our ability to recruit men and women into our armed forces today. Would not a young 18-year-old looking at a career in our armed forces think twice about serving a country that might let them end up in the dock, simply for doing the job and protecting the community? That is a huge question that we need to ask of the Government. What is going on?
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on bringing the debate forward and on making his points so powerfully. Does he agree that evidence that is 20, 30 or 40 years old will be hard to rely on? We should be putting cases away unless there is new evidence. What really bothered me was that when I met a member of the police the other day, he said, “There are new ways of looking at evidence.” If there are new ways of looking at evidence, there is a threat that we will look at everything again. We simply cannot do that. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, himself a veteran, for his intervention.
Let me remind hon. Members of the price that our security forces paid in Northern Ireland for the service that they provided to our country: 520 Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force regulars, reserves and veterans murdered by terrorists; 243 from the Ulster Defence Regiment and Royal Irish Regiment, or their veterans murdered by terrorists; 325 from the Royal Ulster Constabulary or other constabularies throughout the United Kingdom and retired police murdered by terrorists; and 26 prison officers and former prison officers murdered by terrorists. That is more than 1,100 men and women in the service of the Crown who were murdered by terrorists, alongside countless others seriously injured and left to bear the mental and physical scars of that reign of terror. That is the legacy of the service provided by the men and women of our armed forces and police services in Northern Ireland.
Evidently, little effort has been made to bring to justice those responsible for those heinous crimes. I repeat, because it bears repeating: 90% of the deaths in the Northern Ireland were not caused by the Army, the police or anyone connected with the Crown; they were carried out by illegal terrorist organisations. Yet where is the pursuit of those people? The victims of these crimes cry out for justice. Where is the justice for them?
The Chief Constable, in fairness to him, established the Historical Enquiries Team, which was tasked with re-examining all the unsolved murders connected with the troubles in Northern Ireland. To a certain extent, that was a paper exercise. The team’s only remit was to review the previous police investigations; it did not have police powers to pursue investigations. When that team was wound up, its role passed to the legacy investigation branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which is where it currently sits. The reality today is that 90% of the resources of the legacy investigation branch—I stand open to challenge on this—are devoted to investigating 10% of the deaths during the troubles, and 10% of its resources are devoted to investigating 90% of the deaths. Where is the equity in that? Where is the fairness in a system that produces such a result?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this very timely debate. Does he agree that there is no comparison between former service personnel who served in Northern Ireland, who may in the vastly distant past have been engaged on patrol when whatever happened—whether it was an oversight, a misjudgment or a split-second decision—resulted in injury or death, and whose actions account for many of those 10% of deaths, and the deliberate, premeditated murders of the terrorists? That is what annoys and angers many personnel who served in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
I thank my hon. Friend for that well-made intervention. Two former members of the Parachute Regiment have recently been charged in connection with the shooting of an IRA commander in Belfast in 1972—one Joseph McCann from the Markets area of Belfast. Those two veterans are aged 67 and 65. A 75-year-old veteran, who previously served in the Life Guards, has also been charged with the attempted murder of a man in County Tyrone in 1974. Those cases will soon appear before the courts, yet people do not, when they open their newspapers every day, see the terrorists who are responsible for the vast majority of the murders coming before the courts.
The right hon. Gentleman knows why I was not here at the start of the debate, and I am grateful to him for his courtesy. Does he agree that exactly the sorts of cases that he cites are having a chilling effect on men and women serving in the Army, who look at that opportunity for a career and say, “Why on earth would I do this?” Can he also tell us why this is happening now? My understanding is that these cases were properly identified and investigated at the time. Why is there partisan pressure now to reopen what was dealt with quite properly in the past?
I will move to my final point, Mr Pritchard, which I feel is important, but I will first address why this is happening now. I think it is because we have had a number of inquiries, which resulted in the creation of the legacy investigation branch. For example, cases linked to the Saville inquiry have been re-examined, cases have been referred by the coroner in Northern Ireland that were previously referred by the Attorney General, and cases have also been referred by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland to the legacy investigation branch. A combination of all those things in recent years has resulted in what we are now seeing. I agree entirely with the hon. Lady’s point.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that despite the imbalance that he has well documented, Sinn Féin are still not happy? Indeed, the crisis in Northern Ireland is driven by their desire to get even more soldiers in the dock and even more security documents in the open, so that they can rewrite history. The Government ought to resist the blackmail that the people of Northern Ireland and the Government here at Westminster are being subjected to by Sinn Féin.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many people who died in the troubles—all murders and killings were wrong—who were not members of the armed forces were innocent civilians? I can think of many of my own constituents. Will he relate that to the Stormont House agreement, which this debate is supposed to be about?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that further intervention. The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) is absolutely right about the murder of the innocent. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said, republicans are trying to rewrite the history of the troubles. They want to portray the security forces as the bad guys, and they want to be portrayed on the side of good. But let me be clear: whether it was the massacre at Kingsmill, McGurk’s bar, La Mon, Belfast’s Bloody Friday, the M62 bombings, Birmingham, Narrow Water, Droppin’ Well, the Grand Hotel in Brighton, Newry police station, Enniskillen war memorial, Ballygawley, Shankill Road, Greysteel, Loughinisland in the South Down constituency, Canary Wharf or Omagh, no one can ever sanitise the horror, the inhumanity and the sickening murderous depravity of those acts of terrorism. They cannot rewrite the history of what they did to the people of Northern Ireland and others.
Two years ago, we reached an agreement in Stormont about the legacy issues and several new institutions were proposed, including an historical investigations unit that would have full police powers to revisit the unsolved murders. The main impact of the establishment of that unit would be that the murders committed by the terrorists would finally be subjected to proper scrutiny and reinvestigation, and the innocent victims that the hon. Member for South Down referred to would have the opportunity to have their cases re-examined to see whether there was the prospect of prosecution and people being brought to justice. I accept the point that the hon. Member for South Antrim made about getting evidence for cases from so long ago.
The Stormont House agreement is there. There is currently an impasse between Sinn Féin and the Government on national security. Sinn Féin are demanding that this Government fully disclose in the public domain everything that happened, which would mean that if the Special Air Service had carried out an operation in Loughgall and shot members of the Provisional IRA who were exploding a bomb outside a police station, all that the SAS did—all the rationale, all its modus operandi and all the military planning that went into that operation—would be out in the public domain. How could we ever counter terrorism again if we put in the public domain the very methods that we use to detect what is happening and safeguard life? It is a nonsense that a former terrorist organisation should have the right to demand that a lawful Government put that information in the public domain.
The Government must hold the line on national security; further, they should act now. They need to proceed with the Stormont House agreement. They need to implement the historical investigations unit. We have waited long enough. It has been two years since the agreement. Why are we allowing Sinn Féin a veto over the investigation of the murder of innocent people, soldiers and police officers? We owe this to those people and their families. I urge the Minister: please, let’s get on with it. Let’s do the right thing. Let’s investigate these murders. Let’s give the people the opportunity for justice.
Some housekeeping points: the debate will end at 17.52 because of Divisions. The Minister might like to give the mover of the motion, Sir Jeffrey, a minute at the end to wind up. The Front-Bench speeches will start at 17.32, with five minutes for the Labour Front-Bencher, five minutes for the Scottish National party and, of course, 10 minutes for the Minister.
A final point: Members will be aware that the screens are not working, so you cannot keep track of time, but the good news is that we can do it for you. There is a now a time limit of three minutes for each speaker, I am afraid, and when the time is up, you will hear the bell.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on securing the debate. However, I do have to say that, as someone who participated in many of the negotiations in the process—some of which he discussed—and in particular has always been pushing to ensure that we keep the promise that was made in the Good Friday agreement about properly addressing legacy issues and tending to the needs of victims, I do not accept a lot of his recounting of the history of the process. Indeed, I would have to say that he has disremembered a number of key points.
In relation to dealing with the past, in a number of the negotiations that took place after the Good Friday agreement the Social Democratic and Labour party, at times the Alliance party and the Women’s Coalition were all saying that the question of victims and the past needed to be dealt with, but it was quite clear from the two Governments that the parties that did not want the past dealt with were the main Unionist party at the time and Sinn Féin.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the negotiations in Hillsborough in 2003. It was then clear. Three parties suggested that a victims’ forum be established to move forward on issues of the past because the Governments and their parties were failing. Again, that did not happen because of Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist party, but of course the Governments continued to proceed on what they said was their commitment from Weston Park in relation to the so-called on-the-runs. That led to the legislation to which the right hon. Gentleman referred—the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill in 2005. Contrary to what he said, that Bill was providing opportunities for certificates of amnesty to be given to members of the security forces or anyone else. Anyone could get certificates. In fact, anyone could turn up and get a certificate for anyone else—that is how wide open the scheme was—and it could all happen in secret, with victims not knowing or being told. If anyone found out, the Secretary of State could put on an additional seal of secrecy. I am proud of the fact that the SDLP led opposition to that. Did the Democratic Unionist party make that a deal breaker at the time in the negotiations for the restoration of devolution? It did not. It was the SDLP that fought on that, because the DUP was happy to go along with some aspects of the amnesty scheme, provided that it extended to members of the security forces as well.
The right hon. Gentleman also referred to the establishment of the Historical Enquiries Team. Paul Murphy was Secretary of State at that time, and he told me very clearly that I, as the SDLP leader, was the only party leader who was pressing for anything to be done in relation to historical enquiries. I was the only person who lobbied for that team to be established and the only person who lobbied for funding. Of course, it could not be provided for in statute because there was not agreement from the other parties. So we have the DUP complaining about the very things that it opposed and helped to prevent. Similarly, in terms of the Stormont House agreement and the prior discussions on Haass and everything else related to dealing with the past, the DUP stood in the way of getting an agreement as well.
It is a pleasure as ever to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on securing the debate. I had wanted to speak at length about the perception of amnesty, but there is not time to do that, so, as an ex-soldier who served in Northern Ireland twice and in Iraq and Afghanistan twice, I will focus on what I believe is the impact of these inquiries on those who are serving or may serve in the future in our armed forces.
Retrospective investigation over actions taken in battles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland breaks the covenant that the Government, Parliament and the nation has with our armed forces. Those who have served feel betrayed, those who now serve are concerned, and those who might have served now might not. However necessary the Government might insist that these inquiries are and however fair and proportionate the investigatory process is designed to be, merely the prospect of it is enough to make those serving now hesitate before pulling the trigger. In battle, that hesitation costs lives.
Those who serve now do so inspired by this nation’s relationship with its armed forces over the centuries. To defile that relationship is to diminish our military capability now and in the years to come.
I shall deal with three aspects of this issue in the short time we have. The first is what the British Government should do. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) clearly, fairly and comprehensively set down what we believe as a party that we as a society should strive for in terms of fairness and justice.
When I think of the Government, I also think of our head of state. Her Majesty the Queen has done more than anyone else historically and symbolically to bring people in these islands together. Her son, the Prince of Wales, made a historic visit two years ago to the place in Ireland where his cherished uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was murdered.
There was a conviction for an attempted bombing of the Prince of Wales last year, and three Members of the Dáil—MPs like us in the Republic of Ireland—wrote to court in support of a dissident republican. Mick Wallace TD, Clare Daly TD and Maureen O’Sullivan TD all wrote in support of a dissident republican who attempted to kill the son of our head of state. There is a huge onus on the Irish Government and on parliamentarians in Dublin when we consider Kingsmill and the promises that the Taoiseach made to the families of the Kingsmill massacre. They said that they would make full disclosure to the coroner’s inquiry. Have they done it? No, they have not. Therefore, while there is an onus on the British Government to ensure that we are serving our armed forces personnel and veterans in this country, there is a huge onus on those co-guarantors in the Irish Government to step up to the plate as well.
From a Northern Ireland perspective, what can we do? In my constituency last year, prison officer Adrian Ismay was murdered by dissident republicans. Despite five breaches of bail, the chief suspect in his murder was not challenged by police—police sent an order to officers not to bother him with bail checks—and only this week we discovered that Damien McLaughlin, who was charged with aiding and abetting the murder of David Black, a prison officer in 2012, absconded on 18 November. He has not signed on bail even though he was required to do so five days in the week, and the police did not raid his house for six weeks. They did not tell court or seek a warrant for his arrest until this January.
Whether it is historic, a legacy case or very much in the here and now today, we are failing innocent victims. I do hope that the Minister takes the opportunity to respond.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I welcome the opportunity to have the debate and thank the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) for initiating it. I think the starting point is the inequality in the current process and system, which was highlighted by the Minister just a few weeks ago in this Chamber. He accepted that the approach to the past had not been proportionate. That is a good starting point, and we have to realise that.
I am not going to go over all the issues, but may I say that unless we get a system that delivers for the victims in our society, Northern Ireland will never progress as a society that builds together and works together.
We have heard instances of some former soldiers. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I served in the Ulster Defence Regiment. I remember being on duty when Sergeant Hugh McCormick, a Roman Catholic police officer, was murdered coming out of mass on a Sunday morning—I remember going to that. I remember being flown out to an incident in which a good friend of mine, Jimmy Graham, was killed—the third of the Graham brothers to be murdered. He was driving a school bus to pick up a load of young kids to bring them to swimming.
The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) mentioned the innocent victims. How much more innocent can you get than workmen coming home from serving and working, doing a building job? Their van was blown up at Teebane. How much more innocent can you get than those standing around a war memorial to remember the dead of the two world wars? An IRA bomb went off and murdered 11 of those people. How much more innocent can you get than those Kingsmill people going home from their work? This is absolutely disproportionate. I remember speaking to Ronnie Funston at the Enniskillen cattle mart where we were selling cattle. Two days later, he was murdered on his tractor. He was an innocent man and not a member of any security forces.
I have to say that, unless we stop this process whereby the majority of the focus is on former security forces, we will never move forward. If terrorists and former terrorists can get their royal prerogative, why can soldiers not? There has to be some equality in this system; we do not have any at present.
First, I hold soldiers to a far higher standard of service than I do terrorists—that needs to be understood. However, I have to say that what is happening at the moment is the worst possible recruiting sergeant imaginable. Having 70-year-old veterans being hauled out of their beds at 3 o’clock in the morning to answer for things that may or may not have happened 40 years ago is remarkable. I can scarcely remember what I was doing last year; I certainly cannot remember what happened 40 years ago.
I am really worried about the quality of available evidence for investigations of this sort. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has talked, and is worried, about a “twisted narrative”. He needs to say in clear terms what he will do to unpick that narrative, because the message at the moment is that the awful things that happened during the troubles were predominantly caused by members of the armed forces, which is truly remarkable, given the statistics shared by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). That must be dealt with now. It needs to be nipped in the bud, otherwise our colleagues at the Ministry of Defence will find it ever more difficult to recruit the young men and women needed to serve the forces of the Crown.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Pritchard. It is undoubtedly safe to say that the political landscape across the Irish sea today is not as it was when the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) secured the debate. The stalemate around the implementation of the agreement remains, but there is now more to consider.
Some would suggest that politics in Northern Ireland has just entered election mode, and that there is little to be said by politicians such as myself on this side of the water. There may be some encouragement for the parties to get back around the table, but the chances of that happening currently seem sadly distant, to say the least. The renewable heat incentive seems to have become all-consuming, and the fallout from it will clearly continue to be an issue for some time; there may yet be an inquiry, and we will wait to see what that brings. The implementation of the Stormont House agreement will be waiting for whoever assumes responsibility for the Northern Ireland Executive in the months to come.
I do not think it is for me to tell Northern Ireland, its people, elected representatives or institutions what they should do, but it seems that the process of implementation is more than stuck and needs a hard push to get it moving. It will need some hard-headed negotiation and a great deal of good faith on all sides. The supply of good faith may be experiencing some issues at the moment, but I have no doubt that the fine men and women who sustain politics in Northern Ireland will not be shy in providing the hard-headed negotiation; we have seen that reflected in the passionate contributions from every single Member who has contributed today.
There has been plenty of movement in Stormont since the re-establishment of the devolved Government, and the individuals and parties who have served in the Assembly deserve great credit for the advances there and for the establishment of peace as an expected part of life. The attitudes shown at Stormont over the past decade will be needed now as much as they ever were, and I urge all parties in Northern Ireland to take a bit of time to focus on a strategy for the future that establishes what needs to be done to advance the interests of the people they represent, rather than allowing those interests to remain stuck.
It will be almost entirely the responsibility of Assembly members to sort out the problems that have resulted in the stalemate, and they will have to be the pivot on which the future turns and the implementation of the agreement depends. That said, it will need the support of the UK Government—especially in providing the resources needed for addressing the legacy issues and moving on from them. It would be good to have some assurances from the Minister that that will be forthcoming.
The next wee while will not be a walk in the park. The Scottish National party recognises that responsibility for forward movement rests in Belfast, but we offer whatever small help we can.
I join those who have paid tribute to your chairing of the debate, Mr Pritchard. I also join those who have paid tribute to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). I have known him for many years. He is a man who always speaks with utter—sometimes painful—honesty, but with the deepest sincerity. Anyone who has any doubt at all about the rawness of these issues should listen to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, because that rawness still smarts today. We, as parliamentarians, and as co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement in this country, have an absolute bounden duty to seek to achieve that which we all want: a peaceful, settled and secure Northern Ireland.
I also associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott). I joined him in what I have to say was a slightly unlikely occasion for me: the 12 July parades in Maguiresbridge. I talked to people for whom the border conflict is not a footnote in history but a bloodstained page in their own family lives and their own family bibles—people who actually lived through that horror.
I do not look at this from one particular perspective or another, and I certainly do not look at it with blinkered eyes. However, as the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) quite rightly said, we expect higher standards from our armed forces. I see no comparison between terrorism and military action, but there have been occasions in the past when people in our armed forces have not acted in the best traditions of our armed forces. I do not think that any of us should pretend that there have not been occasions when matters have occurred that need to be investigated.
I do not believe that every single person in any single organisation can be completely exonerated. That might seem offensive to some people, and I apologise, but on behalf of the many who have served in the armed forces, there is no time or respect for people who act outside the law. Yes, it was a horrendous time, but there is still no excuse for anyone breaching their code of honour—and it is a code of honour that one subscribes to when one wears the Queen’s uniform.
However, the Stormont House agreement and the subsequent Fresh Start were about much more than that particular aspect. Hon. Members should not forget that it was welfare reform that ran the whole business into the sand. It is hard to think that it was agreed only in December 2014. At that time the issues were overwhelmingly ones of welfare reform, and also about the size of the Assembly. There were a huge number of other issues, including the winding up of the historical enquiries team and the introduction of another two or three bodies.
At that time, flags and parades was extremely important, as was the past. I pay credit to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and all of those involved in winding down the Twaddell Avenue circumstances, which showed that, on occasion, we can actually achieve things. What seemed insoluble a few years ago has been solved, and I pay undiluted credit to all the people involved, at least two of whom are sitting in this room today. However, implementation of the Stormont House agreement is the subject we are talking about today; we are not talking solely about the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the world looked at the peace process in Northern Ireland with huge admiration? It did many people sitting in this room enormous credit that they were able to swallow that agreement for the greater good. However, the world is also looking at the United Kingdom in a whole range of ways at the moment, and one of them is how we treat our veterans. This comes down to a matter of great interest for Britain’s perception in the world. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is something the Government would be well advised to consider?
I do not think that anyone would possibly cavil at the thought of respect for our military, our veterans and the military covenant. Equally, however, I do not think that anyone would say that without exception there has never been an incident in which a person wearing the Queen’s uniform acted outside that code of honour and those rules. That might be uncomfortable to say, but I think that we do our armed forces and our veterans a disservice if we say that they can do no wrong. After all, they are human beings.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. My problem with it is that one side in the conflict constantly referred to it as a war—it still does—so on one side there are people acting as they would in a war, where they can do terrible things, whereas the security forces are bound by very strict rules. I think that is the unfairness of it.
What we call something is less important than what actually happens. When someone is dying, when someone has been shot in the back, when someone has been bombed, when someone has been a victim on either side, whether it is called a war or murder is less important to their relatives back home who receive the message of the death of a loved one. I entirely understand that some people will seek to justify it on one side or the other, but we are talking here about the implementation of the Stormont House agreement and Fresh Start.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), who speaks for the Scottish National party, is absolutely right. One reason why the Fresh Start agreement was successful was that at that time the PSNI accepted and admitted that there was still dissident republican activity on the streets of Northern Ireland. That was one reason why the Democratic Unionist party went back into the Executive. I think that we should be concentrating on those issues. We have to look at the murders that are taking place today. We have to move forward. Yes, the past is a mighty weight on our shoulders and it cannot be denied, but we cannot allow it to crush us. We have to move forward.
First, let me say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on not only the content of his speech, but the honesty and the power with which he communicated his feelings on this very important matter. I also congratulate colleagues on both sides of the Chamber who either intervened or made speeches. I will mention a couple of those briefly before commenting on the Government’s position.
Let me recognise my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) and the passion with which he speaks, as a former soldier—I speak as a former soldier as well. When I look at the hon. Members who made contributions, I see that it is a mix of people; some have served, and some represent communities that suffered terrible violence over a long period. Some people represent areas with soldiers. Some people serve on Committees. There is huge interest in, and a huge commitment to, trying to find resolutions to some of the challenges that we still have in Northern Ireland. The House should be very proud that it can bring together people with knowledge and a determination to resolve some of these issues.
There are difficult issues to address. I compliment my opposite number, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), because we can just be sucked into a narrative that says that soldiers are always right. I served in Northern Ireland, and I was extremely proud of the professionalism with which my colleagues served. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers served very bravely. However, to answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) about the way the world is looking at how we treat our veterans, one reason why our services are regarded as such a professional body of people is the high standards that politicians, our military and the public expect from soldiers. It only takes one person to commit an act that undermines that reputation, so it is important, regardless of whether someone is a soldier or a terrorist, that if they have committed a wrong or there is a thing to be answered, it should be answerable.
A number of people have said that the military are held to a higher standard, and rightly so, but they are held to that higher standard at the time of the engagement and in the immediate aftermath. They are investigated by the Royal Military Police and the Special Investigation Branch there, in theatre. What does not need to happen is the investigation 40 years later of people who have done their duty and long since stood down.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I will just say that I sat and listened to the former Prime Minister’s contribution on the Bloody Sunday investigation. I have to say that I refused to accept a narrative that I had heard for many decades about what had happened, and there was clear wrongdoing, so there are moments when we have failed and we should hold our hands up and not just capitulate to a romantic message that we are always right in the military.
I want now to focus on what we are proposing, because the key message that I got from today’s debate was the passion with which the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley wanted to get that proportionality and balance back into what is happening at the moment. The Stormont House agreement addressed many things relating to legacy and the shape of the Assembly, but for us in this debate it was about the formation of the historical investigations unit and addressing some of the issues that people have talked about: the care of our veterans; reform of the Northern Ireland inquest function; ensuring that victims and survivors have access to high-quality services; implementing the comprehensive mental trauma service; seeking an acceptable way in which victims can gain a pension; and giving victims and survivors access to advocate-counsellor assistance. It is vital that progress is made on all of that to address the legacy of the troubled past, and we need political stability to be able to drive that forward. The Government want to put £150 million on the table. We want to create a period of five years in which we will work our way through and address the 90% of murders that were carried out by terrorists, and balance and proportionality will be brought back into the system.
There are huge numbers of former soldiers who were murdered and whose cases are not being investigated at this time. Nearly 200 soldiers were murdered, and those cases are not being investigated at the moment because there is no mechanism in place. When people talk about injustices against soldiers at this time, that is because of the present system. I would like to talk about what is proposed. When I was here just a few weeks ago, there was more resistance to what was suggested in relation to the historical investigations unit. I think that there is now an idea, an understanding, of what we want to actually do in putting that proportionality in place and ensuring that those 3,500 people who were murdered and the families of those people get some justice.
One conversation that has come about has been about an amnesty—an end to this whereby we just draw a line. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley read out a long list of people and of events that had occurred—terrible events in which people were traumatised and damaged and will be for a long time. They want justice. There is not a line to be drawn. Whether an act was perpetrated by a terrorist or whether a soldier was involved, people want their moment in court, when they can get an understanding of what happened.
Will the Minister not accept, though, that because terrorists do not keep records and are not going to respond to letters from the Ministry of Defence inviting them to unburden themselves, there will be a mismatch in the information available to the courts? That means that successful prosecutions may be brought against servicemen—a small number, I suspect—but there is no chance, realistically, of a commensurate number of prosecutions being brought against terrorists.
What is important is that we create the space, give the resource and set a framework in which those investigations can be explored. We are suggesting a five-year period in which chronologically we work through the evidence that is available, the evidence that we can now discover through new means and techniques that are available, so that there is an understanding of what happened at that moment and we can best explore that. It is right that we put that proportionality back in and ensure that that is addressed.
I want to give the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley the opportunity to respond, so I will briefly touch on some of the issues and questions raised. First, the PSNI is still considering the 36 priority cases and actively reviewing the incidents involved. So there is not an end to that; it will pursue that. I have mentioned to the hon. Lady from the SNP, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), that the Government have made clear their commitment to provide £150 million over five years to help support the establishment of the new institutions that are addressing the past.
We need to create a political space in which we can deliver this. The Secretary of State wants to consult the public on how we do this, but people will again raise the issues that have been put on the table today. However, as the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley said, it is important that justice is provided and that proportionality is brought back into this system. I hope that when these proposals come forward they are robustly challenged, people make contributions to them and we understand that this is about bringing justice to the people of Northern Ireland.
I will be very brief. I thank the Minister for his response and thank other right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate this afternoon. Let me be clear, Mr Pritchard. As a former soldier, like a number of colleagues who have spoken, I am not prepared to stand back and see my former comrades vilified and hounded for serving their country and standing in the gap between democracy and tyranny. They defended us, and we must defend them. Peace is a noble cause, but when peace means the denial of justice and becomes the oppressor of the innocent, it is less noble.
I can do no better than quote the words from a tribute poem written by Shane Laverty, who was 10 years old when his 18-year-old brother, RUC Constable Robert David Laverty, was murdered by the Provisional IRA on the Antrim Road in Belfast on 16 July 1972. He was sitting in a patrol car, travelling down the road. I finish with this:
“Remember me. For I cannot pass this way again and memories are all you can have. Unlike those who put me here. Was it I who broke the law or they? Yet they live to fight another day.”
We owe it to Constable Robert David Laverty, his family and all those who served our country as police officers and soldiers to stand by them, to stand with them and to ensure that there is proper, proportionate justice.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered implementation of the Stormont House Agreement.