Wednesday 31 January 2018
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
Personal Independence Payments
This debate is rather over-subscribed. More than 20 people wish to speak. If everyone takes two minutes, I might be able to get most of you in; if people take four or five minutes, I will get seven or eight in. If you take interventions, the number will go down. It is all in your hands. I cannot impose a formal time limit, but think about your colleagues when you are into your sixth or seventh minute.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the claimant experience of the personal independence payment process.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie. I am going to be really stingy with interventions. I can already feel the wrath of my colleagues, but I have to do that because of the number of people who have put down their name to speak.
I called this debate because of the sheer volume of casework my constituency office receives regarding personal independence payments. My constituents find many aspects of the process difficult, not because they are not capable but because the forms are confusing and the assessment procedure is complex and exhausting. There are more face-to-face consultations, more regular reviews and more reassessments of awards than under the preceding benefit, disability living allowance.
The initial impetus for this debate came from my constituents, but as soon as I asked on social media for people to tell me their experiences, I realised the huge scale of this issue in North West Durham and all over the country.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does she agree that the Government made the situation significantly worse by passing regulations in 2017 that have been found to be blatantly discriminatory against those with mental health conditions?
I agree strongly. That ruling was a wake-up call for the Government.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will make a bit more progress.
I asked people to comment and send me emails about their experiences, and I was absolutely deluged. I received more than 600 emails and 1,500 messages on Facebook and Twitter. Most of those people took a great deal of time to tell me what had happened to them. Individually, their stories are shocking; collectively, they shame the Government and the Department for Work and Pensions. They are testament to a broken and cruel system. I will come back to those harrowing stories in a second.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She mentioned her Twitter appeal and so on. An official survey shows that 76% of people in the system responded to say that they were satisfied. That itself is not a happy position, but it shows that her representation of people’s average experience as wholly negative on the basis of a Twitter appeal does not reflect the results of a scientific survey.
What an absolute joke that is. To diminish those people’s experiences, which made me weep, is an absolute disgrace. Those people took their time in extremely difficult circumstances to tell us about the difficulties with the system. To talk about another survey to try to diminish those experiences is a disgrace. [Interruption.] I will not take any more interventions. The Child Poverty Action Group handbook on personal independence payments states that the Government’s case for replacing DLA with PIP was that it had become an outdated benefit.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I have to make progress—just give me a minute.
DLA was criticised for having complex and subjective criteria and inconsistent decision making, resulting in too many awards and too few reviews of awards. The Government say that the PIP process is
“a more active and enabling benefit”.
I disagree in the strongest possible terms. The introduction of PIP was another cuts exercise. The coalition Government made the need to make savings a clear aim of the new benefit. [Interruption.] They said it themselves. According to the Library, PIP was expected to reduce expenditure by £1.5 billion, and 607,000 fewer people were expected to receive PIP by 2018. That kind of reduction cannot be achieved without the anguish and suffering of thousands of people.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Let me share the experience of a constituent from Kirkby who is a long-time claimant of DLA because of his post-traumatic stress disorder. He is unable to leave the house, so he has always had a home assessment. Since his last assessment, his wife has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was told, “No, we won’t do a home assessment this time.” Is it not a disgrace—[Interruption.] Well, he was denied. He came to me; I sorted it out. The Government need humanity, compassion and, frankly, some common sense.
Those stories are so, so common. The changes have hit those most in need of a social security system while reducing the overall welfare budget, and have taken away the safety net for a massive number of people. When cost-cutting is the motivating factor behind changes, we hit trouble, just as we have with universal credit. Let me take Members through some of the difficulties that my constituents and many other people—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am making progress. There are 20-odd people down to speak; it would be disrespectful to them not to do so.
The initial claimant form is often daunting and time-consuming. People have to rely on stretched services and support agencies to complete the form. At the same time, the questions are very restrictive and do not fit the description of everyone’s illness. Following that, claimants are invited to a medical assessment by an outsourcing company—Atos Healthcare or Capita Business Services, depending on their location in the United Kingdom. The accessibility of venues is often cited as a problem: claimants are invited to assessments miles away from their homes and in inaccessible rooms. Some say that that is a test from the outset. There have also been reports of assessments taking place in expensive gyms and spas in my area, which makes claimants feel on edge. Some people are sure that they were filmed upon entering the assessment, and I believe them.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I have lost several members of my family to motor neurone disease, a progressive disease for which there is no cure—people do not get better. Does she agree that people with terminal illnesses such as MND should not be up for reassessment?
There are hundreds of stories of people with conditions that will not change being reassessed. That is terrible.
There are extensive concerns about the suitability of PIP assessors—that was a clear theme throughout the correspondence—who often do not have the medical expertise to assess claimants with particular medical conditions. A midwife, for example, may assess a claimant with mental health problems, but they will not know every sign and symptom of every mental health condition, as they are not qualified. That calls into question the accuracy of the assessment.
Constituents have told me how brutal and gruelling the medical assessments are, as they lay bare the claimant’s disability and how they cope with it, but they are based on a medical model of disability rather than a social one. One person put it brilliantly: they said the assessment was like a functionality test, and that it did not capture or consider how someone can live their life each day. The fact that assessors do not take notice of professional medical assessments from doctors or psychiatrists, and that that information is considered only at tribunal stage, is not even questioned. Assembling that information at assessment stage is such a waste of energy for people, especially since doctors charge for medical assessment letters. In my view, that cost should be met by the state, not by the person making the claim.
I will take one last intervention, then I must press on.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does she agree that the costs that pile up at tribunal are in part a function of a mandatory reconsideration system that, again, does not look at additional evidence properly?
That is right. I will come on to mandatory reconsiderations in a second.
The outsourcing of the assessment process is very much part of the problem. Some 60% of assessment reports completed by Capita healthcare professionals and sent to the DWP were judged to be of an “unacceptable” standard. Neither Capita nor Atos has ever met the DWP contractual target that no more than 3% of reports should be found unacceptable. I wonder what it would take for those companies to lose a contract with the Government. No action is taken, because the Government are ideologically wedded to the outsourcing model, despite such poor results. Incredibly, I have read that those companies pay people bonuses for completing extra assessment reports, which in my view incentivises rushing and contributes to inaccuracies. Many feel as if they have been lied about in their reports—that is all part of the same inadequacies. I have even had reports of healthcare professionals who conduct the assessments asking claimants if they have thought about killing themselves. While I understand that it is a difficult subject to broach, sensitive language needs to used when dealing with such topics; otherwise, it can be damaging and triggering for that person.
If a claimant is not awarded the points they think they are entitled to, or they are told that they are not entitled to PIP, they must challenge the DWP’s decision through a mandatory reconsideration. Constituents of mine, and many people who have been in touch, have said that the process is completely pointless due to the DWP not reviewing medical evidence or investigating whether the decision maker’s report was accurate. Actually, DWP workers feel unable to challenge the assessor’s report. Advice and support agencies also state that hardly anyone has their decision overturned at that stage. I cannot help but think that is just another stage in the process to grind people into submission.
If the mandatory reconsideration process is unsuccessful, the decision must go to tribunal, putting tribunals as well as claimants under enormous pressure. Advice and support agencies say that they are under a great deal of strain, trying to deal with the demand from people seeking representation. Latest figures show that 68% of PIP decisions are overturned on appeal, so the DWP’s systems are clearly not working. That is completely indefensible: all that trial and trauma for claimants to be proved right, if—it is a big if—they manage to go that distance. People have reported that they have to wait over a year for a tribunal date.
What is very clear is that the assessment process is working against claimants entitled to the benefit. Many campaigners believe that the companies who provide medical assessments are heavily encouraged to hit targets by the Government in order to cut the welfare budget, and I believe them. Perhaps it is because there is an ambivalence to these people, or—more likely—because the Government do not see it as the state’s role to provide that support.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will give way once more to the Conservative side, and that is it.
I thank the hon. Lady. I would not necessarily disagree with some of the criticisms she is making of the assessment process. Some of my constituents face those challenges, and we would be happy to work across the House to try to fix them. Does she recognise that under PIP, 66% of claimants with mental issues now get the higher rate of benefit, versus 22% under DLA? Can I ask her for a little balance when she comes to look at the system rather than just criticism?
The balance is that thousands of people are locked out of the system and never even get an award because they are so ground down by the process. The Government need to realise what a cruel and callous system they are putting people through and the knock-on effect that has on our constituents. I am a bit shocked by the disbelief on the Conservative side—they look stunned that this is taking place. That is the reality for disabled people in this country. People are falling further into depression and self-harm, having suicidal thoughts and becoming reliant on food banks. All of those things are harmful for our society. Losing Motability cars was a consistent theme, along with falling into debt. The NHS is also being put under much strain.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will make a bit more progress.
In the past seven years of this Government, the Department for Work and Pensions has become a harsher and colder organisation. A culture has grown through successive Secretaries of State that sees claimants as numbers and fraudsters instead of people with needs, and a burden on the state rather than citizens with potential. The Government’s own figures put the rate of fraud for PIP at 1.4%—not even worth talking about—yet the system is built on the presumption that people are lying and need to be found out.
Here is a symbol of that callousness: a few weeks ago in my surgery, one of my constituents showed me a decision letter telling her that she was no longer entitled to PIP—her lifeline. The letter was dated 25 December—merry Christmas from the DWP. That is far from the most shocking story. Over the past week, I have read several hundred testimonies from people who have suffered under the system.
A whole community out there has been frightened, mistreated and intimidated by the Government, the media and the DWP. I will read a few of those testimonies—they put things much better than me—before drawing my speech to a conclusion. One says:
“I hope change can be made as presently the PIP system is too brutal, rigid and unfair to people like me who want to live an able life despite disability”.
“Why are they treating disabled citizens as though we are undeserving of welfare support?”
“I do not want to be in this situation. I am not choosing this life or lifestyle. I am a human being with feelings and emotions. I need help, support and understanding, not being ridiculed or made to feel like a criminal and waste of space and a burden on society or that I am going to be caught out at any opportunity for my disability.”
This one was the most striking:
“being on benefits is like being in an abusive relationship with the state. We cannot escape our abusers, we need them, we are financially dependent on them”.
This is what I ask of the Government: remove the contracts from Atos and Capita with immediate effect and bring the assessments back in-house; remove the assessors’ bonuses; abolish the mandatory reconsideration step of the process, because it is utterly pointless; make it compulsory to take medical documentation into account at the initial assessment, because it is traumatic for people to have to go through their medical conditions in detail, and the evidence from professionals is already there. There must be consequences for inaccurate assessment reports about people’s health conditions, and we should redesign the assessment process alongside disabled people so that it accepts a social model of disability, not a medical model.
The judgment against the Government towards the end of last year when, as was mentioned, a High Court judge said the changes were “blatantly discriminatory,” should give the Minister pause for thought. It is an opportunity for reflection. What has become of not just this Government but our society when we treat people as criminals and fraudsters for being disabled? Do they really know what fear is experienced across this nation at the clatter of the letterbox? People are scared that there might be a brown envelope from the DWP. It is time for the Government to admit that the system is a disaster and that a review of PIP and the whole benefit system is urgently needed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock), who clearly has a huge amount of passion about this subject. Although I would not necessarily agree with all of the stats she cited, it is important that we continue to do everything we can for those who are often among the most vulnerable people in society. Collectively, we will raise many examples and suggestions on how we can continue to improve the system.
I do not intend to speak for long—I have spoken in every debate like this for the past two and a half to three years, so I will try to avoid repetition. First, I want to make it clear that there have been mistakes. In any system there are mistakes. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) raised a classic example of a mistake. That should not have been the case; that is not designed to happen. If people need home visits, those should be a given. That was a genuine mistake.
There were claims that PIP was brought in for financial savings. The concept was actually designed under the previous Labour Government; it just happened to come in as we came into office. We are currently spending £3 billion a year extra, and that figure will increase every single year of this Parliament. That is not a cost saving by any definition.
Under DLA, only 16% of claimants got the highest rate of benefit, but under PIP it is 26%. Only 22% of people with mental health conditions got the highest rate, but the figure now is 66%. That is why we are spending £3 billion more a year, and rightly so. If someone with a mental health condition wanted to access the higher mobility rate, they had to be severely mentally impaired unless they had a physical disability, so only 12,660 people with a mental health condition accessed the higher mobility rate. Since the introduction of PIP, over 100,000 more people are benefiting from that rate.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that in the impact assessment from May 2012 for the introduction of personal independence payments under the coalition Government, the objectives were to ensure that expenditure was sustainable and to save £2.24 billion a year by reducing claimants by 500,000 a year?
And the reality is that we are spending £3 billion more on supporting the most vulnerable people. That is partly because we have an extremely proactive Minister who, rightly, meets regularly with charities, stakeholders, individual users and MPs from across the House. I did the same when I was a Minister, and the system continues to be improved.
Finally, under DLA the higher rate was given for visual impairment at 36%, but it is now 79%. The system is not perfect and we need to continue moving it, but we can all access the stats from the Library. They are independent of the Government. They are the reality. That does not excuse mistakes or times when the system lets people down, but it is a fallacy to think that the old DLA system was better. It was not better, which is why the charities and stakeholders support the principle of PIP.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that, taking the journey time for the end-to-end process, the waiting time has been reduced by 40 weeks to 13 weeks in the past four years? That has to be an improvement. There is a long way to go, but I am sure my hon. Friend would agree.
That is an important point. [Interruption.] There is an Opposition Member who favours randomly plucking stats out of the air. It is the official statistics, independent of the Government, that I am giving; our teams can go and research them in the Library. I shall give an example of a big difference being made. Those who are terminally ill now have their process speed-tracked and the decision is given within seven days.
I shall not speak for too much longer as many Members want to raise suggestions, but I want to address the question raised about lifetime awards. Under DLA 70% of claimants had a lifetime award, and when I became the Minister I thought, “That is sensible; it does away with the need for an assessment.” However, one in three people with a disability or health condition will have such a significant change within 12 months that their condition will have changed—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North West Durham sighs, but for the majority of people—[Interruption.] Terminally ill people will be processed within seven days; I am talking about people applying for the benefit for the first time. Their condition will change within the first year—predominantly getting worse. If they enter the benefit on the lower rate and are put on to a lifetime award they will miss out on money they are entitled to. That is one of the most significant changes.
If someone enters the system on the lower rate, the system will try to estimate when they might be in a position to access a higher one, and automatically trigger that. That is one of the reasons why we are spending an additional £3 billion on making sure people do not miss out—and not just for a few years; there were cases of people missing out on money they were entitled to for 20 or 30 years.
I will conclude with appeal rates. It is always a worry, looking at those. The hon. Member for North West Durham claimed every case was wrong—and some were; we need to continue to improve the system, because there should never be a mistake. However, the evidence from those independent appeals is that those cases are ones where additional written or oral evidence has been presented. Something on which I agree with the hon. Lady is that we should be able automatically to get access to health records. There are data protection issues, and we would need to get the consent of the claimant, but if they were willing to do it we would all support that approach. It would make everyone’s life a lot easier and the system a lot smoother. There is also huge support for allowing the claimant, if they wish to, to have sessions recorded. Again, that can be used on appeal.
I encourage the Minister to continue her great work of engaging not just charities and stakeholders—the users—but Members of both Houses. I urge all colleagues in the Chamber, if they are passionate, have first-hand experience and have taken the time to watch an assessment and talk to the staff, to take up the Minister’s invitation to meet and engage. Let us collectively continue to deliver an improved disability benefit.
Order. We have 35 minutes. Brevity is at a premium.
I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock), on the debate.
The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) is right in what he says about how the system should operate, but that is not how it is operating in practice. In the Mind survey, 55% of those surveyed found that their PIP was either stopped or reduced. I also want to mention that study’s satisfaction rate for people with mental health issues. We are making the same mistake with that as we are with the work capability test. If we are going to have a system that is fair to people with mental illness, we need properly qualified assessors, and that is not happening. It was the same with the work capability test: the assessments were done by people who had no qualifications to give them an understanding of people with mental illness. That is not right.
Yesterday in the Chamber I did not get an answer when I asked the Minister, at column 708, what happens to the 22% of people with mental illnesses who, according to the Mind survey, did not appeal because of their condition. I know those cases will be looked at again, but do I advise constituents who have not appealed to make a new application, or will those concerned somehow get around to seeing them? We need clarity for those people, many of whom have valid claims but felt unable to appeal because of the onerous nature of the system. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham is right; in Durham, welfare rights will tell you the appeal waiting time is now more than a year for such cases.
I want to touch briefly on a couple of constituency cases. What the hon. Member for North Swindon said about lifetime awards and people missing out may be true, but I can give him an example of the opposite. A constituent was given PIP from 2016, and when his condition worsened he put in an application for the higher rate and, after an assessment, had his entire PIP taken away. The mobility issue is also creating complete heartache. A constituent of mine has got five stents and has had two heart attacks. He went for assessment in January and did not qualify for PIP. They said he was not entitled, so he will lose his mobility car. He got a letter the other day saying he had not been entitled to the car since last October. I do not know how that view was reached when the assessment happened in January.
I want to nail the idea that people on PIP somehow are shirkers, and the lazy of society. [Interruption.] I am sorry—that is some people’s narrative. I am not going to listen to anyone who comes in here as an obvious Whips’ plant to bolster the number of Tory MPs. Members who want to make a contribution should put in to speak. I give credit to the hon. Member for North Swindon, who at least made a speech rather than some cheap intervention that the Whips obviously told him to make.
In many cases, the people I am talking about are working. The worst case I know of is of a man in his 40s with a degenerative condition, who was a butcher and could not work. He retrained in IT, got a job, went for his PIP assessment and was not awarded the higher enhanced rate. Therefore he lost his mobility car. That is a guy who got off his backside, as he said to me when he came to my surgery, and went to get a job because he did not want his children to grow up in a household where the father was not going out to work. It cannot be fair that we are dealing with such people in the way we are.
The system as it has been designed is making all the same mistakes as the work capability test did. It is a sausage machine to get claims through. I would argue—to save money for the Government—for taking out the cases that we know will not improve. We are wasting our time on those individuals’ cases. As to making sure that the system works properly for others, especially those with mental health issues, we must have a system where assessments are done by properly qualified people.
The people who claim PIP do not choose to be in that position. Any one of us here today could end up on it if we had a serious illness or accident. Claimants do not want to be on PIP. The way to judge a society’s fairness is by how it treats its most vulnerable. I am sorry, but the system we have is not treating them fairly.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) on securing the debate.
One of the first constituency cases that I ever dealt with as a new MP was that of Pauline Kerrigan of Springboig. Pauline has Raynaud’s disease, as well as osteoarthritis. Previously, she was given a lifetime award of disability living allowance and transitioned on to PIP. She was then suddenly found miraculously fit for work. I have met Pauline at my surgery on more than one occasion, and it is clear to me that she is most definitely not fit for work. Indeed, the Government were right to issue a lifetime DLA award to Pauline in the first place, but because of the transition to PIP her life was unnecessarily turned upside down.
Like many colleagues in the Scottish National party, I remain convinced that this Government’s obsession with personal independence payments is little more than an ideological plaything. Week after week, my constituency surgeries are packed with disabled people who continue to feel the sharp end of the Government’s cuts to social security. I remain convinced that the entire system needs a complete overhaul, and today’s litany of horrifying constituency cases from other hon. Members only reaffirms that view. We need action from the Government sooner rather than later.
Last week, I and other colleagues from the SNP group met Scotland’s Minister for Social Security, Jeane Freeman, to discuss progress in implementing our new social security system in Scotland. Establishing a new social security system is the biggest challenge we have faced since the inception of devolution, but I am heartened by the Government’s determination to build a social security system that is underpinned by dignity and respect. When the new social security system is established, my constituent Pauline will finally be treated again with the respect and dignity she deserves. The challenge for the Government today is to ensure that Paulines in Preston, Prestatyn and Penzance are treated with dignity, and the only way that will happen is if the system is fundamentally overhauled.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) for securing this important debate and for her passionate speech.
Our welfare state was founded by a Labour Government, based on the principles of protecting the most vulnerable in our society and providing a safety net for everyone, rich or poor, should they ever need it. Yet under this Government we have seen our welfare state eroded into a completely dehumanising and cruel experience. Yesterday, the Minister refuted my claims that the welfare system we see today is cruel; if it is not cruel, then what is it? These people have been put through the wringer and squeezed remorselessly—and all for nothing, as we now know.
I am like other hon. Members: rarely does a day go by when distressed constituents are not reaching out to me about their PIP assessments. The dread and anxiety that comes with an impending PIP assessment are overwhelming. That is not surprising, given the life-or-death situations constituents find themselves in. A survey by the Disability Benefits Consortium found that one third of those who have had their funding cut in the middle of a benefits shake-up said they were struggling to pay for food, rent and bills.
That is what happened to my constituent Deborah. Since failing her PIP assessment six weeks ago, she has been living on biscuits. Despite the cold weather in the north-east—it has been freezing—she has been unable to put her heating on. Sadly, Deborah, who suffers with severe mental and physical health problems, has been through this once before, so she knows the physical and psychological effects it can have on claimants and their families. Deborah does not want to go through that again, nor should she.
Another of my constituents, Kelly, applied for PIP on behalf of her 17-year-old daughter, who has anti-myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein disease: a rare neurological illness. Kelly’s daughter has limited movement in her spine and 50% lung function, due to a severe spinal scoliosis, and now has titanium rods running the length of her spine. Kelly was told that her daughter did not qualify. Susan, who has severe osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, is in constant pain and can barely walk. She was told she did not qualify. On behalf of my constituents, I ask the Minister exactly how disabled and affected by their disabilities people have to be to qualify for PIP.
The system in place now is not what our predecessors imagined when they founded the welfare state. They expected kindness and compassion for those who need support during difficult times. Yesterday, the Department for Work and Pensions tried to play the compassionate Conservative card and announced that everyone receiving PIP will have their claim reviewed. What does that bittersweet announcement mean for the constituents I have mentioned today and the many others across the country who have already had their payments stopped? Will the Minister provide some clarity on whether and when the Department will consider those claims again?
Given the suffering that my constituents are already going through as a result of PIP, they simply cannot wait any longer. I ask the Minister, please, to confirm today how long this complex exercise is expected to take. I hope, given what we have already heard and will no doubt continue to hear for the rest of the debate, that the Minister will finally put an end to the pain and suffering that so many have had to endure as a result of the Government’s heartless policies—that has to be said—and give people a chance to live with dignity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I also congratulate the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) on securing this important debate. Time is tight, so I will concentrate on one group for whom I have raised issues many times, and for whom the term “PIP” has perhaps most resonance: the terminally ill.
For any person facing a PIP assessment, the idea of an assessment creates a lot of worry and stress. For the terminally ill, the pressure is multiplied many times over—on the individual involved, who has been given that terrible diagnosis, and on the families who have to deal with the fallout of that situation. Even insurance companies—private firms—acknowledge that cancer patients and people diagnosed as having a terminal condition need special treatment and pay out immediately. They do not hang about waiting to assess people; they know that the condition is not going to change.
I am grateful to the MND Association, and I will read their description of that terminal illness:
“Few conditions are as devastating as motor neurone disease (MND). It is a fatal, rapidly progressing disease of the brain and central nervous system, which attacks the nerves that control movement so that muscles no longer work. There is no cure for MND.
While symptoms vary, over the course of their illness most people with MND will be trapped in a failing body, unable to move, talk, swallow, and ultimately breathe. Speech is usually affected, and many people will lose the ability to speak entirely. Some people with MND may also experience changes in thinking and behaviour, and 10-15% will experience a rare form of dementia.”
Yet people with MND have to go for PIP assessments. The cost to terminally ill people and their families is much more than just the pain of that shortened journey to the end of their life. Research done for the MND Association shows that people with terminal illnesses face £12,000 a year more in costs, not including loss of income.
Transferring from DLA to PIP, 15% of people living with MND have had their awards reduced. A progressive condition, a terminal illness and a reduced award: surely that cannot be right? I have raised concerns many times over the challenge for many terminally ill people facing the six month rule—the requirement of a
“reasonable expectation of death within six months”.
That language is surely incompatible with the variable nature of conditions and terminal illness. The DWP should review its guidance on the use of DS1500s to reflect that terminal illness is not an exact science. Will the Minister review the process for the terminally ill? Will she tell us how many people have been turned down? Will she tell us how that injustice will be urgently addressed? Will she tell us, now that there is to be a review, what appeal process will be made available to those not contacted by the DWP, who rightly feel that they are entitled to an enhanced payment?
I will focus my contribution on how the PIP system treats those with less visible disabilities by talking about epilepsy. Epilepsy Action has said that nine out of 10 people with epilepsy felt that the Government’s decision maker did not understand their condition—and no wonder! The assessment forms, the descriptors and the face-to-face assessments are not set up in a way that accurately reflects the nature of epilepsy.
It comes as no surprise that three out of five people with epilepsy who were already on benefits had their award decreased when they applied for PIP. In raw numbers, that is 18,000 people, 20% higher than for any other condition. I am concerned that the Department’s previous announcement on supervision and safety—the change that could have the most impact for people with epilepsy—is in danger of being neglected.
People with epilepsy have contacted the Epilepsy Action helpline with their key concerns. First, what is the review’s timeframe? People are waiting to find out whether their award has been changed, but as they will only be notified if there is a change, how will they know when to stop waiting? Secondly, why are claims disallowed before 9 March 2017 not being reviewed, when it is clear that the guidance was wrong before that date? Thirdly, if the DWP has reviewed a case and decided there should be no change, does the claimant have a right to appeal?
There have already been two significant reviews, and many problems with the PIP assessments remain. There are three changes the Government should urgently introduce. First, they should make sure that only those assessors who have received training for a particular condition, such as epilepsy, are allowed to make decisions on that condition. Secondly, they should increase the timeframe for providing evidence from one month to two months, to make it easier for an applicant’s doctor to provide the supporting evidence that they need. Thirdly, they should commit to a full review of the “repeatedly and safely” requirements and issue guidance to ensure that it is being applied correctly for people with less visible conditions.
Taking those measures will not ease the stress of the undoubtedly stressful application process, but it may go some way to helping achieve a fairer system and to granting applicants what was promised in the name of the benefit: independence.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I shall keep my remarks short, out of respect to the other Members who want to speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) on securing the debate, which is of particular importance to my constituents. I have to say that I am slightly disappointed at the state of the two Scottish Conservative Members who turned up to the debate with a clear intention to disrupt the opening speaker. They have now left the Chamber and not stayed for the debate.
This is a timely debate, given the announcement that the UK Government are to review PIP claims, at a cost of £3.7 billion, by 2023. It is hardly a surprise that the High Court concluded that the Government’s changes to PIP were “blatantly discriminatory” to those with mental health conditions. That has been self-evident for some time. Of course, this disaster is of the Government’s own making: they tried to rip off the most vulnerable people in society and now we are all paying the price. The taxpayer will have to foot the bill for those mistakes. What is the human cost? Claimants pushed to the edge and living their lives on the brink. When will the Government get anything right first time?
This fiasco could have been avoided had the Government approached disability benefits with humanity and compassion, rather than—as usual—as a cost-saving exercise. By the time we get to 2023, the UK Government will have delivered the worst possible outcome: a more expensive system that delivers less for applicants. Other Members will be aware—we did not need a court case or reams of statistics to know—that the changes to PIP are having a negative impact; the many distressed constituents who have visited our constituency offices or surgeries in tears are testament to that. They have spoken of feeling humiliated and degraded. They have been made to justify their disability through an intrusive, pseudo-medical assessment conducted by officials working with ambiguous criteria.
Ultimately, we in Scotland can be relieved that PIP is one of 11 benefits being transferred to the Scottish Government. I have no doubt that that will mean a noticeable improvement in the way people are treated, as the Scottish Government seek to create a Scottish social security system that gives claimants dignity and respect. For example, they have announced that claimants in Scotland are to be given the right to have a supporter with them in meetings and assessments. That small but noteworthy change is proof that Scotland will do things differently. Perhaps this Tory Government could yet again learn from the Scottish Government’s example.
Given that the DWP will continue to manage Scottish PIP cases until 2020, will the Minister outline whether this crisis will affect the smooth transition of PIP to the Scottish Government?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I will primarily raise issues around the access to assessments, and I will run through some examples of constituents who have approached me. This is by far the biggest area of casework that I receive in my office.
Mr M’s daughter had a stroke and is partially paralysed. She was expected to get to an appointment 40 minutes’ drive away in Scunthorpe for 9 am. There is no direct bus service so they would have had to have caught the 7.34 am train from Grimsby to get there on time, and they did not know how to get to the assessment centre from the railway station. That all put additional pressure on an older parent who is responsible for somebody who has suffered a stroke.
K has mental health issues and other difficulties, including domestic violence issues that impede her ability to freely leave the house. Despite being advised of those difficulties, requests for a home visit or a local appointment were refused and she was expected to attend in Scunthorpe. C is vulnerable because of her alcohol dependency, alongside her depression and anxiety. She has no means of transport but was expected to attend in Scunthorpe. M has learning difficulties, but no exception for that, or consideration of it, was made. There was no real humanity in dealing with that individual.
Another constituent, J, had a stroke. After parking his mobility vehicle away from the assessment centre, he made the extraordinary effort to walk what is a very short distance but what took him more than 25 minutes, with frequent breaks on the way. Having made that journey and dragged himself to the assessment, he was deemed to be sufficiently mobile not to require his mobility car, which has put enormous pressure on him, his family and his ability to live a normal life. Those are a few examples, but there are more: Hogan, Arnold, Snell, Read, MacDonald, Lamb, Jones, Stewart and Godfrey are just a few of my constituents who have all had barriers placed before them just to get to an assessment.
I have had conversations on this and have had questions responded to, and we managed to get additional assessors in the area. However, issues with appointments, maternity and sickness—the assessors made available were under such pressure with the volume of assessments that they went off sick themselves; I hope they did not have to go through the assessment process, because that would have been a double injustice—mean that we do not have enough assessors in the local area to support the needs of my constituents.
I have been able to assist in some of those cases and resolve some of the issues, but why do these people have to come to their MPs or place enormous stress and strain on other support services, which also have issues with their funding, to receive that advice? Why is the system so complicated? People should not have to come to see me to have these issues resolved.
When the courts ruled that the system was wholly inadequate for those with mental ill health, did that extend to the ability to access the assessment process in the first place? My constituents face not only the physical challenge of their condition but poor public transport links, the removal of Motability vehicles and the cost of alternative transport, such as private taxis. There is also a lack of consideration when those with autism or Asperger’s have to go somewhere different, travel in an unusual vehicle or simply be around other people in crowded environments, or of those who struggle with depression, anxiety or agoraphobia when they are asked to go on unfamiliar routes to unfamiliar places. It is all too much and too overwhelming and it is placing these people under enormous stress.
I will make one final point, because I know lots of Members want to speak. Surely we deserve a properly resourced assessment centre locally, with more flexibility given for assessors to undertake home visits and support people, rather than to target them.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) on securing this important debate. I will reinforce the points made by a number of Members this morning. To put it quite bluntly, I believe that the emotional trauma caused by PIP and the Government’s approach to its administration has led to suffering on what can only be described as an enormous scale.
I will give one example of a constituent, as her case illustrates the fundamental problems with PIP, and then make two other brief points. My constituent suffers from chronic long-term and debilitating back pain, which was made worse in the aftermath of an operation, during which she suffered terribly. However, after her disability living allowance was terminated, she was awarded much less support through PIP and her mobility car was taken away from her because she had not scored enough points in the arbitrary assessment. Ironically, it can be said that, in this and many other cases, personal independence payments reduce people’s personal independence and mobility. That is one of the fundamental problems with this system that we need to consider today.
I will briefly address two other points; I realise other colleagues would like to speak. First, the length of time that people suffer because of the trauma caused by the system is a problem. It is important to note that, all too often, the ordeal does not stop with the assessment, which is just the beginning of a very lengthy process. My constituent lives in flat so small that there is not even room for her husband to stay. She has to contend with living alone in cramped conditions and in pain. As if that were not bad enough, she is having to find the strength to challenge her initial assessment report formally, because it does not reflect her condition or what she said to the so-called health professional.
There is a wider issue, which was mentioned earlier, about whether due weight is given to medical evidence. In certain cases, the written evidence of GPs and consultants has been discounted or not given proper consideration because, according to the DWP, they are regarded as the applicant’s advocate and are therefore, in the warped world of PIP assessments, somehow biased. The irony is that the Government give total credence to the advice given by their own so-called health professionals, who, as we have heard, are not necessarily trained in the area of medicine that they are due to assess. Reconsideration of that issue in particular should be a top priority for the Government.
I want to set out the case of a constituent who came to me. A medical professional, he was terminally ill and had weeks to live, but he was advised that he would be eligible for PIP only from December of that year. His partner was distraught, as was he. He wanted to use that money for the last few weeks of his life. It turned out that there had been an administrative error, but they had to come to me to sort that out. That is a disgrace.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I would like to make a suggestion to the Government. How about going back to the drawing board and designing a system that listens to people and allows them to express their issues in their own words. Above all, how about developing a system that demonstrates real compassion and decency, which we had for many decades in our welfare state? The Government can and must do better. It is so obvious that the current system is designed and contrived to cut public spending. I ask the Government to think again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie.
Let us imagine how anxious someone must feel, knowing that they have to sit through an interrogation process that will deem whether they are quite disabled enough to be eligible for a helping hand. Not only does that person have the already huge day-to-day disadvantage of being disabled or suffering from mental illness, but now, thanks to the Government, they are forced to sit through a point-scoring process to judge whether they are fit to work. PIP is not fit for purpose when it comes to many physical conditions, and it certainly has not been fit for purpose for those suffering from invisible illnesses. How disgraceful that in 21st-century Britain a Government are implementing public policies that clearly disadvantage those with mental health problems.
My constituent, George, suffers from a range of debilitating conditions, and he is prescribed a huge amount of medication just to enable him to get through the day. He is also almost completely reliant on the use of a wheelchair. After working for his entire life, George, at 63, thought that when his health deteriorated, there would be support to help him to survive and pay his bills. At first, that support was there, and George received higher rate mobility and the highest rate care components of disability living allowance. However, when he was called for his PIP assessment, things took a dramatic turn for the worse.
George will not mind my saying that he is reaching an age at which he would be likely to retire soon if he was fit and well, but he has been put through a process whereby he was tested to see whether he was disabled enough. One observation that was made during his assessment was that he could walk unaided for 20 metres, but not 50. That is not considered a restriction on his ability to walk. Leonard Cheshire Disability, the charity for disabled people, makes the point that the change to the criteria obviously means that far fewer individuals qualify for the enhanced mobility component of the benefit. That is penny-pinching at the expense of someone’s dignity.
The charity has also gathered the information that 74% of disabled people surveyed did not feel as though the assessor understood their disability. That was and remains one of George’s biggest frustrations: he did not feel that the assessor listened to him, understood his needs or treated him with any compassion. How can someone hold so much weight in determining the future of an individual’s life without being held accountable? Also, why cannot assessors consult experts in any condition or disability to help to fill their knowledge gaps? That would surely ensure that they asked the right questions in the assessment and accurately determined the individual’s ability to carry out an activity reliably, repeatedly, safely and in a timely manner.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am sorry, but I must get through my speech; I am conscious of the time.
George was assessed by Atos on 1 June 2017. He is now going through the process of appeal, but the timescale is being put further and further back and he still does not have a date for his case to be heard. He is struggling to survive financially, and he has said that he is feeling more depressed every day and having sleepless nights. He has stated—this is the important bit, to me—that if it were not for his wife, he would feel as though he could not go on any more, and he has contemplated not taking the medication that he needs. The way in which he and many, many others in my constituency have been treated is absolutely diabolical. I urge the Government seriously to stop burying their head in the sand and face up to the reality that has been created by their own policies.
I intend the summing-up speeches to start after the next speech, so if anyone wants to make a last intervention, they know what to do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) on securing this important debate and on making a powerful opening speech.
At Prime Minister’s questions a few weeks ago, I asked the Prime Minister whether she agreed that the PIP assessment process was fundamentally flawed, and what action she intended to take to avoid the undue stress and hardship being caused to my constituents and thousands more across the country. It is very clear to hon. Members here and the people whom we represent that the process is not fit for purpose.
The chaos that is being caused is having a cruel impact on thousands of people across the country. The Prime Minister’s reply was that the assessments are being conducted as well as they can be, and that people are getting the awards that they should be getting and are entitled to. She also stated that since the Government introduced the personal independence payment, 8% of cases have been appealed and 4% of the decisions are changed on appeal. In my easy calculation, about 50% of decisions are overturned on appeal, and things are getting worse.
Does my hon. Friend agree with my view? My constituent, Sarah Hassell, has cystic fibrosis, a degenerative disease. She is 30 and will not see retirement. Not only was she taken to a tribunal, but after that process, she was brought forward again for assessment. Her benefit was taken away, and she tried to kill herself because of this process, which she had already gone through once. The system is simply not working, and the tribunals are not working. When I wrote to the Secretary of State to ask for a response, I was just sent to a civil servant and was not graced with a response. My constituents need much better from this process.
My hon. Friend outlines a very sad and tragic case. It is one reason among many why the Government have to take note and listen.
The Prime Minister also stated that in the majority of cases, the change at appeal is due to the presentation at appeal of new evidence that was not presented at the original case. However, in the vast majority of cases that are brought to my attention at my constituency office and through Merthyr Tydfil and Caerphilly citizens advice bureaux, no new evidence is presented at appeal. The appeals are agreed, because the appeal panel recognises that constituents are genuinely in need of PIP and it supports the appeal. Furthermore, a growing number of assessments are consistently refused, and people are forced to go to mandatory reassessment and to appeal. I understand that currently about 65% of claims are overturned on appeal at tribunal. The growing number of appeals means that tribunals are taking longer to get to court—in my area, they are taking anything between four and seven months.
Every one of us has an email inbox full of these claims. Every single week, a new claim comes forward. The Minister has spoken about home assessments, but home assessments are not being done. It can be seen in Westminster Hall today how supportive the Labour party is, and how unsupportive the Tory party is, in relation to the whole PIP process.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, with which I wholeheartedly agree. The number of cases being brought to appeal and the length of time taken highlight the unnecessary cost of taking the cases to a tribunal. It stands to reason that if a large percentage of appeals are accepted, the original decisions are fundamentally flawed.
Does my hon. Friend agree that for those with long-term conditions, such as muscular dystrophy, the right level of assessment is important to avoid the need for people to go to appeal, given that an understanding of the condition could avoid that appeal?
My hon. Friend highlights the current state of affairs and how necessary it is for the Government to take action.
I will conclude by briefly highlighting one of the many cases that has been brought to me. A client in my constituency—a gentleman who lives with his wife and three children in a housing association property—suffers with epilepsy, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, anxiety, depression and heart problems. He was already in receipt of PIP and was awarded enhanced daily living and mobility at tribunal in February 2015; that award was backdated. He switched his enhanced mobility for a car through the Motability scheme.
My constituent was contacted about the renewal of his claim in April 2016, and the renewal was sent to him. The local citizens advice bureau assisted him with completing the form, and medical evidence went in. His condition had deteriorated, but he was awarded zero points for daily living and mobility. So he had to return his mobility car, which he relied on, and borrow money from a family member to purchase a car.
The mandatory reassessment was lodged, and my constituent was awarded nine points for daily living and eight points for mobility—on appeal, those were enhanced further. The case went to tribunal and the judge advised him to go back to the Motability scheme as soon as possible and get his car back, but in the meantime he had wasted money on purchasing one. Interestingly, no additional evidence was given at the appeal stage that the DWP had not had prior to the tribunal. That is just one of many cases, and I am sure that Members across the country have similar concerns. The situation is grave, as most Opposition Members and our constituents know.
Before my hon. Friend finishes, I want to make the point that there is a fundamental lack of understanding and compassion among assessors. Unbelievably, one assessor telephoned my deaf constituent and left them a message, which they would never, ever be able to access. How many penalties would they have for that? That is so basic that it is a disgrace.
My hon. Friend highlights an interesting point, and it is something that the Government need to get a grip on.
Unfortunately, the Government seem unwilling or unable to see the mess that is being caused or to do something about it. Will the Minister take stock of what she has heard in the debate this morning, give us some answers and get a grip on the situation?
It is a pleasure to sum up for the SNP in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Hosie.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) on securing this debate and on her recent promotion as shadow Minister. She made a typically impassioned speech outlining the experiences of her constituents and the thousands who have got in touch with her before the debate. Those are experiences that many of my constituents have sadly shared. She was right to point out how scunnered disabled people are with the PIP process. I have had constituents across the surgery table whom I have been trying to convince to go through an appeal process, but they have been so fed up and upset at being turned down for PIP that they have told me in tears that they refuse to go through an appeal process, despite clearly being entitled to, and in desperate need of, the support that should be provided. They and many others are effectively denying themselves support that they should be entitled to.
Members have raised a range of concerns about the PIP process, and I will touch on some of their speeches. The former Minister, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), acknowledged that mistakes have been made and that improvements could be made. He is right. One of the biggest mistakes was the UK Government’s attempt to deny people with mental health conditions access to personal independence payments. They were ruled discriminatory for doing that. Perhaps the UK Government should look at making improvements that improve people’s experience and are not discriminatory.
The hon. Members for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) described issues faced by their constituents in applying for PIP. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) rightly raised the additional difficulties being faced by people with terminal illnesses and touched on the briefing from the MND Association.
My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) made a very good speech based on his constituents’ experiences. He was right to highlight the total disrespect of a couple of the Scottish Tories who came in with prepared interventions and were clearly trying to upset and disrupt the opening speeches. They showed total disrespect to those Members who have prepared speeches and not been called, and total disrespect to the disabled people watching this debate. They turned up to get their names on TheyWorkForYou and up their speaking record, then cleared off halfway through the debate. That is cynical, disrespectful behaviour and I hope they will reflect on it.
In this otherwise informative and impassioned debate there were good speeches from the hon. Members for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), for Reading East (Matt Rodda), for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones). This debate could not be more topical, as we have been hearing about and debating the UK Government’s approach to PIP in the past week. We have had a written statement, two urgent questions and a stream of written questions on the UK Government’s response to the High Court ruling on PIP. The High Court ruled that the UK Government’s PIP regulations were “blatantly discriminatory” against people with mental health impairments. That follows the damning report from the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which found “systematic violations” of disability rights.
We welcome the fact that the UK Government are finally going to accept that they got this wrong and will implement the High Court ruling, but this whole shambles prompts a number of questions. It is going to cost £3.7 billion for the Government to review all cases and to rectify the error of excluding people with mental health issues, but how much has it cost the Government to oppose the matter in the courts? How much has it cost people who have applied and been turned down for PIP support, not just financially, but in terms of their health?
Yesterday the Minister was angry that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) suggested that some people’s experiences of PIP and other benefits may have led them to consider suicide. The sad story that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) gave in her intervention, and a case that I have shared with a previous Secretary of State, will hopefully allow the Minister to reflect on her comments yesterday. It is absolutely clear that there is an issue in this regard, and I hope she will reflect on that.
I also raised a case yesterday with the Minister of someone who had followed the process correctly, had completed their review forms and had submitted them in the timescales, yet were called to refund all the money they had received thus far. That was the administrative failure of the Minister’s Department. That case is exceptionally bad. We talk about reducing harms for people in society, but it shows that when the DWP fails, the onus is on the individual to suffer the consequences and not on the Department to compensate them and deal with the issue.
The hon. Gentleman was right to raise that case yesterday, which I saw him do, and I hope the Minister will reflect and respond on it.
Yesterday, the Minister suggested that savings will not be made to cover the £3.7 billion cost, but I would appreciate it if she categorically ruled out any further cuts to any other aspect of social security to fund the review, and if she explained how the DWP intends to cover the cost. Does this shambles not expose the urgent need for the UK Government to review the whole PIP application process? We hear time and again, as we did this morning, about the appeal process success rate and about how Ministers have lost court cases on their policy. We have also heard personal testimony about the way in which the application process impacts those who apply and need support.
This is topical because PIP will be devolved to the new Scottish social security agency, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). The Bill to create the agency is currently being debated in Committee in the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government are seeking to make a number of changes to the way in which PIP is assessed to make sure that it treats people with dignity and respect. First, the Scottish Government are seeking to make an automatic provision that would allow the agency to gather all the relevant medical or related information at application stage, which would reduce the number of face-to-face assessments, reduce the burden on the applicant and hopefully ensure that the correct decision is taken at the outset, rather than people having to go through the flawed mandatory reconsideration and appeal process, which was raised by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green).
Secondly, the Scottish Government will ensure that private contractors are not involved in the assessment process. There are a range of other measures that the Scottish Government will take to ensure that we get the system right for those seeking support. In conclusion, hopefully the Minister will consider the new system in Scotland once it is up and running, and the UK Government will look north and learn some lessons.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) on securing this important and timely debate. She made some valid points and highlighted the sheer volume of responses that she received when she put out a call on social media. That demonstrates the clear problems with the PIP system and with the benefit.
My hon. Friend talked powerfully about the outsourcing of the assessment process, which we all know is simply not working from our experience with the work capability assessment. It is about time that those assessments were brought back in-house because there is poor-quality decision making and no scrutiny. Frankly, it is unacceptable that taxpayers’ money is going out to those providers.
Does my hon. Friend agree that outsourcing decisions waste money and are against the interest of claimants? Discrepancies between Capita, which sees 59% of claimants at home for a home assessment, and Atos, which does the vast majority of PIP assessments but sees only 16% of claimants at home, expose the divisions in the private sector and show why the assessments should be brought back in-house and monitored properly.
It is important that the Government listen to the valid point made by my hon. Friend, and I hope the Minister will address it. We have heard testimony about the Department’s approach to disabled people. People said that it felt cold and that they were not treated as human beings, but they have to engage with it.
I pay tribute to my many hon. Friends who have spoken—it is important that so many of them are here—including my hon. Friends the Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for North Durham (Mr Jones), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith), for Reading East (Matt Rodda), and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), and the good interventions from my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Ruth George) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green).
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby highlighted the points about face-to-face assessments well. The assessment process, the centres and the information provided have to be accessible, but that is not happening on all occasions. That needs to change. This debate has been called because of the crisis in the claimant experience of personal independence payments.
Having witnessed the way in which the Tory party did politics in the run-up to the 2010 election and having sat opposite them between 2010 and 2015, this is not an accident. It is a deliberate part of the party’s electoral strategy: to demonise the poor and to say that this country’s problems are caused by the most vulnerable people in our society. The experience that claimants receive is a deliberate part of the Conservatives’ political strategy.
My hon. Friend is spot on. Let us be clear: from the outset in 2010, the Government’s fundamental aim for the new benefit was to make savings and to reduce the case load of disability benefit claimants. That is a fact. The expectation was to make a saving of 20%, which equated to around £1.5 billion. It is untrue to say that that was not the case. PIP was supposed to cover the additional costs of living with a disability, but that has not been the case in practice. The assessment framework is flawed and it causes delays.
Having heard the cases that have been discussed, does my hon. Friend agree that the process is dehumanising? It degrades individuals who are at their most vulnerable. Does she also agree that we need to take a two-pronged approach? The private sector makes millions of pounds and causes misery for others, but we must also bear in mind the fact that the policy itself is seriously flawed.
My hon. Friend, too, makes a valid point. We have to look at the policy intention behind PIP’s introduction—to make savings and to reduce the number of disabled people who were entitled to the benefit.
The assessment framework creates a series of financial problems. Poor-quality decision making has led to disabled people losing vital financial support. The evidence is damning—it is there for all to see. When decisions are challenged, in 68% of cases taken to tribunal the finding is in favour of the claimant. That indicates that there is a problem. The process is lengthy and stressful, and many people do not know how to challenge a decision or what they need to do, so many will go without and lose that financial support.
If a claimant wants to challenge a PIP decision, they must first ask for a mandatory reconsideration, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham discussed in detail. That was supposed to improve the claims process, but in reality, it has had the opposite effect. Many disability organisations have noted the number of decisions on claims that have passed through the supposedly rigorous mandatory reconsideration stage, but have gone on to be overturned at tribunal.
According to the Department’s own figures, about 20% of PIP MR cases lead to the decision being revised. It seems that the appeal tribunal process is being used as a backstop for poor decisions that should have been resolved at the initial stage or at the mandatory reconsideration.
My constituent, Anthony, who visited my surgery on Friday, has a chronic illness. He has been through the process up to the point that my hon. Friend describes and he is awaiting a date for the appeal court. He will lose his car in April. He has been to advice centres to seek advice, but they are full with a backlog, so he has now come to me. Without a date for the appeal process, what can be done and what should the Government do? He faces months and months of distress.
Perhaps the Minister can clarify what my hon. Friend’s constituent should do. We cannot have individuals losing their vehicles unnecessarily.
Poor decision making is taking place. It has become so bad that the most senior tribunal judge said that the evidence provided by the Department was so poor that it would be “wholly inadmissible” in any other court. There has been a 900% increase in complaints about PIP.
I will talk briefly about the High Court decision. There was an urgent question yesterday, but I am not sure that the Minister answered all the points that were made. The regulations were introduced to reduce the number of claimants who qualify for PIP. The High Court said that they were “blatantly discriminatory” against people with mental health conditions. What is most scary is that but for the High Court decision, the Government could have just carried on as usual.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I cannot take any more interventions—I apologise.
Where do we go from here? Clearly, the Government have no idea when the examination of those 1.6 million claimants will take place. Will it be weeks, months or years? The Minister has not provided a good timeframe and I ask again if she can give us a timeframe as to when the PIP assessment guide will be updated. When will the backdated payments begin to be paid? Will there be compensation for PIP recipients who have incurred debt as a result of those regulations? Will the Department update its administration and staffing costs, which are also expected to be published? Will the Minister guarantee that no claimant will lose out as a result of their case being reconsidered? Given the damage that has already been caused, it is simply not good enough that Parliament and PIP claimants are being left in limbo while Ministers are trying to get their house in order. There have already been two independent reviews by Paul Gray, but the recommendations of the most recent one were accepted only in part by the Government.
The Minister has accused the Labour party of scaremongering. That is wholly untrue. The wealth of evidence presented today has highlighted the human impact of these benefits policies. The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has found the Government in breach and is still waiting for them to respond. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has called on the Government to carry out a full cumulative impact assessment of their welfare reforms, but they still have not done so. Only last week, the European Committee of Social Rights found the Government to be in violation of the European social charter. Something is clearly wrong. Labour has made it clear that we would scrap the assessment regime and replace it with a good, open and holistic assessment framework.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) for securing this really important debate. I always welcome every opportunity to discuss PIP with parliamentary colleagues from all parties, and I hold regular advice surgeries.
I have so little time and have been asked so many questions that it will clearly not be possible to reply to them all, but I shall try to respond to as many as I can, which means that I will not be able to take any interventions. However, I have already set out a calendar of forthcoming events at which Members can come and speak to me. I understand how busy colleagues are, so if it is more convenient they can ask their caseworkers to come, bringing the cases that have been raised today so that we can go through them in detail.
It is clear from the cases that have been raised passionately and sincerely today that there are problems—I readily acknowledge them, and we are working hard to fix them. However, I have also heard a lot of confusion. Some hon. Members have raised issues that relate to ESA, not to PIP. Clearly some people are not aware of other financial support programmes such as Access to Work, which could help in some of the cases raised. A lot more support is available than hon. Members may realise, which is why I am running detailed teach-ins to ensure that all Members fully understand the wide range of support available.
Before I answer hon. Members’ detailed questions, I really want to set the record straight. Accusations have been made today, about me as a Conservative and about all Conservatives, that frankly I am not going to accept. It is simply not fair to say that Conservatives think disabled people are scroungers or do not deserve the support that we so want them to have. Conservatives want to ensure that everybody in our society can play their full part. We want to support people with disabilities to do so. Judge us on our actions.
Myths have been cited repeatedly that we are cutting spending on supporting people with disabilities or health conditions. Independent data shows that that is simply not true. Every single year since 2010, the coalition Government and now the Conservative Government have spent more and more money, and we are committed to spending more. Expenditure on the main disability benefits has increased by more than £4.1 billion in real terms since 2010 and is set to reach a record high of more than £23 billion this year. It will continue to grow each year to 2022.
People have been scaremongering because they do not remember that people on disability benefits are exempt from the benefits freezes and that their benefits will rise again this year. PIP is not included in the benefits cap. As I said yesterday, it is really important that we get the facts out there. It really concerns me that people who really need support will be put off from going to jobcentres or contacting us to get the benefits that they need and richly deserve.
We have heard a lot about the claimant experience and the customer experience. In my short time at the DWP, I have visited DLA processing centres, assessment centres and Jobcentre Plus offices, where I have seen DWP staff who are highly motivated and well trained to provide a good service to some of the most vulnerable people in society. I really encourage hon. Members who have not done so to visit their local Jobcentre Plus, speak to job coaches and see the excellent work that goes into supporting people with disabilities and ensuring that they get the support available. That includes support into work; a huge number of people with disabilities want to work, and we want to enable them to.
Hundreds of thousands more people are now getting support as a result of PIP than with DLA. In the constituency of the hon. Member for North West Durham, as we migrate people from DLA to PIP, 900 people’s awards have been increased. Some 41% of her constituents who have moved from DLA to PIP are getting more money. When Opposition MPs say, “Let’s scrap PIP and all go back to DLA,” they are saying that they would deny their constituents an opportunity to benefit from PIP. More people, particularly with mental health conditions, are being supported now than were ever supported under DLA.
I want to bust a myth. In this country, we are all rightly proud of our welfare state, but there is a myth that it was a Labour invention. Developing the welfare state took many MPs from all parties over a considerable period. I am just as proud of the modern welfare state as any other Member of this House. The first woman MP in Cornwall, Beatrice Rathbone, was a Conservative. She worked with her auntie Eleanor Rathbone, and together they were pivotal in the legislation that brought in the welfare state—a milestone whose anniversaries we still celebrate. It was people reaching across the political divide, working for the benefit of the most vulnerable in our society, who enabled us to develop the modern welfare state. Conservative Members are just as passionate about ensuring the best possible support for the most vulnerable people in our society.
I assure all hon. Members that, like my predecessors, I am committed to continuous improvement. We have commissioned independent reviews of the PIP process and we are taking their recommendations on board. We are working closely with stakeholders. Only last week, I had a meeting with my PIP stakeholder group, which includes representatives of all the main UK disability rights organisations and charities, including disability rights organisations from local authorities around the country. I will be setting up panels of ESA and PIP claimants to ensure that we listen directly to their experiences as we embark on our continuous improvement process.
It is also important to revisit current experiences. I accept that we always have to make improvements, but 89% of people said that they felt that the assessor treated them with respect and dignity. Undoubtedly we have more to do, but I am committed to making the improvements that we all want to see.
Ms Pidcock, you have only 30 seconds, I am afraid.
I am completely astounded by the Minister’s use of her time. She ignored every single one of our points. I would like her to write to every single Member who took time to set out in detail the inadequacies of the system, because they were all completely ignored while she spoke about Conservative Members, the history of the Conservative party and justice on welfare.
The Minister said that the Government would be judged on their actions. They certainly will. Every single disabled person in this country is waiting to see what the Government will do to remedy the system’s inadequacies. An alternative reality is being presented by Conservative Members—
Their use of figures diminishes disabled people’s experiences. It is a shambolic system.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
People with Mental Health Problems: Detainment
I beg to move,
That this House has considered procedures regarding the detention of people with mental health problems.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I am very pleased to have obtained the opportunity to—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Hosie; I am grateful for your chairmanship.
I am delighted to have obtained the opportunity to bring this matter before the House. It strikes me that there may be a large cross-over between many of the people whom we are about to discuss and those with whom the House has just concerned itself.
In recent years, as a community and a society, we have made remarkable progress on our attitudes to mental health. To talk about mental illness is no longer the taboo that it was when I was growing up, and as a consequence we have seen remarkable progress in recent years in relation to the treatment of people, especially in our national health service.
Today, I will focus attention on a slightly different aspect of this issue—one that does not get the same attention as the treatment of people with mental health problems in the NHS. I will talk about the experience of people who come into contact with the criminal justice system—initially, of course, with the police, then with the prosecution services and, possibly, the prison authorities. The purpose of this debate is to make it clear to the Minister that within those agencies of the state, we need a change of attitude and culture similar to those we have seen in other aspects of our daily life.
It is surprising that this issue does not get more attention. Many of the people about whom we are speaking often exhibit in public or private what might euphemistically be called “challenging behaviour”, which is a symptom or consequence of their mental illness. It seems to me that at all levels—in the police, the prosecution services, the courts and the prisons—we need a greater level of understanding of their life experience and, as a consequence, better implementation of procedures. In fact, many procedures are pretty good but, as I will come on to explain, they are not followed in a way that is appropriate or that was intended when they were put in place.
I confess that I had rather thought that, within the criminal justice system, we had got beyond that point. Almost a quarter of a century ago, both as a trainee solicitor in Aberdeen and as a prosecutor, I railed against some police officers who, at that stage, still reported people who had attempted suicide, alleging that they had breached the peace. That attitude belonged in the 19th century, not the 20th, and I hope that such things would not happen today. However, it illustrates the underlying attitude that requires exposure.
My interest in this issue was first engaged as a result of a constituent—a lady resident in Orkney—who came to see me because she was concerned about the treatment of her son. This is not an isolated case. From discussions that I have had with people in the police, the criminal justice system and social work, I believe that it illustrates pretty well many of the ways in which the criminal justice system fails to meet the needs of people in our community, especially those who suffer from mental health problems.
I will not name these people; my constituent and her son want to retain their privacy, which is perfectly legitimate. However, the Minister should be acquainted with this case; last week, I forwarded him my correspondence file, which is fairly substantial, so that he would be aware of the background.
My constituent’s son is resident in Romford. He has a history of mental illness problems, but prior to the episode that I will discuss he had taken himself off some of the medication that he had been prescribed, because it had side effects that disagreed with him. He was reported missing by his partner on 27 April 2014. She contacted the police because she was concerned that he might kill himself. Eventually, he was traced by two police constables to a shopping centre in Romford. Questioned by the constables on the street, he told them that he was in possession of two kitchen knives, and at that stage he said that he did not intend to harm others; later in an interview, he said that he was considering harming some of those he loved.
The detaining officers—the two police constables on the street—proceeded, quite rightly in my view, to detain my constituent’s son under section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983. Given the information that his partner had provided the police and what he himself had said to them in the street, that seems to have been an entirely sensible step to take. Afterwards, as a standard procedure, the constables contacted their station sergeant. The sergeant instructed them to take him—let us just call him “M” for the purposes of today—not to a place of safety, that is the hospital, but back to Romford police station, where he would be interviewed under caution. That was done and the interview was conducted. There was no legal representation for M when he was in the police station and there was no appropriate adult present either.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the speech he is making. Does he agree that, at that point in the police station, it should be a requirement of the system for investigating officers to inquire as to whether the individual is already under treatment by a mental health team and, if so, for them to seek information from that team about the individual’s psychological condition?
I am almost certain that if the medical condition being experienced by the person in custody was physical rather than mental, that course of action would be routine—simply what was expected. That is what I mean when I talk about a culture change being necessary. We need to treat people with mental illness in exactly the same way as we would treat people with a physical illness.
In fact, M disclosed in the course of his interview under caution, which unfortunately was not tape-recorded, that he was hearing voices and that he had been on medication, but had stopped taking it because of its various side effects. At the conclusion of the interview, he was charged with possession of a bladed article under section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. He was seen by medical professionals at some point in the course of his detention. I eventually had to submit on behalf of my constituent a data subject access request to get the custody records to find out the names of those medical practitioners. I still do not know their qualifications or whether they had, as the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) mentioned, access to the records that would have disclosed his full treatment history.
My constituent’s son eventually appeared the next day, 28 April 2014, at Barkingside magistrates court. He pleaded guilty and was remanded in custody until 12 May for psychiatric reports. Those were not available on 12 May or 14 May—a familiar story for anyone who deals with the summary courts—and he eventually appeared on 21 May, when those medical reports were available. Unfortunately, at that point it was apparent that the probation service reports were not available. It was 11 June before his case was finally disposed of. He was admitted to bail on 21 May and sentenced on 11 June. He was placed on a community order for six months on the condition that he remained under the supervision of the police service. In the meantime, he spent something in excess of three weeks in Pentonville prison, on remand and in custody, and 24 hours in police custody over a case that ultimately resulted in a community disposal.
I have enormous regard for those who staff and manage our prisons, but I do not know of any body of work that suggests that people suffering from a mental health problem are ever helped by being locked up in prison. That is essentially the point here. If my constituent’s son had been taken not to the police station, but to a hospital where he could have been treated and stabilised at the earliest possible stage, an inappropriate use of resource would have been avoided and he would have got the treatment he required.
Following the community order, I became involved with my constituent and a lengthy correspondence ensued. Fast-forwarding to 12 February 2015, I eventually received a letter from a deputy assistant commissioner at the directorate of professionalism within the Metropolitan police—she is a fairly senior officer—that concluded that my constituent’s son’s
“welfare and mental health was correctly managed during his time in police detention and that he was assessed as being of sufficient mental capacity to understand his actions on the day in question.”
She concurred that the officers had “acted correctly.” Unsurprisingly, my constituent was disinclined to let matters rest at that point. There was further correspondence, including with somebody with the glorious title of “professional standards champion”. That was not particularly fruitful, and it led eventually to a complaint to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
On 25 January 2016—this is getting on for two years after the initial incident—the IPCC upheld the complaint. It observed in passing that the constable who had been the original arresting officer had received management action in relation to the Metropolitan police’s mental health policy; I pause here to say in parentheses that the only person in this whole sorry saga who acted correctly was the original arresting officer. At every stage in the process, he seems to be the one who gets the training, the management interventions and the counselling. If this poor constable is sitting somewhere in a police station in London sticking pins into an effigy of me, I would not blame him, but he was never the object of our concern. It was the failure of those above him to implement their own procedures properly that has probably brought us to this point today.
Thereafter, the correspondence between the Metropolitan police and me discloses a culture that requires change. The concept of professionalism, a directorate of professionalism and professionalism champions seem to exist for the purpose of protecting police officers, rather than admitting fault, learning from the experience and moving on. Those things exist for the protection of colleagues, rather than the investigation of complaints. To this day, I still do not know the qualifications of the force medical examiner who saw my constituent’s son in custody. I suspect that having made a data subject access request, I will get that information if I go to the Information Commissioner, but the fact that I have to anticipate that tells us everything we need to know about how such complaints are handled.
In many ways, my constituent’s son is fortunate. The episode was not perhaps as acute as it might have been. He is particularly fortunate to have a mother who is an intelligent, strong-willed, determined and articulate woman. She was never going to be fobbed off with excuses or half-answers. Without the support of his mother in Orkney or the support my office has been able to give him through her being my constituent, I am pretty certain that these questions would have gone unanswered. I am pretty sure that the original arresting officer will be inclined in the future simply to do what he has been told by his superiors. In that way, the culture and the mistakes continue.
The Metropolitan Police Service could probably have dealt with this issue in April, May or June 2014 had they simply accepted that they made a mistake and apologised. They did not do so because of the culture that exists. I suspect and have good reason to believe—I speak often to police officers and others within the criminal justice system in London and other parts of the country—that that culture continues to exist. That requires change if we are to give people who suffer mental health illnesses and who come into contact with the criminal justice system the treatment and respect they deserve.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate and the way in which he presented it. Perhaps coincidentally, it follows a debate I was here for yesterday on perceived failings in the way in which the criminal justice system deals with people on the autism spectrum.
The underlying challenge is the same: it is about awareness, understanding and ensuring not just that the right protocols are in place, but that they are implemented by human beings. That is a challenge, and I wholly endorse what the right hon. Gentleman said about the progress we have made as a society and a Parliament in our understanding of mental health and the consequential priority that we need to attach to it. I pay tribute to his work on that in the Cabinet of the coalition Government, and to the work of many of his colleagues, not least the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who is tireless on this subject.
We have made progress, but the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is entirely right to raise tough questions about implementation and culture inside the criminal justice system and the police system. I do not think anyone would argue that the police are the agency best suited to dealing with people who are solely or primarily unwell by virtue of mental ill health, but the reality is that the police spend a lot of their time dealing with, supporting and safeguarding people on the mental health spectrum.
I have just completed a tour of our police system in which I talked to every single police force in England and Wales. One of the most consistent themes in all those conversations was concern about the increasing amount of time that our police officers spend with people who have a spectrum of mental health concerns. In some of those cases, that is entirely right and appropriate, because those people may be pursuing criminal activity or there may be a public safety issue. Increasingly, however, the police are being called into situations to which those two criteria do not apply. That is increasingly uncomfortable territory for them, because they are not necessarily the most appropriately qualified people to deal with such situations.
Let me address the right hon. Gentleman’s fundamental point about culture. I must put on record some of the improvements and the good things that are happening, but I need to acknowledge that there remains a stubborn cultural issue around how the police, and other bits of the public sector system, respond to complaints. I have been very explicit with the new chief executive of the Independent Office for Police Conduct, which is the new body that is taking over from the Independent Police Complaints Commission, that the Government, the IOPC and the police need to work together to try to change the culture. That is much easier to say than to do.
Too often when something goes wrong, as it inevitably will, there is a tendency to circle the wagons, blow smoke and protect the police family. We need to move away from that, and towards a culture of learning from mistakes. That is how the police improve. I argue strongly that doing so is very much in the interests of the police family, because we police by consent. That is built on a foundation of trust in our police system. Incidents such as that which the right hon. Gentleman recounted chip away at confidence and trust in our police. Therefore, it is in the interests of the police system to embrace the need for a new culture. When I speak to the superintendents conference, they volunteer that that is what we need to do.
It is a cultural change. I do not think the problem is necessarily with the frameworks, the procedures, the standards or the rights of prisoners in custody. We have made considerable progress on that, but I acknowledge that there remains a stubborn problem with its implementation in practice.
I accept what the Minister says about culture, but I wonder whether he could look at one systems issue, namely the matter of obtaining medical information from a person’s own mental health practitioner where an individual in detention is already under the care of mental health services. I understand that is not part of routine procedure at the moment. Will the Minister go and look at that, and see whether it should be?
I certainly give an undertaking to the hon. Lady that I will look into that. Prisoner rights in custody are pretty clear in terms of the duties on a custody officer—a custody officer is required to determine whether a detainee is, or might be, in need of medical treatment or attention, and to make sure that he or she receives appropriate treatment or attention if he or she appears to be suffering from an illness or injury or a mental disorder—but I give the hon. Lady that undertaking and will write to her.
Having acknowledged the point made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, I want to place on record some of the genuine improvements that have been made. He raises a real concern, which has weight in the police system because of the amount of time police officers spend, in the modern age, dealing with people on the mental health spectrum.
A considerable effort has been made in recent years to improve local responses. Crisis care concordat partnerships have been successful in pushing people together at a local level to address long-standing issues such as the overuse of police cells as places of safety. As I have gone around the system, I have been very impressed to hear about the various triage schemes in many areas. Those schemes encourage closer working and exchange of real-time information between the police and health professionals. There are different models. Some have health staff embedded in police control centres. Others have health professionals working alongside police on the ground, and sometimes in the custody suites. The common feature of those models is that they enable the police to deal more confidently with people in crisis, informed by professional advice about the best solution.
Many areas are developing community-based voluntary sector or partnership drop-in centres—sometimes called crisis cafes or places of calm—to which those who feel themselves nearing a crisis may be referred, or may self-refer, for support and advice. Such co-operation mechanisms have resulted in a significant and, I hope, welcome reduction in the use of police stations for those who have committed no offence. In 2016-17, a little more than 1,000 such uses were recorded, compared with just under 8,500 in 2012-13, so there is progress on that front.
We are changing the powers available to the police under the Mental Health Act 1983. In particular, the use of police stations as places of safety has been completely banned for under-18s. For adults, regulations now set out very specific criteria on when a police station can be used. Police officers are required, if practicable, to consult a mental health practitioner before detaining a person under section 136, but I will come back to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) with a more refined position on requirements to consult the individual’s own medical practitioner.
The period for which a person may be detained for the purposes of a mental health assessment under section 135 or section 136 is now reduced to 24 hours to ensure such assessments and arrangements for further care are completed as swiftly as possible and that people are not unnecessarily delayed. Police powers to detain a person under section 136 have been extended to any place other than a private dwelling, enabling the police to act promptly in places such as workplaces.
Better community partnership and changes to the 1983 Act have clearly made a difference.
The point on which the IPCC upheld the complaint of my constituent’s son was that he should have been detained under section 136 as well as the Criminal Justice Act 1988 provisions, and that did not happen. That was a fairly narrow point, in many ways, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it is fairly widespread. What is the Home Office doing to establish an objective picture and find out what is happening on the ground? I suspect the procedures are not that bad, but the implementation requires some attention.
I accept the point that the IPCC found that guidance to detain under both section 136 and for any accepted offence had been breached in that case. I am not quite sure how long it took between 2014 and that judgment—probably too long. I accept that, but I come back to my earlier point. The right hon. Gentleman will know from experience that from the specific, we learn and probe general application. That is why our complaints process must work better than it does at the moment, not just for his constituent’s son and others in that position, but for the police officers concerned.
A lot of police officers are, in their words, being left out to dry for long periods of time, while the processes take too long. We want a swift process of finding the truth; we want accountability—accountability matters—but then we want a culture of learning and thinking, “What have we learned, and what are we doing about it?” We are not there yet, but everyone is talking about it in the right way. Part of my responsibility as Policing Minister is to continue pushing on that.
I am running out of time, but I should mention that if a person who has been detained for an offence is identified as having possible mental health or substance misuse issues, they may be referred to liaison and diversion workers for advice and onward referral to support services. Such schemes now provide support across 80% of police custody suites and courts in England, with the expectation that 100% coverage will be achieved by 2021.
On police use of force, a new memorandum of understanding between police forces and mental health and disability settings was finalised in 2017. At the extreme end of that is the response that we have to make to the report on deaths in custody. Some of the issues that the right hon. Gentleman has picked away at—the human testimonies, and the attitudes of the police when they feel defensive—come through very clearly in that report, and we have to break those down.
As I hope I have made clear, across a range of the avenues available to the Government, we are making some progress. I repeat my undertaking to come back to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston on her question.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Prisoners: Outdoors Endurance Activities
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered outdoors endurance activities for prisoners.
It is a honour to be here and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth—I do not think that I have been fortunate enough to do so before. I welcome colleagues on both sides of the House to the debate.
I start by praising and thanking all those who serve in the Prison Service. I frequently call them members of the forgotten army. Being an ex-solider myself, I think that is rather appropriate, because all too often our prison officers are forgotten. There is no doubt that much can, and should, be done to improve their working environment, but I will not expand on that today. I am here to promote an exciting initiative that was trialled in Scotland and then taken on by the former MP for West Dorset, Sir Jim Spicer, who sadly is no longer with us.
In the Gallery today there are three distinguished guests, two of whom sit on the Airborne Initiative committee. Buffy Sacher has years of experience in the Prison Service, and General Sir Rupert Smith inspired me personally when he came to address young officer cadets at Sandhurst in—I think we agreed at lunchtime—1978, which was many years ago. As we all know, he has served with huge distinction in our armed forces for many years. With them is Keith Potter, a resettlement officer in the Prison Service at the young offenders institution Her Majesty’s Prison Feltham, where the Airborne Initiative is currently being run. I thank them all for their input. I also thank Russ Trent, who was the governor of the young offenders institution HMP Portland and is now the governor of HMP Berwyn—I hope I got the Welsh right.
I am delighted that the Minister—I have a huge amount of respect for him, as we all do—is here, and I thank him for his time. I am speaking today about a remarkable organisation that helps young offenders and those on the margins of criminality to achieve their potential by building self-worth and giving participants a sense of achievement.
When I read the motion, I thought that outdoor endurance for prisoners meant being on the run. I suspect and hope that my hon. Friend will disabuse me of that notion and talk about a fantastic improvement in reoffending rates, which we would all welcome. I am sure that he will touch on that, if that is indeed the case.
I always welcome interventions from my hon. Friend, given his sense of humour. The whole point of the initiative, he will be glad to hear, is to stop prisoners running and reoffending. I will say more on that in a moment.
The Airborne Initiative is a five-day residential course on Dartmoor. Candidates are serving young offenders, former young offenders, those in halfway houses and those not in employment, education or training. That includes young men who are allowed out of prison on licence, are serving a community sentence or have been identified in their communities as being at risk of offending. I hasten to say that, so far, no young women have taken the course, in the main because there are 20 times more men in prison than women.
The aim of the project is to keep those people out of jail, and certainly to discourage them from returning, as well as to encourage them to strive for more positive goals in life and, of course, to build self-reliance and self-respect. The Airborne Initiative was born out of a pioneering experiment in 1994 in Lanarkshire, in Scotland. For 10 years, specialist social workers and outdoor recreation experts took in hundreds of male criminals aged between 18 and 25, and combined outdoor physical activities with counselling for youths who had not responded to conventional punishment and rehabilitation.
As the name suggests, the scheme was supported and inspired by the regimental elders of the Parachute Regiment, of which Sir Jim Spicer was a notable member. Admirably, the regiment decided to give something back to the region from which it had drawn so many of its recruits. Despite having measurable effects on the rates of reoffending, the Lanarkshire Airborne Initiative was controversially wound up by the Scottish Executive in 2004. I became involved personally in the project when Sir Jim called me and asked for my help, which I was more than happy to give. Sir Jim had decided to pilot the scheme at the young offenders institution HMP Portland, using all the experience gained in Scotland. He wanted to establish a course that would be an alternative to custody, as opposed to a pre-release course. However, unlike in the Scottish scheme, the Prison Service, along with volunteers, would run the course and provide the instructors, with serving members of the Parachute Regiment in support as often as resources permitted.
The new initiative was greatly helped by the generous donation of the use of the Duchy of Cornwall’s Dartmoor base, through Prince Charles’s capacity as colonel-in-chief of the Parachute Regiment. The Airborne Initiative is also extremely fortunate to have had two serving paratroopers assigned to each of its last seven courses. The carefully selected young paratroopers are generally a few years older than the participants, although closer in age and experience to the participants than most of those in authority with whom they have to deal. The extra guidance and support that the young soldiers provide, together with their obvious professionalism and resourcefulness, act as a powerful example of alternative life choices. I am told that the feedback from candidates is very positive.
I saw a before-and-after video of, if I recall correctly, one of the first courses in HMP Portland. Six or seven young men were interviewed before they went on the course, and again a week later, after they had attended the course. In the first interview, I saw what we would all expect. Regrettably, I saw the stereotypical image that is all too frequently associated with young men in prison: lack of inspiration, complete lack of interest, an “all about them” attitude, and no life aspiration at all. Probably there were lots of very complicated reasons for that—reasons that many of us here could not understand, not least home break-up.
Off they went. Then the governor said, “Now, look at this.” Then I saw the film after they had all come back. After only a week, their body language was completely different. They sat up straight. They talked to their instructors. They spoke to one another. One young man turned to the others and said, “I’m very sorry I got you lost for hours on end.” I said, “Hold the movie just there. That young man has just apologised to his colleagues for getting lost.” After six days, a tiny light had come on in that young man’s mind about responsibility, camaraderie and friendship.
Enduring the outdoors can be tough, not least on Dartmoor. I should know, having walked across it enough times. It is purpose-built to capture young men and women—although, as I say, no women have been on the course yet—who are slightly lost for many complicated reasons. All that comes at very little cost to the Government. Airborne Initiative is a charity, and one that is proving very effective. I was impressed, and the video reaffirmed in my mind that supporting this noble endeavour was the right thing to do. I very much hope that the Minister will respond to my speech positively and reassure me and our guests, who work so hard for this cause, that there is a way forward in the Prison Service to expand it further or, if not, to give the existing set-up the resources to do the job properly.
Today, YOI Portland has evolved into a resettlement prison, with fewer youths available for Airborne Initiative exercises, and the beneficiaries of that are the young men at YOI Feltham and Brinsford. The project is ably managed by the new course instructors: Keith Potter, who is with us today, Gavin Raines at Feltham and Lee Edwards and Rob Cowley at Brinsford. Each course caters for 15 to 22 young people, who are usually aged between 18 and 21, with candidates carefully chosen by governors, prison officers and other youth workers. According to a recent instructor’s report, a typical course includes dawn starts, circuit training, caving, swimming in the River Dart before breakfast—and why not?—and then a good hike, orienteering, hill walking, ice baths to repair aching muscles, cooking and obstacle courses, all complemented by fireside chats in which emotive topics are tackled.
All of us—I am sure that includes the Minister, beside whose endeavours and adventures mine, frankly, pale into insignificance—have sat round a campfire and talked to people from many backgrounds. I assure you, Mr Howarth, there is no better time to have a chat about life than when you are sitting there wrapped up warm, ideally with a whisky in your hand, and pouring out your woes—or not—to those around you. It engenders a very rare sense of camaraderie.
The course activities are all aimed at learning about leadership, responsibility and team-building skills. Obviously, it is challenging in places and tests an individual’s stamina, determination and physical and mental strength. Young men are taken out of their comfort zones and must learn to react positively to the environment they find themselves in.
In another experiment that I witnessed—this time, as a journalist with the BBC—I was asked to go to the New Forest to observe a two-day project run by volunteers from the fire service, the police and the ambulance service. There were 12 young people divided into three teams of four: the baddies, the not so bad and those who were there because they had been quite good and deserved a break. That was quite a range of individuals. I soon spotted the baddies, who were all too easy to spot. They were dressed in their tracksuits, and, again, their body language was: “not interested”. The phones were on, and they were not listening.
The first task, given by an ex-Royal Marine sergeant-major who was built like a tank—not a man to mess with—was to erect a tent to keep them warm at night. It was one of those dreadful tents with lots of bits, not one of the modern ones that go “pfting!” and the whole thing pops up. The instructors said to the 12 people, “You’d better make some cover for the night,” and they started to build their tent. After about an hour, it got to a certain height, but no way was it going to provide the cover necessary.
The staff all went over, gathered the young men and women around and said, “Okay. What lessons have you learned?” There was a pause, and there were grunts and groans, and then one asked, “How do we actually do it?” The sergeant-major said, “Young man, that is the very first question you have got right. How do you do it? We will show you.” The staff got the tent and showed them how to do it. They all joined in and the tent was erected.
The young people were given various tasks to do. The two troublesome young men were intentionally sent on an assault course with two of the girls on the course. It was not very difficult, but the point was to see how the young men would cope with the young girls. The young boys thought they were tough and they were going to win at all costs, but as soon as they got on to the assault course and the girls started lagging behind, they had a choice: plough on or go back. Both went back and, by the end of the assault course, the girls were being encouraged and helped—“come on, come on, let’s do it”—and they got to the end, and they won. The change on those young people’s faces! The sergeant-major turned to me and said, “Richard, tell that to the do-gooders. Show this to the do-gooders.”
The point of my story is that it takes so little to turn these young people around, whether they are young men or women in prison or the younger generation that might, sadly, end up in prison. We can get to them. The answers are not complicated.
The Airborne Initiative boosts self-esteem while teaching self-discipline and the value of the group. It creates a strong work ethic and challenges the young participants to achieve their own personal successes; so often, they have, sadly, achieved none. So far, 331 youngsters have benefited from the beauty of Dartmoor and all it can teach. Each individual has a report sent to their probation officer regarding their individual performance and specific achievements. Measuring outcomes is, of course, a longer process. Successful completion of the course triggers work opportunities, helps to build a CV and enables successful candidates to gain valuable life skills.
For the country at large, the benefits are manifest. The current reoffending rates for prisoners in the first year after leaving prison is 65%, which is a horrendous figure. Over the past four years, more than 200 young offenders have been through the course and reoffending rates have dropped dramatically. A fifth have gone into further education, training or work.
The Airborne Initiative has already held more than 30 courses on Dartmoor. Another seven are planned each year, with up to 22 participants taking part in each course. The initiative is working with the police and probation service, and courses are now included as part of an offender’s community service. In South Dorset, we are justifiably proud of our role in developing the project. Former YOI governor Russ Trent, a big supporter of the initiative when he was at the helm, said:
“I have personally seen young men grow in confidence and build trust with people in authority during the Airborne Initiative. It’s a great programme that brings different parts of the criminal justice system together.”
There appears to be no downside to the initiative. With its success in cutting re-offending and helping young people to evade criminality, it should be cherished and promoted. That is the crux. For an enlightened scheme such as the Airborne Initiative to thrive and survive, it needs the participation of all parts of the criminal justice system, from governors to prison officers, the young offenders themselves, the probation service and all the other organisations associated with prison life. Regrettably, and to everyone’s detriment, the current situation in our prisons is becoming so difficult that even the most enthusiastic governors are unable to release prison officers to accompany their charges on the course.
In my constituency, Monty Don, the television celebrity, led a team of young people. They gardened and kept some pigs and there was a huge improvement in their behaviour. A lot of them were drug addicts and drug dealers.
Any sort of interaction of any kind is a good thing, because cutting reoffending rates must be the Government’s No. 1 priority. Will my hon. Friend elaborate? We know that 20% of participants went into higher education, but is there anything further to say about the reoffending rate? Perhaps the Minister will elaborate. It would be the icing on the cake.
I am not at liberty to give the exact figure on the reoffending rate, because the participants are still being monitored. There is a figure, but as the organisation is a charity it needs the support of an organisation such as the justice system to confirm its own figures and say, “Yes, you are absolutely right—it is x%”. All I can tell my hon. Friend, from the evidence I have, is that it is dramatic.
One issue that I want gently to bang home is release on temporary licence. I understand from the experts that the rules were changed in 2015. I have had dealings with governors at both the YOI and The Verne, which was a prison and is going to be one again shortly, and they say that they are unable to release prisoners because the criteria are so strict and inflexible.
The point that General Sir Rupert Smith made to me today was to compare a young man on a moor and a young man in a city centre maintaining someone’s garden or whatever. It is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that the young man on the moor will wander off and do damage, whereas the young man in an urban environment could slip away, thump somebody or commit another crime. The system does not allow that sort of flexibility. That is the plea of all three people sitting behind me in the Public Gallery. I know from the governors I have spoken to that ROTL needs to be looked at urgently.
I know that the Minister agrees that we need to hand back power to governors—I have heard the Government and the Minister say that. Let us do a little more than suggest it; let us do it. Let us say to governors, “It’s up to you,” rather than mollycoddling or health-and-safetying—whatever the right word is nowadays. I believe that, if someone is in charge of something, they are ultimately responsible—that is their job. If something goes wrong in the police, the chief constable gets it in the neck. If something goes wrong in a prison, the governor gets it in the neck. If a Minister makes a total mess, he or she resigns.
There is no point in having something else to protect the person because that will negate the thing or create inflexibility, and they will be so terrified about letting prisoners out that they will just not do it. Let us be confident. The men and women running our prisons are professionals. Let them say, “Okay, Bob, Jack and Robert, you can go, but you three certainly can’t because you are too much of a risk. That is the assessment I have made. Off you go.” That is my plea, and if the Minister can respond to that point we will all be extremely grateful.
Several times recently, participants’ places on courses have been cancelled at the last minute. The last course in June, which was set up for 22 candidates, eventually ran with only 15 due to staff shortages and crises requiring manpower elsewhere in the Prison Service. For the Airborne Initiative, that is not cost-effective; for the young men who missed out, it is a tragedy.
As I come to the end of my speech, I want to touch on an issue that I feel passionately about. Buffy Sacher and everybody else will agree with me about what is going on in our Prison Service. What I am about to say highlights my concern. The most recent Independent Monitoring Board report on the YOI in South Dorset, dated September 2017, makes pretty grim reading, unfortunately. It describes
“a broad picture of things worsening and intractable problems persisting”,
and lists serious disturbances and cell damage. The number of staff assaults is rising and the number of prisoners with mental health issues is increasing—and they certainly should not be at a resettlement prison and YOI. Medical facilities are being overwhelmed. The lead member of the safer custody unit has resigned, and the flow of legal highs, such as Spice—I know the Minister is aware of this—is increasing. The report says that access to mobile phones creates
“debt, self-isolation, self-harm, gang activity, violence”
I inquired a bit further about mobile phones, because I was staggered that prisoners are allowed them. I can see that they are valuable tools for hardened prisoners who operate with their bad colleagues outside. Large debts are incurred for drugs or whatever else the prisoner is given by the gang member in the prison, who is also a prisoner, and then of course demands are made for the debt to be paid. Prisoners end up being bullied and family members outside are threatened; it is very harmful.
I am just a simple ex-soldier—I say take the phones away. Give prisoners access to a phone on the wall once a day, like they used to have. I personally do not understand why they have mobile phones. The IMB also reports
“grave concerns about staffing levels in the prison”,
which, although up to benchmark quotas, are
“unrealistic, given the difficulty of the prison population”.
I invite the Minister to visit the YOI in Portland. We would very much like him to. It is an old building on various landings. It is not a modern prison, which could be managed much more easily. The staff are divided into perhaps two prison officers per landing. If there is a conflict or a disruption on another landing, they are dropped down. They have no choice but to lock the doors—lock the prisoners in. There are not enough officers to manage that old-style prison. I have heard that complaint frequently in my many visits to the prison and the conversations I have had with members of the POA, none of whom are militant—they are all utterly charming and speak to me and the governor in a perfectly reasonable way. Those men and women have an honest gripe, which needs to be looked at.
The IMB report says that prison officers are frequently required to escort prisoners to hospital after drug overdoses, and the remaining prisoners are left in lockdown and are unable to attend educational classes. That means that the sparing of two extra officers to accompany participants to Dartmoor is virtually out of the question.
The Government are well aware of those problems, and I know they are moving swiftly to tackle prisoner officer numbers and pay levels, which is to be welcomed. That cannot come swiftly enough for what I term the forgotten army of prison officers, one of whom described conditions in Portland to the IMB as “Hell”—the
“worst it’s been for 20 years”.
The report is not good reading. There have been other instances. A pretty grim report along the same lines was published the other day about a prison in, I think, Liverpool. Until we sort out Portland prison—the YOI is both adult and young offender, with a majority of adults—we cannot hope to get this initiative off the ground, because the prison officers are tied up looking after the prisoners.
Tough love—that is what I call it—has a proven track record. Where it is succeeding, let us back it. I ask the Minister, for whom I have a huge amount of respect, to look seriously at the Airborne Initiative and give it resources and backing at a ministerial and Government level to expand faster and further. There are many organisations providing services to our prisons from the charitable sector, the voluntary sector and the private sector. In my experience some work, and some do not.
My criticism of the whole system is that there is not someone to sieve it all and say, “That’s good; that’s not good. We’ll have that, but we don’t want that. Let’s roll out that; let’s not roll out that.” It is a bit disjointed. This initiative is proving to be good and effective, and is cutting reoffending and giving young men a chance. God forbid, the alternative is years more in jail, which costs us about £40,000 a year for the rest of their lives. That is a fee that none of us wants to pay out of our taxes. This initiative really is worth pursuing, and I am fascinated to hear what the Minister says. I sincerely hope, from my perspective and from that of my three guests, that we have his support.
It is always a pleasure to speak in debates such as this. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on bringing this issue to us today. When I saw this debate announced last week, I said to myself, “Here is a scheme that I am interested in.” This year, in just the past few weeks, we have initiated a similar scheme in Northern Ireland through the Department of Justice, which has responsibility for prisoners. I want to use this opportunity to explain how that scheme works and to support the hon. Gentleman’s proposal.
After hearing the hon. Gentleman’s speech, I will say something quickly that is not directly relevant to this debate, although the analogy could be considered so. In 2016, I read about a survey of 2,000 parents of five to 12-year-olds in a nationally representative sample, which found that 74% of the children spent less than 16 minutes playing outside each day. The UN guidelines on the treatment of prisoners require at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily. The headline read, “Prisoners receive more exercise than children”, which is the media doing what they always do—looking for a headline that skews what the issue is. That is for another day’s debate, but it is worth highlighting in this one to flag up that we need a sea change when it comes to the physical activity of our children. We also need it for prisoners and those in prison.
We all know the saying, “If you do the crime, you do the time”, and we understand that. At the same time, however, we can rehabilitate prisoners to grow away from their past and go to their future, where they will have learned, been trained and be associating themselves with new opportunities, not going back to the past they once had. We are all familiar with TV programmes about prisons—this week, the Piers Morgan one comes to mind—and in the USA prisoners might be indoors for 23 out of 24 hours, in a lockdown. The impact of that is great, as it would be here back at home. Another TV programme—again, not one I often watch, but I see the previews—is that one on Channel 4: “Hunted”. Some people go on the run by choice and other people try to catch them. I am very aware of some of the analogies in the world outside.
I turn directly to the debate. We have recently had a pilot of outdoor activity for prisoners at Magilligan Prison in Northern Ireland—perhaps the Minister and the shadow Minister are aware of it. Those prisoners were the first in Northern Ireland to take part in what was called the “parkrun behind bars”. I saw it on the TV news a few weeks ago, on 6 January or thereabouts, and thought, “What’s this about?” The scheme illustrates well what can be done.
The UK-wide parkrun initiative was piloted at Magilligan on 6 January, with 15 inmates and 12 staff out on a five-kilometre run. That was possible there because of the nature of Magilligan. Perhaps it is not for other prisons—I cannot speak for everyone because I do not have that knowledge—but at Magilligan it is possible to have the parkrun within the walls of the prison. In an intervention on the hon. Member for South Dorset, the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), who has just left the Chamber, mentioned the notion of people going on a run outside the prison—but in this case they were not: they were on a run physically within the walls of Magilligan.
The pilot was set within the confines of that low-security prison. The scheme, barring any issues, could be a regular way of inmates getting exercise in controlled settings and yet outdoors. I have no doubt that the ability to enjoy the fresh air and perhaps have a bit of freedom readies prisoners’ mindset for what they would rather be doing when they are eventually released and get outside prison. The news reports were that up to 412 prisoners could get involved as two-kilometre walkers, as runners in the five-kilometre race or as volunteer organisers.
People from outside were brought in to participate, which brings a certain level of normality into the project. The parkrun scheme helps with not only the physical needs of inmates but—this is so important—their mental health, which we need to focus on. It is well known that those who exercise regularly are better equipped to deal with high-stress situations; I am sure that every MP is very athletic, because they deal with high-stress situations each and every day.
The organiser of the parkrun, Matt Shields, said:
“We believe prisoners have a lot to gain from parkrun, not only because of the obvious benefits of physical activity and volunteering, but also because of the ties it will foster with their families on the outside.”
A certain mindset is needed, which is the focus of the parkrun strategy and what it is trying to achieve. I do not know this scheme intimately, as others might, but from watching the TV and news excerpts, it seems to me that it is an opportunity to do just what the hon. Member for South Dorset was talking about in Dorset and elsewhere, as well as in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Minister and the shadow Minister will comment on the scheme. I am sure that the Minister will do so.
Matt Shields went on:
“They can share experiences by taking part in parkruns simultaneously, meaning families can share results weekly and compare improvement and feel part of a common activity.”
So while prisoners are practising and training inside, their families and those outside can be doing similar things, which is almost an interactivity between two different locations, bringing people together. Parkruns have other things apart from physical activity—lessening mental stress and keeping focused mind-wise and body-wise for the outside.
As an activity that prisoners and staff can do together, parkruns also break down barriers and build cohesion among the prison warders and prison officers and the inmates. We are all aware of some places where conflict and aggression happen sometimes because of where people are, but this is a way we can do things better. I again quote parkrun organiser Matt Shields:
“For everyone involved we feel this is a win, win”.
That is surely a win, win, and one that could be replicated across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The parkrun at Magilligan is certainly a start, and other parkruns are being looked at, including in other prison settings.
To conclude, I certainly support a scheme that may—not even may, but does—help to provide benefit to the rehabilitation and mental health of prisoners in a low-risk category, such as category D, which many of those prisoners are, as long as there is no chance of putting the public into danger or harm’s way. Let us remember that we have a responsibility for the general public and to ensure that their safety is in place—that is our paramount opportunity and responsibility. However, we also have a duty of care even to those who have done wrong and are repaying their debt to society—I believe that in my heart—and there is a safer and better way for them to do that than with weights in a gym.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing today’s debate. When I saw its title, I immediately wanted to get involved, because it was about activity and prison. I lead an active lifestyle because I am a football referee, and many of the spectators who watch me say that my decisions are so criminal I should be locked up for them, so that is where I thought I would go with the debate. Then I realised we were talking about something totally different.
My remarks are initially from a Scottish perspective, because the scheme originated in Scotland in 1994. I looked at some of the figures from and studies of the Airborne scheme, which, sadly, only lasted a decade. I found out that 58% of the offenders who started the scheme successfully completed it, and only the ones at the high end and those involved with drugs struggled. Crucially, among those who participated in the Airborne scheme in Scotland, reconviction rates were reduced by 21% in comparison with people who had been offered alternative actions during their time in prison. That was a crucial point—it was a successful scheme. Other things have happened in Scotland, but I can see why that one was taken on board south of the border and why we are having this debate to explain its merits.
Given my limited knowledge of the debate from the title, I sought a briefing on it from the House of Commons Library. I was very disappointed that the Library staff said, “We can’t give you a briefing, because we know absolutely nothing about it.” That is why the debate is important and why it is right for my hon. Friend to take the matter forward. We must get the message of that successful scheme out there and encourage its extension, if required, to ensure that its benefits are felt far further afield.
I also want to speak about exercise within the prison population. As I was looking for other things to discuss in this debate, I spoke to one of our researchers, David Robertson, who works for another Scottish Conservative MP. I told him I was going to speak about endurance activity and prison, and he said to mention John McAvoy.
I had not heard of John McAvoy until about an hour ago, but he is a fantastic and inspirational character who spent 10 years behind bars. At the age of 16 he owned a sawn-off shotgun and robbed security vans. At 18, he was sentenced to five years in prison for armed robbery. He got out two years later, and he was immediately re-arrested in a flying squad operation and sentenced to life imprisonment in Belmarsh Prison. On his very first day he wondered why there were so few people in the exercise yard with him. Then he noticed that one of the people with him was Abu Hamza, and it suddenly dawned on him the type of people he had been incarcerated with.
John McAvoy spent some time feeling bitter about being in prison, but decided to get fitter. He had a fitness regime of 1,000 press-ups, 1,000 push-ups and 1,000 sit-ups every day. He then became an amazing rower, broke the British record for rowing a marathon and smashed the world record for distance rowing in 24 hours. He did all that because he decided not to waste his time in prison, but to get involved in endurance sport and to carve out a career in it. He decided that his life was no longer going to be around the crime family that he was brought up in and that had led him to spend a decade behind bars, but that he would use his time in prison to get fitter and become an international athlete.
John McAvoy has written a book called “Redemption”, which is about how he took part in the London to Brighton footrace. I was gripped by the opening pages, which I read before I came here today. He tells us how he and No. 76 ran along and completed the race, and at the end of his opening remarks he describes how he went home, fell asleep on the couch and the next day returned to prison. So he did all that endurance racing while he was still a prisoner.
Now John McAvoy is a motivational speaker who goes out and encourages people who have been in prison, and who are ashamed of what they have done and do not want to be labelled with it in their future. He describes how he got involved in the local rowing clubs in London, and how people there were not ashamed to be associated with him, but wanted to help him. For me, that exemplifies how sport can be a great bridge for some people, and a great leveller. People can use it to overcome their past problems and look to a far better future.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset for securing this debate, which has allowed me to look into a small story that tells us about the opportunities that some people have. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned mental health. I was involved in the justice system in Scotland when I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament. An estimated 80% of the prison population in Scotland have mental health issues, which shows how significant the problem is in our prisons across the country. When four out of five prisoners in a country the size of Scotland are affected by mental health problems, anything we can do to improve their general health, wellbeing and mental health has to be worked on and recognised.
I looked up the World Health Organisation, which the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned. It set up a European network for promoting health in prisons:
“The aim of the network is to promote health, in its broadest sense, within the prison community. It is built on a recognition that while imprisonment results in a loss of personal freedom, the negative effects of custody on health should be reduced to a minimum. It also endorses the principle that time spent in custody can be used positively to aid the prevention of disease and, as far as possible, to promote health.”
We have heard in this debate that the Airborne scheme, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset has explained, does exactly that. I support any measures that can advance such commendable aims.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing this debate, which gives us an opportunity to air issues about purposeful activity in prison. I welcome what he said about the Airborne Initiative and the fact that he has brought it to a wider audience. I welcome his comments in promoting the scheme. He is absolutely right about purposeful activity and investment, and about giving young people and more established prisoners the opportunity to receive education, feel self-worth, contribute in a positive way to a task, develop new skills, work as a team, show respect for peer groups, and show and learn respect for prison officers. I join him in praising the work of the Prison Service and the very difficult work that prison officers do.
Any investment in building skills, confidence and trust; showing people that there is a life outside prison; and encouraging people to learn new skills is extremely positive. The scheme—a public sector partnership with the voluntary sector—is a very positive model, and the hon. Gentleman has made a very strong case for it to be looked at.
I came to the debate because I wanted to hear what the hon. Gentleman said. Having done so, I think there are two challenges: one for him and perhaps more than one for the Minister. I want to talk about those challenges and how we can build on the laudable objectives that the hon. Gentleman set out. In making the case for the expansion of such initiatives, it would help if he clarified, now or later, some of the key issues that he touched on, which need fleshing out. First, it is important to look at the value and the reoffending rates. He was absolutely right about the figures. Reoffending rates of between 60% and 65%—perhaps averaging 65%—are simply unacceptable.
The purpose of prisons and young offender institutions must be punishment—that means deprivation of liberty, being away from family and not being able to do the things that we wish to do in society—but there also has to be reform. Reform is about employment, housing, training, the removal of drugs and alcohol and the problems associated with them, tackling mental health issues, promoting self-worth and dealing with all the issues the hon. Gentleman mentioned. It would help his case if he could establish in detail from the Airborne Initiative what the reoffending rates were. He touched on them, but the details would establish whether we could attribute the reoffending rates to the initiatives that were taken.
Also, we need to know the costs per place in the scheme. The hon. Gentleman mentioned two prison officers having to accompany prisoners, which represents a cost. Are there additional costs that the Prison Service has to cover, and does the Airborne Initiative require public sector support in addition to its voluntary activity? Did the hon. Gentleman look at completion rates? I did not get a sense of how many people started and completed the courses. We need to know about not only reoffending rates, but the impact one or two years down the line. I know from my own school life, private life and business life, that I can point to certain things in my life and say, “That two weeks, six weeks or four days made a real difference to my life” when I look back on them two years later. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will undertake such an evaluation.
I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech, and he is raising perfectly fair points. A point I would add—this is for the Minister, too—is that, as I said in my speech, the effect of the scheme began to be monitored carefully only quite recently. The charity now needs the Government’s help to monitor the effect even more carefully, and to do all the things the right hon. Gentleman suggests. There is work afoot to do that, but we need help from the Government if we are finally to get all the statistics, costs and figures that he has mentioned.
I think that would be valuable, because we are, like it or not, in a time of tight resources, particularly in the Prison Service. There are many strains on the whole prison system. If it can be proven that the scheme has the value that the hon. Gentleman evidently believes it has, it would be a useful addition, for the reasons I have mentioned.
My argument now moves to the Minister. The hon. Member for South Dorset made some valid points about the challenges of operating a voluntary sector-funded scheme that aims to build self-confidence, education and self-worth at a time of challenge in the Prison Service. Perhaps I might outline the challenge for the Minister, who is new. I welcome him to his position and wish him well in a difficult and challenging job. He will have constructive support from the Opposition and from the Justice Committee, on which I sit. We wish him well, but in the past seven years we have lost 7,500 prison officers. I know that there is a move to bring back 2,000-ish, but we will still be 5,000 short of the number that we had before.
The hon. Member for South Dorset said that one of the challenges was releasing prison officers for the activity. Self-harm incidents, drug abuse, deaths from self-harm, and assaults—both on prison officers, and prisoner on prisoner—are at record levels. The Minister knows from last week’s report from Liverpool about the difficulties and challenges of broken window syndrome in the prison system. To make possible schemes such as the one that the hon. Member for South Dorset wants to make progress with, those issues need to be realistically addressed; I hope that that is constructive. We shall welcome the Minister’s remarks today, but his challenge, as long as he is in his present job, is to make an impact on the situation.
This is not just a matter of prisoner officer numbers; it is about attitude. I met Russ Trent last week at HMP Berwyn—which the hon. Member for South Dorset pronounced perfectly. Russ was at HMP Portland, which I visited perhaps nine years ago when I had the privilege of doing the job that the Minister now does. I know that there is good work to do, and it is partly about leadership, understanding, and giving governors and prison staff the time to invest in education, self-worth, respect, positive attitudes and teamwork. Unless the Minister addresses some of the structural issues, there will be less opportunity to support valuable schemes.
I have two final points, the first of which is about governor autonomy. The plea of the hon. Member for South Dorset was to roll the scheme out more widely and organise it. I am still not clear what that means with respect to the Minister’s central Department and governor autonomy. Perhaps that can be answered today, or perhaps it is for another day. Does the Minister have confidence in governors to make local decisions about deploying prisoners and prison officers to support such schemes? Where does accountability lie? The Minister can help today by taking on that question.
That leads to my other central point, on which I am pleased the hon. Member for South Dorset touched—release on temporary licence. If there is governor accountability and autonomy, if risk is managed locally, if governors have the resources to determine that x, y or z prisoner can benefit from the course and if the governor determines that the risk can be taken to release on temporary licence, I hope that the Minister will give the decision his backing. If governor autonomy means anything, it is allowing those decisions to be made at the local level. If the Minister does not know now, he will learn in the next few weeks about the restricted nature of ROTL, which the hon. Member for South Dorset pointed out. The risk is transferred to the Ministry of Justice, and governors’ ability to make judgments at a local level is restricted, so there is a lack of participation in the type of scheme so ably promoted by the hon. Gentleman.
My challenge to the hon. Member for South Dorset is to get clarity about the worth of the scheme. I wish him well in doing that, because if it works, it will work well. My challenge to the Minister is to tell him that the scheme will not work, and will not be supported, unless he gets the basics right. I know that he is focused on that, but a series of prisons Ministers has presided over a reduction in staff and increases in incidents, self-harm, attacks and prisoner-on-prisoner violence. Those problems have not allowed good work to thrive. It is impossible to undertake such good work while dealing with drugs, attacks, self-harm and the problems that the hon. Member for South Dorset raised. I wish the Minister well, in the context of the need to do better overall.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) for obtaining the debate. He made a convincing and eloquent case, highlighting the benefits and positives of outdoor endurance activities. I join him in thanking all those who work in the prison system, who are doing a very difficult job.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has a keen interest in the prison system, particularly in the challenges faced by prison officers, but also in programmes designed to help young offenders. One of those is of course the Airborne Initiative, which he has spoken highly of, and he displays great passion in supporting it. It is a breath of fresh air to hear success stories from the criminal justice system, and the Airborne Initiative clearly is one. That is not to say that we must not talk about the challenges faced in prisons. The present situation is an emergency, which bleeds through to outdoor endurance activities, including those that the hon. Gentleman promotes.
I thank all the hon. Members who have taken part in the debate on an issue that deserves attention for the clear benefits associated with it. Some Members have mentioned similar schemes with benefits. The hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) talked about someone who went to prison for serious offences and was effectively rehabilitated and experienced positive effects while he was there; when he came out he spoke to warn others of the risks of offending. I have had the benefit of working on a similar scheme in my district, where rehabilitated offenders worked, in partnership with the police, fire service, local authority and others, with young people at risk of falling over the cliff edge into a life of crime. The message was a simple one, from someone who had served time in prison and was telling young people about the risks and dangers, and what prison life is really like. Unfortunately—tragically—a life of crime is sometimes glamorised for young people, and shown in a “blingy” way. That is just one project, and clearly there are massive advantages to be gained.
Being outdoors can have a significant impact on wellbeing. That cannot be overlooked. However, extended and endurance activities can help to improve mental health and reduce reoffending rates. Young offenders have often lacked such opportunities. Many have never have been part of a team on a 50-plus-mile hike over several days, and they feel the benefits even more keenly. Anything that can improve mental health in prisons must be seized with two hands because there is an epidemic of mental health issues within prison walls. Accurate figures do not exist because the Government do not collect them, but even optimistic estimates give the number of prisoners with a mental health issue as one in three—higher than in the general population. Many of them have serious mental illnesses, but many others have milder conditions, where exercise and meaningful activity can have a positive impact. Both the NHS and the Royal College of Psychiatrists endorse that. I do not profess that exercise and outdoor endurance activities are some kind of silver bullet for mental health issues; clearly they are not. They are a useful tool as part of a wider arsenal, as they can help to provide offenders with motivation to get their lives back on track and reduce reoffending.
Poor mental health and low self-esteem among prisoners increase their chances of reoffending, so it is only logical that positive mental health should reduce it. The impact on mental health of outdoor activity reduces reoffending rates, as do the Airborne Initiative and the Duke of Edinburgh Award, which cannot be encouraged enough in young offender institutions. In these programmes, offenders are exposed to a wealth of transferable skills such as manual work, navigation, planning and teamwork, among others that the hon. Member for South Dorset highlighted. All those skills can be used to build a CV and increase employability, or to light and develop a passion for activities that can be pursued through education.
It does not matter whether work or education is chosen; both reduce dire reoffending rates—almost half of adult and more than half of young offenders reoffend within a year. We also have to tackle the issue of reoffending to address the wider challenge of overcrowding, which leads to prisoners doubling up in single-occupancy cells and being locked up for most of the day. Outdoor endurance activities can have a positive impact on the prison estate as a whole among the offenders who are able to participate. As I mentioned, the effect of these activities on young offenders is even stronger, so programmes such as the Airborne Initiative are best targeted on them.
Young people who go to prison are some of the most vulnerable individuals in the country, and also the most neglected. They experience difficult upbringings and challenging circumstances that crush their self-esteem, sometimes leading to their becoming offenders in the first place. No one is born an offender; there is no genetic predisposition to committing a crime. It is purely down to an individual’s environment lacking support mechanisms or role models, both of which are provided by outdoor endurance activities and similar programmes. Instructors and supervisors give young offenders someone positive who they can look up to, and who can help build their self-confidence.
The positive impacts are there for all to see, but why are they not implemented on a wide scale across the country? Surely the Government recognise their impact. We should be doing everything that we can to improve the life chances of offenders, to prevent them from coming back and costing the Government the £13 billion that reoffending costs. Unfortunately, unless the Government address seriously their underfunding of the prison system, wider adoption of any outdoor endurance activities remains a pipe dream. Their potential is constrained by the consequences of policies that prevent offenders from doing any outdoor activity at all, let alone week-long residential trips. Offenders are locked up for most of the day because of the increasing violence that has become all too common in our prison system, which a number of hon. Members have referenced.
That violence is the consequence of the huge reduction in prison officers towards which the Government have actively contributed, with measly pay offers and pressure piled on remaining officers. The dwindling prison officer numbers are the reason why prisoners cannot be let out of their cells, and why any initiatives to get prisoners into the great outdoors for the Airborne Initiative or other schemes cannot be adopted wholesale and rolled out nationwide. There are not enough prison officers to supervise them while they are away from prison, and there are not enough officers to escort them there in the first place.
The Government clearly do not grasp the benefits that outdoor activities can provide for offenders. If they did, they would not force local authorities to cut the youth services that provide the same development of skills and teamwork as outdoor endurance activities, and that provide the same reduction in reoffending rates among young people. Between 2010 and 2016, almost £400 million was cut from youth services, leading to a loss of nearly 140,000 places and the closure of 600 youth centres. The Government are now being asked to put the cart before the horse: to support services that combat reoffending among young offenders, but they should have been providing those same services that deliver the same benefits to young people before they go on to commit a first offence.
It is all very well and good to put these ideas forward; we should be looking at both new and proven ways to reduce reoffending and increase the wellbeing of offenders, but because of the Government’s policies, that sadly cannot happen to the extent that it needs to. Offenders are locked up for too long even to do basic outdoor activities, and prison officers are not present in the numbers needed to escort and supervise offenders safely. Although the Minister is new, I am very keen to hear his views not only on outdoor activities, but on some of the broader issues that have been raised in the debate.
I am sure that the Minister needs no reminding before I call him to speak, but it is customary to leave time at the end of the debate for the Member moving the motion to briefly respond. I call the Minister.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) for bringing the debate. It was fantastic to see the energy that he put into it. His interests as an ex-soldier and as the Member of Parliament for South Dorset came through. It is great that an initiative partly pioneered in the first place by a Member of Parliament is now being pioneered again and promoted by another Member of Parliament.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made some characteristically powerful comments, reflecting on some of the practicalities of the subject and some of the moral and philosophical background when it comes to balancing the protection of the public with our obligations towards prisoners. My hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) provided a good example in John McAvoy of exactly the kind of transformation that can happen for somebody who would, by definition, have been considered one of the most at-risk prisoners most likely to reoffend. He has come through an extraordinary personal journey and transformation.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) was almost the longest serving prisons Minister in British parliamentary history, I think, so he is quite an intimidating man to have opposite. He made, I think, more than 67 separate visits to prisons; he has a deep understanding of the whole system, and I will not attempt to quibble with him on any of the things that he said. Indeed, he and the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) pointed out very powerfully that there is no point in simply looking at this thing in isolation.
For any of these schemes to work, we need to think much more broadly about who these people are, who they were before they got into prison, as the hon. Member for Bradford East pointed out, what kind of resources exist—how much money there is, how many prison officers there are—and what kind of routines are run in prisons. In addition, there were practical issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset, which extend all the way from relief on temporary licence conditions to conditions in relation to drugs.
I do not want to expand on this subject too much or trespass too much on your time, Mr Howarth, but clearly the challenge that we face is very remarkable. We are all aware of fantastic initiatives—the Airborne Initiative is one of the most powerful and admirable—and we have been aware of them as they have been run for some time. The right hon. Member for Delyn will be aware of many such initiatives that he will have seen when he was the prisons Minister.
The tragic truth is that, although there have been incredibly powerful initiatives for many decades around the country, and although each of these programmes points to fantastic improvements, reoffending rates in general have barely moved. That has been true with more resources and fewer resources; the reoffending rates were roughly the same when the right hon. Member for Delyn was the prisons Minister as they are today. That is partly for some of the reasons that were mentioned.
This is a very difficult cohort to deal with. As hon. Members know, nearly half the people entering prison are almost functionally illiterate. Nearly 60% or 70% come in with pre-existing behaviour issues and particularly drug use problems. Nearly 90% are reporting different ranges of mental health issues. There is an incredibly high homelessness rate among people who leave prison, and they have many problems getting employment. Even the Airborne Initiative, a successful scheme, touches only the percentage of people—it is in the mid-20s—who get into education or employment. These are terrifyingly difficult issues to deal with and to turn around.
That is why the hon. Member for Bradford East and my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset were absolutely correct to pay tribute to the Prison Service. At the centre of a lot of this is the dedicated, tailored work of prison officers. We have tried, by having a keyworker programme where one prison officer is assigned to six prisoners and through some of our work with physical education instructors, to ensure that we build up tailored relationships. Having 2,500 more prison officers is important, because it will begin to make that possible, but each prisoner is different—that leads to the question of empowerment—and each prison is different. One of the reasons why we need governor empowerment is that the kinds of education and activities provided for young, short-term prisoners will be quite different from those provided in a category C prison, let alone in the high-security estate. Governors need to be able to adjust.
Balancing the power of the centre with empowered governors is more of an art than a science. Obviously, in any organisation, we need to trust people and empower them. They need to feel that they are in charge, that they have the necessary levers and, in the end, that the buck stops with them. To take an extreme military analogy, the captain of a ship needs to feel to some extent that, if the ship crashes, it is his fault. Equally, of course, he operates in the huge system of a navy, where there are many other reasons why a ship might crash that might not be entirely down to the captain. Getting that balance right, setting decent national standards and holding people like me to account will be critical.
I expect to be held to account on some of the basic standards issues that were raised. Frankly, I should be able to come back here in 11 months’ time and show that we have significantly reduced the number of people testing positive for drugs in our 30 worst prisons. I would like to come back and present cleaner prisons and prisons with fewer broken windows, and I would like to be judged on some of the basic issues around education provision. If I am not judged on those things, I am not doing my job.
As always, the Minister is making an eloquent and powerful speech. On his point about reoffending rates staying the same, the Airborne Initiative is aimed at the young. If we stop those people—all right, 20% is not 50%, but it is better than nil—moving on to category C, B and A prisons, we surely will be achieving. If the scheme works and we stop young people from going up the chain to more serious crime and longer prison terms, that surely will be another reason why it is particularly brilliant and different.
One hundred per cent! Any scheme that dramatically reduces reoffending does an incredible amount for the individual young person, because it gives them a chance to have a life that is not in prison, and for the public, who would be the victims of the crime that that person would go on to commit. It also, of course, makes a huge difference to the Prison Service and the prison population, because it means there are fewer people in prison and there is less pressure on the whole system. For all those reasons, reducing reoffending has to be at the centre of this issue.
Reducing reoffending is partly about the Airborne Initiative, but it is about many other things, too: ensuring that people have accommodation to go to when they leave prison and trying to ensure that they have jobs to go to as well. A lot of that is not in the gift of my Department. We need to get together a taskforce with all the other bits of the Government and ensure that local authorities have houses to provide, that employers are really reaching out and so on.
There are brilliant ways of doing this. To take one example, there is a fantastic scheme being led by Liverpool Altcourse prison, where prisoners are being trained on metal welding and metal painting, and are connected directly with a company that employs metal welders at the other end. The same is happening with recycling machinery: prisoners make huge recycling trucks inside the prison and are connected with the recycling company for a job as soon as they leave the prison gate. They get some income—that can go into an escrow account, which provides them with some money when they leave—and a vocational qualification, and they get a job at the end.
The Football Association is leading a fantastic programme to pair every premier league club with a local prison. Two people from the club are paired with 16 prisoners, who train for level 1 coaching qualifications with the aim of filling a gap—we need 4,400 coaches in the British system. Leeds Rhinos rugby league team makes fantastic use of its facilities to develop a connection whereby prisoners can use all the community facilities and all the club’s contacts once they leave prison. That is what I want to try to get to.
The Airborne Initiative has three brilliant elements. The first is the military element. We have seen everything that that means. It is shared by initiatives such as the 3 Pillars initiative in London, which emphasises exercise, employment and, above all, a military ethos—the sense of courage, pride, honour and self-confidence that is hugely important for pushing people forward into the world.
The second element is the benefits of the outdoors—we heard about those from the hon. Member for Strangford—and all they mean for everything from someone’s endorphins to their health, their love of nature and, after coming through ice baths and freezing rivers, their sense of resilience. Crossing the River Dart and orienteering alone through the night must be challenging experiences. The third critical element is everything that people get in the evenings. These are residential courses that give people the ability to reflect on their character, their future and their life.
However, we could be doing more to take these schemes to the next stage. First, we should work with the incredibly dedicated and impressive PE professionals in prisons to ensure that they feel absolutely central to these programmes. They should not feel replaced—the voluntary sector is not a replacement for them—but they should feel that they bolt in as role models and mentors. That applies both to these programmes and to other things: PE staff can be central to helping people wean themselves off drugs and to guiding people through nutrition. We now provide much more nutritious food in prisons. Proper nutritious meals have an extraordinary impact—a nearly 30% reduction—on violence and behavioural issues.
We should think not just about young people but about older people. There is no reason why older people cannot go on these courses. We should think about what outdoor activities and sport we can use to reach out to older people. We should embrace sport as a way of doing education—mathematics, for example—as a leveller and as a way of including people who may have struggled at school. We should think about diversity. The Airborne Initiative may be ideal for one cohort but, in another context, something like the Clink restaurant in Brixton may be ideal for someone who wants to go into catering.
Above all, we should stick with courses. We do not want short, shiny, high-quality courses that are delivered for very short periods. That is deeply depressing for prisoners. They turn up, get a terrific package that runs for about three or four weeks, have their fantastic role model and feel their life is turning around, but then that person vanishes and we never hear from them again. Prisoners really want through-mentoring. They want people meeting them at the gate. Clink restaurant is a good example. It meets prisoners at the gate, takes them out, connects them with a catering company and stays with them. Fulham football club is another great example. It meets prisoners at the gate, takes them out and tries to involve them in activities outside the prison. None of this stuff is a silver bullet, but it is all stuff that we need to lean into, facilitate and make easier.
Let me set out the action points that I want to take away from the debate. We clearly need to work out exactly what the problems are with getting prisoners into the Airborne Initiative and to solve them. I will contact governors so that, next time the course is run, we do everything we can to ensure that prisoners are available to go on it. We will have to deal with the deeper structural issues in the next debate, but the basic philosophy is absolutely central: if PE instructors in prisons, prison officers and the voluntary sector work on outdoor education and sport and think about how to connect those things together, that can transform prisoners’ lives, transform reoffending and protect the public.
Along with everything I am talking about in terms of back to basics—the stuff with drugs, cleaning up prisons, fixing broken windows, having basic standards and getting 2,500 prison officers back in—Britain, with its astonishing love of sport and the outdoors and the commitment of soldiers from the Parachute Regiment, MPs and everyone in the Chamber—can make a huge difference to vulnerable lives, and ultimately to public safety.
I will not keep everyone waiting for long. I thank the Minister for that most helpful reply. The only point he did not mention, I think, was about meeting the three guests afterwards to discuss ROTL and the problems governors have. If he could, they would much appreciate that. I thank all who participated in and supported the debate from all parts of the House. We had an eloquent speech from the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), whose experience came through in buckets.
I entirely agree that through-mentoring is essential, and yes, as we discussed before we came into the debate, it could be extended to adults. The only comment to make about that is, “Let’s get it right for the young first and really get it going.” I thank the Minister for getting hold of the governor and saying, “When this comes up, we want the 22 places filled.” Let us get that working and, as has been suggested, get the facts, statistics and costs in black and white. Then, if it really is working, there will be even more evidence to push it out.
Finally, as the Minister said, the key is those who run the organisations, systems and initiatives. These young people get five days or six days of brilliance with an ex-regimental sergeant-major, a footballer or whoever it may be, who inspires them to say, “Oh, my goodness gracious—I have never met this before,” but then, oomph, back into prison they go. Through-mentoring will be key to ensure that, when they go back into prison, someone is there with the next initiative, or whatever it may be. I absolutely concur.
Thank you for listening to me for so long, Mr Howarth, and I thank all those who contributed. I also thank the Minister very much for his helpful reply.
Perhaps I will abuse the privilege of the Chair—unusually for me—and say that it was a privilege to chair a debate in which everyone who took part made thoughtful contributions. Taken as a whole, it was a constructive debate—even down to the Minister’s response, in which he set himself some rather big targets.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered outdoors endurance activities for prisoners.
A75 Euro Route: Upgrade
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the upgrade of the A75 Euro route in Scotland.
It is a pleasure to lead my first Westminster Hall debate under your chairmanship, Mr Betts.
I was elected to this place last June. In my manifesto, I pledged to campaign for more investment in Dumfries and Galloway’s infrastructure, with a particular focus on our roads. No road is more in need of urgent attention than the A75 Euro route, a 95-mile-long stretch of road from Stranraer to Gretna that links the south-west of Scotland to the M74 and M6 and thereby the rest of the United Kingdom. This trunk road is a key artery of Dumfries and Galloway’s local economy, and I fear that if we do not see a sustained programme of upgrades to the A75 in the near future it will have a detrimental social and economic effect, something my constituency can ill afford.
In addition to its critical importance to the economy of Dumfries and Galloway, the A75 is of serious concern to businesses in Northern Ireland, given that 45% of Northern Ireland’s trade with the rest of the United Kingdom transits through Loch Ryan in the west of my constituency. Halfway up Loch Ryan is the port of Cairnryan, home to two international ferry companies that operate ferries to and from Belfast and Larne. It is a route of strategic economic importance and a major hub for freight and tourism, with over 9,000 sailings per annum carrying 1.7 million passengers, 415,000 cars and 410,000 freight units.
Depending on their destination, vehicles will use either the A77 or the A75 when ferries dock, and because of the road conditions that can often cause frustration for convoys and drivers—something I can attest to.
My hon. Friend mentioned the ports in Loch Ryan, of which there are two. They are extremely busy and getting busier year on year, but does he agree that there has been little or no investment in the road infrastructure leaving those ports? The road infrastructure in general is badly neglected, but the A75, an extremely busy route for the ferry ports, needs investment and has been neglected over the past 10 or 20 years.
The A77 Euro route to the north of Cairnryan runs through my hon. Friend’s constituency. I both agree and disagree with him: I completely agree that those roads need a lot more money spent on them, but I disagree that they are getting busier. Part of the problem is that they are not getting busier because, as I will come on to in my speech, we are losing hauliers’ business down to Dublin and across to Holyhead and other ports.
Going back to my point about frustration for convoys and drivers, being stuck behind a fleet of lorries on the A75 is not a pleasant experience. The A75 is predominantly a single carriageway road with very limited overtaking opportunities. Poor roads to and from the ports are putting them at an extreme disadvantage and in turn threatening jobs and livelihoods that depend on those ports. Last November, I met representatives from Stena Line, which has invested over £100 million to provide Scotland with a first-class new port facility at Cairnryan. P&O has also invested a lot in its terminal and in its vessels. The investment those companies have made has not been matched with vital road and rail development to help the ports remain attractive and competitive. Frankly, if such private investment is not supported, that is a disincentive for future investment.
The message could not be clearer. If we continue on the current trajectory of neglecting the A75, the consequences could be grave. The warning signs are already in place. Unfortunately for us, while we continue to talk among ourselves about the need to act, Northern Ireland has stepped up a gear and ensured that its road connections are keeping pace with economic development. That has resulted in a growing number of Northern Irish hauliers diverting their traffic flows to sail from Dublin; in all honesty, who can blame them?
Other UK ports, such as Heysham, Holyhead and Liverpool, are gearing up for the future and the increasing traffic flows of freight and tourism resulting from investment in the surrounding roads, whereas Cairnryan is in clear danger of being left behind. An easy, quick win would be for the Scottish Government to increase the speed for vehicles over 7.5 tonnes on the A75. At the moment they are restricted to 40 mph, but that could be lifted to 50 mph, which in turn would shorten the travel times that hauliers have to face.
However, it is not only ferry companies, visitors and hauliers on whom the condition of the A75 is having an effect. Local people in my constituency who travel the road on a regular basis are just as, if not more, frustrated. I commend the efforts of those involved with campaigning to improve the roads. Both Dual the A75 and the A77 Action Group, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), have been active campaigners on the issue and have argued their case strongly at every opportunity.
It would be remiss of me not to recognise that there have been some improvements to the A75 in recent years, and they are welcome, but they have not gone far enough and they are just a sticking-plaster solution to a much wider problem. Since 2007, more money has been spent on maintenance issues than on capital investment.
I am pleased that the Scottish Government have commissioned a study to look at the rationale for improving road, rail, public transport and active travel on key strategic corridors in Scotland, including the A75. I look forward to the initial findings of that study being published later this year, and I understand that the outcomes will be fed into a second strategic transport projects review. The Scottish Government have said they recognise the importance of the A75 to the strategic transport network, to the economy of south-west Scotland and to the rest of the country, and I hope they come up with the money to demonstrate it, starting with bypasses for Springholm and Crocketford. Those two villages have been making the case to be bypassed for years, and they are in desperate need of it.
As seems de rigueur in this place at the moment, Mr Betts, I am going to bring the debate on to the subject of Brexit—but, you will be relieved to hear, only briefly. As preparations continue for Britain to leave the European Union, it is important that our economy is firing on all cylinders and ready to embrace the opportunities and rise to the challenges that we will face. It is more important than ever that our road network is able to cope with the demands of a post-Brexit economy, and that means investing in every region of our country. In Dumfries and Galloway, I want an A75 that is not only fit for the future, but one that makes the port of Cairnryan the most attractive port for the transport of goods to and from Northern Ireland, a vital partner in trade and tourism.
I apologise for my late arrival due to the fact that I was at another meeting. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on his efforts to highlight this important issue. He knows that, for our part in Northern Ireland, we regard it as an extremely important issue for the Northern Irish economy. We have had a number of meetings recently and our party leader is meeting representatives from the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and other constituencies in Scotland to discuss the matter further. He has our full support, both in his own constituency in Scotland and from a Northern Ireland perspective.
The right hon. Gentleman’s support is very much appreciated.
To conclude, it could be argued that this is a matter for the Scottish Government, since transport is devolved, but at a UK level it is an important arterial Euro route that connects my constituency to the rest of the United Kingdom. Furthermore, as we continue discussions on the exciting borderlands growth deal initiative, I hope that investment in the A75 forms part of the final terms of that agreement. That is something I will continue to call for.
I am delighted that the Transport Secretary has accepted my invitation to visit Dumfries and Galloway to travel the A75 himself later this year. That is also an invitation I extend to the Secretary of State for Scotland. The road in questions runs through part of his constituency, and I know that he, like me, is all too familiar with the issues that I have raised.
I should also put on the record the fact that I appreciate the support of our neighbours across the water. As one Northern Irish politician put it, “Scotland’s loss is our loss too”. If we were to lose those ports at Cairnryan because they cannot compete with those to the south, that would be a great loss for all of us.
I want all businesses to have the greatest opportunity to make a positive contribution to UK plc as we leave the EU, but I fear that the deficit of investment in the A75 Euroroute, and the port of Cairnryan’s difficulties with that, will mean that it becomes more and more marginalised as an even greater volume of freight is lost to the central corridor ports. We cannot and must not let that happen. There is an urgent need for upgrades to the A75, and I look forward to hearing what the UK Government can offer.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I have had a double whammy of introductions today, answering my first session of oral questions in the Chamber and replying to my first debate as Minister in Westminster Hall. It has been a busy old day.
I begin by thanking and praising my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Jack) for securing the debate to fight for this road in his constituency. He has clearly been a great advocate for his constituency in his short time in the House, and I know that this debate is important to him and his constituents. He is clearly at the beginning of a campaign that he put in his manifesto for election to the House, so I have no doubt that we are going to hear a lot more about this in future.
I recognise that the A75 is a vital economic artery that runs the length of my hon. Friend’s constituency of Dumfries and Galloway, from the historic town of Dumfries in the east to the town of Stranraer in the west. Transport links are important in all our constituencies, but they are absolutely key in rural areas, underpinning local economies and communities. Those links support important sectors, such as agriculture and fisheries, which are the foundation of Scotland’s thriving food and drinks industry. I am sure we have all enjoyed the tastes and drinks of that great nation. They are also the lifeblood of the vibrant tourism industry in south-west Scotland. Many of my constituents enjoy great holidays in that area, although they often complain about the time it takes to get there.
Those links also make it possible for hard-working people to access job opportunities across a wide region, which is crucial if we are to be successful in rebalancing the economy, as the Government are keen to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) is therefore quite right to talk about the amount of investment that may or may not have happened over the past 10 or 20 years. Those links also link vital transport infrastructure, such as our coastal ports, to Scotland’s main road network.
With all that in mind, I am grateful for the chance to respond to the debate regarding the upgrading of the A75 in Scotland. I know that that is a priority issue for my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway, and he has previously raised it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. He is of course right to recognise the importance of trunk roads like the A75 and, indeed, the A77, which runs down from Glasgow, through his constituency and by the ferry terminals of Cairnryan.
I am aware of recent calls from the Freight Transport Association for the Government to prioritise infrastructure investment in that area, which it reports handles about 45% of Northern Ireland’s trade with the rest of the UK. The contribution from the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) brought that to our attention.
Research carried out in 2016 estimated that the Scottish trunk road network as a whole contributes around £1.38 billion in gross value added to the Scottish economy. The same research estimated that the network also generates employment for 31,000 people, which is no mean feat. That is certainly recognised by stakeholders in my hon. Friend’s constituency and across the borderlands region.
As a result of the work of the Scotland Office on the borderlands growth deal, proposals for upgrade work for strategic road connections, such as the A75, are among the key asks. I am aware of safety concerns raised by many local groups, such as Dual the A75, which has petitioned the Scottish Parliament on the issue. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has tasked the local government partners to that growth deal to consult and engage further with all local stakeholders across the region to develop the projects. We are expecting significant progress on that by April.
The UK Government fully recognise the social and economic importance of improving connectivity and enabling investment across all parts of the country. Our investment and support for schemes such as UK city deals in Scotland, as well as the UK Government’s industrial strategy, demonstrate our commitment to help to support the Scottish economy and deliver for people in all parts of Scotland.
Ultimately, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway has mentioned, road investment in Scotland is a devolved matter, and the need to regenerate the A75 is something the Scottish Government will need to deliver on. The A75 is the responsibility of Scottish Government Ministers and is managed by Transport Scotland, and its maintenance is carried out by Scotland Transerv. I am sure Scottish Government Ministers will note the points made today.
I was pleased to hear that my hon. Friend’s invitation for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to visit his constituency was accepted; there is nothing more effective in getting investment for a piece of road than getting the Secretary of State to travel along it. I wish him well with that. I will most certainly pass on his invitation to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to visit and see the issues for himself.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. He is clearly fighting passionately for his constituency. He made a strong case on the importance of this road and the investment that it needs. If we are to secure those decent links, particularly between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, especially as we start to leave the European Union, this is something that really needs to be addressed. I sincerely hope that Scottish Government Ministers listen to the points that my hon. Friend made. I know he will be vociferous in making sure that they continue to be made in future.
Question put and agreed to.
People with Autism: Public Building Access
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the accessibility of public buildings for people with autism.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts.
Imagine what Parliament would be like if there was less information—less information at once, anyway. Imagine if we all agreed that there could only ever be one voice speaking in our debating Chambers and Committee Rooms. I will admit that I am not completely perfect in that regard, but just imagine what that would be like. Imagine if we redesigned the atrium of Portcullis House so that it was less of a goldfish bowl of sights and cacophony of sounds. Imagine if there were quiet areas where Members, staff and members of the public could retreat if there was simply too much going on and they needed to calm their minds.
I ask the hon. Lady to give way on a point of whimsy, really. If she wants to know what it would be like to have just one voice at a time in the Chamber, she should come to the Council of Europe, where we are obliged to speak for three minutes without interruption.
The hon. Gentleman’s intervention makes me hopeful that we might one day achieve what I desire, even though it would require a lot of self-restraint on my part.
Imagine if we had routes through the parliamentary estate that steered people logically from one place to the next with predictable and straightforward signs, few distractions and gentle lighting.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this important debate. I noticed with interest at the launch of the autism and education report this afternoon that there was a designated quiet space. While I would not necessarily suggest that we always need that as MPs, what a great idea for any future public events that there is somewhere for people to go if they feel slightly overwhelmed by the number of people, the noises or the visual effects in the room. Does she agree?
Yes, I do agree; but I also slightly disagree, in that it might not hurt some of us as MPs to seek a place of quiet every now and then and still our minds, because there is so much going on for us.
If we did all that I just said, we would remove many barriers to people with autism using our public spaces. Would it not make a better place for all of us to run the country from? I argue that it would. Are these changes too much for us to contemplate? As hon. Members debate the restoration and renewal—hereafter referred to as R and R—of the parliamentary estate right now in the Chamber, would it be so difficult for us to consider taking the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that R and R presents to make Parliament a place of greater sensory clarity, reducing the sensory overload not just for people with autism but for everyone?
Are these changes too much for custodians of other public buildings to contemplate? I argue that they are not too much, and would benefit us all. They would benefit people with autism as users of public buildings and as employees and potential employees; but they would benefit everyone else, and there are so many other organisations doing so that we no longer have any justification for not doing so in our public buildings.
Fifteen years ago, several children with autism came into my life. Friends and family had young children on the autistic spectrum and my now husband, then partner, Kevin, started working with children with autism, as he still does, in a school that he runs. I am grateful to my friends, family, husband, his colleagues, particularly Paulla Keen, and my own staff member who takes a lead on autism in my team, Councillor Mike Davies, for what they have taught me about autism and about how bringing down barriers for people with autism can help us all. Like 99.5% of the public as surveyed by YouGov in 2016, I had heard of autism before; but in those 15 years my life has been immeasurably enriched by people with autism.
Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking organisations such as Sainsbury’s, which is now operating an autism-friendly hour? That takes place about once a month, and is designed to educate staff and shoppers so that if a child is having a difficult moment it is not necessarily a naughty child having a tantrum, but it may have become overwhelmed by noises and things going on in the store. I have done a pro forma letter that can be sent out to attractions in my constituency, so perhaps we can encourage other organisations to do the same.
I happily agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, other supermarkets are available, but I encourage those supermarkets to do likewise and believe that some of them are. Indeed, I will go on to talk a bit more about how we can encourage other organisations to do that.
Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), is it not important to note that this is not just about children? It is also about adults with autism and providing the kind of atmosphere and location that they can benefit from.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is not just about children; it is about adults. I want to reiterate what I was saying: my life has been immeasurably enriched by children and adults on the autistic spectrum who have insights and illuminating ways of looking at the world that I have personally benefited from and would hate to feel were being denied to our public life.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her speech. I, too, have seen local businesses, such as intu Trafford Centre in my constituency, make tremendous efforts to train their staff and alter some of their business practices to welcome people with autism and to make the centre a safe space for shopping and leisure. They have found that it is not just people with autism, but people with dementia, learning difficulties or other sensory impairments, who have benefited as a result. Does she agree that what is good for autistic people may in fact be good for all of us?
I absolutely agree. Indeed, that is the top and bottom of my speech: what is good for people on the spectrum is good for us all. Private businesses and shopping centres have sometimes led the way, and public buildings need to follow suit because doing so would benefit us all.
I am sad to learn from the National Autistic Society report “Too Much Information”, which was also published in 2016, that only 16% of people with autism and their families think that the public understands autism in any meaningful way. The consequence of people’s lack of meaningful understanding is that autistic people and their families are often effectively excluded from many public spaces. Half of autistic people and their families told the NAS in that survey that they sometimes do not go out because they are worried about the public’s reaction to their autism. Some 28% have been asked to leave a public space because of behaviour associated with their autism, and 79% of autistic people reported feeling isolated. It does not have to be this way. I reiterate, along with my hon. Friends, that it is not good for anybody—people on the spectrum or the rest of us—for autistic people to feel excluded.
Although I am far from being an expert, I am going to share some of what I have learned about autism and making institutions accessible. First, I have a very technical definition, so bear with me. The “International Classification of Diseases”, 10th edition—ICD-10—is the most commonly used diagnostic manual in the UK. It defines autism profiles as:
“A group of disorders characterized by qualitative abnormalities in reciprocal social interactions and in patterns of communication, and by a restricted, stereotyped, repetitive repertoire of interests and activities. These qualitative abnormalities are a pervasive feature of the individual's functioning in all situations.”
I apologise to colleagues for using a technical definition, but over the past few months and years I have felt that sometimes people think they know what autism is but may confuse it with a mental health problem or a learning difficulty. Although some people with autism do have one or other or both, those are not defining characteristics. A revised edition of the ICD is expected this year and is likely to align closely with the latest edition of the American diagnostic and statistical manual. I refer colleagues to that definition for further information, but it includes sensory difficulties and has clearer criteria.
When my cousin Sunitha, who lives in Chennai, India, found out that her young son Ricky was on the autistic spectrum, it was not a surprise. She had known that something was not right. Ricky was not speaking at age three, and there were other things that meant she knew that he understood social interaction in a different way from other people. It was a difficult adjustment at first, but I am proud of how my cousin Suni and her family—her beautiful daughter Rachael and everyone else in it—have changed how they interact with one another and with Ricky, and how they support Ricky’s interaction with the world. Their experiences in India illustrate much of what needs to and can change in public buildings in the UK and beyond.
As with many, but not all, people on the autistic spectrum, Ricky does not speak much, although he is no longer non-verbal. He has outstanding skills in listening, reading and writing in several Indian languages, but his lack of fluent speech—and that of many autistic people—could come across as stand-offish. It might make it harder for him to get information about how to use a public building. Although some of his skills are far beyond most of us, they are not typical. Making a public building accessible needs to include giving clear information visually and logically as well as a non-verbal means of gaining that information.
Again, as with many but not all people on the spectrum, Ricky likes routines and sometimes has trouble adjusting to change. Some people may ask, “Does that make me a little bit autistic? I like routines and I don’t like change.” The National Autistic Society mentions the myth that “we’re all a bit autistic” on its website, but that is a myth about autism that I am keen to scotch—no, we are not. My routines help me to organise my day. Ricky’s help to prevent him from experiencing sensory overload and to soothe him when he does.
Ricky wants to take the same route to school each day, which is fairly straightforward, but when he goes on holiday—as he does when my mum, my husband and I visit India—some experiences can be tricky for him, such as a very noisy and chaotic queue for a zoo, which we quickly left. That is an example of something we did to accommodate Ricky but which benefited us too—I did not like the queue either.
We have been able to enjoy holidays mostly because his amazing mum and the rest of the family are brilliant at facilitating what Ricky needs to be comfortable, including certain books, access to certain things on his mum’s phone and certain foods. We are all pretty much in agreement about avoiding noisy, chaotic experiences that would cause him sensory overload. We have all realised that we like spending gentle time together doing familiar things. It works for me, and it means that Suni and the family can have a holiday.
We have built up to several days’ holiday each year because we have found certain places, such as the Green Hotel in Mysore, where Ricky knows what to expect and where the staff show great understanding, without any special training, by being thoughtful and by responding to specific requests from one of us, which can help.
Although visiting a public building for the first time could be a new and upsetting experience, an organisation can help. It can provide information in advance on a website, or on arrival in a leaflet, with matching, visually clear and logical information in the building. Even without training or an explanation of autism—I do not think the staff at the Green Hotel know what Ricky’s condition is—staff can be encouraged to accept different ways of communicating, and see them as a bonus to us all rather than a limitation.
When Ricky is experiencing sensory overload, he will sometimes use repetitive movements, sounds or actions to try to bring some order and method to a stressful situation. That could be profoundly misunderstood and seen as weird, disruptive or even aggressive. The response of staff to that behaviour in autistic people may make being in a public building unwelcoming. Indeed, in the 2016 National Autistic Society survey, 28% of autistic people and their families said that they have been asked to leave a public space, which upsets me terribly.
Some people with autism have different ways of understanding non-verbal social communication from neurotypical people. They may be very literal in their interpretation of what someone says and jokes and sarcasm may not work, or may work in a different way. Again, that may be seen as weird, irritating or difficult and our responses might make a public building unwelcoming.
If people in public buildings are given clear information about autism—how it might present and what might contribute to that sensory overload—they can learn to adjust their responses to people who behave in ways they do not expect, without necessarily knowing that that person is on the autistic spectrum. Some people’s autism will not be noticeable, and other people may have no idea what is going on, but that does not mean that they are coping with an over-stimulating environment, sensory overload, disruption or noise.
Autism is a difference, not a disease. Understanding that difference helps people who work in public buildings to make adjustments or to change how they present the building so that even if they do not know that someone is autistic, the building and organisation are more accessible.
I have chosen to focus on public buildings because we should all have access to them as users and as potential employees. The ability of people with autism to do great work and to flourish could be even better if buildings were more accessible to them. My relationships with people with autism are a privilege. Their different interpretations of the world around us are insightful and illuminating. Making public buildings more accessible would bring those insights into public life to the benefit of us all.
Since launching the autism-friendly award in 2016, the National Autistic Society has supported over 40 public and private venues to become autism-friendly. Each organisation took steps to improve staff understanding, introduced pre-visit information, adapted its premises, consulted with autistic people and their families, and encouraged wider public awareness of autism, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) mentioned.
With help from the NAS, over 1,000 sites will be autism-friendly in 2019. That is fantastic and it would be great for us to be one of them. The parliamentary estate already has part of the autism award, but I would like us to go further. The NAS works with a large banking group that has more than 800 sites, so clearly there are businesses that understand the benefits of making their buildings autism-friendly to their excellent employees, potential employees, and customers who are on the spectrum. It benefits business and it benefits public space.
Public buildings and the organisations in them have no reason not to do the same. Local authorities should take a lead—hence bringing the debate to the Department’s attention—but schools, health services, the police and other public bodies should make the most of what the NAS and other autism organisations can provide.
In my own constituency, the NAS and the Bristol Autism Spectrum Service helped me to provide a more autism-accessible service and worked with me to hold what we believe was the country’s first autism-specific constituency surgery. I strongly encourage other hon. Members to do the same. We can and should lead by example in this place. In summer 2017, the Houses of Parliament received the National Autistic Society’s autism-friendly award, joining the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and Stormont, but as I walk around I can see plenty more to do.
Restoration and renewal is an opportunity. Under the Equality Act 2010, businesses and public spaces are not allowed to discriminate against an autistic person because of their disability. I am sure that staff here and in restaurants and council buildings alike would not dream of telling someone, “You’re autistic. You must leave”, but a lack of understanding could mean that they react unhelpfully to what seems like odd behaviour. That could lead to a situation that causes them to ask the autistic person to leave, in effect, because of their autism. My experience with Ricky at the Green Hotel in Mysore shows that staff in public spaces do not need to discriminate in that way, however unintentionally.
Businesses and public bodies have an anticipatory duty under the Act to make reasonable adjustments, which means thinking in advance. In October 2017, over 5,000 restaurants, shopping centres and other venues across the UK took part in autism hour, which my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) has mentioned. For 60 minutes, they took simple steps to make their premises autism-friendly by dimming lights, reducing noise and carrying out autism-awareness activities.
The hon. Lady is being generous with her time. I like the stress that she puts on the information available for people with autism. Does she have any thoughts about whether building regulations for new buildings need to be changed to make them more autism-friendly? How might we physically adapt older buildings to accommodate people with autism?
I would love building regulations to be altered to take into account what needs to happen to make buildings not only autism-friendly, but friendly to people with dementia and learning disabilities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston has said. I hope the Minister will address that important point in her remarks.
In my constituency, local voluntary parents’ group SEND a Welcome, which provides mutual support and public-awareness raising for families with children with special needs, including but not confined to autism, has encouraged many local businesses, such as the Boston Tea Party on Gloucester Road, to do similar things. That means that their families can use local shops and businesses, and it is also good for us all.
That work is so promising and so welcome, but all public buildings should have more than an autism hour. We should have autism days, months and years. In fact, we should simply be accessible to the one in 100 people on the autistic spectrum. Everyone present seems to agree that that is in everyone’s interest. What is good for people with autism is good for us all. The findings of the NAS’s “Too Much Information” research suggest that adjustments are not happening as consistently as they should be. The NAS can help, but it needs to be supported by the Government. I hope the Minister will address that.
Before I draw to a close, I have some questions for the Minister. I am grateful for the commitment that I believe she has to doing better to ensure that autistic people have the right to public spaces. My constituent, “H”, is a young woman at a local mainstream state school. She is on the autistic spectrum and has been in touch with me this week and on several previous occasions about the need for greater understanding of autism. When I contacted her about this debate, she said:
“I would like to ask the Minister whether there will be a campaign to raise autism awareness in schools. I ask this because I recently went on a trip, and became distressed with the noise levels from my fellow students on the coach.”
I know how she feels—I sometimes find that myself—but this is a real problem for students with autism. She adds:
“To prevent this happening again, I would suggest a short course for students in which to learn about the signs and symptoms of autism, and how to help someone in distress due to them.”
I add to H’s question a few others. First, what support will the Minister give to local authorities to ensure that their staff can benefit from training to help them to make the physical space, atmosphere, staffing and—as the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned—structure of public buildings such that people with autism and their families can use them comfortably?
Secondly, given the high level of social isolation experienced by autistic people, will the Government ensure that their new strategy to tackle loneliness includes a specific focus on making public spaces accessible to people with autism and their families? Thirdly, how else will the Minister encourage more businesses and all public spaces to become autism-friendly? I recognise that business is outside her Department, but good examples can have a knock-on effect.
Fourthly, what steps will she take to ensure that the renovated Parliament meets the access needs of autistic people and their families? I strongly encourage her to consider that issue and discuss it with her colleagues in other Departments. Finally, what steps will she take to ensure that managers of public buildings and organisations are aware of their Equality Act duties in relation to autistic people? I refer to schools, health centres and police stations as well as council buildings. It would be fantastic if she talked to her colleagues about that.
I began my speech by suggesting changes and asking whether they were too much for the custodians of public buildings to contemplate. They are not—and the time to contemplate them is now. Yesterday, we had a very constructive debate in this Chamber on the treatment of adults with autism by the criminal justice system, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). Today, the all-party group on autism launched its report on autism and education, based on an inquiry chaired by the hon. Members for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) and for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). I am grateful to them for their work and to the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) for her leadership of the all- party group. I also praise Mr Speaker for his personal commitment to the issue, which shows great leadership in the place. Many right hon. and hon. Members have demonstrated great commitment to autism awareness.
One in 100 people and their families deserve these changes as a matter of right, so that they can have their equal right to use public space respected. My cousin Sunitha and her family, my husband and his colleagues, the NAS, Bristol Autism Support, the SEND a Welcome parents group in Bishopston, the shopping centres mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston and for Dewsbury, my assistant Mike—there are so many examples. They and so many others have shown me what can be done in publicly owned buildings, and not out of pity or because being autistic is inherently a struggle.
I really urge colleagues not to refer to autism as a struggle, because being autistic means seeing the world and relationships in it in a different way. It is not a disease. Many people on the autistic spectrum value their identity as neurodiverse. We neurotypical people too often unnecessarily make things a struggle for autistic people; we create barriers where none are needed.
Autistic people are not making special pleading or asking us to feel sorry for them. They are asking for equal rights. They have a right to use public space, and it is time we made that right a reality.
I understand that two Back Benchers wish to speak. To allow time for the winding-up speeches, I ask them to speak for no more than seven minutes each.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing this important debate.
Everyone should have the right to easy access to public buildings, and the roughly one in 100 people in the United Kingdom who are on the autistic spectrum are no exception. Although, of course, there is more that can be done, we have made great strides in making public buildings more accessible to people with visible disabilities—take the advances that have been made on wheelchair access. However, it is important that we also make public buildings more accessible to people with invisible disabilities, such as autism. Easier access to public buildings makes it easier to go about one’s daily life and access public services.
People with autism should not have their access compromised because basic, common-sense adjustments have not been made to certain buildings. Accessibility is as much an issue for them as it is for people with more visible disabilities. According to the National Autistic Society, 79% of autistic people and 70% of their families feel socially isolated. It is crucial that public buildings are organised in a way that makes autistic people and their families feel comfortable going to them.
There are a number of simple adjustments that can be made to buildings to make them more accessible to people with autism, such as removing overly bright colours, loud noises and clutter; ensuring that signage is clear and explicit; and making the layout of the building more predictable. It does not take much to make some relatively small adjustments that can really help people with autism and their families.
Likewise, it is important to promote autism awareness among staff. Half of autistic people and their families sometimes do not go out because of concern about people’s reactions to autism. The more we educate staff in public buildings—and the public in general—about autism, the more accessible public spaces will be for people with autism and their families. Encouraging understanding is just as important as making physical adjustments.
It is important that the UK Government, the Scottish Government and local authorities all work together to make public buildings more autism-friendly and more accessible to people with both visible and invisible disabilities. The UK Government have a good record of encouraging the public sector to be more autism-friendly, and I very much hope that they continue and redouble their efforts in the near future.
We should aim to be an accessible and inclusive society in which access to public spaces is as easy as possible for people with autism and their families, and for people with various disabilities. That will involve building on the progress we have made, which will require impetus from all levels of government. It will require physical adjustments and awareness raising. It is an area in which, for relatively little, we can make a big, tangible, positive difference to the lives of an awful lot of people.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on bringing the issue of autism to Westminster Hall so honestly, compassionately and clearly. No one who listened to her speech could fail to be encouraged and energised by it.
If I may, I would like to offer a Northern Ireland perspective. The hon. Lady referred to what is happening in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and I would like to give some introductory information about autism in Northern Ireland, as well as about some other matters. Statistical analysis has been carried out on the rate of autism in children in Northern Ireland, and its findings are concerning, to say the least. They suggest that the estimated prevalence of autism in the school-age population in Northern Ireland has increased from 1.2% to 2.5% in less than a decade. There is a significant difference in the estimated prevalence rates of autism between the genders: males are four times more likely to be identified with autism than females, in line with UK-wide and international figures.
The Northern Ireland urban population has a statistically significant higher prevalence rate than the rural population, and we need to try to understand why that is so. Worryingly, using the Northern Ireland multiple deprivation measure ranking, the rate of autism from 2008-09 to 2013-14 was higher in the least deprived decile than in the most deprived. However, by 2016-17, the rate of autism in the most deprived area was 47% higher than in the least deprived area and 42% higher than the Northern Ireland average. Those figures illustrate the problems with autism.
In Northern Ireland, we have had a report by Autism NI and we have done some other work; I say “we”, but the work was done by the Northern Ireland Assembly, in which I served before coming here. Autism NI is a very active group in the Northern Ireland Assembly and it has come forward with some great strategies, visions and ideas for the future. Some of the things that it has put forward—back in my time at the Northern Ireland Assembly and since then—have been very significant.
My introduction to autism has been through interaction with people as a constituency MP, as a Northern Ireland Assembly Member and as a local councillor. I have filled in forms for parents to claim disability living allowance for their children, and I have dealt with other benefit issues, as well as referrals for educational assessment so that schools can get the classroom assistants that they need. Those are the real things that affect people, and engaging with them is how we learn about autism.
An interesting point was made in a separate debate this morning. We come to these debates to add our bit of knowledge, but also to gain knowledge from others. It is good that we will be able to leave this debate with knowledge from Scotland, from the hon. Member for Bristol West, from the shadow Minister, from the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and, indeed, from the Minister.
The estimated prevalence of autism has increased across all school years. In 2009-10, 74% of children identified as having autism were classified at stage 5 of the special educational needs assessment. I have been directly involved with that assessment, so I understand the issues clearly. However, in 2016-17 the percentage of children identified as having autism and classified at stage 5 of the assessment had fallen to 63%. There was a slight improvement in that time, which is probably down to the autism NI strategy. That strategy has addressed some autism issues, although it will take a while to work out all the figures.
Autism is a massive factor for children and young people in Northern Ireland, but it is not a death sentence by any stretch of the imagination. What is required is to teach communities about tools for people with autism. I loved it when the hon. Member for Bristol West made a comment about a wee boy or girl having autism. As she said, people with autism are the same as the rest of us; they just have a different way of doing things, and it is important that we understand that. As I say, I loved that little comment, because my mind was working in a very similar way. I think that those who deal regularly with people with autism would know what I mean.
One tool that I have come across is the Autism Friendly award, which is provided by the National Autistic Society and helps to teach communities about autism. The award helps businesses to become educated and aware of what they can do to help themselves and the families who use their services. It might be a simple thing, but it can really make a difference, and that is what we want.
According to the National Autistic Society, 79% of autistic people and 70% of families with autistic children feel socially isolated. I have often been involved in cases with a single parent—often a lady—with an autistic child and a couple of other children. The children are all pressing upon her. I see such women in my office and I understand how they can feel socially isolated, because their whole life is focused on looking after their children and doing their best for them.
Half of autistic people and their families sometimes do not go out because of concern about people’s reaction to autism, which goes back to the point that the hon. Member for Bristol West made earlier. We have to be more understanding and not stare, as children sometimes do; sometimes adults stare, too. We need to be aware of these things.
The NAS website states that:
“Even though more than 1 in 100 people in the UK are autistic, many of them and their families still struggle to access essential community spaces, businesses and shops”,
so the Autism Friendly award for business is good. The NAS website continues:
“The National Autistic Society’s Autism Friendly Award champions premises who commit to making sure that autistic visitors receive the same warm welcome as everybody else.
This doesn’t mean investing in expensive alterations or training your staff to be autism experts. Small changes can make a massive difference to autistic visitors and just a little understanding can go a long way.
We have worked with everyone from airports, heritage sites to sports arenas, local hairdressers and high street stores. Every customer-facing organisation, whatever their size or business, can benefit from becoming autism-friendly.”
That is what the NAS wants to achieve, and we in this House should want to achieve it, too.
I am conscious of your instruction about time, Mr Betts, so I will come to a close. Each venue that achieves the Autism Friendly award will help to make the UK a more autism-friendly place by opening its doors to autistic people and their families, whose lives are affected daily by businesses that do not understand their needs. I fully support initiatives such as the Autism Friendly award. They help to raise awareness and make a positive difference to families with autism, who simply need a little compassion, a little more understanding and—I say this gently—a little more support from the Government. I believe that, as a matter of principle, every single Government-funded building must be autism-aware and autism-friendly.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to this debate, and I wish her well in her new position. I should have done that at the very beginning of my speech, and I apologise for not doing so. She and I came into the House at the same time. I know that she is a lady of compassion, so we look forward to a compassionate response.
The two Opposition spokespersons are next. Five minutes each, please.
It is a pleasure, Mr Betts, to serve under your chairship.
I am grateful to have been able to contribute this week to not one, but two debates on autism. It is great that the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) was able to secure a debate on this important subject, and it is right that this House considers it.
Our understanding of autism has obviously changed greatly over the years and everyone can be grateful that there is now more information and awareness about autism than ever before. So far, there have been contributions from the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), who mentioned the example of Sainsbury’s, which, in encouraging other businesses to contribute, is very much valued; from the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), on how raising awareness can benefit everyone, which should be heard in this House; and from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who, as always, provided a valuable contribution and insight from Northern Ireland.
In the limited time that I have, I will take the opportunity to highlight two factors that are, of course, relevant to my constituency. First, there is the Autism Resource Coordination Hub—ARCH—in Hamilton, which supports individuals suffering from autism and their carers. Often, ARCH identifies local campaigns where it can provide advice and guidance on how to improve buildings and their surrounding areas, in order to improve the experience of those with autism as they live their daily lives, and also to encourage public buildings and spaces to improve their environment so that people can use them freely and accessibly.
Secondly, I will raise the concerns of one of my constituents, Julia Fordyce. Her son, Macoist, has worked with various services over the years. He has finished school and is now a young adult attempting to enter the workplace. However, his experience of entering a Department for Work and Pensions building on various occasions has been less successful than would be expected. I will use not my own words, but those of his mother and main carer, Julia, to tell the Minister about how they were made to feel in a DWP building. I hope that doing so will help to improve the services of all Departments in working with those who have autism.
Julia has said:
“We were greeted by 2 advisers who were sat behind a glass panel, Macoist found the glass panel very unnerving.”
She said that it was clear that the advisers had not read about Macoist’s disabilities and had no understanding of his claim. She continues:
“Our second appointment with his work coach was even more challenging.”
She says that the work coach insisted on moving rooms to recommence part of his assessment, which made Macoist extremely agitated and made the experience far more difficult than it needed to be.
Julia goes on to say that on another occasion her son
“had an on-going sick certificate which made no difference at all”.
She says the work coach insisted on taking Macoist through the entire process once more, as if he had never read the documents. The work coach then summarised matters and Macoist agreed to a work commitment of two hours a week. However, she says:
“For Macoist any kind of change has a dramatic affect on him mentally”—
that is, on his mental health. She goes on to say that for Macoist, travelling to new places and having new experiences can be stressful enough, but the experience in the DWP building could have been improved. It would have been improved simply if, for example, DWP staff had come to their home beforehand, explained what he might encounter at the Jobcentre and talked him through it.
I understand that it is not always possible for a DWP officer to do that, but I wonder whether that could be considered as part of guidance, or as an example of best practice, to take back to the DWP. Such experiences are very different for every individual, but for those who suffer from autism, they are not great. Macoist was ill-prepared for the changes to the environment that he experienced. That made the experience of working with the DWP less than successful and less enjoyable than it could perhaps have been.
Macoist is ready to engage. He wants to work and is keen to be part of the active workforce. If the Department for Work and Pensions can simply alter its policies and procedures, that would be beneficial. His mum, Julia, said:
“I know as his parent and carer I have found the whole experience extremely stressful and dread the next step of having Macoist assessed because I have very little faith that his disabilities or needs will be recognised and fully expect I will have another challenge on my hands.”
I wanted to take this opportunity to give a voice to my constituent. The accessibility of public buildings should not be exclusive to the likes of large chain supermarkets or cinemas; it should also be part of our Government Departments. They should ensure that they provide the best possible service, and that they factor awareness and experience into their own environments. Those who have autism and their carers face the essential challenges of everyday life. We can improve our own service delivery and our Departments’ awareness and guidance. I strongly encourage the UK Government to follow the example of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and develop an autism strategy to improve individuals’ life experiences.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing this debate and on her passionate and inspiring contribution. I agree that quiet spaces and logical ways through the parliamentary estate would benefit us all.
We all aim for an inclusive society, and public places should be for all the public. It is great that 1,000 spaces are now autism-friendly, but that raises the question of how many are not. We have heard some worrying statistics. Some 79% of people with autism and their families feel socially isolated. Last week, I went to a Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness reception at No. 10, where there were many comments about social isolation and loneliness. People mentioned old people and young mums, but there was no mention of autism. I encourage the Government to add people with autism and their families to the strategy and to build them into it.
As we have heard from many Members, these changes can help other people, too. I often think about my mum who, as she got older, did not like going into crowded places with music because she could not hear the conversation over it. Simple adjustments will help many people.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned many things from Northern Ireland. We can learn from across the UK, because there are people with autism in every part of the United Kingdom. The Labour party recognised that isolation and the need to include everyone in society. Our last manifesto had the specific objective of making the whole country autism-friendly. As we heard from the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson), many of the physical adjustments will not be major ones—a lot of it is to do with awareness.
The hon. Member for Strangford talked about children staring and telling them not to. Children will stare, but would it not be great if their parents could explain, “Yes, these people are different, but differences are what makes the world go round”? Being different is not bad, and that is the key point. It is about getting the awareness so that while people may stare, they will react differently and say, “That person is just different.”
Some councils and areas are working towards making autism-friendly cities a reality. Liverpool has the ambition of becoming the UK’s first autism-friendly city. It is working with businesses and cultural spaces, raising awareness of the condition and celebrating the achievements of those living with autism. There was an exhibition at the Tate of artwork by people with autism recently, and I think that is a brilliant idea. We should celebrate people’s differences and not define them specifically by the characteristic.
In the same way that someone in a wheelchair is not defined by their wheelchair, someone with autism is not defined by their autism. They have different needs—the same as the rest of us. However, their condition means that reasonable adjustments should be made, and the Equality Act 2010 applies. Will the Minister commit to raising awareness among businesses and those who own and operate public spaces of their duties to all under that Act? Too often, we hear, “We are wheelchair-accessible”, and that is simply not good enough any more. An autism-friendly city should enable those with autism confidently to access community infrastructure such as shopping centres, tourist attractions and public transport. There is a wealth of information on the noise and the sensory overload of public transport systems, so perhaps we should consider how we can change that.
I want to mention my local authority, Wigan. It has autism champions at the business expo event to talk to businesses and raise awareness of people with autism as customers and employees. Those champions show that only very minor adjustments are needed and that people with autism can be excellent employees. If businesses rule out those people without thinking about it, they are missing out.
This week, we have had a number of events raising awareness of autism, and that is to be celebrated, but words are not enough, just as it is not enough to have an autism hour and then forget about it the rest of the time. We need action to ensure a fully inclusive society and environment. The wonderful example of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West and her autism-friendly surgery will make many of us think about what we are doing to ensure a truly inclusive Parliament and a democracy in which all can take part.
If the Minister could allow a couple of minutes at the end for the mover of the debate to come back, that would be helpful.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing this debate on the accessibility of public buildings for autistic people. I know she cares deeply about the issue. I also applaud the work of the all-party parliamentary group on autism and thank other Members who have spoken this afternoon. I will run through the names so that Hansard has them. We have had interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) and the hon. Members for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff). I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) and the hon. Members for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) for their contributions.
I am coming to this debate with more of a technical view because I thought it would be helpful if I laid out what has happened so far, what the Government intend to do and how we will take that forward. It might be a bit dry—I apologise—but I wanted to get the technical bits on the record.
Autistic people prosper with the correct diagnosis and the correct support to meet their needs. Degrees of autism mean that some people require lots of support while others need less. I understand autistic people can face challenges in public buildings, particularly with orientation, noise, way-finding and signage, but also with many other things. People perceive an environment in different ways, and we are all on a spectrum of need, whether we are from a neurominority or whether we are neurotypical. My husband will work out which one I am; it is a challenge, but there we go.
We know that care is needed to shape our built environment to work for all. There are more than 600 different recognised neurodiverse conditions. Making buildings suit all is a complex issue. There are no recognised or accepted industry standards for designing buildings to meet the needs of people with neurodiverse conditions, although work is under way that I will describe.
It might help if I explain the current requirements for access to buildings, including public buildings. New buildings have to meet the access requirements, as set out in part M of schedule 1 to the Building Regulations 2010. The requirements are supported by detailed practical guidance in what are called approved documents. Volume 2 of “Approved Document M” covers non-domestic buildings and includes guidance relating specifically to public buildings. The guidance helps public building owners to comply with the regulations. It aims to encourage an inclusive design approach that includes everyone. To put the mind of the hon. Member for Bristol West at rest, we have been undertaking research into the effectiveness of the guidance, and I hope we will be able to publish that shortly.
Building owners are also covered by the requirements of the Equality Act 2010. In particular, that requires providers of services and facilities to members of the public to make reasonable adjustments so that people with disabilities are not placed at a substantial disadvantage compared with people without a disability. The duty can relate to physical features and how services and public functions are accessed and delivered. I will come back to the issue of the Department for Work and Pensions raised by the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East.
Statutory guidance does not stand alone; other sources of independent guidance can help. Many people turn to the British standard BS 8300, which describes accessibility and inclusive design for buildings. Inclusive design should address all forms of neurodiversity, including special considerations specific to autistic people. The British standard in that area, known as BS 8300-2, was published very recently, on 11 January 2018. Part 2 of the standard gives recommendations for the design of buildings in order to accommodate users with the widest range of characteristics and capabilities. It is applicable to the entrances of buildings, including outward-opening doors and windows, and to the interiors of buildings, such as entrances and reception facilities, and it covers much more besides.
Nevertheless, it is recognised that more needs to be done in the design of buildings to address the needs of neurodiverse people. Last year, to address a known gap in guidance on how to cater for neurodiversity, the British Standards Institution sponsored the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design to carry out a survey called “Design for the Mind”. Officials from the Department took part, and spread the word to generate participation among networks of design professionals. Perhaps later on the House authorities might like to look into that matter very deeply.
Researchers spoke with many designers, architects, access consultants, autistic people, carers and specialists with experience in the field to draw up some basic design principles for making better buildings. The survey sought to understand how to cater for the needs of neurodivergent people. The report published in February 2017 identified 11 common themes, important for the design of environments. The themes address issues such as clarity, which means making things easier to understand; sensory loads, that is to say, making the most of the senses while avoiding sensory overload; layout, including having familiar layouts and providing a preview of what is ahead or beyond before someone enters a space; flooring; decoration; signage; acoustics; and lighting.
Some people felt that the most important consideration for design of an environment for autistic people was taking advice from autistic people. The survey identifies a gap so that others can take up the baton. The republished British standard BS8200-2 stops short on neurodiversity because it lacks evidence to back up more focused advice. The Government are considering a request from the British Standards Institution to match-fund a new, publicly available specification, known as a PAS, in the broader field of neurodiversity, which would include autism. I expect that we will reach a decision on that shortly, so I am delighted that the hon. Member for Bristol West has introduced such a timely debate.
As well as legislation and standards, we want to encourage the industry to strengthen inclusive design, including consideration of neurodiversity, through better education and training. In recent years, the Department has provided significant support for a number of initiatives to promote inclusive design, including work with the Design Council/Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment to develop high-quality, cross-disciplinary, continuous professional development modules on delivering inclusive design, and the development of a web-based hub for sharing knowledge, research and best practice in inclusive design. We are also supporting the Built Environment Professional Education project, which aims to ensure that newly qualified built environment professionals have the knowledge, skills and attitude to deliver accessible and inclusive buildings—not just buildings fit for the future but designers fit for the future.
Last autumn, the then Housing Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), launched a design quality symposium at the Royal Institute of British Architects, where 45 industry and local government representatives met to discuss how to improve design quality, which includes how effective quality and inclusion are integrated into the places and buildings that we plan and build. There will also be a national design conference this spring to raise the bar even higher.
Today’s debate has been an important one, and we welcome interest in autism and the built environment, and how that environment is perceived and used by autistic people. I again congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West on raising the issue, and celebrate the valuable progress that the “Design for the Mind” project and the British Standards Institution have done to date to develop design and guidance.
I will try to answer some of the questions that hon. Members raised, particularly the question that H asked. The answer that my boffins have come up with is that helping children and young people to understand autism can be the key to peer acceptance. Raising awareness among teachers and other school staff will, in turn, help to increase their awareness and understanding. Since 2012, more than 150,000 people have been trained to deliver autism awareness training in education. That includes not just teachers and teaching assistants, but support staff, receptionists, dining hall staff and caretakers—everybody who is involved with pupils, including people who go on coach trips. We are currently in discussions about, with a bit of luck, extending the contract with the Department to do more on that. I hope that H will be happy with that answer.
The autism strategy commits to increasing the understanding of autism and building communities that are more accessible to autistic people by approving autism awareness training for frontline public staff, in line with the needs of their job. To answer the question from the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East, I would add that the information will now be sent to the DWP to make sure that it can also take part in the process. I hope that the hon. Lady is happy with that answer.
Work has begun on developing a cross-Government strategy on loneliness in England—sorry, but Lanarkshire are doing their own thing up there, and in Northern Ireland. The strategy will bring together Government, local government, public services, voluntary and community organisations and build more integrated and resilient communities. We have also announced that the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government now has a designated Minister for Loneliness—the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak).
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South wanted to know what we were going to do. Building regulations and British Standards are for all people, whether they are wheelchair users or someone with an invisible disability. Work to improve standards requires research, which is why we have commissioned the research about part M to fill in those aims and include everybody. As I said, the research will be published very shortly.
To conclude, this is about raising standards and improving the built environment for autistic and neurodiverse people. I look forward to working with everybody on the issue, particularly my friend the hon. Member for Bristol West and everybody who has spoken today. We want to continue the important work.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), and the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) for their interventions, and, of course, to the hon. Members for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) for their speeches.
I am pleased that the Minister was able to give us such detailed information about the built environment, and the concept of inclusive built design. Although I talked a great deal about different aspects of making buildings welcoming that were non-physical, it is the physical that can set the tone for so many of these things. I am really grateful that she has taken the time to give so much information. I will follow up with her on some of the specifics. I am grateful to her for answering all of my questions, particularly on behalf of H—I thank her very much for that. I will write to her about some of the progress that might need to be made, and how I can measure and follow it.
I am grateful to all hon. Members for taking part in today’s debate. It matters to me a great deal that we think about access in a way that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield said, does not just mean that we are wheelchair accessible, and that allows us, as other hon. Members also said, to see making buildings and organisations autism-friendly as something that benefits us all.
I long for the day we have more quiet spaces on the estate for everybody’s benefit, but I think that that is part of thinking about how building regulations might be amended in some quite simple but straightforward ways—such as the ways in which we have thought about bicycle racks and wheelchair accessibility. We can make some determinations about simple, specific things. Not every building can have those quiet spaces, but many could. For public space to be truly accessible would be a remarkable achievement, and everybody here could feel that they have played a part in that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the accessibility of public buildings for people with autism.