Tuesday 23 October 2018
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
HELMS and the Green Deal
I beg to move,
That this House has considered home energy and lifestyle management systems and the Green Deal.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. Before I start, I should apologise to you and those present: this morning’s speech will be brought to you by Halls Soothers—although other sweets are available—so if I start coughing, please bear with me.
With winter approaching, the extra cost of heating a home will be a concern not only for income-poor families but for many of the Prime Minister’s “just about managing” families. Fuel poverty is still a reality for far too many in society. Unfortunately, many of those households live in energy-inefficient homes. That fact, combined with stagnant incomes and the impact of the Government’s austerity measures, leaves some households vulnerable to increasingly unaffordable energy bills.
To compound that, hundreds of my constituents now have unaffordable and hugely inflated bills thanks to the UK Government’s bungled green deal scheme. The green deal was a flagship scheme intended to give homeowners access to cheap loans to modify and improve home energy efficiency. The loans were to be paid back through monthly energy bills, which were to be cheaper due to the green investment made in people’s homes. That credit, however, was often sold as grant funding to confuse consumers.
The fundamental rule, or “golden rule” as it is known, was and is that the savings on bills should always be equal to or greater than the cost of the work. The idea was that consumers would be able to receive energy improvements in effect for free, reducing energy consumption and breaking free from spiralling energy bills. Not only would the house save money and have a lower carbon footprint but, it was hoped, such schemes would reduce carbon production throughout the country, helping to achieve the Government’s carbon reduction targets.
A scheme that empowers households to get out of fuel poverty and have warmer homes is always welcome, but for far too many this scheme failed, and failed utterly. The Government’s ambitious aims looked good on paper, but they fell well short and, as the result of a weak and ill-conceived framework, families were left far worse off. Rather than “pay as you save”, constituents were left paying more and saving nothing or, in far too many cases, actually footing the bill for fraud. Investment in energy savings should be a national priority, and I think that everyone across the House would agree that we need to meet fuel poverty targets and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but elements of the scheme were so badly designed and involved such ineffective regulation that for many it became a nightmare.
I should point out, before the Minister does in her summing up, that plenty of businesses and providers did not abuse the system, with the result that many consumers benefited from the scheme, as was originally envisaged. The green deal, however, was allowed to be abused by criminals who preyed on and exploited households, many of them vulnerable. Ultimately, regardless of one’s politics or trust in any Government, no one thinks they are about to be scammed when a Government logo is on the paperwork. We will come back to the Government, who were in effect the enablers of this great fraud, but the actual fraudsters themselves were Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Systems, or HELMS.
The behaviour of Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Ltd was inexcusable. The use of classic dodgy salesman tactics—overstaying in customers’ homes to intimidate them into a sale, blatant falsifying of figures, misleading documentation, fraudulent marking of signatures, insistence on inappropriate works and outright lying to elderly vulnerable individuals—has pushed victims into deeper fuel poverty and debt, with no access to a quick and effective remedy. In the majority of cases that I have seen, individuals were sold solar panels regardless of need or suitability. Once again misled on finance, those individuals unknowingly sold their ownership of the solar panel feed-in tariff to offset the up-front cost of works. Ultimately, that meant that households had solar panels on their roof, were possibly still liable for maintenance and servicing, and yet received no financial benefit.
More unbelievably, the managing director of the now liquidated company HELMS, Robert Skillen, not only is a director of PV Solar Investments Ltd—the separate company set up to receive HELMS’s customers’ feed-in tariffs that, shamefully, is still trading and is in receipt of mis-sold victims’ feed-in tariffs—and the man with the brassiest of brass necks, but is now looking to profit from “mis-sold energy claims” through a company called True Solar Savings, despite it not being authorised by the Claims Management Regulator. He has fleeced us once, but now wants to assist us in getting redress from his own company’s mis-selling. The man has zero shame, and his outrageous lack of recognition of his culpability is astounding.
Given Robert Skillen’s central role as managing director of HELMS, therefore, I strongly advise against any business interactions with that man or his companies. Robert Skillen and HELMS, however, were enabled by the UK Government, but my constituents and many others throughout the country are now paying the price for the Government’s casual short-sightedness.
My constituency, like others, has been affected. One-hundred and sixty-nine of my constituents have been affected, and what was striking about the public meetings that we held was the proportion of elderly people in their 70s and 80s—one with dementia, another with almost total blindness—who were tricked into this. It was not, on any level, the selling of solar panels; it was fraud.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. We are not in a competition, but although the issue affected 169 people in her constituency, in mine 293 households received HELMS panels, out of more than 3,000 in Scotland. Like her, I held my first public meeting on the issue earlier this month. As we know, attendance at such meetings can be a bit of a hit-and-miss affair, but although the subject was rather niche, targeting households with solar panels, about 120 people were in attendance. The meeting was full of individuals with similar stories of being taken advantage of by outrageous mis-selling, pressured into agreeing to inappropriately costed works or told blatant lies for a quick sale.
Two of my constituents, Mr and Mrs Murray, were particularly affected. A HELMS salesman knocked on their door in Linwood—a part of my constituency particularly affected by the mis-selling—and stated that it was to have funding available to invest in homes and energy. He had pressured the Murrays by insisting that the funding was time-limited and finite. They were told that they should have loft insulation, exterior wall insulation and solar panel works. He mentioned no tie between finance and their energy bills, and nothing about a debt tied to their property until 2039 at £1.47 a day.
As my hon. Friend knows, last year I set up the all-party parliamentary group on green deal mis-selling, which I chair. We have been inundated by problems of that kind. The distinct issue in Scotland, with cladding work in particular, is the requirement for building warrants, which HELMS did not apply for and which cannot be applied for retrospectively. That leaves householders unable to sell or insure their homes. Does he agree that the Government should do more to support people in that position?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, the chair of the HELMS all-party group here at Westminster. I shall come to this, but the building warrants issue is complex. In fact, I apologise in advance for making a longer speech than I am accustomed to, because of so many such complexities, building warrants being just one of them.
Back to Mr and Mrs Murray. The HELMS salesman tied them into an additional finance agreement with a personal finance company for a debt repayment of more than £9,000 to meet the expense of the solar panel installation. My constituents acknowledge that they were aware of that finance, but were told by the salesman that they would receive feed-in tariff payments quarterly to offset that cost, as well as having the benefit of lowered energy consumption and billing. However, such was the unfathomable incompetency and mis-selling of HELMS that when the Murrays applied for their feed-in tariff payments, they were missing essential documentation for the process. They pleaded with HELMS, which remained unco-operative and, as we all know, then went into liquidation, leaving my constituents helpless.
It gets worse. In January 2016, the Department of Energy and Climate Change, as was, introduced a statutory instrument requiring all existing renewable energy installations with certification issued before 15 January 2016 to submit their feed-in tariff application by 31 March 2016 or be unable to claim any feed-in tariffs or export payments. The UK Government not only failed to protect my constituents from the unscrupulous criminal behaviour of HELMS, despite accrediting it as an approved provider, but went on to implement procedures that would prevent my constituents from ever receiving payment for the solar panels that they pay £88 a month for. Mr and Mrs Murray have gone from paying £90 a month for energy to paying £220 a month, all under a Government incentive.
Many people did not know either that a 25-year debt would be tied to their house, potentially making it difficult to sell. An even bigger impediment to selling houses is that many households—possibly the vast majority—have no building warrant for the insulation that was installed on the exterior of their property. They were not informed of the need to apply for a warrant, and now not only might struggle to get one but may have to cough up the statutory uplift of 300% extra for a late application.
To compound that, in some cases when homes generate on-site renewable electricity via generating equipment such as solar panels, their import supply meter is incompatible with and affected by that on-site generation, sometimes resulting in inaccurate meter readings and billing issues. The current metering system and equipment was designed and configured to record meter electricity flows from the distribution network to consumer premises, but on-site generation has in some cases resulted in metering difficulties at premises where it is used, which are increasing in number.
Two things can happen. First, the import supply meter can run backwards. Since the ’80s, to prevent tampering, meters have been fitted with backstops so they cannot run in the wrong direction. Where on-site generators are connected at sites with meters that do not have backstops, exporting electricity causes the meter to run backwards. As a result, the consumer’s import meter readings are reduced by the amount of electricity they export. When that is discovered, the supplier may recalculate the consumer’s bill for the period for which the meter operated incorrectly and charge the consumer for the shortfall. In most cases, on-site generation exports are unmetered and the supplier needs to use estimates to calculate the bill.
In other cases, the meter treats all electricity in the same way. Some digital meters are configured in a way that results in them adding exported electricity to the imported electricity meter reading, which can result in the consumer paying for both imported and exported electricity. Again, once that situation is identified, historical bills need to be estimated.
Two other constituents of mine, Mr and Mrs Scott, had a HELMS salesman at their door five times. On the fifth occasion, Mrs Scott agreed to the works. She did so only after researching the Government’s accreditation and backing of HELMS. The family have gone from paying around £70 a month in energy bills to paying between £170 and £265 a month. The reason for that increase and variation in expenditure is that, on top of the green deal finance charges, the meter and the panels are incompatible. As a result, the family’s supply meter runs backwards and my constituents pay estimated bills from their supplier. They have fought for years to have that corrected. Only now, with prompting and reference to Ofgem guidance, has their supplier agreed to replace their supply meter with a compatible one.
That shows how ill-equipped HELMS was. Its lack of knowledge—or more likely, if we are honest, its lack of care—about panel and meter compatibility was outrageous. That should never have been an issue, and my constituents should never have seen their energy bills triple.
Members are no doubt beginning to see just how complex this issue is. My constituents and many other people across the UK have been through years of agony in seeking redress. HELMS failed to correct complaints. Constituents who took their cases to the green deal ombudsman were told they could no longer use that as a route to redress because HELMS no longer participated in the ombudsman scheme. Cases sat with the Financial Ombudsman Service for well over a year with no action. HELMS was liquidated and redress, such as it was, was unobtainable.
This was a UK Government incentive, backed and promoted as such. HELMS was accredited, and indeed promoted, under the Government banner, allowing it to enter homes and sell under a false umbrella of trust. Many of the families I have dealt with were sold on the phrase, “Government backed”. In fact, that was what persuaded many of them to listen to the dodgy sales patter in the first place. I have subsequently found that during that time, when someone searched online for a list of Government-accredited providers, HELMS was often top of the list.
How can the Government sit idle while households are left saddled with the hardships caused by HELMS? The very reason why work was agreed to was the shiny stamp of approval from the UK Government. What good is Government accreditation if it is worthless when issues and violations occur?
Who takes responsibility? HELMS and Robert Skillen have thus far escaped ultimate accountability. Despite being fined £200,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office, they paid a mere £10,000 before the liquidation of HELMS. That highlights why the ICO has called on the Government to allow it to issue penalties of up to £500,000 to the company directors responsible.
Thus far, the Government have washed their hands of any responsibility for this mess. Instead, they hope the Green Deal Finance Company, which purchased the green deal loan book from them, will deal with it. Although GDFC was aware of some irregularities, it was not informed of the scale of the mis-selling and fraud that HELMS undertook. Given the delays with seeking redress through the ombudsman, GDFC offered to take over the case load directly to try to speed up the process. Although that has helped, the process is still too slow. GDFC has admitted that it was ill-equipped and under-staffed to deal with the scale of the issue. It has apologised for the delay and vowed to speed up the process.
Colleagues may have a different take and may have casework to prove otherwise, but I have met GDFC three times—I was particularly pleased that it attended my public meeting in Linwood—and my impression is that it is diligently, if slowly, working through the various claims and, in the majority of cases, making offers to reduce loans or cancel them altogether. Of course mistakes will be made—my office has asked GDFC to reassess particular decisions, and it will continue to ask if necessary—but thus far, in my view, GDFC has worked in good faith.
Is not part of this issue that people of that age should never have been sold 25-year finance for solar panels that may last only 15 years or so? The offer to my constituents seems to have been only to reduce what they owe, not to clear it. They are still being told, “We’ll let you off £4,000, but you still owe us £6,000 for panels that aren’t working.”
I could not agree more. The age at which some people entered 25-year agreements is shameful. That should never have been allowed. It was obviously known that that debt would ultimately just be tied to the house rather than to the individuals concerned. The reductions in payments ultimately go back to the Government’s golden rule of trying to put the consumer in no worse a position than they were previously. In my mind, that is not good enough. That is why the Government should step in rather than allowing the Green Deal Finance Company to deal with the issue itself.
An independent source calculated that the compensation process, which GDFC had no obligation to instigate, may cost the company upwards of £20 million. For its part, GDFC thinks that there remains merit in the green deal scheme. Everyone agrees with the idea, albeit with some regulatory tweaks and tightening up, but we have issues with how it was implemented and regulated.
GDFC itself has identified some of the issues that should be addressed. First, it is unclear whether a consumer with a complaint about a green deal provider should take it to the Financial Ombudsman Service, the green deal ombudsman or Ofgem. There is a risk that each regulator relies on the activities of the others, and that firms that pose a risk to consumers are not properly monitored or controlled.
Furthermore—this is crucial in the vast majority of HELMS cases—despite the regulation built into the scheme through dual regulation by the Green Deal Oversight and Registration Body and the Financial Conduct Authority, there is a complete absence of regulation of the assignment of feed-in tariff payments, which are not regulated by either of those bodies. That has caused severe consumer detriment. The feed-in tariff assignment was in many cases grossly undervalued. GDFC examined HELMS customer documentation and discovered that there was no calculation of the value paid for the feed-in tariff. HELMS simply took the difference between the green deal loan value and the cost of the solar panel installation. That meant it was incentivised to maximise green deal advice report savings by manipulating the energy performance certificate assessment, thereby maximising the value of the green deal loan and minimising the amount paid for the feed-in tariff. The effect was to maximise the net income of PVSI, HELMS’s sister company.
There is no statutory mechanism for the feed-in tariff to be reassigned in the case of mis-selling. There is no regulation of the company that receives the feed-in tariff. The contract that some customers signed and some discovered they had not signed allows the customer to buy back the rights to the feed-in tariff from PVSI, but only at the original purchase price, notwithstanding how far through the feed-in tariff income stream that takes place. GDFC believes that the feed-in tariff contracts with PVSI should be set aside. I agree, and I am sure that hon. Members do too.
As I have said, when people see any kind of Government logo on a document, the last thing they expect is to be scammed. That is why the UK Government must do more to help people in that position. My colleagues in the all-party parliamentary group in Westminster and the cross-party group in Holyrood will not allow the UK Government to wash their hands of this responsibility.
I have a number of questions for the Minister, who I know is standing in for the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), so I hope that she will commit to respond in writing to questions that she is unable to answer today. The right hon. Member for Devizes said that she would meet me; will the Minister confirm that she is willing to meet me, the Green Deal Finance Company and trading standards in the same meeting?
Many have already paid off their loans for a number of reasons: peace of mind, concerns about carrying extra debt or because they had difficulties selling their property. They are still potential victims of fraud, but without an active loan, they cannot gain redress from the Green Deal Finance Company. What happens to them? How do they get their money back?
What was the Green Deal Finance Company advised about HELMS and mis-selling more generally when it was sold the loan book? Why was the feed-in tariff element not regulated? Would the Minister consider legislation to regulate it? Will the Government take steps to ensure that the ombudsman is appropriately resourced and has more powers to deal with rogue providers? Will the Minister meet the power companies to ensure that the metering problems are fixed as a matter of urgency and that no house will be left worse off or in debt as a result of inadequate metering? Crucially, will she commit, at the very least, to considering a compensation fund for those affected?
Thus far there has been nothing short of an abdication of duty by the Government. They have an obligation to do something to help the thousands of households that have been affected by this fraudulent behaviour. The scandalous mis-selling of panels was carried out by HELMS but enabled by the UK Government under their banner. Therefore, it is the Government’s responsibility to fix this mess and ensure that our constituents are adequately compensated in a timely fashion. A fund to provide financial relief would be a good start to repairing some of that damage. It is beyond time that the UK Government recognised their role in the fraudulent behaviour of HELMS. My constituents and, indeed, many thousands of others across Scotland and the UK, need answers and action now.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing the debate and on making the case so succinctly on behalf of his constituents. I am sure that colleagues are well aware that the green deal was not extended to Northern Ireland, but tackling fuel poverty and making homes more energy efficient remains a priority for us. I will speak about a number of similar schemes and options available in Northern Ireland. I support the hon. Gentleman and I am sure that other hon. Members will back him up.
I support redress for all the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others who have been financially disadvantaged to a considerable extent. When reading up on the topic, I was truly shocked to read about the questionable business practices that many HELMS employees seemed to adopt; we have heard about some already and we will hear more. It is no wonder that so many Members are here today talking about the negative impact on their constituents. Many were left out of pocket and some have struggled to sell their homes, which the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) mentioned.
Over the past few years, there has been an increase in fraud, especially in relation to solar panels. In 2017, directors of a company were jailed, and recently a six-member gang committed a £17 million fraud in a solar panel scam. The full rigour of the law must be brought to bear on the company directors responsible.
The Minister is listening intently to what is being said and I look forward to her response. I know this matter is not ultimately her responsibility and she is filling in; nevertheless, I hope she is able to respond to my hon. Friend’s intervention.
When the company went into liquidation, many customers found themselves at a total loss, unable to take up their case with either the ombudsman or the company. The fact that the green deal was backed by Government undoubtedly gave the scheme credibility. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said that one of this constituents phoned to check the scheme and found that it was Government-backed, so thought that it must be all right, but it was not. Coupled with the idea of saving money and being green, that resulted in many customers signing agreements that they did not necessarily understand, on the premise that their bills would not increase. It was disappointing for many that that did not turn out to be the case.
Members have given evidence that these operators of the scheme took advantage of their constituents. That said, Members must ensure that we do not undermine public trust in these types of scheme, given the potential benefits they can deliver. For example, in Northern Ireland, we have worked hard to tackle fuel poverty, and earlier this year, fuel poverty figures for the Province fell to 22%—a welcome drop from 42%. That indicates what we are doing back home, even with a stuttering Assembly.
I understand that the Government hope to do a future green deal project. Will that not be completely undermined if this issue is not resolved?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The Government have a great responsibility to address the issue for the sake of the credibility of any future schemes and so that participants in them will not worry about the future.
It is important to recognise that price fluctuations in home heating oil played a role in the fuel poverty figures I just gave. The reduction is welcome news, but we should not rest on our laurels: 22% of people considered fuel poor is still 22% too many.
A scheme that has proved to be extremely successful is the Northern Ireland sustainable energy programme. It has a particular focus on tackling fuel poverty, with 80% of funding ring-fenced for vulnerable and low-income families. The NISEP provides help to install energy-saving measures in homes, including energy-efficient boilers, heating controls, loft insulation and cavity wall insulation. With funding coming from a levy paid by all electricity customers, the scheme is delivered by energy companies and managed by the Utility Regulator. We have a system in place that has managed the programme well and delivered.
In 2017-18, five energy companies provided schemes, each of which had different eligibility criteria and incentives and/or grants to help people to make their homes more energy efficient and perhaps reduce their overall energy bills. As I mentioned, the focus is on those at risk of fuel poverty—for example, many of the schemes work directly with housing associations, which identify eligible tenants. The sheer variety of schemes means that people can make informed decisions about which scheme would best suit them and address their specific needs.
The NISEP provides some £7.9 million towards energy efficiency interventions, which include insulation and heating upgrades. It has proved so successful that it has been extended again until March 2019. The programme is working. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North referred to a different scheme. I only wish that scheme were the same as then we would not have needed this debate. We have accountability whereas, as he said and as we want to illustrate, there is no accountability in that scheme.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking to specific issues of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland. To come back to the mis-selling of the green deal, does he agree that people were conned into buying mis-sold products on the basis that there were UK Government logos on the paperwork, and UK Government approval gave them the confidence to go ahead, so the Government should compensate those individuals? That is what we are seeking from the debate.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. With great respect to the Minister and the Government, I expect the Government to respond positively to the request being made on behalf of the constituents who have been disadvantaged and mis-sold products and who, as a consequence, are poorer today than they thought they would be. I cannot understand how someone who was paying an electricity bill of £80 a month can suddenly be paying £170 or £240 a month, as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North described. How can that be cheaper? How can it be legal? How can that be allowed to happen? That must be taken on board.
Across the United Kingdom, we all recognise the importance of becoming greener and the need to have a diverse and sustainable energy mix, which is why it is important to look at new technologies as well as to harness those that are already tried and tested. The Northern Ireland renewables obligation, like its equivalent in Great Britain, requires suppliers to source an increasing proportion of the electricity they supply from renewable sources. Colleagues might be surprised that, despite the often wet and windy climate in Strangford—in fact, my constituency has among the lowest rainfall in Northern Ireland; we sometimes wonder if that is true, but the statistics prove it—one of the most popular sources of renewable energy that people are turning to is solar. This might be controversial given the topic of the debate, but it really does work when done well.
There is a number of large farms in Strangford, and many of them have installed solar panels—in fact, one farm in my constituency has 10 acres of solar panels. That is an example of what can happen when green energy is done right, and that is what we want. With renewables obligation certificates guaranteeing payment for every unit of electricity generated, it is not surprising that so many are investing in solar panels. Not only can people save money on electricity bills, but they help to make Northern Ireland, and the whole United Kingdom, a greener place for the next generation, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.
What has happened with HELMS has probably put a lot of constituents off installing solar panels and, more broadly, installing renewable energy measures, but as we try to tackle climate change and battle to keep the lights on, it is important that we look closely at green energy measures, from electric cars and smart homes to making simple energy-efficiency changes to our homes. Not everyone will benefit from solar panels—people who do not generate enough electricity are unlikely to reap benefits and will end up paying more. As has been illustrated today, that was the case for many hon. Members’ constituents, and HELMS was at fault. The Minister, the Department and the Government must respond. However, it is so important that we do all we can both to help people out of fuel poverty and to support the use of renewables where possible and appropriate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing the debate and making a powerful speech to introduce the complex but dramatic and distressing situation of green deal mis-selling and the impact of HELMS in particular.
I was elected last year by a community that I have grown up and lived in my whole life. Balornock is probably similar in many ways to Linwood in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency: it was an overspill estate created after the second world war, built at a time of great optimism in the Glasgow city region, where people were moving out of overcrowded slum tenements in the inner city and into what they saw as new build housing, with indoor toilets and front and back gardens. The community was largely born of the baby boomer generation, who moved in and have lived there their whole lives. Many benefited, as they saw it, from buying their council houses in the 1980s and 1990s, and, as they reached retirement, they wanted to make improvements to their houses.
The community was built out of great optimism and aspiration for the future. Five years ago, the green deal was launched to great fanfare by the Tory Government, with the promise of a win-win situation for homeowners: lower energy bills and the chance to do their bit for the environment. It seemed like a great idea. Those who sought to exploit that scheme cynically homed in and targeted communities, particular those with a large population of baby boomers in self-contained housing units—not flatted accommodation—with back and front gardens. If the scheme sounded too good to be true, that was because for some in those communities it turned out to be exactly that.
Dozens of my constituents in Glasgow signed up to install green deal-financed improvements to their homes, such as solar panels and insulated cladding, but that has proven to be one of the worst decisions they have ever made. Instead of realising the Government’s vision of a flagship programme to reduce fuel poverty and improve energy efficiency, the complete failure to regulate the scheme properly has allowed it to be ruthlessly exploited by gangsters and other rogue traders, who have systematically preyed on trusting people who thought that, as the scheme was approved and accredited by the Government, they could trust its credentials and sign up.
In 2015 Christine McBain, one of my constituents, handed over her life’s savings to a Cambuslang-based green deal provider called Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Systems—otherwise known as HELMS—to put external wall insulation on her Swedish timber-framed house in Balornock. Those houses are a common feature of Balornock, because after the second world war the overspill in Glasgow was so problematic that timber kit houses were imported from Scandinavia, such was the pressure on housing. More than half a century later, those houses are not the most energy-efficient, so this offer seemed like a plausible way for those homeowners to make them better. As I have said, it turned out to be the worst decision they ever made.
Another constituent, 86-year-old Mary, handed over her lifetime’s savings and has been left with £17,000 of debt after being duped by HELMS with no sign of any redress. It is the most appalling experience as an MP to see people who are meant to be enjoying their retirement, and feeling safe in their life’s work and savings, but who have been stripped of any sense of security and are in absolute distress about what they are having to deal with. If this is not dealt with urgently, sadly they will have to deal with it for the remainder of their lives. That is a shameful indictment on the Government’s failure to regulate their policy.
Christine and Mary are among many local residents in my constituency who have been left totally in limbo by HELMS. The company carried out similar works on more than 160 properties in my constituency without obtaining the necessary building warrants, cynically preying on local residents with promises of free solar panels and cavity wall insulation that would save them thousands of pounds. Normally such a matter would be easily remedied with a retrospective application for a building warrant from Glasgow City Council. However, because building standards were not adhered to by HELMS, no backdated planning permission can be granted without costly surveys. In addition, the statutory fee for a building warrant will be tripled where works have already been completed. Residents simply do not have the financial resources to fund that, and in the absence of building warrants the houses are now uninsurable and unsellable. Residents—many in the latter years of their lives—feel effectively imprisoned in their own homes. That is shameful.
I am currently seeking agreement from Glasgow City Council to waive the multiplier fee for the retrospective warrant and to cover the cost of the surveys needed for the building works. Will the Minister write to Glasgow City Council’s chief executive to make a similar call?
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the underlying fault lies with the UK Government scheme? To me, the UK Government lobbying Glasgow City Council to pick up those costs, rather than offering to fund them, seems the wrong way round.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. I urge the Minister to show some leadership and overall responsibility. In the first instance, she should contact Glasgow City Council’s chief executive and offer a dialogue. I would be receptive to the hon. Lady’s proposal of the Government offering to finance those costs as a way of breaking the impasse and getting the problem dealt with. The problem requires a whole-Government approach from city level, Scotland level and UK level. That would be the most proactive way to deal with it. Ultimately, however, responsibility lies with the Department that introduced the scheme, and it should show some moral and financial leadership.
Earlier this year I met representatives of the Green Deal Finance Company to raise my constituents’ concerns. In the last year alone the GDFC has upheld 169 complaints against HELMS, compared with 14 complaints against all other contractors upheld since 2013. Clearly, one contractor is a massive outlier in those figures. Some 154 cases against HELMS remain under consideration by the GDFC. However, the piecemeal approach to handling complaints has put the onus on the victims. The sheer number of complaints upheld against HELMS suggests that there was a systemic failure of regulation by the Government and that a proactive approach is now needed, to tackle that huge failure in the green deal scheme. It was the responsibility of the Minister and the GDFC to lead in the matter; it cannot be the responsibility of residents who are already distressed, disoriented and at their wits’ end in trying to deal with it. They cannot be put under further stress from the huge effort of having to right the wrong.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware, from speaking to his constituents, that people who chose to pay over several years through their electricity bills are not able to withhold payment, which is a common and acceptable consumer rights practice, if they believe that there was mis-selling. If the power company does not receive the funds, those people accrue debt. They cannot prevent the green deal payment from being made through their energy bills, which means they accrue more debt in the process.
I completely agree. One of the most insidious aspects of the green deal scheme is that it locks people into a structural system. The loan is tied to the house, so the property imprisons the resident. That is the most appalling aspect of the way things have been manipulated by HELMS and other nefarious practitioners of the scheme.
HELMS made more than 6 million nuisance sales calls and, as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said, was fined £200,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office. The Department of Energy and Climate Change also fined the firm another £10,500, but conveniently the company was put into liquidation by its owners, who walked away after paying just £10,000 of the fines owed. The company was owned by the multi-millionaire Robert Skillen, who continues to live a highly privileged lifestyle at the expense of the thousands of people he ripped off—including my constituents—leaving a trail of misery and chaos in his wake. He fled abroad and continues to profit from his fraudulent business practices. If he had any honour he would return to the UK and face the accusations against him. Indeed, he should face prosecution for fraud.
I just want to make Members aware that Mr Skillen has returned to the country—on a number of occasions, I think. Once he turned up at the Green Deal Finance Company to ask for the details of the customers who have contacted it, so that he could contact them directly, such is the shamelessness of the man.
It is appalling to realise that this chap has such a shameless attitude that he does not accept the harm he has caused to thousands of people, who cannot sleep at night. I hope that he will realise the impact he has had on them. However, it is time the Minister and the GDFC took formal steps to censure and effectively blacklist the guy, to stop him continuing to exploit vulnerable people.
As the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) mentioned, dozens of other homeowners in Glasgow North East are still literally paying the price of the green deal’s failure, through the finance deals that they were conned into to get the work done. A home is somewhere that we should all be able to consider a sanctuary and place of safety. However, many are so depressed by the green deal trap that they can no longer bear to live in their own homes, which are the very source of their turmoil.
Most people would consider a Government-backed scheme such as the green deal to carry a copper-bottomed guarantee, but for many of my constituents the feeling is one of total betrayal by the authorities they trusted. The Tory Government created the environment in which rogue traders could pull a fast one. The Government and the Green Deal Finance Company must now do everything they can to find a remedy for those who have been adversely affected. They must contact all 4,226 HELMS loan recipients, to make them aware of what they can do to find redress if they experience financial detriment because of the scheme. They must also consider a compensation scheme for those affected by mis-selling by HELMS.
That is why after I was elected I joined the all-party parliamentary group on green deal mis-selling, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), and why I presented a petition to Parliament earlier this year, urging the House of Commons to ensure that the Government compensate and protect people who have suffered detriment because of the green deal scheme. In the interest of fairness and justice the Government should now take steps to ensure that the same thing can never happen in future.
I am delighted to participate in the debate, Mr Robertson. I extend my heartfelt thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) for securing a debate to expose HELMS’s mis-selling of energy-efficient products under the UK Government’s green deal programme. It has affected many of my constituents. Indeed, as we have heard, we all have constituents who have been victims of that mis-selling, and who have been caused considerable anxiety, stress and financial loss as a result of the scandal. The UK Government, as every Member who has spoken has said, need to step up and take responsibility.
There is no denying that the scheme was Government-backed, but it turns out that the wider regulatory provisions failed to ensure that the deal was fit for purpose. What is required is for the UK Government to put in place a compensation scheme for all the consumers who have been left out of pocket—and there are many. We now have a situation where some homeowners who were taken in by the scheme have been left unable to sell their homes. They are not making the savings that they were told they would. It has all come to nothing. Some have been left with higher bills than they had before. The work carried out has often been substandard. Building warrants for wall cladding have not been obtained, so the consumers affected have had to pay for retrospective warrants at 300% of the cost of a normal building warrant, or have had to pay to have corrective works done, because building standards will not issue a warrant if they deem the work not to have been done properly. We have constituents who are not on a feed-in tariff because they were not registered prior to March 2016. Far too many people now face the prospect of monthly repayments for finance deals with extensive payback periods in excess of 20 years. How can that possibly be acceptable?
I am pleased that the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth assured me in a debate on 10 October that she would ask her officials to look at the loan arrangements. She pointed out:
“The green deal…was designed to unlock the issue of persuading people to improve the energy efficiency measures of their homes. Currently, all contracts are covered by existing consumer protection, but as a second action point I undertake to go away and review this specific company and write to her with the state of progress on those conversations.”—[Official Report, 10 October 2018; Vol. 647, c. 110WH.]
I await that letter with eager anticipation. I am sure that the Minister who is responding today can see that, far from unlocking
“the issue of persuading people to improve the energy efficiency measures of their homes”,
the scandal has undoubtedly set that cause back considerably, which is in no one’s interest. However, the Government could do much to mitigate the distrust that has been sown, the alarm that has been caused and the financial loss that those caught up in the scandal feel.
We have heard that the issue is complex, but in another sense it is very simple: the UK Government-backed scheme has led to ordinary consumers facing huge difficulties, and it is incumbent on the UK Government—there is a moral imperative—to put it right. The debacle shows that the UK Government’s system of regulation is simply not fit for purpose. Consumers did not have the protection under the law that they were entitled to expect. That needs to be addressed. Those consumers who inadvertently and unwittingly signed over their feed-in tariffs must have them returned. Today, those who have suffered in the HELMS fiasco simply want to know whether the Government are going to step up, or whether they are going to leave those who trusted the Government-backed scheme floundering in debt, hardship and despair. I urge the Minister to do the right thing and help the people who have been let down, misled and swindled by the scheme.
Order. I should like to leave a couple of minutes at the end of the debate for the mover of the motion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing this important debate. He made the case against HELMS excellently—the mis-selling of loans, the outright fraud, the fact that it was deemed to be a Government-backed scheme, the targeting of the vulnerable, the transfer of feed-in tariffs, and the personal finance arrangements that effectively forced people to commission other works. Some people took out loans for works that the Scottish Government would have paid for directly because they invest in energy efficiency measures.
My hon. Friend mentioned that building warrants were not applied for and people were not told that they needed them; now, statutory fees are added if people apply for a building warrant retrospectively. We heard about incorrect metering, and the fact that HELMS was able to go into liquidation and walk away, paying just £10,000 out of a record £200,000 fine for cold calling. We heard about the Government’s total inaction and inadequate governance, and about the Government’s attitude, which when combined with the actions of HELMS, has created fuel-poor households rather than helping people with their fuel bills.
My hon. Friend’s comments were echoed by other speakers. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) spoke about people being imprisoned or trapped in their homes, which is a travesty. He said that he asked Glasgow City Council to waive the statutory late fees for building warrants, and I put the same request to my local authority. The problem is that these are statutory fees—in law, they cannot be waived. That puts the ball firmly in the corner of the UK Government, who should pay those fees.
It is a disgrace that people are being locked in to these deals. Older adults and vulnerable individuals were, I believe, deliberately mis-sold these products. In some cases in my constituency, which thankfully have now been dealt with, it meant that elderly individuals could not move from their homes to sheltered accommodation or nursing homes when they needed care.
It is a shocking indictment and really disgraceful that people are trapped and cannot get into houses that are fit for purpose.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) correctly highlighted the need for compensation, the issue of people who are unable to sell their homes, and the March 2016 feed-in tariff deadline that means that people are missing out on the tariffs they expected. It was good to hear a concession from the Minister about reviewing consumer regulation, and it will be interesting to see how that progresses. My hon. Friend issued a further challenge to the Government, and we all want to see action and intervention on this.
My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North highlighted issues that are familiar to SNP Members but that the UK Government have so far chosen to ignore, despite numerous written parliamentary questions and letters from MSPs and MPs, including me. Surely today the Minister will confirm that the UK Government will take action and listen to our calls for a compensation fund for those affected.
Let me give some headline statistics: 162 households in my constituency have green deal finance with HELMS, and of those 142 have photovoltaic installations. Some 3,054 households in Scotland have HELMS green deal finance for PVs, and there are more than 4,000 across the UK. Other Members have mentioned the duration of loans: 93% of those loans in Scotland, including for 97% of my affected constituents, are in the range of 20 to 25 years. Think of that: a supposedly spend-to-save measure is being paid back over 20 or 25 years. No private company would take out such a loan to make projected minor annual savings because the risk is too great. We already know about the dodgy installations and wiring, but there is no way that those PV cells have a lifespan of 20 to 25 years. The additional ongoing maintenance required will offset any projected savings that people were led to believe they would get. Imagine having an asset that will not last for the life of the loan—it is criminal. Anyone aged 40 or over who has taken out a loan will still be paying it back when they reach state retirement age and beyond. That would be bad enough under normal loan ethics, but as we have heard, many people who took out those loans were duped by salesmen who said that savings would pay for a Government-backed scheme. What does the Minister say to the people who have been cruelly conned and left with long-term loans?
One couple who approached me had specifically been told that installing solar panels would help them make money on the sale of their home, but instead they have been paying double and triple the amount for their electricity. Does my hon. Friend agree that those who have been hardest hit are people in middle to low-income homes?
I completely agree: this scheme is creating fuel-poor households, which is why Government intervention is needed.
How did this come about? For me, the situation results from a combination of a few factors. It was originally a Liberal Democrat policy that clearly had not been correctly thought through, and there was a Tory partner in the coalition Government who maintained a “hands off—market forces will prevail” ideology, which prevented direct Government intervention. There was always the desire not to get directly involved. Some unscrupulous businessmen saw a fantastic opportunity to make money at the expense of the vulnerable. The impact of events have since been compounded by successive Tory Governments who have refused to take a lead as the mis-selling scandal unravelled.
I find it incomprehensible that the UK Government have so far not seen fit to have a proper investigation into this matter and they are forcing victims to take out individual claims. That adds to the stress of the situation, and coupled with the non-disclosure agreement that is associated with any settlement offered from the Green Deal Finance Company, it is apparent that the initial approach is to minimise any refunds to those who deserve them. It is a classic “divide and conquer” approach, rather than an attempt to do the right thing.
When I read the debates on the Energy Bill in 2011, I noted that the current Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth served on the Bill Committee. Given her familiarity with the legislation and the wider points debated in Committee and other debates, surely she would want to lead in fixing this mess. Indeed, as this mess has unfolded, it has become clear that the governance arrangements were not fit for purpose. Interestingly, the SNP spokesperson at that time, the former Member for Angus, Mike Weir, raised concerns on Second Reading, saying:
“One of the problems with energy mis-selling was that it was a long time before many of the cases came to light. Does the Minister have any thoughts on ensuring that the standards that are to be imposed on those selling green energy are regularly inspected to ensure that any problems can be detected at an early stage?”
The Minister responded:
“I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will keep all elements of the green deal under close review…we will need continually to monitor all aspects of it, especially those relating to selling and mis-selling… If we identify any areas in which we think improvements can be made, we will not hesitate to make them.”—[Official Report, 14 September 2011; Vol. 532, c. 1049.]
Unfortunately, Mike Weir has been proved right. The UK Government did not uphold their end of the bargain regarding the governance and review that they said they would undertake.
On governance, the length of the loans alone should have prompted an automatic red flag. The 242 complaints about cold calling between October and December 2014 offering “free” solar panels should have resulted in much quicker clampdown on the actions of HELMS, but the Government were too slow to act. We know what the then Energy Minister, Greg Barker, thought of HELMS—he praised it for its entrepreneurial start-up skills. Mr Barker is okay now: he stepped down in 2015 and was promptly made a life peer in the House of Lords. The Secretary of State for Energy at that time lost his seat in 2015 but was knighted in the 2016 new year honours list and is now back as an hon. Member in this House. I am sure that my constituents will want to know why those who got it wrong have been rewarded and, as we have heard, those who have been wronged are still fighting for justice and have been ignored by the UK Government.
As we have heard, someone else who did okay out of this was the director, Robert Skillen, who was up to his neck in it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said, Mr Skillen has some amount of brass neck to come back and campaign to protect people from the mis-selling that he was involved in. That is shocking. I hope the Minister will confirm that all necessary agencies and authorities will look into his ongoing activities and see what can be done to prevent further fraudulent action by him.
Coming back to governance, in a written answer to my parliamentary question on what review the Government had undertaken of the so-called golden rule and how it was working, the answer was “None.” Once the scheme was up and running, why did nobody look at whether the golden rule was working and whether the savings that had been predicted were being generated? That is another dereliction of duty. Who would think that basing a whole scheme on one year’s savings against a loan was a good idea? We need a proper root-and-branch review of HELMS installations, and I suggest that we need to extend it to wider green deal installations elsewhere.
The Tory Government pulled the green deal, but what analysis did they do when they put a block on it? When will we hear why they pulled it and what lessons were learned? While the Tory Government has stood back, it has been left to MSPs, MPs and citizens advice bureaux to try to assist affected constituents, but we are doing so with both hands tied behind our back because we do not have the address information. Only the Green Deal Finance Company, and therefore the Government, know exactly who has these green deal finance deals from HELMS. Again, that is why we need Government intervention. Before I conclude, I must put on record my tribute to the work done by my local CAB, particularly Linda Corbett, who has done fantastic work on digging into HELMS, understanding the issue, taking it forward and helping people, and to a local constituent, Isobel McNicol, who started a HELMS awareness and campaign group. However, it should not be left to those people to act; Government intervention is needed.
In the ministerial response to me the Government rejected the assertion that the whole issue is shrouded in secrecy, but I suggest there is still not enough transparency. We need to know how many people have been defrauded of their feed-in tariff. In response to a written parliamentary question of mine, I was told that it is not the Government who hold the information on whose feed-in tariffs have been transferred, but Ofgem. The Government need to get an understanding of the matter, because we have heard that there has been widespread fraud on the transferring of feed-in tariffs.
As others have said, this has been a flawed energy policy from the start. The problems will set back efforts to get people to sign up to future energy efficiency measures. Some people who are fuel poor and deserve to have energy efficiency measures installed in their homes will be afraid to do so. The Government must get a grip, set up a compensation fund, do a proper investigation and start taking collective action.
This debate revolves around a number of issues—not just the question of one rogue company, but wider issues relating to the nature of the green deal programme when it was set up, what it decided to do with regard to redress arrangements, how the relationship of payment to reward was set up, and various other issues. That positions the debate firmly as being about the Government’s response to a number of these issues, not just the legal responses to a particular company that has clearly acted reprehensibly in engaging customers in deals that were anything but green and anything but advantageous to them.
I therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing this important debate. It is a debate that goes back to when the green deal was set up in the first place, with the Energy Act 2011. As the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) observed, the current Energy Minister participated as a member of the Bill Committee. I think the hon. Gentleman will also be aware that I, too, was a member of that Committee, and many of the issues that have been raised this morning concerning aspects of the green deal were raised during the process of bringing the Act into being.
One particular issue that I and others raised during passage of that Act was the concept of the golden rule in the green deal. The central selling point was that people would never pay more than they would get back in savings from arrangements relating to the green deal—what they would save as a result of green deal treatments would always be greater than what they paid up front.
It was pointed out during the passage of the 2011 Act that that idea was an elastic concept, and that it was always going to be difficult to get the right balance in the relationship between payments and savings. It is that aspect of the green deal that HELMS appears to have taken particular advantage of. In fact, it is fair to say that the company systematically exploited every single weakness in the green deal in its approach to customers. It took not only all the feed-in tariff from customers, but the export tariff, which it put into a separate company. It made a lot of money out of that process, because the feed-in tariff at that point was pretty generous to customers, yet it still engaged customers in loans for those properties.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) have mentioned just how many of their constituents were systematically victimised by this scam. They were victims not only of a scam, but of a scam that appeared to them to have been authorised by the Government. During the passage of the 2011 Act, considerable efforts were made to ensure that the green deal was authorisable by Government, but not enough efforts were made subsequently to ensure that what was authorisable by Government was actually sound and authorised by Government. As hon. Members have mentioned, in the early stages a number of companies such as HELMS were praised by Ministers as great examples of companies that could be properly authorised and could safely go around carrying out green deal arrangements.
As hon. Members know, the green deal was a complete fiasco and was closed down by the Government shortly after they took office following the 2015 election. Members may recall a former Energy Minister saying that he would not sleep at night unless millions of people had taken up the green deal. The number who did turned out to be only a tiny proportion of those who would have taken up the green deal. The interest rate on the loans was clearly a big factor in the low take-up. Indeed, as Members have attested to today, it is a factor in the overhanging loans that a number of people have, for up to 25 years, as a result of the mis-selling by HELMS and one or two other companies. This is not a happy tale at all. What we have heard about today are particular aspects of a wider scheme that was pretty flawed in both concept and execution.
Of course, on top of that is the fact that the Government not only withdrew from the green deal but then sold the whole loan book to a private company, the Green Deal Finance Company. It is now landed with a number of complaints, because the Government are effectively saying, “It’s nothing to do with us; it’s the Green Deal Finance Company, a private company.” It is fair to say, as hon. Members have reflected on, that the company is trying to do something about the overhanging debts that a number of people have as a result of being on the green deal loan book. Indeed, there are several reports of the Green Deal Finance Company reducing the loan debt of particular people to a level at which it does match the requirements of the golden rule, so that they are not continuing to pay more on their bills than they are saving in energy charges. But that is only scratching the surface, because only a few people have been dealt with in that positive way by the Green Deal Finance Company. There is clearly a much wider issue, which relates back to how the green deal was set up. A redress system was not built into the green deal as it unfolded, and the mess that resulted from those shortcomings is still with us today.
It is incumbent on the Government to take much greater responsibility for their own mess, for the consequences of the weaknesses in the green deal as it came forward, and certainly in the case of HELMS, a company that the Government were talking up, shall we say, until fairly shortly before it went out of business, with all the problems attached to that. I look forward to hearing from the Minister today what proposals the Government have to take this matter forward in a positive way. I note that, in answer to a written question at the beginning of the year, the Government said that they were actively involved with bodies relevant to this issue and hoped that there would be a resolution. I would be interested to know the bodies with which the Government have been involved in discussions, what they think would be an active resolution to this issue and how they are progressing with that active resolution.
My personal view is that it is imperative that some active resolution is brought about across the board, because this is a reputational issue for any future energy efficiency or home improvement scheme. If customers engaging with those schemes have no confidence in the schemes working, they will not happen. It is absolutely imperative that we get energy efficiency and green energy schemes going in this country as part of the challenge of decarbonising our energy systems and uprating the energy efficiency of homes across the country. It is important that that gets under way for the future with a clean slate and a clean bill of health for what is being done.
It is therefore incumbent on the Government, in order to foster good will towards future energy efficiency schemes and to put right the wrongs of the past, to actively engage in finding solutions to the problems of mis-selling that we have heard about this morning and to consider the wider issue of the deficiencies of the green deal scheme and the need to ensure that we get it right for any successor schemes, whether privately or publicly funded, in future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing the debate. I welcome the comments and interest of other hon. Members; they mentioned the particular issues for their constituents. We have a shared wish to see proper redress for consumers who have been mis-sold green deal plans. I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the case of Mr and Mrs Murray. We listened to his account of the sadness and horror that they have experienced.
I want to make a particular point at this stage. As the Minister responsible for consumer protection, company law and the insolvency process, I place it on record that the Government are committed to ensuring that rogue directors, rogue traders, are investigated, in the interest of protecting consumers. I feel very strongly about that in this role and, obviously, my other roles in Government.
In total, Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Ltd, which I shall refer to as HELMS, was responsible for selling 4,581 green deal plans. Of those, 3,068 were sold to households in Scotland and 293 in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. We understand that about 460 consumers have made complaints about the green deal plans provided to them by HELMS. That is a substantial number and it is a real concern, but let us remember that a large majority of green deal plans run smoothly, without complaint.
Most complaints focus on the fact that HELMS led consumers to understand that there would be no cost to their installation. HELMS gave consumers the impression that that was possible because of the nature of the Government’s green deal scheme. Consumers were then surprised to see green deal payments appear on their electricity bills. Many consumers were unaware that they were entering into a credit agreement, or of the opportunity that they had to cancel their agreement. That runs counter to what the green deal is about—enabling consumers to install energy efficiency measures through a loan and then repay through the resulting savings on their energy bills.
The consumer’s position was often worsened because they were persuaded by HELMS to assign elsewhere the rights to any feed-in tariff from the measures. HELMS encouraged many to transfer their feed-in tariff rights to a separate company—one related to HELMS—as a contribution to the costs of their installation. That meant that consumers could not put that potential funding stream towards meeting the costs of the green deal plans, and HELMS failed to inform the consumer of the impact.
Before saying more about the HELMS cases, I shall provide some background on the green deal. It was launched by the coalition Government in 2013. Under the green deal, consumers can borrow money to fund improvements and repay the loans over time through their electricity bills. In the case of solar PV, consumers can begin to use renewable energy generated on-site in their homes. The savings can then be used to repay the loan. A principle called the golden rule, which has been mentioned today, is in place and intended to ensure that loan repayments do not exceed expected savings.
It is true that at the time the Government and, indeed, hon. Members from across the parties had high hopes for the green deal. But it failed to take off to the levels expected. Various reasons have been offered for that. They include its complexity and the fact that it did not properly consider consumer demand to undertake energy efficiency improvements in this way. The original scheme design was not perfect, but we and others believe that the pay-as-you-save mechanism at the heart of the green deal can still play a valuable role in the future. We have published the summary of responses to our call for evidence and will consult on proposals in due course. The right consumer protection will be paramount in any reformed scheme.
We want to improve the green deal, but it is far from being the only game in town for energy efficiency. Just yesterday the House debated the Draft Electricity and Gas (Energy Company Obligation) Order 2018, under which we are looking to further improve the already successful energy company obligation scheme. Since 2013, it has led to over 2.4 million measures being installed in nearly 2 million homes.
To make things right for the consumers who have suffered from the activities of HELMS, it is important to know that there is a specific process for handling complaints under the green deal. Consumers should first approach their green deal provider. If the problem is not resolved, the consumer may then approach the green deal ombudsman or the financial ombudsman service, depending on the nature of the complaint. Ombudsman decisions are binding on the green deal provider. If the consumer is still dissatisfied, they can refer their complaint to the Secretary of State for consideration.
The liquidation of HELMS further complicated resolving consumer complaints, as it meant any ombudsman decisions against HELMS could not be implemented through the company. Therefore, my Department worked with other key parties to establish a mechanism to offer a resolution for consumers. The Green Deal Finance Company reviews those cases and, where it considers it appropriate, makes settlement offers to consumers. If they are dissatisfied with any offer received, consumers can still refer their cases to the Secretary of State under the green deal framework regulations. The Secretary of State has the power to reduce or cancel loans where he is satisfied that the consumer has suffered, or is likely to suffer, a substantive loss.
Does the Minister think that, rather than the onus being on the individual to seek that assistance, the Green Deal Finance Company ought to be writing to every recipient of a loan and every customer of HELMS to make them aware of the route to getting redress, if they need it?
The Green Deal Finance Company will make those offers. If they are not accepted by the consumer, the onus is on them to recommend the case to the Secretary of State and for him to take the decision. That is the redress process that we have put in place.
I thank the Minister for giving way again. She said that roughly 10% of people who have a HELMS green deal have instigated a complaint. Therefore, 90% of those sitting on these deals have not complained, and many do not even know that they have been conned. That is why the Government have a responsibility to contact them directly and begin investigating, to see what help they can give.
If that has not already been done, I am sure it will be looked at. I am not sure whether it has been done or not, as I do not have that information.
The Minister spoke about the compensation that effectively comes through the Green Deal Finance Company. Does she think it right that a private company, which had nothing to do with the initial mis-selling or scamming, is left to deal with this issue and possibly £20 million of compensation to consumers, instead of the Government, whose scheme it actually was?
As a Government, we have worked with the Green Deal Finance Company to establish the redress system. That is why it can make offers and has done so. I will repeat the process again. If consumers are not happy with the offer that has been made, they can refer the case to the Secretary of State. We understand that only 100 offers have been accepted and 52 have been referred to the Secretary of State, so I encourage consumers to refer them to the Secretary of State. So far, only one decision has been taken on a HELMS case, but the Department is considering the evidence in other cases before the Secretary of State decides what sanction, if any, is appropriate. We expect more decisions to follow shortly.
From the outset, the green deal was subject to a monitoring regime administered by the Green Deal Oversight and Registration Body, which started investigating HELMS in October 2013 and concluded with a report in March 2015. Based on that report, the Government concluded that there had been significant consumer protection issues with the company, and the then Department of Energy and Climate Change imposed a final sanction on HELMS in November 2015. In September 2015, the Information Commissioner’s Office issued HELMS with a £200,000 nuisance calls fine—its largest ever at the time—after ruling that it
“recklessly broke marketing call regulations.”
Soon afterwards HELMS stopped issuing green deal plans, and in March 2016 it entered into liquidation.
I regret that it is taking some time to reach conclusions in many of the cases, but I would like to assure everyone that my Department is focused on progressing them as quickly and fairly as possible. We need to ensure the necessary evidence on substantive loss being incurred and to allow time for representations to be made.
Notwithstanding such mis-selling issues, let us be clear that solar PV in the UK is a success story, with rapid deployment over the last eight years. We are now exceeding our projections on solar PV deployment. In 2013 we estimated that solar capacity would reach 10 to 12 gigawatts by 2020, but the latest figures indicate that we now have over 13 gigawatts of solar capacity installed in the UK—enough to power over 3 million homes.
As I have said, I would be happy to meet with trading standards and the constituent of the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North—I want to get a greater understanding—but will quickly answer some of the questions raised, so that the hon. Gentleman has time to wrap up.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his point about Northern Ireland. The green deal has not applied in Northern Ireland, because some of these matters are fully devolved. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) for his comments. I would like to hear further information on the issues particularly affecting properties in his constituency, which I can pass on to the Secretary of State. I also thank the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) for her comments. She is always a champion for her constituents, and where she feels there is an injustice, she stands up for them. The green deal framework ensures that payments should not exceed the period of the savings—over 15 to 20 years. Providers that do that will be found in breach and then action can be taken by the Secretary of State, including fines and stopping the actual deal. I would be interested to know about particular ongoing cases that may be of interest.
Unfortunately, we will probably never be able to completely eradicate mis-selling but, as a Minister in this Department, it is something I feel strongly about. Where it does happen, we will try to have the best processes in place to deal with it. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North for securing this debate and I look forward to seeing him in the future.
I appreciate the Minister’s response. Will she commit to answering in writing the questions that I asked? [Interruption.] For the record, she has nodded her head.
This has been an excellent and worthwhile debate. We have heard some shocking cases from across the country. The Minister’s admission that the scheme is not perfect may be the line of the day, such is the scale of the understatement. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) noted that only 10% of HELMS customers have complained, which highlights the fact that so far we have only dealt with the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to come.
The Chamber might not be full, but I remind the Minister that, as she said, 3,000 homes in Scotland and around 4,500 across the UK have been affected. I accept that the Government did not intend this to happen. What has happened is the unintended consequence of ineffective regulation and oversight. There is nothing we can do about the past, but the Government can still do the right thing by putting a compensation scheme in place, tightening up the regulations for any future green deal offers and taking some responsibility. I urge them to do so as soon as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered home energy and lifestyle management systems and the Green Deal.
Future of BBC Parliament
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of BBC Parliament.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in praise of BBC Parliament, which is the most watched and most successful dedicated parliamentary TV channel in the world. In a good month, when there is controversy in this place, BBC Parliament has a reach of more than 2 million viewers. It is true that the average age of those viewers is quite high, with 60% of them over 60, but as I approach the age of 60—I would not presume to guess your age, Mr Robertson, but I am 57—I think that might not be such a bad thing, because many people involved in all our political parties are the “young retired”, which is a growing age group that needs to be served.
The whole population may not have noticed but BBC Parliament in its current form was under serious threat over the summer, and I want to speak in praise of the people, in this place and elsewhere, who saved it for the nation. Those people include the director-general of the BBC, Mr Speaker, the Lord Speaker, and the Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). I intend to tell the story of what happened, which is a good story with a happy ending. I will do three things in my contribution: look at the history and the context of parliamentary broadcasting, consider the controversy over the summer, and try to point the way for the future. In 10 years, when, I anticipate, I will be retired and watching Yorkshire play cricket, where will BBC Parliament be?
While I was preparing for the debate over a cup of coffee in the Members’ Tea Room, I looked up and saw a picture of John Wilkes, which reminded me that the reporting of this place has never been straightforward and simple. There has always been controversy. My 14th birthday, 24 February 1975, happens to be the day that this House debated whether to televise Parliament. In the end, the House decided not to televise Parliament but instead to start experimenting with radio. Coverage began on the radio, and BBC Radio 4 listeners were up in arms about the afternoon play being shoved aside sometimes, but the experiment went on, and three years later it was confirmed that the BBC and others would be able to broadcast parliamentary proceedings on the radio permanently. I remember when I was 18 listening to Michael Foot summing up for Her Majesty’s Government against the vote of no confidence that finally brought the Government down by one vote. I remember being impressed by the atmosphere and the argument that night as I listened to the radio. That coverage was not easily achieved, however, and the debate then turned to television.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a timely debate, given the context that he has laid out. He talks about things that are not easily achieved. Does he agree that, in a wider context, what should be more easily achieved within the BBC is more openness and transparency regarding how it commissions programmes, spends money and deploys resources? There has been a veil of secrecy over much of the BBC. I do not make any assertions about BBC Parliament, but about the BBC more widely. We need to get to the nub of the matter in a wider BBC context.
I have applied for debates in this Chamber—thus far unsuccessfully, but hopefully I will be successful in the next few weeks—so that I can elaborate to some considerable degree on the complete lack of transparency and openness in the BBC more widely.
Openness and transparency are always to be encouraged. I wish the hon. Gentleman luck in pitching for a future debate, at which I hope to be present.
The debate about television and Parliament was heated. The late Howard Wilson, who was my father’s hero, is mentioned in the Crossman diaries asking Crossman whether the BBC would be able to cut the video tape up, take a bit of speech and introduce it into a magazine programme. Crossman replied, “Certainly,” and Wilson concluded that that could not possibly be allowed. In the 1972 debate, the Conservative Back Bencher Brian Batsford said:
“The introduction of the cameras will bridge the gulf which has widened so much between Parliament and the people.”—[Official Report, 19 October 1972; Vol. 843, c. 468.]
The 1970s were a time of conflict in Northern Ireland and of industrial strife. The nation was divided, people said. One BBC executive said, perhaps rather hopefully:
“What then is our public attitude? It is to let the different voices speak for themselves.”
He was in favour of parliamentary broadcasting.
To move the story on, the other place was more progressive. It brought in cameras in 1983, some years before the Commons finally decided do so in 1988, after no fewer than 11 debates in the preceding 14 years. Ian Gow was the first person to be seen on screen.
Without going into all the details, broadcasting in the ’90s was organised through a consortium of cable channels that went under the name of the United Artists cable channel. It broadcast Parliament until 1998, but perhaps the viewing figures were not as high as it had hoped when it took on the contract, so it wanted to pull out. There was a big debate in this place about whether it was appropriate for the BBC to take over. The discussions and negotiations went on for some months, but then a deal was done between the BBC and Parliament and live coverage began. Connoisseurs of BBC Parliament will remember that in the early part of this century, the lack of bandwidth on Freeview TV was such that the pictures of the Commons in operation took up only a quarter of the screen and there were various captions. As the decade went on, digital TV improved and the BBC got more bandwidth, and we got BBC Parliament as we have it today.
That brings me to the second part of my remarks. This summer, the day after Croatia beat England in the World cup semi-finals—if there could be any bigger blow—it leaked out that, as part of several changes to political programming that the BBC was going to make, BBC Parliament was not going to continue in its current form. The proposal was not to totally discontinue the channel but to remove any of the associated programming. Even the captions were under threat. The BBC would have continued to take the feed from this place and the House of Lords and so on, but would not have broadcast during parliamentary recesses. It would only do the very basics, and no doubt that that would have come under threat in years hence.
I am the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary BBC group and I recognise the tremendous pressures that the BBC is under. It has to save £550 million by 2021-22. BBC News, which took the decision to try to scale back BBC Parliament, has to find £80 million in that period. I realise that there are challenges for the BBC management, but the cost of BBC Parliament is such that they would have saved only about £500,000 by getting rid of most of the staff. The transmission costs of BBC Parliament are nearly £7 million and another £1.7 million is spent on content and distribution, so the really significant money is in actually transmitting the channel, which I will come back to in a minute.
What happened then was that at a sitting of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee just before Parliament went into recess, Lord Hall was asked by the Chair if he would be pulling all of the additional edited programmes on BBC Parliament. Those programmes obviously include things such as the coverage of the conferences and of Select Committees, but there is also a book programme about political books and a host of programming based on anniversaries, including of general elections. Indeed, there was programme a few years ago on the anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death, with a replaying of his funeral and so on. All this associated political programming would have gone. Recently, Steve Richards has done a series in the old style of A.J.P. Taylor really, just extemporising—rather like I am doing now—for a period to the camera, and his theme was “Prime Ministers” who never quite became Prime Minister, and so on. As I say, all of that programming would have gone.
Lord Hall suddenly said in reply to the Chair of the Committee:
“I want the edited programmes to continue. Let me just say we are constantly reviewing what we do…Could we do this better? Could we do it more effectively? But do not read into that necessarily something that we intend to do.”
That was a glorious moment. Some in the House may have watched “W1A”, a BBC comedy about the inner workings of the BBC—there was a similar comedy about the inner workings of the Olympics—and this was a “W1A” moment. The poor press officer at the BBC then had to issue a press release saying:
“As the director general has said, certain programming on BBC Parliament will continue as before”.
That was a very elegantly achieved U-turn.
Then the Speaker stepped in and he also made representations, so it looks now as though BBC Parliament will continue very much as before, with its current staffing levels, producing the range of programming that I have referred to. It really is important also to have the captions on the screen. Another programme that BBC Parliament has made is the “A to Z of Parliament”, which explains different things we do here in Parliament—for example, Divisions—to the public. In that sense, there is a good story to tell about BBC Parliament, but as I said earlier, today I want to look ahead and consider what BBC Parliament could be like in 10 years’ time. How can we attract more people—perhaps more younger people—to watch it and how can we take it forward?
I remember that about 10 years ago, when I was previously in the House, I worked with my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), now Deputy Leader of the Labour party, to save BBC 6 Music and the BBC Asian Network on the radio. I would like BBC Parliament to improve and expand, rather like BBC 6 Music has in the 10 years since it came under threat. How might BBC Parliament do that? It is obviously a question of resources and so on, but if the BBC put its mind to it, working in association with the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit, it could do for Parliament what it has done for things such as the Olympics, the FA cup and so on. It is a common theme in the BBC now to have My BBC—a digital concept. If I am interested in Bradford City’s results I can get an alert from the BBC about those results, or if I am interested in a particular area of news I can get alerts about programming in that area of news.
I think the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit now has, on some days, no fewer than 20 transmissions from various Committees around this House. There must be a way of linking those transmissions in to the promotional power of the BBC. Indeed, Lord Hall said in the Select Committee hearing:
“For example, could we…work with the parliamentary website to allow people to search more easily by topic, to have notifications when things are being brought up in the House? Could we extend our service in that sort of way, too, so that if you are particularly interested in…say the A303…every time that came up in Parliament you were told it was about to come up”.
I understand that Lord Hall, who has a very progressive vision, may well meet the Speaker to discuss that. As a vice-chair of the APPG on the BBC, I will write to the Speaker and the director-general of the BBC suggesting that the director-general to come into Parliament and perhaps have a seminar—if the Speaker would host that in his house, it would be great—about the future of BBC Parliament, with the authorities of the House present as well, to consider how we can improve the channel’s digital output.
In years to come, TV will probably change again. In recent years, all TV sets have switched to digital. There was a tremendous effort by the private sector and the Government, who worked together to make that change happen. In the future, something similar will probably be done with connected TVs. At some stage in the future, we will probably all have connected TVs, so I guess that eventually the BBC will make savings on the transmission costs of BBC Parliament. In the years ahead, it is really important that BBC Parliament remains a terrestrial channel that everyone can access, regardless of income. I hope that that has been achieved, but it is also important that we consider how the broadcasting of this place, the other place, our Committees and so on can be reviewed, to refresh it for another age. I say that because one of the things that has happened in recent years is that many young people have become involved and interested in all sorts of politics. BBC Parliament has done a massive and magnificent job for our nation over the last 20 years or so, and I would like to see it doing a similar but different job in the years to come for the generations to come.
Thank you, Mr Robertson, for calling me to speak. This is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, and I am delighted to do so.
I almost forgot that I had to respond to the debate, because I was enjoying the contribution by the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) so much. I thank him for that and I congratulate him on securing this very important debate on the future of the BBC Parliament service. He made a marvellous speech, taking me back to the ’70s, when my interest in politics was first inspired. He mentioned people such as the late and lamented Ian Gow, and he even alluded to that marvellous night—from my perspective—of the no confidence motion that brought Britain’s first woman Prime Minister to power.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Harold Wilson, who he said was his father’s hero. Actually, in my young years I revered Harold Wilson, as I believe did Michael Portillo, so he had many admirers; he was the most amazing politician and an inspirational figure of the ’60s and ’70s. I was also fascinated to learn that the House of Lords stole a march on us by five years; I did not know that it was the first House to agree to broadcasting and that it took the Commons so much longer.
The hon. Gentleman made various recommendations. I shall certainly listen to the programme by Steve Richards on the politicians who never quite made it to becoming Prime Minister. There might be a subsequent series called, “The Prime Ministers we never had—thank God!” [Laughter.] Perhaps I had better not dwell on that point. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman’s contribution was fantastic and I learned so much from it.
The BBC is rightly one of the UK’s most treasured institutions. It sets a fantastic example as a world-leading—indeed, the world-leading—public service broadcaster. There are BBC programmes that are perhaps off the point of this debate, such as “Planet Earth”, “Strictly Come Dancing”, the “Today” programme—I am sure we all enjoy that—and “Bodyguard”, but all of those outputs come from the licence fee, which allows the BBC to reach UK audiences everywhere, through the TVs in our homes, the radios in our cars and, of course, the devices in our pockets or on our wrists.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Does she agree that, despite having outlined some of the magnificent programmes that the BBC makes, there are issues with the BBC in a wider sense? For example, I have just come today from the National Audit Office in London, as I am trying to establish more openness and transparency for the BBC. Given that it receives almost £4 billion of licence fee-payers’ money from the public purse, it needs to be much more open about how it spends that resource and accounts for spending it.
I think that all large organisations are on a journey to become more transparent and accountable. Indeed, the BBC’s annual plan sets out clear commissioning priorities, and transparency is fundamental to that. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of this, but Ofcom is currently consulting on the commissioning process, including the transparency of that process. If that consultation is not yet closed, I urge him to contribute to it. Ofcom expects to make a statement about the mater by the end of this year.
Crucial to the BBC’s duty to provide impartial and accurate news and information is the building of people’s understanding of the UK, its democratic processes and the wider world, so that all audiences can engage fully in those processes as active and informed citizens. I am sure that the hon. Member for Keighley is aware of the BBC’s Democracy programme, which is all about facilitating greater democratic accountability and participation at a local level.
Scrutiny of politics—local and national—is vital, and the BBC provides a window for the public into discussions and debates. I did not know that the parliamentary broadcasting unit broadcasts an average of 20 different sessions of Parliament a day. That is absolutely fantastic, and BBC Parliament is an absolutely key part of delivering that unique responsibility, providing unparalleled openness and transparency by allowing viewers direct access to everyday political activities, not just here in Westminster but in Holyrood, Stormont—when it is sitting—and Cardiff, and helping them to make sense of the business of politics, through clear insight and explanation and links to other BBC sources. The channel contributes directly to genuine engagement in UK political life through the programmes it shows. Live daily coverage of how decisions are made and how the public is represented allows people to watch and listen to their representatives and hold them to account, and viewers can watch repeats of sessions on topics they are passionate about but may have missed because of the demands of everyday life.
As I said, BBC Parliament delivers significant coverage throughout the UK’s regions, showing, in the last year, 427 hours from the devolved Assemblies—an enormous amount that exceeds Ofcom’s quota for the channel. That coverage provides a critical link between voters and their representatives, and shines a light on the issues that affect everyone, regardless of where they live and work. That is an encouraging sign that the BBC is fulfilling its public duties, and it demonstrates the value of the BBC Parliament service.
In addition, weekly edited BBC Parliament programmes, such as “Today in Parliament”, which I enjoy, when I can, at 11.30 in the evening, and “The Week in Parliament”, deliver tailored insight into and analysis of the business of the day. A great example, which regrettably I am yet to see, is “Suffragette Allies”, which was broadcast as part of the BBC’s year-long celebration of the centenary of women’s partial suffrage.
BBC Parliament, as the UK’s only channel dedicated exclusively to politics, is an example of the public service ethos that lies at the heart of the BBC, providing a service that cannot be provided by anyone else. The monthly reach of the dedicated parliamentary channel is almost 2 million viewers and listeners, and the average BBC Parliament viewer watches the channel for almost two hours a week, which is a significant volume of viewing by person and speaks to the value that the channel delivers. The hon. Member for Keighley noted the average age of the viewers and listeners—I am that age, being over 60. However, although I am passionate about encouraging the BBC to attract younger viewers and listeners, we do not want that to be at the expense of, but rather as well as, people over 60, or 50, or any other age. It is all to the good that BBC Parliament will remain, and I was interested in his comments about its future.
All of that is delivered with a content spend of only £1.6 million, which was just 0.1% of the total BBC television content spend last year. I am not privy to the reasons for the BBC’s review of the channel, but the golden rule about saving money that I followed when I was in business was, “You can only save money from where money is.” As that 0.1% is a very small budget to start with, I trust it will be safe from that kind of scrutiny. It obviously needs to deliver value, but the hon. Member for Keighley and I have made clear the enormous value that such a modest spend generates. At a time when misinformation and fake news are rife, safeguarding trusted, impartial and accurate political coverage for audiences in the UK and beyond is more important than ever.
Underpinning all of that is the BBC’s independence. As hon. Members know, the BBC is operationally and editorially independent from the Government, and rightly so. Independence means that the BBC can make tough editorial decisions to robustly hold Parliament and the devolved Assemblies to account, and to scrutinise our actions without fear of reprisals. Independence allows the BBC to help voters understand and engage with parliamentary and political events. Voters trust that BBC coverage is accurate and impartial. I know that there are challenges to that trust, because I receive letters from people—
So do I.
I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s earlier comments. Trust must constantly be earned; it can never be taken for granted.
The welcome news, which the hon. Member for Keighley mentioned, is that the BBC recently announced that its planned cuts to edited daily and weekly BBC Parliament programmes will not now go ahead. I am very pleased to hear that decision, which I am sure we all welcome. I am reassured by the BBC’s comments to me that political and parliamentary content has a strong future on the BBC. I trust that the BBC will take note of the hon. Gentleman’s good ideas about looking to the future of the parliamentary broadcasting unit, with the development of artificial intelligence, notifications and all manner of automatic transmission opportunities that are more personally targeted at viewers’ and listeners’ interests. There is a great future in that. The hon. Gentleman has invited the director-general into Parliament, and I will encourage him to take up that invitation and join in any meeting that can be convened.
In an increasingly digital world, I am excited to see how the BBC has responded to the campaign. I wholeheartedly support its ambition and look forward to hearing further about its plans for the parliamentary broadcasting unit, which does such valuable and important work. I now leave a few minutes to the hon. Gentleman, in case he wishes to contribute further.
He cannot do so.
I am never quite sure, Mr Robertson; I have done these debates so often and in some I have been admonished for not leaving time.
I could never run out of things to say about the BBC. We are so fortunate in this country to have this truly great public service broadcaster. I am grateful, again, to the hon. Member for Keighley for teaching me so much about the parliamentary broadcasting unit and its offer, and some of the history of the whole thing. It has been marvellous.
Question put and agreed to.
[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered drugs policy.
The UK’s drugs policy is not just a combination of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, and a host of schedules and classifications; a range of laws has been developed and put in place over the years, guided by our perceived knowledge and our current attitude. We put those laws in place because we thought it was the right thing to do, and I believe that we got it wrong.
Outwith drugs law, we have laws that regulate the production, distribution, marketing and consumption of alcohol. Alcohol is an interesting case, because it is not included in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It remains socially acceptable. It is consumed openly at christenings, naming ceremonies, weddings, civil partnerships and even funerals—society finds a place for alcohol at hatches, matches and dispatches. However, it was not always that way. Prohibition and abstinence were once very strong movements. In the 1920s, some states in the USA made alcohol illegal, and something strange happened. Prohibition, rather than stopping people drinking alcohol, delivered production, distribution and consumers into the hands of criminals who recognised a money-spinning venture when they saw one. The product became more potent, because that meant distributing smaller quantities while maintaining profit margins, and criminal gangs used extreme violence to protect their territory from rival gangs or gangsters. Levels of violence spiralled, and more and more people were criminalised for using alcohol. According to the academic and historian Michael Lerner:
“As the trade in illegal alcohol became more lucrative, the quality of alcohol on the black market declined. On average, 1000 Americans died every year during the Prohibition from the effects of drinking tainted liquor.”
When prohibition ended, levels of crime dropped dramatically and people’s health improved. They continued to drink alcohol, but the product was quality controlled and monitored, and nobody had to use violence to protect their market.
To this day, alcohol continues to damage people’s lives and ruin their health, but it is legal and regulated. Increasingly, people can find educational support, because they have no fear of being criminalised. Maybe in an ideal world, everybody would be so happy and content—so free of stress and anxiety, so confident and self-assured—that there would be no requirement for alcohol, or indeed any recreational drugs. However, we do not live in that ideal world, and we never have. Throughout history, for a variety of reasons, people have taken drugs. One hundred years ago, people could buy cocaine, heroin or morphine at pharmacies and department stores. During the first world war, Harrods sold kits with syringes and tubes of cocaine and heroin for the boys on the frontline. Queen Victoria recommended Vin Mariani—wine laced with cocaine. Anthony Eden was prescribed purple hearts throughout the Suez crisis. Those people lived under what was termed “the British system,” which was a light-touch approach to drug consumption, one of tolerance and treatment.
Things changed during the 1960s. In 1961 the UN single convention on narcotic drugs was passed. It was not popular in the UK, because we could see that the British system was working. That convention, driven by prejudice, became the only UN convention ever to use the word “evil”. Torture, apartheid and nuclear war do not warrant the term “evil”, according to the UN. Genocide is referred to as “an odious scourge” or “barbarous acts”. The term “evil” is reserved for drugs—drugs that had previously been available in many different guises in high street pharmacies. The stigmatising of users went up a gear. In 1971, through the Misuse of Drugs Act, criminalisation became the name of the game. The result has been years of violence, tensions and organised crime, and a monumental increase in addiction.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a first-class speech. Could he say roughly what proportion of people in prison are there because of the drugs trade? What are the costs to the criminal justice system, and what is the total social cost of drugs? I hope he will cover those points in his speech.
I did not know there was a quiz. I have a prison in my constituency—I was talking to its governor two or three weeks ago—and the majority of the prisoners are there for offences related in some way, shape or form to the consumption or sale of drugs, or to the drugs market and the violence around it. We also know that there are more drugs, particularly synthetic drugs, available in our prisons than out on the streets.
Members will be glad to hear that the Office for National Statistics began collating consistent data on drug deaths in England and Wales from 1993. Those figures show an increase in drug misuse mortality rates among both men and women since 1996. UK opioid-related deaths rose between 2012 and 2015, increasing by 58% in England, 23% in Wales, 21% in Scotland and 47% in Northern Ireland. UK Focal Point on Drugs estimates that the number of problem drug users is 300,000 in England, 60,000 in Scotland and 30,000 in Wales. Those statistics are the result of current drugs policy, and behind those statistics are lives in ruins.
I fully understand why people exposed to the cruelty inflicted on their loved ones by current drugs policy would want to lash out in retribution. If somebody provided one of my loved ones with a pill at a music festival, and that pill killed them, my initial reaction would be to hunt the seller down like a dog and have them strung up. I would be wrong. At the next festival, another person would be selling the same drugs to other people, and another tragedy would unfold. This understanding is exemplified by the members of Anyone’s Child, who have been directly affected by the loss of, or damage caused to, a close friend or family member. Those people understand that vengeance will not bring back their loved one or undo the damage done. They understand that unless we change our current drugs policy and how we enforce it, more innocent people will die. It is their desire that their experience of loss does not fall on anyone else’s family member or friend. Is the Minister prepared to sit down and talk with members of Anyone’s Child? Nothing?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and making some powerful points. He and I both attended a recent meeting of the drugs, alcohol and justice cross-party parliamentary group, on the topic of drug-related deaths, where we heard Rudi Fortson QC explain how policies could be readily implemented to reduce drug and alcohol-related deaths. Does he agree that it would be good for Ministers to meet Rudi Fortson and hear what policies could be applied instantly that would make a big difference?
It is always good when I hear that people like Rudi Fortson QC—a person who has lived his life through the law—are looking at the current situation and thinking, “We have to change this.” It backs up everything I believe, but Rudi Fortson’s background makes him much more qualified in those terms than I am. I wonder whether the Government are engaging with people of his calibre.
Last week, Canada joined nine states of the USA and Washington DC by legalising recreational cannabis. Various provinces of Canada have taken different approaches regarding age limits: some allow people to grow their own cannabis, limiting them to four plants, while others do not allow home growing. We should be looking to those parts of the world to gather evidence and decide whether their approach is beneficial, and whether we should follow suit. Canada has the same problems as us but, like Portugal, Uruguay and other countries, it has taken a different approach to providing a solution. That solution is not “drugs for everybody”; it is “regulate the marketplace and take control away from the criminals”.
In the UK, parents who fear that their child might be dabbling in drugs, or even developing a habit, are extremely reluctant to engage with support groups that could divert their child from the path they are on. The parents are reluctant because they do not want to place their child on the police radar. They fear that their child could be arrested, get a criminal record or even be sent to prison. Early intervention can be the key to avoiding drug-related harm, and we should not be putting obstacles in the way of those who could be affected. We must encourage users to engage without fear of prosecution and free up police time and resources to fight crime. Will the Minister tell me whether the UK Government have engaged with other countries to access their research, which could assist us in becoming better informed and in taking an evidence-based approach to legislation? We need to listen to those affected, who can see a need for change but are not in a position to effect it.
Prior to this debate, the Westminster digital engagement team put out an appeal on social media, advertising the debate and asking the people of this country, “What do you think?” Nearly 20,000 people were engaged. The majority of the responses came back saying, “Legalise cannabis.” Some called for drugs to be regulated and taxed. A few said that they had lost loved ones as a result of the current policy. Some commenters called for drug addiction to be seen as a health issue, rather than a criminal one. Lots of commenters called for the UK to take the same approach as Portugal. That is the people of this country talking.
The problematic users, the kids on estates recruited to county lines, the medical professionals, the support workers and the law enforcers should be listened to. Peter Bleksley was a young cop during the Brixton riots. He went on to become one of the Met’s most celebrated undercover agents. He was a founding member of SO10, Scotland Yard’s dedicated covert policing unit. He said:
“I look back now and think, well, are there less drugs and guns on the streets because of what my colleagues and I did? And of course the answer is an emphatic, NO. We could wallpaper my bedroom with commendation certificates—they sit in the loft gathering dust. What a waste of time.”
The UK Government spent an estimated £1.6 billion on drug law enforcement in 2014-15. Drug treatment has been cut by 14% in the past couple of years. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is a false economy, especially as Public Health England estimates that for every pound spent on drug treatment, there is a £4 social return?
I absolutely agree. If we could see the results from the money being spent on the criminal justice system, I would back off and say, “Well, it is working”, but it clearly is not. To extend the hon. Lady’s point, every £1 spent on early intervention saves £7 in the criminal justice system further down the line. Even if someone does not give a damn about these people, it makes good financial sense to step in anyway and get early intervention.
Peter Bleksley is not alone. A host of personal testimony has been gathered by the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. I will offer four more examples from these experts. Patrick Hennessey, a British Army officer in the Grenadier Guards who served in Afghanistan, said:
“In Afghanistan I fought on one ‘front-line’ of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ and in Hackney I live side-by-side with the other and it’s obviously failing at either end. If real generals pursued an actual war like generations of politicians have pursued this farce they’d be court-martialled and sent to prison.”
Paul Whitehouse, chief constable, said:
“Far from making communities safer, current drug laws have the unintended consequence of placing barriers between the police and often vulnerable individuals.”
Graham Seaby, a former detective superintendent in the international and organised crime branch of New Scotland Yard, said:
“The drug problem will continue and escalate if governments fail to recognise that the only way forward is to move towards nuanced regulatory models, thus removing the profit from criminals, and the motivation for their involvement.”
Francis Wilkinson, chief constable, said:
“The single greatest crime reduction measure the world could take would be to regulate the supply of cannabis, cocaine and heroin.”
Neil Woods, 14 years an undercover drugs cop, would say exactly the same things. Ron Hogg and Arfon Jones, both police and crime commissioners, say that drugs must be a health issue, not a criminal justice one.
Every time we lock up a criminal gang or announce to the media that we have seized a large quantity of drugs with a street value of so many millions, what they do not say is that that supply has been disrupted for an hour or so. Another gang will step into their shoes and maintain distribution. Often those takeovers involve a spate of violence, and such networks are always maintained by violence and the threat of violence. The fact is that after 30 years of locking people up, a bag of cocaine that cost £10 in 1980 will cost £10 today for the same weight. However, because cocaine is so plentiful, it is purer in the UK today than it has ever been. The damage being inflicted on people and communities will continue to increase if all we do is crack down on the criminal fraternity and those ensnared in problematic drug use. We can lock people up for longer, but it does not improve their situation one iota; in fact, it makes it worse. Will the Minister meet and listen to members of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership?
In July 2017 the UK Government published their drug strategy and announced that they would appoint a recovery champion, whose role was defined as someone who would
“be responsible for driving and supporting collaboration between local authorities, public employment services, housing providers and criminal justice partners, ensuring that these critical public services are able to contribute fully towards securing effective outcomes for individuals suffering drug dependence.”
Fifteen months later, there is still nobody in the role, so nobody is co-ordinating those aspects of the support and recovery programme. I find myself wondering whether there is a UK Government harm reduction recovery programme. When will the Minister appoint a recovery champion?
As legislators, we have a choice. We can change the law. In doing so, we can address the harm that drugs do. Before that, we have to take a constructive approach to our drugs policy. We need to accept that 90% of people who use recreational drugs do not live chaotic lives. We must acknowledge that of the 10% of users who become problematic users, the majority have suffered physical, psychological or sexual abuse. We must acknowledge that problematic use is higher in areas of social deprivation. We must accept responsibility for trying to find solutions and acknowledge our failures. We need to help people with problematic drug use through harm reduction, treatment and wraparound support. Criminalising users does not deal with the underlying issues that lead to drug use; it only makes things worse.
We should have a network of safe drug consumption rooms throughout the UK. They have proved to be a success in Switzerland, Canada, Spain and a growing number of other countries. We must be prepared to learn from other countries’ experiences. The emergency services should carry naloxone and be trained in its use. Will the Minister reconsider legalising safe drug consumption rooms and ensure that naloxone is provided for members of the emergency services? Most importantly, UK drugs policy should be a health issue, not a criminal justice one. Alternatively, we can continue to criminalise users and drive them into the hands of unscrupulous dealers, while ignoring the atmosphere of fear that they live in. All we do is marginalise, stigmatise and ostracise them.
The hon. Gentleman has just moved on from the subject of drug consumption rooms, but did he note that after his last debate on drug consumption rooms the International Narcotics Control Board produced a report effectively endorsing them. That came from the body responsible for the international enforcement of the relevant drugs conventions, which I know he and I think are outdated and dangerous, frankly, in the global consequences they deliver on drugs policy. If even the INCB is in that place, I hope our Government will take some notice.
I noticed a couple of things after that debate. In it, the Minister denied that Canada had kept its drug consumption rooms open because they are effective. She made a statement that the Canadian Supreme Court had ordered them to stay open. On the back of that, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy wrote a five-page letter to the Minister and I, detailing how the DCRs are working effectively in Canada and why they have been kept open. They described her statement as
“neither factually nor legally accurate.”
We have lost the war on drugs. Our drugs policy saw to that. We need to change our mindset and ensure that we are in a position to win the peace. Finally, when we see a problematic drug user, we are watching a person drowning. We should throw them a lifebelt, not push their heads further under the water.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing the debate. It will soon become apparent that I disagree with large parts of what he has said; in a democracy it is quite correct that we can take two sides of the same argument. However, I agree that the effects of drug use, and the deaths caused by it, have an impact on each and every one of our constituencies.
Drugs and drug addictions are among the worst scourges of our society today. According to the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, the cost to the UK economy of drug misuse is more than £15 billion a year. Far more importantly, drugs destroy lives and livelihoods, tear apart families and communities, and fuel crime and exploitation. Although the number of drug users is falling, the number of people dying or being admitted to hospital due to drug use is on the increase.
In Scotland, it is nothing short of a crisis. The rate of drug-related deaths in Scotland is considerably higher than in England and Wales. It is estimated to be the highest in Europe, yet every year the number of deaths hits a new record high. The same goes for hospital admissions. In 2016-17, the rate of people being admitted to Scottish hospitals in relation to opioids, cannabinoids, cocaine, and sedatives and hypnotics reached new records.
The crisis can and will get worse. The county lines operations, which the hon. Member for Inverclyde mentioned and which are spreading across the UK, bringing a supply of drugs to rural communities across the country, are particularly concerning for me as a Member of Parliament for a rural constituency. We know from examples abroad, most notably in America, how the supply of drugs to rural areas can bring devastation to those communities.
The challenge facing the Scottish Government, the UK Government, and all of us is not just to stop the problem spiralling out of control, but to turn the tide altogether and tackle the havoc that drugs are wreaking on so many lives. More certainly needs to be done to treat people who have become addicted to drugs.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the cost to society and to the Government of £15 billion a year. How much would it cost if the Government changed their policy, and heroin addicts went to their local NHS clinic to get their fix in the morning and evening and there was no drug crime at all because it was free at the point of need, administered by the national health service? How much would the Government save? The financial arguments might have greater appeal than other arguments.
To borrow the phrase of the hon. Member for Inverclyde, I did not realise that this was a quiz. I do not have those figures to hand.
Labour Members mentioned past cuts to alcohol and drug partnerships, and received some sympathy from the Scottish National party Member leading today’s debate. Yet the SNP-led Scottish Government have not helped, especially considering their cuts to alcohol and drug partnerships in Scotland. The money spent is being reduced not just here in England, but in Scotland under an SNP-led Government.
Likewise, the forthcoming revision of the Scottish Government’s national drug strategy cannot come a moment too soon. The current strategy is a decade old, but reflects a much older approach, where instead of helping people to defeat their addictions, they are put on, for example, endless methadone programmes. Is it any surprise that the proportion of people dying from drug overdoses who are on methadone has risen from 21% in 2009 to 37% in 2016? The new strategy, which comes out next month, must address that, and focus on beating addiction completely.
I wonder whether at some point the hon. Gentleman will offer some solutions, or is he just going to try to pick apart what we currently have? I have admitted that the current systems are damaging people. We are trying to build solutions—has he got any?
I am not sure that we heard any solutions from the hon. Gentleman. Normally in such debates we hear about how great things are in Scotland. As a Scottish Member of Parliament, I think it is appropriate, when we are discussing an issue that is of importance to the United Kingdom, that we put it into context.
I invite the hon. Gentleman and the Scottish Government to consider the “National Drug-Related Deaths Database (Scotland) Report”, from June this year, which said that the Scottish Government’s flagship take-home naloxone programme
“has not prevented substantial increases in opioid-related deaths in Scotland.”
That is a quote from a report in June this year. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman would like to question that report, I will give way again.
Absolutely. We are in the process of rolling out a naloxone project in Scotland that has been taken on board. I visited drug consumption rooms in Barcelona during the summer. Quite unsolicited, the staff mentioned to me the good work being done by the Scottish Drugs Forum and the naloxone programme. They have taken it on board in Barcelona, and it has been a terrific success.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is questioning me or the “National Drug-Related Deaths Database (Scotland) Report”. That report, which was issued in Scotland in June, said that the Scottish Government’s policies have not reduced the number of people dying from related illnesses.
It makes good sense, and is soundly medically based, to give people who may take an overdose a way of correcting that overdose with a lifesaving intervention. That has to be a good thing to do. I understand that there are tensions with the SNP on this issue, but it is considered good medical practice to do exactly as is being recommended in Scotland and in England.
I know that my hon. Friend and I disagreed in our last debate on UK drugs policy in Westminster Hall. These are not my conclusions, but those of a national report that has looked into the policies of the Scottish Government and said that, however well-meant the policies are, they have
“not prevented substantial increases in opioid-related deaths in Scotland.”
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am sorry—I have given way a few times, and I know that a number of Members wish to speak.
We need an approach to addiction that is more ambitious than methadone and take-home naloxone, and certainly more ambitious than self-injection rooms. We need an approach that puts recovery first, but we need to tackle addiction and the drugs trade together, because there are no victimless crimes in drugs. We cannot simply separate it into matters of public health and criminal justice, because recreational use, addiction, exploitation by gangs and suppliers, and the supply chains of drugs into and across the country are all bound together.
If we want to give people the best chance of recovery from addiction, we have to tackle the supply chains. That means enforcing the law properly, not soft-touch sentencing and back-door decriminalisation. By making it harder to import, produce, supply and possess drugs, we make it easier to get off drugs and overcome addiction. From the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 to the new financial crime unit to seize the assets of drug lords, and to the recently announced review into the link between the drug market and violent crime, the UK Government have demonstrated that they recognise that. I only hope that the Scottish Government recognise it too, and act before the crisis gets any worse.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing this important debate.
I think the tide is turning in terms of people’s willingness to look at the evidence, whatever preconceived ideas they have. I must admit that I am a convert; I have looked at the evidence and realised that what we have been doing for the last 50 years is not working. I have been out with the police on drug raids in my constituency. I have seen the effects in older industrial areas where these problems are manifesting. We need a new approach.
I will focus my remarks on one issue, which has the hon. Member for Inverclyde has already touched on, that I would like the Minister to consider: consumption rooms. I am looking for the Minister and the Home Office to empower and resource police and crime commissioners, and allow them to take some progressive actions and interventions. For example, in pilot areas, where there is support for such an initiative, there could be medically supervised consumption rooms to treat addicts and reduce crime.
For members of the public who may be alarmed at that prospect and are unsure what a drug consumption room is, it is a supervised clinical environment where people with a diagnosed drug addiction are provided with medical-grade heroin, clean equipment and facilities to safely dispose of used needles. In debates in public and in this place, they have been unfairly characterised by opponents and, more disappointingly, by organisations such as the BBC, which I would hope would take a more careful and considered view on the use of such terminology, as “shooting galleries”.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the effectiveness of safe drug consumption rooms—a critical issue for my constituency, where the drug-related death rate is 1,000% higher than the EU average. Glasgow also has an HIV epidemic. Does he agree that there is a real concern that correlation may be confused with causation? Much of the evidence that has been cited to show that safe drug consumption rooms are not effective does not necessarily show that.
It is really important that policy be evidence-based. With all due respect to the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), many of whose concerns I share, shooting galleries do exist. We might not like it, but they exist, unauthorised and under no medical supervision, in our communities, in private dwellings, in derelict properties, in residential areas, near schools and behind shops. [Interruption.]
Order. There is a Division in the House. I shall suspend the sitting for 15 minutes if there is one vote, or 25 minutes if there are two. We shall resume as soon as hon. Members return and Grahame Morris is in his place.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Before we were summoned to vote we were talking about drug consumption rooms. If it is order, Mrs Moon, I will remind the Minister that she pointed out that she believed that such drug consumption rooms were currently available. Perhaps she can clarify that in her closing remarks, but currently users buy drugs of unknown strength or quality and inject what is in many cases poison, with dirty or used needles, which can be discarded on the street for a child to pick up or a pet to stand on. Without any other option, that seems to be the Government’s preferred drugs model. It is a system that funds criminality, maximises harm for users and puts children and communities at risk.
Why have I changed my mind to support drug consumption rooms? Many Members may have had the same experience that I have had. Not a week goes by when I do not receive inquiries. Constituents send me photographs of used needles discarded in the street, at intolerable risk to public health. I firmly believe that consumption rooms would substantially reduce the public health risk, by closing down illicit shooting galleries and moving things to a clean, safe clinical environment away from residential areas, where needles can safely be discarded and those with addiction issues can engage with health services and move towards a drug-free life.
I understand that supervised heroin treatment costs about £15,000 per year per patient. However, that is three times less than the cost of keeping someone in prison—the most likely destination for someone committing crime to fund a drugs habit. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) asked about that. As has been mentioned, it will be no surprise that more than 80% of the adult prison population reported using illicit drugs at some point prior to entering prison, and almost two thirds admitted using them in the month before they entered prison. More than 40% of prisoners have used heroin.
Dealing with one problematic adult drugs user costs society about £45,000 a year, and estimates suggest that illegal drugs cost the UK taxpayer as much as £16.5 billion a year. So there are wider costs than the purely financial considerations of drug treatment. The Home Office suggested that about 45% of acquisitive offences are committed by regular drug users—heroin, crack and cocaine users. Crimes such as theft, burglary and robbery, which are common in many communities, can often be traced back to those who are trying to fund drugs habits, and it is those types of crime that the police struggle to investigate, to detect those responsible. That type of crime may be considered petty or low level, but it has a significant impact on the victims and on their confidence in the police, their personal safety, and their security in their homes.
Another cost to consider is the £7 billion drugs market that funds organised crime. The 50-year war on drugs is failing to resolve it. Treating drugs use as a health issue rather than a criminal justice matter will strangle the illegal market and take power away from the dealers. We have previously heard testimony or quotations from serving police officers. There is ample evidence from people at the sharp end, including a former police officer, Neil Woods, who worked in undercover drugs operations for 14 years and wrote a best-selling book called “Good Cop, Bad Cop”, which was recommended to me by a superintendent in my area.
It was called “Good Cop, Bad War”.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; I apologise. The author said that, for all the users and dealers he helped to put behind bars, he disrupted the £7 billion British drugs trade for less than a day. Clearly, what we are doing is not helping. We are losing the war on drugs and failing to protect the public. I implore the Minister to accept that, after 47 years, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is not fit for purpose. The drugs mortality rate in the north-east is twice that of the west midlands and three times higher than that of London. The costs are simply too high. I hope that the Minister will facilitate a new approach to drugs and empower those who are in authority in my constituency.
As to those statistics, the fact that the north-east has a far higher rate of death from drug misuse compared with London shows that there must be a link between deprivation and drug use. I think Alex Boyt, of Blenheim, would like that to be looked at further. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I am not an expert, but it seems there is a correlation between areas of deprivation and areas with a high incidence of drug-related death. There is a lot of evidence out there, and from anecdotal experience it seems that an issue that was confined to the big cities is now commonplace in older industrial communities, such as the areas and villages that I represent.
I have seen a slide that shows the areas of greatest deprivation in the United Kingdom, and if a matching slide is put beside it that shows the areas where most harm is done by drugs, those maps pretty much match each other slide for slide.
Absolutely—I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. In conclusion, I implore the Minister to facilitate a new approach to drugs policy and to empower authorities in my constituency, such as our police and crime commissioner, Ron Hogg, and Chief Constable Mike Barton—in the only police force in the country rated outstanding by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary—who want to try a new approach. Will the Minister allow a pilot scheme so that we can at least evaluate the evidence and see whether it works, as many experts believe it will?
Order. I now call Jim Shannon, but seven Members still wish to speak before I call the Front-Bench speakers at 3.54 pm. Could we please have restraint from hon. Members, so that we can hear from as many of those who put their name forward to speak as possible?
I will adhere to your guidelines, Mrs Moon. I thank the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) for securing this important debate. He will be well aware that we approach this topic from different angles, but I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute.
I am deeply concerned about Canada’s recent decision to legalise cannabis—undoubtedly the driver behind today’s debate—and its potential impact in the UK. That said, my concern lies with the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use, rather than medicinal purposes—indeed, I am pleased that the Government are conducting a review into the use of cannabis on medical grounds, which I fully support. Today, however, I want to talk about the negative impacts and dangers of legalising cannabis for recreational use. The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) referred to mortality rates in England, and the figures are clear. The number of deaths among both males and females continues to rise, and that is due to many things, including heroin and morphine abuse, but I want concentrate specifically on cannabis. I will come to the side effects and dangers of legalisation later, but first I will consider the rationale for legalising cannabis use—as a bid to reduce the number of criminals who make money from selling cannabis illegally.
Taking money from criminals and reducing the amount of goods on the black market sounds like a no-brainer, but will the policy of legalisation really make the fundamental changes that President Trudeau envisages? Under the new legislation, it will still be illegal to sell cannabis to under-18s—under-19s in some provinces—and illegal to buy it from anyone who is not a licensed dealer. To my mind, it is simple: the policy will not stop criminals making money. Minors will still have access to drugs, and it is they who are most at danger from the side effects of cannabis use.
Short-term effects of cannabis include confusion, anxiety, sleepiness, memory loss and feeling sick or faint. There are also effects on a person’s ability to learn or concentrate, as they become uninterested or demotivated. People begin to use the drug in their teens. In my constituency I am well aware of the problems caused by illegal drugs, which are usually peddled by paramilitaries and criminals to anyone who wants to buy them. Those who do not want to buy drugs are recruited, and my constituents have seen at first hand the detrimental effect on the health of those who became involved with drugs at an early age, and indeed on their families who have to pay back the debts. There is a spiral of drug use.
The figures speak for themselves. According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, cannabis use in Canada is slowly on the rise. It tends to be younger people who use the drug and they are the ones most at risk, yet the new legislation does nothing to safeguard minors. We need to protect the poor, the needy and the vulnerable—that is the thrust of all our comments today. We just have different ways of doing that. Making a drug legal simply makes it more accessible and incentivises those who may not have used it previously—perhaps those in the slightly older age bracket—to buy it.
Criminals who were previously selling cannabis on the black market will continue to do so, and they will continue to supply minors, so minors may be at even greater risk than they were before the legalisation. Let us be frank: criminals will always find a way to sell drugs and supply them to minors, and I worry that the drug’s new status will inadvertently offer more protection to underage users. A young person could be walking between home and college with a brown paper bag clearly in hand, and although certain states have banned smoking cannabis in public spaces, it is not an offence to buy it or to carry the purchase home. Of course, I realise that if someone is obviously underage, they are likely to get stopped and asked for ID, but that will not happen in all cases. Lots of young people will simply not be brazen enough to carry cannabis visibly and take the risk of getting stopped. According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, in 2010 Canadian youth ranked first for cannabis use among young people in 43 countries. Scientific research over the last 15 years has established that the human brain continues to develop into a person’s early 20s, and there is a strong association between daily cannabis use and depression in adolescents and young adults.
I have spoken many times in this place about legal highs or psychoactive substances. Their use by young people is a real concern. In my constituency of Strangford, I have seen at first hand the devastating impact that using those drugs can have on families. Many of the drugs produce a similar effect to cannabis, and it is the feeling of being “high” that makes them so attractive to people. Ultimately, if people want drugs and the demand is there, they will find ways to get them. That demand has led to products such as “spice” being added to the regular menu of illicit street dealers. Often, new legislation merely changes the way that a drug is sold or produced, rather than fundamentally changing the demand for drugs or the nature of drug taking.
I do not believe that legalising drugs for recreational use can ever be a good thing in practice, and neither will it work in principle. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. The Canadian legislation sends a message that buying and using cannabis has Government backing. That is dangerous in itself because it implies that using cannabis is completely safe and acceptable. It is not, and it never will be. As I said earlier, legalisation makes the drug more accessible and appealing to people who may not have previously been users, while at the same time doing nothing to safeguard minors. I am sorry that I have a different opinion from that of the hon. Member for Inverclyde, but all points of view must be heard.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing this debate, and I am sympathetic to many of the points he made. He rightly highlighted the links between the use of drugs, drug dependency and deprivation, the challenges that many people who are dependent on drugs face, such in housing and employment, and the fact that the current criminal justice approach does not work as we would like. We should help people with drug dependency to access the appropriate health and care support they may need, and we must think seriously about whether the current prohibition on drugs is the right way forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) made a factual point about Naloxone and drug use. The policy is widely used in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and all over the world. He might be interested to read a 2017 review paper by McDonald, Campbell and Strang, entitled “Twenty years of take-home naloxone for the prevention of overdose deaths from heroin and other opioids—Conception and maturation”. That paper effectively concludes that take-home naloxone coverage is insufficient—that may chime with something my hon. Friend said—and that greater public investment in such schemes is necessary if we want them to succeed. Opioid deaths and their causes are multifactorial, and a considerable body of international evidence suggests that if naloxone is given to people who are at risk of an overdose, it can save lives; many review and study papers indicate that. I believe it is a step in the right direction for the Scottish Government to confront that issue and to say that there is a good body of evidence, but unfortunately dealing with opioid deaths is not as simple as just handing out naloxone, which we know is in itself an effective measure.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made the case against the end of prohibition on drugs. If we look at the wider public health issue, it is fair to say that if something is decriminalised or legalised, more people may well use that substance because it could be seen as something that is okay or acceptable to use, but I do not think anyone in this debate is suggesting that if there was a broader approach to the decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs, there would not be a public health campaign, just as there is with legal drugs such as alcohol and nicotine, to suggest that there are adverse health outcomes associated with use.
Many substances that are classified class C or even class A have a lower public health burden than alcohol—for example, MDMA or ecstasy. Alcohol, the legal drug that many people—not me—in Parliament and elsewhere consume, is the substance that causes the biggest public health burden. We must be realistic and recognise that if we move to a position where people are able to make a more informed choice about whether they want to consume drugs in the future, that informed choice involves telling people that taking certain substances has consequences, as we do with alcohol and cigarettes today.
On the current approach to drugs, I would like the Minister to pick up on a couple of points. First, there is the challenge of improving the care that we provide for people who are dependent on drugs. This is not an issue for this Minister, but it may be a conversation to be had with the Department of Health and Social Care. The current commissioning landscape in England for drug and alcohol services is fragmented and completely divorced from mental health. We have to recognise that mistake, which we made in the Health and Social Care Act 2012. That needs to be addressed if we want to improve the quality of care available to people who are dependent on opioids in particular, as well as alcohol or any other substance.
It is important to recognise that improving care for people who are dependent on substances is about taking a holistic approach. It is about law enforcement working together with healthcare, housing and social care, and about finding employment and retraining solutions for people. The way existing law is framed, alongside the criminal justice prism through which drug laws are seen and enforced, often drives a wedge between different agencies, preventing them from working together effectively for the benefit of people who are dependent on illicit or street drugs. I hope the Minister can look at that point. Many opioid users are struggling to get treatment. In recent years, there has been a rising trend in the number of opioid deaths, yet the number of people with addiction to heroin and opioids accessing treatment has fallen in the last 10 years or so. There is a problem here that needs to be addressed.
We often talk about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime—I think a former Prime Minister said that, and it is something we can all agree with. What good treatment for people affected by substance misuse is not about is being tough on crime and being tough on addicts. That does not work, it has not worked, and it is driving a wedge between the health system and the people it is trying to support. I hope that we can recognise in our broader discussions about prohibition that the current policies are a barrier to people with drug dependence receiving the care and support that they need.
I am keen to make sure that everyone gets a chance to speak. I suggest that people have a self-imposed speaking time of three minutes. That will leave a little less time for the Front-Benchers, but I would like to make sure that everyone gets the chance to air their view. I call Jeff Smith.
I will be as brief as possible, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing this debate and on his long and strong advocacy on these issues. I am tempted to say only that I agree with everything that he said, because I do, but I have a few brief comments to add.
First, I want to say how disappointing it is to see the Minister and the shadow Minister in their places today, not because I have anything against either of them personally, but because I hope that one day we will have a debate on drug policy where a Health Minister and shadow Health Minister answer the debate. For too long, we have treated drug policy as a Home Office and criminal issue rather than the health issue that it should be.
My starting premise is that we will never stop people wanting to take drugs. Humans have taken psychoactive substances for thousands of years. Our brains like them—it is not our fault; they just do. If we are honest, people take drugs because, often, they are enjoyable, whether it is alcohol or one of the illegal drugs. Most people enjoy taking them. Most people take them without problems most of the time. Sometimes, however, use becomes problematic, whether it be of alcohol or illegal drugs. We do not tackle problematic alcohol use by banning alcohol. That would be absurd, so why is it any less absurd that we ban drugs that cause problems when used wrongly? We need to make a distinction between problematic use and recreational use that causes no harm. We have a drug policy that is not working, as has already been said.
Is the clock counting down the time for my speech?
It is counting up.
It is counting up. Have I really had all that time? I cannot quite believe how long I have been speaking for.
Not only does our drug policy not work, but it causes problems, not least through unnecessary criminalisation. In 2017, nearly 38,000 people were unnecessarily criminalised, which leads to poorer life chances and a cycle of prison. Then there is the cost: if we include all the costs of policing, healthcare, the judiciary and so on, it costs £10.7 billion to deal with illegal drug use. The policy is not working. Drug supply is in the hands of organised criminal gangs and that leads to an arms race in violence, trafficking and organised crime. Then there is the stigma, which has already been referred to, which prevents people from seeking treatment.
We need a change. We need to base our drug policy on the evidence of what works. As the Home Office itself found, there is no evidence that tough law enforcement reduces drug use. Change will not to be easy and I will not pretend otherwise; we have had a war on drugs for 50 years and it is ingrained in the political narrative. For too long, though, we have treated this problem the wrong way. For too long, politicians have been part of the problem. It is time that politicians started being part of the solution.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing the debate. I recently went out with the police force in my constituency, and one of the first things we did was go to an accommodation block for young people, where we tested their rooms for drugs. The police had swabs that they pushed along surfaces in the whole block, and under examination they revealed whether the young people had taken drugs. It was not the first time those rooms had been tested. Many of the people had been tested before and many had come up positive before. This was retesting.
Members might ask why, if those young people had been caught once, they did not do something different the next time, but that is part of the problem. The police took the view that it was not something that needed to be enforced in law. They took the view that there was no point in making criminals out of these young people. The real check on what should happen to the young people was not taken by the police; it was taken by the people who run the building. If it was a small amount of drugs that was showing up, they would have a word with the young people and tell them that this was not encouraged. If there was repeatedly a large amount, they would lose their accommodation. That, more than anything, was a frightening prospect for many of those people, who had found the accommodation quite late. It provided them with a lot of security.
There is a real distinction between the policy that the Government have set out and are pursuing and the policy that the police are pursuing at the same time, and those two policies cannot live together. We cannot have people saying one thing and the other people, who are supposed to be a part of the organisation that delivers it, doing something completely different. The Government need to recognise what is actually happening on the ground, because the police are not implementing legislation in the way the Government think they are. They are doing that with a greater spirit of openness about what is good for those young people in the community, and I encourage the Minister to look at that carefully.
Last year in Scotland there were 934 drug-related deaths. Of those, 137 were in Lothian, which covers my constituency. People fear that in 2018 the figure could top 1,000, so they are right to regard this as a crisis that needs to be addressed. The compelling tragedy of those deaths is that most were avoidable. These people did not die because they overdosed; they died because they were using dirty needles or other paraphernalia and they contracted hepatitis C or HIV from other users. They died because the stuff they were taking was either cut with toxic substances or was far more powerful than they expected it to be. In some cases, they died because they had left treatment too early—the orthodoxy is that success is judged by how many people go through treatment rather than by the number of people who are kept in treatment.
I laud the work of agencies and of many sincere individuals on the ground at the frontline. I have spoken to many of them in recent months, and they all tell me that even without changing the law many drug-related deaths are preventable. As Members have said, we could certainly have safe consumption facilities. We could also have heroin-assisted treatment. The reality is that the best way to get somebody off an addiction is first to manage it so that they can regain some control over their lives and begin to make plans. We could also remove the stigma—there are far too many people in our society who react to these deaths by saying, “They’re only junkies; their lives don’t really matter.” We have to say that those people were once valued members of a community and that they could be again, and we need to reach out to them. Finally, we could shift the emphasis on to harm reduction through a massive publicity programme.
I do not have time to say what I wanted to say, so let me just make an appeal to the Minister. There are cross-party concerns about drugs policy, and there is cross-party support for a new initiative from the Home Office to review the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. We deal with no other area of public policy where the principal legislation has remained unchanged for nearly half a century. The problem has got dramatically worse and its character has changed. Far too many people are labouring under the misapprehension that prohibition means control, but it does not. There is no control over what substances come on to our streets, there is no control over how much is available, and there is no control over who is using them. There ought to be, and we have a responsibility as legislators to move forward and achieve that. A review is long overdue, and I implore the Minister at least to be receptive to these appeals.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing the debate. The UK does not operate alone, and neither do global drugs control policies. The UK Government, as a fully paid-up member of UN treaties, must acknowledge and take ownership of the failure of global drugs control policies and the harms that are done in its name—the so-called war on drugs. It is actually a war on the people who use drugs, because it is they who feel the sharp end of prohibition. Some 26 countries have made changes to domestic laws and policies concerning the possession of illicit drugs for personal use in order to protect their citizens, but the UK lags behind.
It is not really a war on drugs; it is a war on citizens’ behaviour, and it is most often delivered by the state against the poorest people and communities. We do not put drugs in prisons; we put people in prisons. We allow the market to regulate itself because we simply prohibit drugs. It is a market, and it will not go away or be managed by simply investing in more police or in border control efforts—it is like trying to make gravity illegal. We cannot be naive and seriously think that there is any way forward but to reform policies to make them fit for today.
That brings me to the long-standing issue of the Glasgow safer drug consumption facility and heroin-assisted treatment pilot project, which has cross-party support in the city, certainly from Labour and the Scottish National party. As hon. Members might be aware, the issue of drug use and drug-related mortality in Glasgow is particularly acute. It is a problem that necessitates radical and disruptive new approaches. Almost a third—267—of Scotland’s drug-related deaths in 2016 occurred in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board area. In Glasgow there are 283 drug-related deaths per 1 million people—an appalling 1,315% higher than the EU average. There are 13,600 people aged between 15 and 64 in the Glasgow City Council area who are problematic drug users, which is twice the national average in Scotland.
That is why the safe drug consumption and heroin-assisted treatment proposal is vital for our city, to improve its public health performance in this area. I met the Minister recently and we had a productive discussion about the issue of safe drug consumption rooms and heroin-assisted treatment. Although we disagree on the safe drug consumption room pilot, primarily over assurances about the safety of the substances that are brought into the facility, I propose that there are methods of testing the substances prior to their being used on the premises, but that is beside the point. I want to focus on where there is a possibility of moving forward in the short term to deal with this pressing issue in Glasgow.
I want to ask the Minister whether she can outline more robust measures to improve and expedite the heroin-assisted treatment pilot programme. How can we get that on the ground and move it forward? I want to see people being able to use drug-related equipment in a safe environment and in a way that can be controlled, and I want the substances that they are using to be assured. That is the only way that we will make an impact on the ground in Glasgow and the only way that we will be able to address the appalling level of drug-related deaths. I would like to focus on the heroin-assisted treatment side of the proposed pilot in Glasgow. Let us focus on delivering something on the ground within the next year—let us get it on the ground and do something as a starting point at least. Will the Minister elaborate on how she can do that?
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mrs Moon; I did not think that I would be called, because earlier I was chairing an all-party parliamentary group meeting. I am more than happy to speak in the debate and to represent my constituents on this really important issue. As other Members have said, the issue of drug consumption rooms in Glasgow has reached a public health crisis point. We absolutely need to do something. Glasgow has a well thought through and evidenced proposal for a drug consumption room in the city.
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
What frustrates me hugely is that all the Home Office Ministers are happy to sit behind their desks down here in London, but they are not happy to come to Glasgow to meet people from the Scottish Drugs Forum or the doctors and experts within the Glasgow health and social care partnership who have worked on this proposal and who know their field extremely well. They do not want to come and listen to the stories of the families in Glasgow whose lives have been blighted by drug misuse for many years. Some families have lost not just one child but two children, and there are grandchildren who now face the prospect of growing up without parents.
The Government are literally deaf to those people’s complaints. They are unwilling to come and listen to those who have come through recovery, who have used such a facility, and who have seen the difference it made to their lives. They have seen the difference, rather than injecting in dirty back lanes, in bin shelters and in tenement closes in the area I represent and beyond. The Minister will not come and listen to those who use drugs right now.
The Scottish Drugs Forum has done a huge amount of work on this. They have talked to people who inject drugs in the city centre of Glasgow and they have said to them, “What facility would help you to normalise your life and get into treatment?” A drug consumption room would enable people to come in at a lower level. They do not have to commit to a treatment programme, but they can take the first step towards treatment and a better, more stable life for themselves and their extended family.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) said, those people are not just junkies. We should get rid of that horrible term from our vocabulary, because it helps nobody. It stigmatises and is cruel, and it signals that we do not value those people in society. We need to turn that around and give those people the support they need to come back from the brink and give their lives some semblance of order. We cannot write anybody off in society. Doing so is not fair to those people or their families. It also costs us an absolute fortune, as people make repeated visits to accident and emergency departments, and we have to pick up the pieces of the chaos it causes. Housing associations have to pick up needles day in, day out, because this problem is not going away. The Minister can bury her head in the sand, but I challenge her to come to Glasgow, meet the people I meet, and not just make decisions from behind her desk in Westminster.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) for introducing this debate and illustrating yet again the expertise he has developed by getting involved in policy discussions not just here but in other jurisdictions, where he has obviously learned a lot.
As my hon. Friend and others have said, our starting point must be the dreadful impact that drug misuse has on too many people, directly and indirectly. We have heard about the statistics for Scotland: 934 drug-related deaths were registered in 2017, up by 66 from 2016. The hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) fairly pointed out that those numbers are particularly awful, but the causes are complex and some of them date back decades. There are economic costs associated with the problem—drug misuse costs £3.5 billion a year in Scotland, and alcohol misuse costs a further £3.6 billion—but they are nothing compared with the personal tragedies of each life affected. This debate has allowed hon. Members to focus on how we should respond to this huge challenge. I thank everyone for their contributions.
It is fair to say that the majority view is that the criminal justice approach is not working, as the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) said. Some hon. Members argued eloquently that the way we regulate drug use through criminal law needs not just reform but fundamental reform. We should be open-minded about that, and I agree that our response should be evidence-led.
Regardless of how we respond, we should first and foremost see this as a public health issue—almost everybody who spoke in the debate said that, and I agree—albeit one that requires input from many Departments, including on housing, mental health, employability, education and justice. In Edinburgh, the drugs policy unit has been moved out of the Justice Directorate and into the Health Directorate. Like the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), I think that is exactly where it belongs. The 2008 drugs strategy, which has been referred to, received cross-party support, but it is being updated.
That first strategy, “The Road to Recovery”, helped to shift cultural attitudes and challenge stigma. It established a broad recovery network, delivered locally through 30 alcohol and drug partnerships. It brought together health boards, local authorities, policy and voluntary agencies in each part of the country. National leadership was provided by the Scottish Recovery Network, the Scottish Drugs Forum and Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs. It led to a new focus on harm reduction. For example, the pioneering naloxone programme was designed to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses. We have heard a bit of criticism of that programme, but a recent NHS Health Scotland literature review demonstrated that take-home naloxone programmes increase the odds of recovery from overdoses, and improve knowledge of overdose recognition and management in the community. We have also heard criticism of the substitution treatment that accompanied the strategy, but the NHS Health Scotland evidence review suggests that, overall, the health of opioid-dependent individuals is safeguarded while they are in substitution treatment.
The new strategy is set to be finalised imminently. We have not seen the final draft, but we know something of the direction of travel. We also know that it will be funded by an additional £20 million a year in each of the remaining three years of the Scottish parliamentary Session. It will contain policies that reflect a better understanding of the causes of addiction and substance abuse, including some that have been referred to today, such as deprivation, poverty and adverse childhood experiences. As has been highlighted, there will be a more holistic focus on the person, rather than simply on the addiction. Recovery remains the goal, but there will be a greater focus on tying that goal to work on homelessness, employability, mental health and family support. That is simply in recognition of the fact that, too often, the most vulnerable find it hardest to access the sustained support they need for those key issues.
The new focus will be on “seek, keep and treat”. It is acknowledged that the most vulnerable are sometimes the least likely to access the services that could support them. There will therefore be more proactive outreach and advocacy, and broader and more sustained attempts to keep people in treatment by responding to their broader needs. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) rightly highlighted that keeping people in treatment is problematic and that we need to do better on it. Treatment must be tailored carefully to the person. We must recognise that some will not be ready yet to start on the road to recovery or abstinence, while others will start on that road but relapse. Support must continue and be sustained throughout the process.
A measure that would fit with that approach, which a number of hon. Members have referred to, is the establishment of a drug consumption room. My party is keen on that, and there is almost, but not quite, unanimous support for it in the Scottish Parliament. Work on piloting a safe drug consumption room would be hugely welcome. It has been driven by the Glasgow City health and social care partnership. It could serve an estimated 400 to 500 people who would otherwise be injecting unsafely and publicly, and who would experience high levels of harm. Such a facility could significantly reduce the risk of further outbreaks of blood-borne viruses.
Evidence from elsewhere shows that drug consumption rooms can make a significant difference in reducing drug-related deaths. A Sydney study linked such facilities to fewer emergency service call-outs, an increased uptake of detoxification and drug-dependence treatments, a decrease in public injecting, and a reduction in the number of syringes discarded in the vicinity. Similar studies from Barcelona have found similar positive results.
The question is: why on earth does the Home Office not want to pilot a drug consumption room? The evidence shows that it is likely to achieve significant benefits. In the unlikely event that it does not work, the fall-back will not be on the Home Office; we will accept full responsibility. There is no justification for such intransigence. The Home Office’s failure to act is endangering lives. I echo calls from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for the Minister to meet the Public Health Minister in Scotland. She should visit Glasgow to hear from practitioners who are pursuing this cause.
Tackling drug addiction must be supported across portfolio areas. Ideally, we need education to try to help young people to become resilient to offers of drugs or pressure to take them in the first place. Where the criminal law is breached, diverting people—especially young people—from the criminal justice system can be effective if alternative interventions mean addressing the underlying causes of offending, including for drugs, with hugely beneficial lifetime implications. If drug users are in prison, a dedicated improvement fund is being used in Scotland to ensure that programmes there properly address health-related causes of offending, such as drug and alcohol misuse. Each of those drugs policies could be the subject of a separate debate in their own right.
Drug addiction is first and foremost a public health issue. Our key ask is for the Minister to look again at piloting a drug consumption room in Glasgow. She has absolutely nothing to lose with such a policy, and lots of people have lots to gain.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward—although I thought you were Mrs Moon.
Our policy on drug use should be regarded first and foremost as a national health issue. As hon. Members have emphasised, we need better legislation on drug use, with far greater intervention and education policies on drug abuse and addiction. The UK now has the highest recorded level of mortality from drug misuse since records began, and nothing is more important than preserving our citizens’ lives. Our approach to drugs is simply not doing that, so it is time to consider all options, based on what is most effective in reducing harm.
The war on drugs is failing. People are being exploited by drug dealers and traffickers on an industrial scale. The rising prevalence of county lines and sexual exploitation highlights the need for criminal action against the perpetrators. Greater training and funding for frontline services is essential to crack down on the gangs and individuals who treat people like commodities. They inflict pain and suffering on vulnerable people, and sexually abuse them.
Traffickers are targeting potential victims, including by “cuckooing”, whereby drug dealers befriend vulnerable addicts and supply them with narcotics before moving into their homes. They then threaten to withdraw the supply of drugs, or use threats and intimidation, to get their victims to sell the substances.
Homeless people are increasingly becoming the victims of modern slavery, lured by traffickers with promises of work, housing and narcotics. They are then used as forced labour to sell drugs or in other forms of criminal exploitation. This year the number of British people coming to statutory support services after being identified as victims of modern slavery has doubled. Many were homeless and had existing drug addictions, making them a target for traffickers, who used their addiction to coerce them into harmful activities. An increasing number of people have been identified as victims of slavery, ending up destitute, homeless and re-trafficked shortly after exiting safe houses.
Addiction is an illness. Young people sell themselves for their next fix and join dangerous and abusive gangs to ensure that their addiction is fed. Far more needs to be done to educate children in schools about drug use and the associated dangers that addiction brings. We are not talking about recreational drugs; we are talking about people who are dependent on a substance that dominates their ability to function.
Involvement in the criminal justice system often results from both illegal drug taking and the criminal activities to obtain those drugs. The destructive behaviours are often caused by brain changes triggered by drug use. Treating drug-involved offenders will provide us with an opportunity to decrease substance abuse and reduce associated criminal behaviour. Commitment to expand drug treatment facilities is essential to ensure a better way to cut the numbers of people who are addicted and keep them out of the criminal justice system.
We are failing people who are addicted to drugs. We have to look at where we have gone wrong. Drug addiction is not getting any better, so the existing system is clearly not working. It must be made much easier for people to get the treatment that they need. Facilities for treating people with drug issues must be improved and increased. Drug reform would be an opportunity to address the issues in the criminal justice system. It is time to think differently about punishment for drug-related offences, to increase the treatment budgets to prevent addiction and drug-related deaths, and to change drug policy so that police forces up and down the country have a uniform approach to drug addiction, allowing them to better tackle the drug battle that permeates all our towns and cities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. As I have previously stated on the record, owing to the potential for a conflict of interest, given my husband’s business interests, I have recused myself on issues to do with cannabis and synthetic cannabinoids. I therefore will not respond to those points during this debate, but will ask the Policing Minister, who deals with such matters, to write to Members instead.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing the debate. His debates on drugs always seem to be interrupted by numerous Divisions, so I am delighted to have reached the point where I have a little time to sum up.
This Government recognise the serious harm that drugs cause, not only to individual users but to their families, children and local communities. Drugs have been identified in the recent serious violence strategy as a major driver of the recent increases in serious violence. Drugs cost more than £10 billion pounds a year to our society, over half of which is attributed to drug-related acquisitive crime such as burglary, robbery and shoplifting. We remain ambitious in our commitment to addressing such problems. That is why we committed to further action on drugs as part of the serious violence strategy.
Our policy on drugs is anchored in education to reduce demand, tough and intelligent enforcement to restrict supply, evidence-based treatment to aid recovery, and co-ordinated global action. I will deal with the global picture first. The UK is driving global action to tackle drug harms. Genuine international challenges include the increased production and purity of cocaine in Colombia, and the problems of fentanyl use in North America. International co-operation is key. We continue to strengthen controls at our borders, share information and understand global trends. Last week, I met people from the International Narcotics Control Board who had come to view our work on tackling drugs. We will continue to work closely with our international partners to share best practice and achieve the best possible outcomes for all those at risk of harm from drugs.
In the national picture, the Government are already delivering a range of action through the 2017 drug strategy to prevent drug misuse in our communities, support people to recover from dependence on drugs, and support law enforcement to tackle the illicit drug trade.
On reducing drug dependency, is the Minister aware that generic buprenorphine is no longer available from the manufacturer? As a result, drug treatment uses the Subutex brand, which costs £3,000 per patient per year and is becoming increasingly expensive. Will she look into that? It is proving financially difficult to support patients with opioid-substitution therapy.
I will of course look into that, and I will ask a Health Minister to write to my hon. Friend.
The drug strategy recognises that we must reduce demand by acting early to prevent people from using drugs in the first place and to prevent escalation to more harmful use. We are taking action to build resilience among young people, alongside a targeted approach for groups at particular risk. Well-off recreational drug users must also recognise the part that they play in funding the criminal networks that supply their drugs and the violence that those crime gangs use.
My shadow, the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), has already mentioned the issue of county lines. Yesterday, we had a meeting of the serious violence taskforce. It is absolutely clear that the illicit drug market is a major driver of the rise of serious violence, which is why the police must work with our health professionals to tackle it. Schools play a vital role in that, helping children to understand the risks of illicit drugs and build their resilience and ability to say no. The Government are making health education compulsory, as well as funding Mentor UK’s Alcohol and Drug Education and Prevention Information Service to provide practical advice to teachers.
Tough enforcement, however, is fundamental. We are restricting the supply of drugs, adapting our approach to changes in criminal activity, using innovative data and technology, and taking co-ordinated action to tackle drugs alongside other criminal activity. With the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, we have choked off the supply of so-called legal highs. More than 300 retailers throughout the UK have closed down or are no longer selling psychoactive substances. Police have arrested suppliers, and the National Crime Agency has ensured the removal of psychoactive substances from sale on UK-based websites.
Yet those substances have been replaced by others, which are possibly more damaging, such as Spice and Mamba. We are not solving the problem; all we are doing is pushing it around the table.
Interestingly, the hon. Gentleman raised the issue of decriminalisation, and I again note that no single body of opinion has formed about how such decriminalisation would work. Who would administer the drugs, presumably available on the NHS to users? Will that include recreational drugs such as MDMA, so that people can have fun at the weekend, with the taxpayer paying for it?
I welcome the chance to discuss the issue, but the problem with such a debate is that “decriminalisation” is referred to, but not a body of opinion—certainly none described in this debate—to evidence what would happen under such a policy. The police and others have to deal with precisely these issues day to day, to protect our communities from illicit drug use, because those drugs harm people.
The Minister is setting out the case for why there is an obstacle to change. In Durham, for example, the police and crime commissioner, a very experienced chief constable and all the agencies say, “Give this a try.” They believe that decriminalisation will work, because the evidence suggests that. Why does she not pilot such a scheme?
One or two police and crime commissioners may say that—I know, because they write to me regularly—but the majority of them do not share that view. That is not to say that we cannot have a debate about this, but let us please not pretend that that is the view of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners.
Recovery is a vital element of our approach. We are taking forward action to enhance treatment quality and outcomes. Here is perhaps where some colleagues have—inadvertently I am sure—fallen into error when talking about drug consumption rooms and heroin-assisted treatment. Sometimes, people may not understand the differences between the two programmes. We have run pilot heroin-assisted treatment programmes, where heroin users are put into an intensive support programme through their GPs or other medical professionals. They are prescribed diamorphine as part of an intensive programme of action. That is very different from drug consumption rooms, which support the illicit drug market.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not, as I am conscious of time. People wander into drug consumption rooms, having bought their fixes on the street. We have no guarantees on the safety of those substances. The Government simply cannot condone that sort of behaviour, not least because it falls foul of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, but also because it would not be responsible to support the illegal market.
The Government say they cannot condone that, but what lessons are they taking from the view of the International Narcotics Control Board?
Interestingly, the view of the International Narcotics Control Board is very cautious. It says that drug consumption rooms must be operated
“within a framework that offers treatment and rehabilitation services”.
I would argue that its model is closer to heroin-assisted treatment.
I have one minute left, so I am afraid I will have to refuse more interventions.
We are helping users through needle and syringe programmes, to prevent infections, and opioid-substitution therapy, and widening the use of naloxone. The Home Secretary has commissioned an independent review of the drugs market in the 21st century—it is not quite the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, as the hon. Member for Inverclyde represented. We need to understand how the drugs market works today. That is why, as part of our drugs strategy and our serious violence strategy, working with health partners, we are convinced that this is the right approach.
I sincerely thank everyone who has taken part in this afternoon’s debate. I mentioned that I had visited drug consumption rooms in Barcelona—I understand the difference between them and heroin-assisted treatment units. What impressed me most about those rooms were not just the facilities—they were attached to health clinics and psychiatric hospitals, and there was even a mobile unit being driven around the area—but the attitude of the people providing the service in those units. They looked upon the users of their clinics as human beings first and foremost. They had moved away from the idea of categorising and stigmatising people as junkies, crackheads and stoners. They did not see a problem but an opportunity to help people back into life.
It was summed up perfectly to me when it was explained that people living in Catalonia who have a medical card get free medical care; immigrants living in Catalonia are given a medical card, so they get free medical care; and illegal immigrants in Catalonia are given a medical card, so they get free medical care. They have taken the stance that this is about humanity and their approach to their fellow citizens. Only when we do that will we start to address the horrendous problems we have in our society through problematic drug use.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered drugs policy.
Dead Man’s Penny Memorial Plaque
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the dead man’s penny memorial plaque.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. A number of years ago, before I became a Member of Parliament, I went to a local car boot sale. Looking through all the bric-a-brac and things from days gone by, I came across a bronze plaque that was six inches in diameter. It looked to all the world like a huge Victorian penny. It had Britannia on the front, shadowed by a lion. There were two dolphins and, at the bottom, a smaller lion was ripping apart an eagle. The lion with Britannia was the lion of courage, and the other lion was ripping apart the German eagle, while the dolphins signified the dominance of the seas that Great Britain enjoyed at the time. There was writing around the edge because the plaque was intended to commemorate the life of a fallen soldier. Such a plaque was known—rather crudely, given that it was to commemorate the life of one of our fallen soldiers—as a dead man’s penny.
The service people were from the fledging Air Force of the first world war, the Navy, which dominated the seas, and those who had fallen on the battlefields. They were originally to be positioned in the war grave headstones, but that did not happen due to the fear of metal pilfering after the war. They were struck only for the first world war as they cost so much to produce. Each plaque was struck—not engraved—with the name of the fallen soldier or serviceman.
I remember looking at the plaque—I did not know what it was; I researched it later—and wondering what had happened to the family of the fallen soldier, why the plaque had ended up there, what was the story behind it and what was the story of the soldier’s life and the family he left behind. It struck me that, more often than not, such plaques reach the market—militaria shops and auction sites—because the family have died. I emphasise strongly that militaria shops do us a great service by helping to keep alive the spirit of campaigns and conflicts that we only read about in the history books. We in Morecambe are fortunate enough to have an excellent military memorabilia shop, along with a proud and distinguished military heritage in Lancaster.
I found out later that more than 1.3 million plaques were struck—the exact number is not known—and given out to the families of the fallen. They were struck from 450 tons of bronze. They arrived in a box, sometimes with the medals of the soldier, airman or seaman, and every one of them had a certificate signed by King George V. They were given out predominantly after the war, although some were given before its end.
What do they mean in our day and age, 100 years on? We have had other wars, but world war one was the only occasion on which these plaques were struck in honour of the fallen. As I said, each plaque was individually struck—not engraved—with the name of a serviceman, but with no mention of their rank. It was struck simply to commemorate the serviceman or woman who gave their life doing their duty in the service of their country. In fact, 1,500 were given to women service personnel. They were given out all across the Commonwealth, to everybody engaged in the conflict.
In the great war, we lost 22 Members of Parliament, 20 Lords and 98 sons of people who worked here or were Members. This debate therefore has meaning not just for the rest of the country, but for Parliament itself. The outside of the plaque reads:
“He died for freedom and honour”.
Some plaques say, “She died”, depending on the sex of the service person. I once acquired a plaque. The gentleman named on it was Charles Edward Woodward. It had a hole in the plaque, a fact that made me a little emotional in my last debate on this subject 12 months ago, because it meant that it would have been hung on the wall, over the mantelpiece in his parent’s home. It would have been all they had left of him. I recently found out that his two other brothers also perished in the first world war. I got this plaque from a militaria shop not far from here, and the staff were very helpful and honourable in the exchange. With it came this man’s history, which says that it is a great war memorial plaque issued in memory of Charles Edward Woodward, who served as Private Nm. 1,200 of the 1/5th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment, Territorial Force, and was killed in action at Ypres on 30 September 1915.
The local newspaper, the Lincolnshire Chronicle, reported Private Woodward’s death. A biographical note—bear with me, Sir Edward, because the type is quite small—states:
“News of the death of Pte. C. Woodward was recorded in the Lincolnshire Chronicle, he met his death while on duty in the trenches, the trench being struck by shells and he was buried. He was got out later, but only survived about an hour. The above was partly contradicted in a letter from Capt. Scorer to his parents, in which he stated ‘I have to inform you of the death of your son, Pte. C. W. Woodward, on the evening of 30th September. Our trenches were blown up by a German mine and about 60 yards destroyed. Your son was buried in the debris; we dug him out alive, and hoped he would recover, as from outward appearances he did not appear to be injured; but he died later from shock.’ Pte. Woodward was in his 21st year, and first in the village to lose his life.”
Private Woodward is commemorated by name on the Ypres Menin Gate memorial. He was only 20 at his death. He was the son of Parker and Mary Jane Woodward of Rose Cottage, Halton Fenside, Spilsby, Lincolnshire. This plaque was all that was left of him. He was a person. We should not forget that each one of these plaques signifies an individual—a person—who lost their life.
I want to raise awareness that each of these plaques signifies a person. I hope that one day they form a memorial—perhaps in the Imperial War Museum, although it will be difficult to find an area big enough to house more than 1.3 million of them—that demonstrates what they represent and commemorates those who died preserving the integrity of the democracy for which they fought proudly and gave their lives.
Sadly, however, over the years some of the plaques have been scrapped because no one knew what they were. Although I do not think many of them found their way into scrap yards, that nevertheless happened. The previous Member for Croydon South promoted a private Member’s Bill that resulted in legislation that prevents war memorials from being attacked and melted down. I would like these plaques to be covered by that legislation. They mean something. They are a memorial in themselves, especially in the centenary year of the end of the first world war.
What is the Government’s role? I know that they would like to do everything they can, but logistically that is impossible. It is up to us all in the community to recognise that these plaques really mean something. I would love to see some of them form a national memorial to the fallen or go to local regiments, local museums or even the Military Heritage Society.
I was honoured and fortunate enough to go to Spilsby, where I was accompanied by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who is present today. Private Charles Woodward’s plaque now hangs in the memorial hall in his own village. He has found his way home. I am proud to have done that. It did not matter where that gentleman was from or that he had no connection to me—none of that mattered at all. What mattered was that he was remembered.
It would be fitting for these plaques to be taken to church on Remembrance Sunday. My debate on this subject in the main Chamber was very emotional and eerie. I do not subscribe to the paranormal, but it really felt as though the man was standing at my side. I had never felt that before, and I doubt I will ever feel it again, but other Members who were in the Chamber at the time experienced the feeling that something else was there too. If we take these plaques to church with us on Remembrance Sunday, those soldiers will be there, too, and they will be remembered. That is all that really matters. Let us remember them, let us honour them 100 years on, and let us celebrate what they did for our freedom.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) for his remarks, for his work on this subject and for organising this important debate, which is poignant as we approach the centenary of the armistice in 1918. One of the fascinating aspects of the first world war is what is left behind. The sheer volume of artefacts—not just medals, memorials and plaques but letters, art and literature—serves to remind us of the monumental scale of that war. It was a global conflict of shocking magnitude.
My hon. Friend has spoken with great clarity about this subject, both today and previously. I commend his passion—a passion that is understandable when one considers that the prevalence of memorial plaques is due to the almost incomprehensible losses suffered by Britain and her Commonwealth allies. It is estimated that more than 1 million plaques and scrolls of the type he described were issued to the next of kin of those who died serving with British and imperial forces in the first world war for king and country. Each of those plaques represents the loss of a life and the devastation that inevitably followed for family members and friends. More than 600 such plaques were issued to the families of women who died, reminding us that the suffering was not confined to the battlefields. Many plaques were donated, used in memorials or displayed prominently and with pride in local museums, and many are still treasured by the descendants of those who fell, but it is thought that many British and empire war dead had no plaque or scroll issued due to the inability in 1919 and 1920 to trace the addresses of eligible next of kin—no doubt as a result of the high incidence of short-term rented addresses and remarriage, and of records that were not as good as they are today.
Over the past four years of commemorative events marking world war one, my Department has seen at first hand the depth of emotion that many people still feel about that war 100 years on, not only through direct family relationships but through associations in their local communities, school connections and regimental ties. My maternal great-grandfather, Jeremiah Mulcahy of the Royal Irish Regiment, was killed in action at Ypres on 31 May 1915. I know that his loss still resonates with my mother in her 81st year. There are people who felt the repercussions of the war directly—people who grew up in care following the collapse of a family unit, or with distant or disabled fathers or grandfathers, or in communities shattered by loss. There are also people whose only connection to their community’s involvement in the great war is a photograph album, a medal or a medallion of the sort to which my hon. Friend referred—a “dead man’s penny”, as they were colloquially known. Frequently, those items are worth far more to people than their monetary value. They are the very heart of a family or community’s history, lore and identity.
During the centenary period, my Department has worked closely with the Imperial War Museum, which has proven itself a worthy guardian of the nation’s wartime history. Through the refurbishment of its first world war galleries, which are very much worth a visit, and its tireless dedication to education, it has been a key partner to Her Majesty’s Government during the centenary period. Like all museums, it has a strict acquisition and disposal policy—in fact, as Minister for the arts and heritage, I have to sign off when it wishes to dispose of items, even if they are duplicates or of very low value—which determines whether it can accept donations. I am sure my hon. Friend understands that, given their limited space and resources, museums have to make difficult decisions about what is of most value in the context of their collections. In this case, the Imperial War Museum feels that the collection of plaques does not meet the policy criteria, and the policy document states that acquisitions outside the current stated policy will be made only in exceptional circumstances.
When the families of fallen men and women were sent the plaques and the scrolls, the items became their property, in the same manner as medals or any other award. I am sure that hon. Members will agree with me that it would not be appropriate for Her Majesty’s Government or any other body to decide what should be done with items of private property, especially items that hold such emotional significance and value. I know that my hon. Friend will understand that, for those reasons, it is not considered either possible or practical for Her Majesty’s Government to attempt to acquire memorial plaques that are no longer in the possession of the families to whom they were issued.
For people in possession of plaques, or for those wishing to research or commemorate an individual, there are other options available. I humbly suggest that Members of this House recommend to any interested constituents that a good starting point would be to visit two excellent online resources that commemorate those who fell in the great war, provide useful information about the person commemorated, and give those in possession of a plaque the option to make that information publicly available. They may find it very rewarding if they can contribute to these sites.
The Royal British Legion’s “Every One Remembered” database aims to ensure that by the end of this year every man and woman from across the Commonwealth who fell during the first world war is remembered individually by those living today. It is a striking lesson that while the way in which people commemorate may have changed thanks to technology, the desire to remember the fallen remains undiminished. I hope that hon. Members will join me in congratulating the Royal British Legion, which we know does such excellent work, on the fact that that every person has now been remembered on the website—more than 1 million people.
A similar digital memorial is the Imperial War Museum’s “Lives of the First World War” project, which I also commend to the House. It records the stories of individuals from across Britain and the Commonwealth—the empire, as it was then—who served in uniform or worked on the home front. Users of the site can add information about medals and service record to an individual’s page if they have more information to add. The facility to add that information, and pictures of artefacts, allows descendants to create a permanent digital memorial of their family’s first world war story. “Lives of the First World War” currently has over 7.5 million individual life stories and over 120,000 registered members.
Her Majesty’s Government’s centenary programme has other programmes that are designed to aid commemorations, and many ways that communities can find out more about these plaques and the memorials on which their ancestors were recorded in the United Kingdom and around the world. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, has made a £4.5 million fund available for the conservation and protection of war memorials, which I think my hon. Friend mentioned. In the first world war memorials programme, Historic England, in partnership with Civic Voice, the Imperial War Museum and the War Memorials Trust, work with the public on a programme of recording, research, conservation and listing, to ensure that war memorials across Britain are protected and the people they commemorate are remembered. To date, the War Memorials Trust has made over 360 repair grants, totalling some £1.4 million, to help repair war memorials across the country that are in a poor state and need some work.
I should also mention the work of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in the Victoria Cross commemorative paving stones project. This project commemorates each of the 627 men who were awarded the highest accolade, the Victoria Cross, during the first world war, placing a commemorative stone in the town or village of their birth or, in the case of those born overseas, at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. The stones are a visible reminder of the heroic contribution made by local people.
No debate on this subject would be complete without mentioning the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Many thousands of casualties from the British Empire are buried in some 23,000 immaculately maintained CWGC sites in more than 150 countries around the world. These moving and sensitively maintained sites are a permanent reminder of the enormous sacrifices made in war. Anyone visiting such a site cannot help but be deeply moved. Of course, the commission does far more than maintain the resting places of the fallen. In 2017 it founded the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation specifically to keep alive the memory and the stories of those who died in the two world wars for generations to come.
With the centenary of the armistice just days away, I am very pleased to have had this opportunity to publicise the options open to people who are in possession of memorial plaques; I reiterate my gratitude to my hon. Friend for bringing this debate to the House. Through the Government’s unique commemorative programme and the innovative work by our partners in developing ways of commemorating the first world war, we can ensure that future generations never forget those who fell. We can also ensure that they have tools at their disposal to allow them to research their ancestors and the many others who fought 100 years ago. The memorial plaques—the dead man’s pennies—and the many other memorials to the fallen of the first world war are a constant reminder of the huge sacrifice made by a whole generation 100 years ago, and I again thank my hon. Friend for proposing this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered addictive technology.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to introduce a debate that I feel is of growing relevance. Our discussion could go in many different directions, but I will focus mainly on the use of smartphones, apps and social media. How often these days do we hear the phrase, “Get off your phone!”? It could be uttered between two strangers in a restaurant; it could be any one of us saying it to a partner or a child, or having them say it to us. We only have to get on a bus, walk down the street or sit in the House of Commons Chamber to see examples of how engrossed we have all become in devices such as smartphones and tablets.
Last September, the iPhone celebrated its 10th birthday. At the time, my first thought was, “Has it really only been 10 years?” I do not think that was a matter of misjudging the passage of time; instead, I was reflecting on the behavioural, social and cultural impact of the smartphone revolution that began with the iPhone, and wondering how all of these changes could have happened in the last 10 years. The urge to check our phone while we are waiting for a friend to arrive, or when we are bored, watching TV or even at dinner, is like a new muscle reflex for many—including me. When we forget our phone and sense the absence of its weight in our pocket or bag, it feels like much more than just a missing piece of technology. I cannot be the only one who has felt the panic of looking for my phone, only to realise that I am holding it in my hand.
In the run-up to this debate I asked Parliament’s Digital Outreach Service to collect the views of members of the public on whether they felt their own relationship with technologies such as mobile phones, tablets, social media and videogames was having a negative effect on their lives. One respondent, Keith, said:
“As I type I’m tapping on a cell phone waiting for my bus, so I suppose it passes time. On the other hand, I nearly missed it posting this message, so yes is the answer.”
That is probably a typical experience for many people. Let us be in no doubt that these devices are incredibly useful tools. They make day-to-day tasks more convenient and we get a lot of enjoyment out of them. They give us the power to connect to our friends and families, no matter where they are, all around the world. The question is: are they making us connect less with the people right in front of us?
From the 2016 US presidential election, Brexit and the Cambridge Analytica scandal to the increase in online abuse and bullying and the growing evidence that smartphones, their apps and social media are addictive and causing behavioural changes rather than adapting to demand, we are seeing a darker side to these technologies, which highlights how we may have misplaced our sense of control. I want to use this debate to discuss how to live well with the technology we use every day.
It is becoming clearer that there are features of smartphones, the apps that they run and social media that are inherently addictive. Recently, former technology designers for companies such as Facebook, Apple and Google have admitted that the technologies and apps they designed have contributed to technological addiction. Many designers are driven to create addictive app features by the business models of the big companies that employ them, and let us remember that many apps have in-app purchases, so in some cases there are financial consequences for users. Aza Raskin, a former technology developer for Mozilla, which makes the popular Firefox web browser, has described the way in which apps and interfaces are made as if the tech companies are
“taking behavioural cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface”.
He also said:
“Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally…a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting.”
Mr Raskin helped to design the software function known as infinite scroll, which allows users to scroll through pages and pages of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram content without having to click “next page.” He is not alone. Leah Pearlman, the co-inventor of Facebook’s “like” button, raised concerns that the design of modern personal technology and digital interfaces are habit-forming, in some cases leading to addiction. She said:
“When I need validation, I go to check Facebook… I’m feeling lonely, let me check my phone. I’m feeling insecure, let me check my phone.”
Ms Pearlman tried to quit Facebook after resigning her role at the company, but she found it hard. She realised she was
“kind of addicted to the feedback.”
That is someone who worked for one of these companies.
We could be experiencing a temporary blip, such as when television was first introduced. Perhaps our relationships with these devices will normalise. However, many of us will recognise these concerns in our lives.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this important and timely debate. Does he agree with Arianna Huffington, who wrote the books “Thrive” and “The Sleep Revolution” in which she talks about technology and how in many cases we take better care of our smartphones than ourselves?
That is right, and I will take up the hon. Lady’s reading recommendation. We all have experience of mindlessly scrolling through our Twitter feeds and finding that our mood is affected by what we see, but, as with many things, it is often young people who are affected the most. I know many parents who are very concerned about the digital world their children inhabit for much of the time. To a certain extent, that is a natural concern for parents of each new generation, but that does not mean it is unwarranted. The sheer rate of advancement in the technology now available means that young people are growing up in an environment that is completely alien even to relatively young parents, and we do not yet fully understand the consequences.
The impact on mental health for all of us is becoming clearer, with new studies emerging at increasing pace showing a link between technology overuse and poorer mental health. Large-scale studies in the US have shown that adolescents who spend more time on new media, including social media and electronic devices such as smartphones, are more likely to report mental health issues than those who spend less time on such platforms. By comparing those studies, researchers were able to point towards a relationship between depressive symptoms and overuse of technology, particularly among women and girls.
That is just one study of many, and the science is still evolving. Compared with our understanding of other negative health habits, the timeframe for research is relatively short. We have not been using these devices for long enough to fully understand their impact. It took decades for it to emerge that smoking was an addictive habit detrimental to our health. Of course, smoking and modern technology are not directly comparable, but technology is both an opportunity and a risk, and we must ensure we get more of the former and less of the latter.
I hope Members agree that tech companies have a duty of care to the consumers who use their products. I welcome Apple’s recent intervention to introduce a screen time function that allows consumers to monitor and restrict their time or use of certain apps. I hope that will be rolled out on a wider basis by other tech companies. I also hope that social media companies and app creators such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp will stop focusing on developing new ways to demand our attention and push constant notifications at us and start developing ways that make it easier for us to switch off.
In the US, we have seen the rise of the so-called “dumb phone” that can be used in conjunction with a smartphone, allowing users to leave their smartphone at home and go about their business for the day with a featureless phone that only makes and receives calls from the same number. Perhaps we need an easier method than deleting all of our apps to turn off our smartphones’ multiple features so that they operate just as phones.
The big tech companies could be doing much more both to help us mitigate the negative effects of their technology and to help us understand it. In much the same way as the gambling industry and the alcohol industry contribute funds from their profits to mitigate the negative effects of their products, I see no reason why the big technology companies could not contribute to some sort of fund that supports research into the health impact of their products and services and helps to promote healthy use of their technology. That could apply to everything from using a smartphone to combating online abuse and bullying. I hope the Chancellor will be willing to look at that further.
Many tech companies do conduct their own research, and that is good, but these products need to be scrutinised by independent research. No industry should be able to mark its own homework; that applies as much to Google, Apple and Facebook as it does to any other industry. What I am calling for is cross-party consensus that we have not necessarily got our approach right and that more needs to be done to understand the potential impact of technology on our lives. People need power and control over their use of these technologies, instead of feeling that they have become captured by them.
The conversation needs to continue. I am considering setting up an all-party parliamentary group to further these discussions, and if Members in the Chamber would be interested in joining such a group, perhaps they could let me know. The Government have asked the chief medical officer to look at guidance on technology use and they may be considering setting up an internet regulator. I would be interested to hear if the Minister has any update on that in the context of the debate as well as any other thoughts she has on this issue.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) on leading such an interesting debate. It seems that technology has been developing at such a fast rate in the last decade or so that politicians, parents, teachers and many others, as well as rules and legislation, are struggling to keep up. With mobile phones now an integral part of life for most people, it is easy to understand how some may have become addicted to, or at least over reliant on, their tech.
In our work as politicians, we are expected to have a constant presence online, processing thousands of emails and absorbing thousands of messages on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, to name just some of the platforms on which some of us operate. The same is true for those in many roles in the private and public sectors—and that is before we take into account how we use technology in our private lives or in education. Screen time is almost inevitable today, so I will focus my remarks on the effects of too much of it, regardless of whether we use the term “addiction.”
It is well known that social media has an effect on mental health. My right hon. friend the Health and Social Care Secretary highlighted that when he announced this month that the chief medical officer is reviewing the impact that excessive social media can have on children’s mental health. I very much look forward to reading Dame Sally Davies’ findings, and I hope they will help parents—especially those who do not have a good grasp of social media and the internet—to understand better how to manage its use. It is unfortunately not surprising that on platforms where we show only the best of ourselves, our young people find it ever harder to feel as though they are achieving and content with their lives.
It is important not to vilify technology and blame it for all our social ills. Phones helped to bring about revolution in the Arab spring and to document the atrocious use of chemical weapons in Syria, and they have provided us with access to information that our predecessors could only have dreamed about. Social media has brought us all closer together and enabled us to stay in touch with our families and friends in a way that otherwise would not have been possible. People are now much more engaged with their representatives and the political system, which no longer feel so out of reach. Those benefits should concentrate our minds on ensuring that addiction to tech does not get out of hand and that people are trained to help when it does. In my constituency in the Scottish borders, the council is training young people in mental health first aid, which I hope will become an exemplar policy to others and go some way towards reducing the risks of tech.
I welcome the debate. I am more than happy to support the bid from the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West for an all-party parliamentary group and I again congratulate him on securing this important debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I again congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) on initiating the debate. It is very timely, given how much discussion there has been recently about the impact of technology.
Let me give my own perspective. At home, my partner and I have instituted “no phones after 10 o’clock” and “no phones at the dinner table” rules. I have lost count of the number of times that I have been in restaurants and seen couples eating their dinner and then going on their phones and not even speaking to each other. I remember being particularly anxious about social media just before the summer recess. I was reflecting on it when I heard a BBC Radio Scotland programme in which the impact of social media was discussed. A guy whose name I have forgotten spoke about how he was starting to see his life through social media: we was looking at every experience he was having in the context of how it would be represented on his various feeds—Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I thought, “Oh my goodness, I do exactly the same thing.” That really struck me and it made me stop and reflect, so when I was away on holiday in the Scottish highlands, I tried not to use my mobile phone and not to post online. I was not terribly successful. I even said in a post online that I was not going to be engaging with social media and I still failed, because I had a constituency issue that I needed to deal with.
Selkirk (John Lamont) made excellent points about the way in which people now engage with their elected representatives through social media. I think that it is a very positive thing, but I have to say that when we are on various platforms and getting messages in our personal accounts as well as our MP accounts, sometimes it can be overwhelming. More and more I have found that my staff are managing not only an email inbox but a Facebook account inbox and checking the personal messages on Twitter. On a few occasions, I have bumped into people and they have said, “Oh, I sent you a message about x or y issue and I haven’t had a response.” I say to them, “Did you email me?” and they say, “No, no. I sent you a message on Facebook,” so I have to go and search for that message and it has perhaps ended up in a different filter.
We can all reflect on the impact that technology has had on our lives. The World Health Organisation declared “gaming disorder” an addictive behaviour disorder in June 2018. It is interesting to note that 28 academics wrote to the WHO, protesting that that was poorly informed by science. That feeds into the point made by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West about a lack of research. His proposal to make gaming companies feed into a fund that properly funds research is really important. We have to remember that many companies, particularly in Scotland, have developed games and make a significant contribution to the economy, but this is about balance. I was a gamer myself as a kid. I still have my Nintendo and my Sega Master System lying in a dusty heap in my mum’s loft. I remember having those very defined thumbs and playing old games such as California Games, but we have moved on a lot and now so much is on our phones. My four-year-old niece is champing at the bit to get a mobile phone, and her parents are resisting that, but she knows how to use every piece of technology in the house.
We have to face the reality that smartphones and smart technology are part of our everyday lives. The question is how we ensure that there is a balance. The world of play has been diminished by technology. People’s fears about letting their children out have increased, although I am not sure that there is really any more threat than there was when I was a kid and did not have a mobile phone. I would go to the local park and be out for hours, and my mother would phone round all the houses to find out where I was. We are now in a very different world, in which parents can contact their children 24/7. That is good in many respects, but we have to look at the wider issue of childhood obesity and children perhaps not going out to play in the same way as they did before.
The debate has been very interesting. I like the hon. Gentleman’s idea of setting up an all-party parliamentary group. I hope that the tech companies will come and discuss that with him. He made a point about what people see now on social media. It was interesting to see the report from the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. It is not getting as good a response from the Government as it should be, and it would be good to hear the Minister address some of the issues around fake news—the issues that we saw during the EU referendum. It would be good to hear those being properly addressed, because there is a real risk as people move away from traditional media outlets, away from newspapers, on to social media. We must ensure that the news and information that people get online and on their social media platforms is absolutely accurate and not fake.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) on securing the debate and on making a brilliant opening speech; he set out the issues with clarity and great purpose.
My hon. Friend started with the fact that it is just 10 years since Steve Jobs gave the world the iPhone. I was intrigued to discover, when researching for this debate, that when he introduced that new technology, he made extremely sure that he did not give it to his children. We now face a period in which we will be having this debate with increasing frequency. Statistics that I have seen show that some 40% of people now have some kind of internet-based addiction, whether that involves checking emails, scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, or online gambling. Indeed, figures that I came across this morning show that Generation Z—just slightly younger than yourself, Sir Edward—are now exposed to some 13 hours of media every single day.
We have to recognise that the technology companies that now pervade everyday life will need a very different kind of regulation in the years to come. I was delighted to meet representatives of the Centre for Humane Technology, from the United States, earlier this afternoon. They had a very good analogy. They were looking at various tech scandals around the world and made the point that sometimes, when we look at those symptoms, they are hurricanes, but the addictive technology at the centre is actually more akin to climate change. What we need to do as a legislature is figure out how to introduce a new regulatory regime that will control that climate change. As Tim Berners-Lee said,
“social networks—they are manmade. If they are not serving humanity, they can and should be changed.”
Nearly 30% of children who spend more than three hours on social network sites show symptoms of poor mental health; that is compared with just 12% of children who spend no time on social network sites. It is becoming increasingly obvious to all of us that there is some link between the use of social media, the overuse of social media and, frankly, the mental illness epidemic among many of our young people.
We are also beginning to see significant differences in the ways in which people from different income groups relate to social media. I think that it was Ipsos that this week published research showing that children from better-off families use social media for three and a bit hours less than those from poorer families, and of course there are differences in the way it is used.
With regard to the most dangerous end of the spectrum, we have The Telegraph to thank for a very compelling campaign in which it showed how, at its worst, social media and addictive technology are used to hook children on gambling, particularly casino-style gambling, and to engage children in suicide games, such as the Blue Whale challenge, which has been linked to 100 teenage deaths in Russia. It is no surprise that earlier this year 50 psychologists in America wrote an open letter accusing many of their colleagues of unethical behaviour in advising technology companies on the misuse of addictive tech. If we compare that problem, which is becoming increasingly well defined, with the sort of social contract that we expect from social media firms, we start to see a gulf emerge.
I looked at figures for the taxes paid by social media firms, prepared for me by the Library. It is remarkable how most of the big tech firms in this country are paying very low rates of tax—1.5%, 5%, 6% or 10% at best. That is a long way below even our low levels of corporation tax. We are beginning to see with some clarity the externalities—as economists would call them—or pollution that is created by social media firms, and the taxpayer is expected to clear it up. Unless we begin to change the tax regime and the regulatory regime, this problem will become more pronounced.
The Government need to step up to their responsibilities. The Minister’s former boss, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and others have made a splash in the newspapers, wringing their hands in big interviews, but their concern has not translated into Government action. The Foreign Secretary recently told the newspapers that he thinks there should be safeguards, and that the failure of technology companies to provide these safeguards is “morally wrong” and “unfair on parents”. The chief medical officer has a review in hand and we are waiting with bated breath for the White Paper on internet safety, but I call on the Government to step up.
I have three pleas for the Minister. First, she should look closely at the recommendations that have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West and by those on the Labour Front Bench who have called for a duty of care to be placed on social media companies. If I bought a chunk of land, built a stadium and put loads of people in it, I would quite rightly be held to some pretty rigorous health and safety legislation. If I build a virtual forum, where I put loads of people, there are no obligations on me whatsoever. We need to ensure that there is a duty of care, which is rooted in some tried and tested legislation that goes back to the early 1970s. We need to ensure that the social media firms are understanding and analysing the dangers that their work can pose to their customers. We need them proactively to put in place measures to ameliorate that risk. That needs to be auditable and punishable with significant fines if these firms fall short of their obligations.
I am not at all unsympathetic to what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. There is a concern here that social media may be associated with poor mental health if it is overused, but there is a second issue to do with potentially addictive behaviour in gaming and social media use. It is very difficult to put in place mechanisms to fine the international companies responsible, or to make them adhere to good behaviour in recognising the risks.
That is an important point. The duty of care framework, which has been tried and tested in case law since the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, is a useful, very British and pragmatic solution to these kinds of problems, because it puts the locus on the company to identify the harm it may cause and then take reasonable steps to prevent it.
I think that it is possible for an individual nation state to take action against these companies. That is what we see with the “NetzDG” law in Germany. One in six Facebook moderators work in Germany, which should not surprise any of us. There is a €50m fine if companies in Germany do not take down hate speech within 24 hours and wipe out all illegal content within seven days. I think it is possible for individual countries to introduce domestic regulations that can have a material effect, both on the safety of our fellow citizens and on the behaviour of some of these big companies. If the Government do not do it, we parliamentarians will have to try to build an international coalition for responsible tech. I hope that my hon. Friend’s all-party parliamentary group can make strides towards not only a cross-party consensus in this Parliament, but brokering an international consensus.
The right hon. Gentleman brings to the debate huge knowledge of the matter. Does he agree that one of the issues with content and responsibility online is pornography? The rise of online pornography has had a huge impact on behaviour, particularly that of young men. I commend to him the book “Misogynation: The True Scale of Sexism” by Laura Bates. I went to the Edinburgh international book festival, where she spoke about the rise of incidents in playgrounds, which schools do not necessarily have the tools to deal with, as well as young men becoming addicted to online porn, which is having an effect on their behaviour towards women. Does he agree that that is a serious issue, which we must work together, across parties, the UK and beyond, to tackle?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I have bored the Minister endlessly with this point, but during the 19th century there was not one Factory Act, but 17. As business, technology and marketplaces change, we have to update the legislation.
The Minister knows that if we are to maximise the degree of predictability and certainty for the business world and others, there is a good case for setting out a bill of digital rights for the 21st century. That would include all sorts of useful things, for example enshrining the right to privacy—enshrined in article 8 of the European charter of fundamental rights—and action on algorithmic justice. It could also include some of the initiatives, devices, techniques and legislative approaches, such as the duty of care legislation. I hope that is something that my hon. Friend’s all-party parliamentary group will be able to discuss. If we want a set of principles that can with- stand the test of time, and underpin the reform and re-reform of this sector over the course of the 21st century, we will have to work hard to build that cross-party consensus not only in this country, but around the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk.
I am the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West.
What a bad start! I do apologise to the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont). Of course, I meant to thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West. I share his amazement that it has only been 10 years since the advent of the Apple iPhone. He made an excellent speech, and I identified, as I am sure other hon. Members did, with the examples he gave of the intensity of the relationship that so many of us have with our devices, and how that is—in his view and mine—tipping over to the point where we question whether it is healthy.
The shadow Minister mentioned the Centre for Humane Technology, an excellent organisation, which was founded by scientists and researchers employed by the large social media platforms. One of them, an ethicist working for one of the major platforms, was tasked with trying to bring a more ethical framework to the development of apps and activity on that particular platform. He bowed out with the rather depressing realisation that change was not possible from within and that he would have more effect from outside, so he founded this organisation.
That is a powerful reminder that there is a difficulty in the perceived conflict in companies’ need for more and more of our attention. It really is a competition for attention and, for the companies that get it, the question then is how to keep it. That is the driving force behind the algorithms that are constantly developing and furthering the reach of these platforms into our lives. It is very important that we monitor usage and that we expect more from technology companies in terms of putting right some of the things that are alleged to have gone wrong, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk made the point that although the debate is about addiction, we are also talking more broadly about excessive screen time. There is a scale, running from what might be called a healthy amount of screen time, which might tip over into dependency, over-involvement and straightforward addiction.
Is the Minister aware that some health research has shown that we hold our breath when we are checking our emails and our phones, which denies the brain oxygen?
I always learn something new when I am answering debates. I did not know that. I am not sure that I look forward to finding out more about it, but I certainly will.
We are undoubtedly living in an age where mobile devices mean that people feel compelled to be connected at any time. The hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) clearly made that point when she talked about her desire for some off-screen time in her personal time in the countryside, which proved difficult. We have dwelt on the darker side of those devices and platforms during the debate, because we are talking about addiction, but it is incumbent on us to recognise that a great deal of positivity has come forth from those devices.
We are looking at the impact on children and young people, to whom we have a particular responsibility. Youth policy is one of my Department’s responsibilities, so that is close to our hearts. The chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, is reviewing the impact that internet use can have on children’s mental health. There are no results from that yet, because it was requested only about a month ago by the new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who, I am delighted to inform hon. Members, shares the concerns that we have heard and is in a position to do more about them in the Department of Health and Social Care.
As the Minister knows, the national health service is under tremendous strain. What arguments is she making to Her Majesty’s Treasury to do something about the low rates of tax paid by those companies, so that there is money to do something about the problem?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, tax is a matter for the Treasury. The Chancellor indicated that he was looking at a digital services tax in his speech a few weeks ago. His first priority is to gain international agreement for the fairer taxation of technology companies, particularly these platforms. Actually, I should retract that; I do not think that he said particularly these platforms, but he did say that he wanted an international agreement for the fairer taxation of technology companies as his first priority. If he does not get that, I am told that he will introduce a tax unilaterally in the United Kingdom.
The health review will cover important and diverse issues, including cyber-bullying, online gaming, sleep problems and problematic internet use. I gather that the chief medical officer’s report will be published next year, and I will try to get a handle on when within that 12-month period we can expect it.
The Department of Health and Social Care has also reviewed evidence on the impact that social media can have on children, which showed that those who spend more than three hours using social media on school days are twice as likely to report high or very high scores for mental ill-health. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) said that he had seen research showing a socio-economic difference in the amount of screen time, which, along with the research I have mentioned about some sort of causal link in the time spent, shows that digital technology is in danger of widening the social gaps in society, although it has the potential to bring people together. We obviously need to work to ensure that the latter prevails. The Government have made children and young people’s mental health a top priority for the NHS, and a major programme to improve access to specialist services is supported by £1.4 billion of new funding.
We are also looking at the use of smartphones in schools, which I know inspires strong passions. I have seen some initial results from that analysis, and most schools have rules in place that require that smartphones are not visible during school hours. We need to see more research on whether that is universally applied.
The Government believe that schools are best placed to make decisions about how best to use technology. Headteachers are empowered to manage mobile phone usage. Many schools and parents would appreciate more guidance, however, which we are working on across Government, inspired by the commission of the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to the chief medical officer to advise on the mental health impact of social media and smartphone usage.
On internet safety in the wider sense, the overuse of technology and concerns about online harms are not limited to young people. Our forthcoming joint Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Home Office White Paper will be published in the winter. It will set out a range of legislative and non-legislative measures and will detail how we propose to tackle online harms. It will set clear responsibilities for tech companies to keep citizens safer.
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill asked whether we would look to place a duty of care on social media platforms. That route is certainly worthy of consideration. It is a proven method in other areas, and we will look at its relevance to the online world. Working with the Department of Health and Social Care and across Government, we will develop proposals targeted at improving the ability of users. We are also reforming the UK council for child internet safety so that it no longer focuses exclusively on children. Children will continue to be a top priority, but its remit will be widened.
In response to the hon. Member for Livingston, video games are indeed enjoyed by a large number of people across the UK. For the majority of people, that is a recreational activity, but research shows that, for a minority, their gaming can become excessive, to the extent that they prioritise it over other activities and experience negative effects from it. In recognition of that, as the hon. Lady mentioned, the World Health Organisation has recognised the potential to diagnose gaming disorder in some circumstances. It has not reached a conclusion yet, but I gather that it is working on it. Through its internet safety strategy, my Department is working to improve online safety in games, including by promoting healthy and responsible gaming. To do that, we will work closely with the gaming industry and organisations such as the Video Standards Council. Gaming will also be an important part of our internet safety White Paper.
On isolation and loneliness, I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Sport and Civil Society, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). She has taken responsibility for tackling loneliness, which affects between 5% and 18% of the UK population, and social media is often highlighted as a cause. The strategy includes how Government can set a framework to enable local authorities, the third sector and businesses to support people’s social health.
Research suggests that the reality of social media and its connection to people’s relationships is nuanced and that how negative or positive the impact is depends on which social media service is being used and whether it is substituting for or complementing real-life interactions. For example, there are applications that help new mothers to stay more connected through difficult early stages of parenthood and products that use artificial intelligence to provide real-life experiences for those unable to leave their homes. If used correctly, the technology has real potential to break down barriers and improve the situation that isolated people might be exposed to. That is why social media companies are a core part of initiatives to tackle isolation. Digital means of bringing people together can be especially important to people with mobility problems and families separated by distance.
Technology can be and largely is a powerful force for good. It serves humanity, spreads ideas, and enhances freedom and opportunity across the world. However, what we have heard today gives us great pause for thought. It is informing our deliberations on online safety and I look forward to the continued debate with colleagues here in this Chamber and beyond as we develop our White Paper. We look forward to hearing their further thoughts on the various actions that we might take.
I see that the Division bells have just rung, and I know that proceedings are running late, so I do not intend to use my full time this afternoon.
We have had an excellent debate and I have learned a lot of new things, particularly from the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) about my breathing and using technology, which I look forward to looking into further, and from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), who has given me much to think about in my new APPG. I thank the Minister for coming here today. There is a lot of agreement on this issue and I look forward to working with her and other Members on it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered addictive technology.