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Westminster Hall

Volume 703: debated on Wednesday 17 November 2021

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 17 November 2021

[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government and House of Commons Commission guidance. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the estate, which can be done either at the testing centre or at home. Please also give each other room when you leave the Chamber.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I am grateful for the opportunity to lead the debate—and on World COPD Day itself, no less. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease impacts many of our constituents, but it is simply not given the clinical priority in our health systems that it should have. I hope today, with the other parliamentarians present, to push the Government a step further and improve our fight against COPD on a few fronts: to push public health action to avoid our constituents contracting it; to improve diagnosis rates, so that it is caught at an earlier stage; to transform treatment to help patients manage their condition; and to invest in more research, so that we can develop groundbreaking diagnostics and treatments.

I am thankful for the hard work of the British Lung Foundation, which has campaigned tirelessly for better recognition and treatment of lung disease and which, ahead of World COPD Day, has highlighted the experiences of those living with COPD in their report “Failing on the fundamentals”, which I know some hon. Members in the room will have seen. I am also grateful to the all-party parliamentary group for respiratory health and those involved with the COPD national action plan for their work. I know that some Members present are involved in that APPG; I thank them sincerely. Many thanks also go to my constituent Sarah Jones, who has worked with the taskforce for lung health and pushed me to raise the fight against lung disease in Parliament after the sad loss of her father, John Jones, from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties, including emphysema, which is a breakdown of lung tissue, and chronic bronchitis, the chronic inflammation of central airways. It is a disease chiefly caused by smoking, which causes nine out of 10 cases of COPD. Air pollution, childhood poverty and exposure to dust in workplaces are also contributing factors. I know that other Members in the Chamber will be very familiar with COPD and its constituent conditions. Many champion the cause of their constituents while others have direct experience.

In a case study provided by the British Lung Foundation, Chris highlights his desperation to breathe—something that many of us take for granted—the panic, the fear, the wheezing and in some cases the crushing sensation that he feels in depleted lungs. Those are just some of the facets of the debilitating disease known as COPD. Early signs are shortness of breath, a wheezing chest, tightness, chronic cough, lack of energy and weight loss. I encourage people with these signs to get an appointment with their GP.

According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 3 million people in the UK suffer from COPD. Shockingly, 2 million of are undiagnosed. As Sarah Woolnough, the chief executive of the British Lung Foundation stated:

“It is hard to imagine, for example, this proportion of cancer cases going undiagnosed”.

But that is the reality and it has to change. It is nothing short of a silent scandal.

To the Government’s credit, in response to campaigners and clinicians campaigning for respiratory disease, COPD is given priority in the NHS long-term plan. Yet, like all plans, the devil is in the detail and delivery on the ground is essential. It is vital to ensure that people with the disease are diagnosed early. Too often, diagnosis occurs only when the disease has considerably progressed, leading to greater risk of damaging flare-ups of COPD symptoms and greater risk of being one of the 30,000 people killed by the disease every year, making it Britain’s fifth biggest killer.

Of course, we encourage people to see GPs, but 9.8% of people in the north-west, for example, are struggling to get appointments. I am sure the Minister will refer to that in her reply. An important survey conducted by the British Lung Foundation—its largest ever of those suffering with COPD—found that 75% of those surveyed were missing out on the basic care recommended for the disease.

The theme of this year’s World COPD Day is “Healthy Lungs—Never More Important”. It aims to highlight the risk COPD poses against the backdrop of the pandemic, which has represented a higher risk for those suffering from lung disease and resulted in the additional demand on services created by the impact of covid-19. Even before the pandemic, it is clear that those with COPD experienced unacceptable delays in receiving a diagnosis—delays that can prove fatal.

Diagnosis rates, already far too low, plummeted further during the pandemic by 51%, meaning that nearly 50,000 of our constituents in England alone missed out on a diagnosis. Although the impact of covid-19 was widespread across our health service, this drop was more substantial than for comparable non-respiratory diseases, such as diabetes. Some GPs were advised during the pandemic to stop diagnosis breathing tests and they have yet to restart.

Does the Minister think that we should put in place a delivery plan with funding to get lung health strategies back on track and tackle the respiratory backlog so that another 50,000 people do not miss out on the diagnosis in the coming year? COPD already costs the health economy £1.9 billion. This could be an effective saving, not only of lives, but of essential financial resources.

Can the Minister confirm whether the new diagnostic hubs announced as part of the Budget will cover the tests needed to diagnose COPD and other pulmonary diseases? It would be useful to hear more detail on the part these hubs will play in the diagnosis of lung disease, and on an effective staffing and recruitment strategy.

The British Lung Foundation’s recent report on the experience of people with COPD also highlights shortcomings after diagnosis. It found that three quarters of people across the UK did not receive the five fundamentals of COPD care, as set out in the NICE guidelines. The problem is particularly severe in the north of England and in the devolved nations. Tackling this and ensuring that everyone is offered the five fundamentals of COPD care needs to be at the centre of the strategy. Those five fundamentals are a written management plan, access to pulmonary rehabilitation, help to stop smoking, management of co-existing medical conditions, and access to flu and pneumonia vaccinations.

As with many diseases, prevalence of COPD is linked with deprivation. Between 2019 and 2020 the life expectancy gap between the least and most deprived areas in England grew from 9.3 years to 10.3 years for men and 7.7 years to 8.3 years for women. Respiratory conditions are major contributors to widening health inequalities in the UK, with those living in the most socioeconomically deprived areas in England seven times more likely to die from respiratory disease compared with the least deprived areas.

In my constituency of Weaver Vale, 2.6% of residents are estimated to suffer from COPD, compared with 1.9% of people in England as a whole. Looking at the map of the prevalence in my constituency, we can clearly see that the most deprived areas have twice the proportion of COPD cases than the least deprived areas, and I know other hon. Members here will have the same experience. Eighteen of the 20 clinical commissioning groups in the worst areas for respiratory diseases and emergency responses are in the in the north of England.

If the Government are serious about tackling health inequalities and levelling up life chances, more work needs to be done to ensure that COPD is not overlooked as one of the major respiratory conditions driving health inequality in the UK. If this Government are really serious about levelling up, that should be a focus. Those living with COPD, as well as those living with other diseases, should have equal access to fast diagnosis, care and treatment, no matter who they are and where they live. I hope to hear from the Minister about how her Department plans to ensure that disparities in COPD prevalence, diagnosis and care are a major part of the national health inequalities strategy.

In most cases COPD is caused by smoking, so I would like the Minister to give an update on the new tobacco control plan, how it will focus on tackling health disparities and how she intends to plan and fund an effective, high-quality stop smoking service throughout the country. Over the past 11 years, many of those services have been cut, so I would be fascinated by her response.

Finally, I would like to raise the problem of awareness of COPD, lung disease more widely and the importance of lung health. Today’s debate has primarily focused on the lack of funding, the lack of real clinical and Government priority and the lack of awareness that extends beyond that. I would like the Minister to outline how, as part of getting lung disease the delivery prioritisation it desperately needs, her Department can promote greater public awareness of lung disease. Our shared interest must be to transform COPD care in the UK, while driving down the numbers who develop this condition in the first place. I look forward to this debate, and I certainly look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and to speak in this important debate today. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for securing this debate and raising such an important issue. Ms Nokes, you may know that as well as being Member of Parliament for Newport West, I am shadow minister for air quality, so these issues are very important to me.

The link between air pollution and lung disease is obvious to all of us. Before I came to this House, I spent 30 years working as a physiotherapist in the NHS, so I know a little bit about lungs. Thanks to the excellent campaigners at the British Lung Foundation and Asthma UK, we have the data today—the important statistics that we all need. Two in five, or 41%, of babies are born every year into heavily polluted areas of the UK, where levels of particulate matter 2.5 are higher than the 2005 World Health Organisation recommendations. That equates to over a quarter of a million babies every year, or one born every two minutes. Over a third of all maternity units in England exceed the World Health Organisation’s air quality guidance; if we use the new guidelines, which came out a couple of months ago, that figure reaches almost 95%.

We also know that some 85% of people who live in areas with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide make up the poorest 20% of the UK population. Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester rank among the top 10 areas with the highest proportion of deprived neighbourhoods in England, and all those cities have main roads that breach legal nitrogen oxide limits. I know from my work with my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Weaver Vale, as well as the metro Mayors Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham, how much work is needed to address these issues. Similarly, people in the poorest communities are two and a half times more likely to develop COPD than those in more affluent communities, and we know that disadvantages in early life are linked to the development of COPD. I make no apologies for sharing this data, and I will go on: some 29% of hospitals, 37% of GPs’ surgeries, 31% of schools and 26% of care homes in England are located in communities with levels of PM2.5 above the levels recommended by the WHO. Of course, those guidelines have been strengthened in recent months, so the pressure on Ministers is even greater now.

The link between toxic air and lung disease is so devastating, and I note that 43% of respondents to the Asthma UK-BLF survey reported that their COPD was adversely affected by air pollution. More broadly, 88% of people with a lung condition have said that air pollution affects their health and wellbeing, so it is not just physical symptoms we are dealing with, but mental health symptoms. Of those who responded to the survey, 63% of people with a lung condition can feel out of breath and 53% have increased coughing due to high levels of air pollution. Some 60% of people with a lung condition affected by air pollution say that they have been discouraged from leaving their home due to air pollution at some point, with 28% feeling this way at least once a month.

This House needs to listen to those affected daily by the impact of toxic air on those living with existing lung disease. In Parliament and out in the community over the past year, I have repeatedly raised the fact that the time to act has well and truly come. Almost 60% of people in England now live in areas where the levels of toxic air pollution exceeded legal limits in 2019 and 2020. We cannot go on as we are: we require real leadership, and we require it now. The Government’s so-called landmark Environment Act 2021 was a missed opportunity to contribute to cross-Government solutions to this problem. I know that much of environment policy is devolved to the nations of the UK, and that health policy is also devolved, but that does not mean there cannot be a co-ordinated approach with the devolved Administrations to addressing this very serious issue. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined the discussions that have taken place, and will take place in the weeks ahead, with the devolved nations.

The covid pandemic saw a big change in people’s behaviour and lifestyle habits, and we saw how that led to cleaner air and a healthier environment, although it was a temporary change. We all know that air pollution is a public health crisis, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale has outlined. Last summer, the British Lung Foundation and Asthma UK surveyed about 14,000 people with a lung condition and found that a great many people noticed an improvement in their symptoms, likely due to better air quality during lockdown.

In my more than 30 years working in the NHS as a physio, I saw every day the damage that toxic air can cause to the lungs, health and mobility of people of all ages and from all communities, including those whose lungs are damaged while still in the womb, and those suffering from asthma, COPD and other serious lung conditions. The task of making our air cleaner starts with each of us. It is important that we are all aware of the air pollution levels in the communities we live in, so that we know the local challenges facing us all.

I am so grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale for calling this debate and providing the opportunity to highlight the very grave link between toxic air and COPD. I hope he will feel better soon. We must act and we must act now.

It is a pleasure to serve under you as chair, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) on securing this debate on an important subject.

In my constituency of Blaydon, in the north-east of England, the figures for those diagnosed with COPD are sadly above the UK average. We know that 1.3 million across the UK have a diagnosis of COPD, but it is estimated that a similar number have undiagnosed COPD. In Blaydon, 2.9% of people have a COPD diagnosis, well above the England-wide figure of 1.9%. It is sadly in the top 10% of constituencies with the highest prevalence. The north-east is the region with the highest prevalence of COPD, at 3%. Remember, that figure is for diagnosed COPD. As I have said, it is estimated that double that number have COPD but do not have a diagnosis.

The British Lung Foundation has today—World COPD day—launched its report “Failing on the fundamentals”, based on the largest survey of those with COPD. It finds unacceptable levels of diagnosis and care for those with the condition. In the north-east, 78.1% of survey respondents reported that they had not received the five fundamentals of COPD care, as set out in NICE guidelines, and as referred to by my hon. Friend. That is 4 percentage points higher than the England-wide average of 74.1%.

Some 29.1% reported facing stigma and discrimination, which is similar to the England-wide average. A higher proportion in the north-east cited as barriers to diagnosis not wanting to know if they had COPD and not knowing the signs of potential COPD. In addition, 53% of respondents in the north-east who smoke said that they had been offered support to quit smoking in the past year, slightly lower than the 55.9% across England. As we know, stopping smoking is a key part of the treatment of COPD.

That matters because behind each of those statistics lies a real struggling person. In my constituency office, we see too many people hugely affected by COPD. As the condition develops, they face increasing disability and exacerbations or flare-ups of their condition, affecting their mobility and day-to-day life, evidenced by their need to claim disability benefits. It affects every part of their life, including their mental health. We need to get better at diagnosing and treating COPD, to stop its progression and reduce that impact on daily life. I want to speak in particular about diagnosis and what needs to be done, first, in the recovery from covid and then more generally.

As we have heard, the diagnosis of COPD is appallingly low, and the British Lung Foundation cite several reasons. More than 1.3 million people have a diagnosis of COPD and a similar number have the condition, as yet undiagnosed. The British Lung Foundation’s first annual COPD survey, which was just published, as I said earlier, shows that even before the pandemic, almost three quarters—70%—of people who have been diagnosed with COPD said that they faced barriers in getting a diagnosis. Recent Government figures demonstrate that diagnosis rates, which were already far too low, plummeted further during covid-19. In 2020, there was a 51% reduction in COPD diagnosis compared with 2019, which means that about 46,000 people in England alone missed out on a diagnosis. As we heard, that is a much higher drop than for comparable conditions.

The BLF says that diagnostic tests have still not properly resumed, so it is likely that as many as 92,000 people in England have gone undiagnosed in the past two years. While rates of cancer diagnosis are already up to, and in some areas better than, pre-pandemic levels—thank goodness for that, I hasten to add—there is no dedicated plan to address the huge backlog in respiratory care.

Spirometry is the main diagnostic test for COPD, but it was paused at the height of the pandemic because it was believed to be an aerosol-generating procedure. It has been now confirmed that that is not the case. Guidance has been published on how to conduct spirometry in a covid-safe manner, but it appears to have made little difference. By and large, spirometry testing has still not resumed in primary care, which is where most people with COPD are diagnosed.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Spirometry is key, because COPD cannot be diagnosed by video link or telephone. Does she agree that it is crucial for people to be seen face to face to ensure that we fully diagnose them in future?

I certainly agree. The British Lung Foundation says that there is a clear need for NHS England to intervene and work with local health services to prioritise the urgent restart of spirometry testing in primary care for the diagnosis of COPD and other respiratory conditions. The same would also be true in the other nations of the UK.

Two of the major barriers to restarting spirometry testing in primary care are a lack of capacity and, ironically, the creation of community diagnostic centres. If rolled out to the recommended scale, community diagnostic centres should help to improve diagnosis of COPD and other conditions, but people with COPD cannot afford to wait until CDCs are established for a formal diagnosis while their symptoms and wellbeing deteriorate. Unless spirometry and other diagnostic tests are restarted in general practice, the diagnostic backlog risks overwhelming CDCs as soon as they are established.

The Government and NHS England need to provide sufficient funding for enough capacity to conduct spirometry testing in primary care. Delays in diagnosis mean that too many people with COPD are seeing their condition worsen, which has the real impact on their day-to-day lives that I talked about, so the problem must be tackled urgently for the sake of my constituents with COPD, particularly those not yet diagnosed.

The Government need to properly fund our public health services. We have to make sure that stop smoking services can be easily accessed by those already diagnosed with COPD and those who may develop it, as the link between smoking and COPD is clear. The proposed updated tobacco control plan, which we are expecting, will play a key part in preventing COPD. It needs to look at the polluter pays principle, which calls on tobacco producers to pay for the damage that they cause, as recommended by the all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health.

Will the Minister agree today to implement the steps proposed by the British Lung Foundation and others to improve diagnosis of COPD as a matter of urgency? Will she commit to improve funding for public health services, in particular smoking cessation services? Will she ensure that the tobacco control plan addresses the issues raised by the APPG on smoking and health?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and I congratulate my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), on securing this important debate.

I welcome the British Lung Foundation report, “Insights from those living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) around the UK”. I completely support its call for Governments and health services across the nations of the UK to rapidly commit to funding for national health services to get lung health strategies back on track, and to tackle the respiratory backlog. I note the finding that while respiratory conditions are supposedly a clinical priority, that does not seem to be the case in practice, and we need to see ambitious targets for improving COPD prevention, diagnosis and care.

It is truly frightening and disturbing to watch someone suffering with COPD, or chronic chest disease, fighting for their breath; especially when they are stuck on a trolly in a long queue outside A&E or left all day waiting for a hospital bed to become available. Watching them struggle for every breath with very low oxygen levels is distressing for both the individual and the families. My constituency has historically high rates of lung disease, including lung cancer, for a mix of reasons such as its industrial legacy and, of course, high rates of smoking and deprivation. As we have heard, COPD is the fifth most common cause of death in the UK, resulting in 30,000 deaths per year.

There are 3,878 patients on Halton GP registers for COPD—a prevalence of 2.9% of GP registered patients. That is higher than the England average of 1.9%, and slightly higher than the Cheshire and Merseyside average of 2.6%. There is variation between different GPs in Halton, with prevalence’s ranging from 1.3% to 4.1%. The Halton prevalence has not changed since the last publication in 2018-19. Over the past five years it has increased very slightly from 2.6% in 2015-16. The latest published data from 2017 to 2019 shows that Halton’s mortality rate for COPD was higher than England and the north-west’s. Halton’s rate was 70.5 per 100,000 of the population, whereas England’s was 50.4, and the north-west’s was 63.3.

Death rates from COPD are higher for males than females in Halton; this is also the case both nationally and regionally. As I referred to earlier, it has been estimated that there are many more patients nationally with COPD who have not been diagnosed; the most recent 2015 estimate suggested a COPD prevalence of 3.3% in Halton. This would mean that there are potentially around 550 people in Halton who are not diagnosed at this point in time.

I must refer to hospital admissions, because we know the pressures that our hospitals are under. Most people with COPD are managed in primary care, but for some the condition will deteriorate or be undiagnosed, which can result in emergency unplanned admissions to hospital. The latest published data for 2019-20 shows that Halton had a higher rate of emergency hospital admissions for COPD than England. Halton’s rate was 502 per 100,000 of the population, whereas England’s was 415 per 100,000 people. The female rate of emergency hospital admissions is also contributing to the overall high rate.

Several worrying findings came out of the British Lung Foundation report, and given the limited time I can only highlight just a few of those—some of them have previously been referred to by hon. Friends. As we have heard, thousands of people are missing out on diagnosis. The British Lung Foundation conducted a survey of over 8,000 people with COPD between December 2020 and May 2021. Even before the pandemic, it is clear from the responses that many people with COPD had experienced unacceptable delays before a diagnosis was made.

Recent Government figures found that diagnosis rates, which were already far too low, plummeted even further. In 2020 there was a 51% reduction in COPD diagnosis when compared with 2019, meaning that around 46,000 people in England alone missed out on a diagnosis. Again, the latest figures available in Halton suggest that 550 people have missed out on a diagnosis.

I know from the figures I obtained from the local health commission support unit that GP referrals to respiratory medicine in Halton are still not at pre-pandemic levels. As of November 2021, diagnostic tests for spirometry have not yet properly resumed. It is particularly worrying that the British Lung Foundation found that, across the UK, over three quarters of those with COPD did not receive what NICE clinical guidance defines as the five fundamentals of COPD care, but I will not go into them because my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale referred to them earlier.

The British Lung Foundation believes that the national health service should amend guidance for GPs across the UK to ensure proactive case finding among high-risk groups to identify COPD and other lung conditions such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and lung cancer in a timely way. Questions on respiratory health should be made a mandatory part of the NHS health check to help identify many undiagnosed cases of COPD. Smoking cessation schemes, which we have heard about today, must continue to be a priority, with more effort and drive put into them and, importantly, with better data on success rates.

I would like to make a specific plea for more resources to be put into community rapid response teams who, when they work well and get to patients and treat them at an early stage before they deteriorate, can and do in many cases prevent hospitalisation, easing the pressures on hospitals. They are a really important part of the health service and we need to concentrate more on them. Once people get to hospital, some of them people are very ill, so the more we can do to prevent it in the first place, the better.

The covid pandemic is, without doubt, a major contributing factor to the challenges facing primary and secondary care. The Government’s failure to properly address staffing shortages and better diagnostic facilities over the past 11 years, and prior to the start of the pandemic, is a significant reason why the current pressures on the NHS are so acute. A shortage of GPs is not helping quick diagnosis and rapid treatment. As I referred to during the Budget debates, the number of patients per GP practice is 22% higher than in 2015, but the GP workforce has not expanded with this rise in patient need. Nor has it helped that there are over 90,000 staff vacancies in the NHS.

The fact is that the Government have allowed this situation to occur since they first came into power in 2010. The Government need to get their act together and ensure that they have a workable, funded plan in place to transform the quality of life of people living with COPD, to prevent more people from developing it in future and to stop unnecessary suffering.

It is always a pleasure to speak on these issues, Ms Nokes. I commend the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for bringing the debate to the House.

I am my party’s health spokesperson, but it is not just a duty for me to be here—I also have a particular interest in this issue. As has been said, we all know people who have COPD, and I can think of a number in my constituency. One gentleman, Kenny Legge, has been a friend of mine for umpteen years. He has COPD and is on a 24/7 oxygen tank, which he takes everywhere with him. That means that if he goes to the shops or to the doctors he takes it with him. It is possible to carry it because it is a small tank, but he lives with it 24/7—his whole life.

My other introduction to COPD—I suspect the same is true of others in the Chamber—was filling in benefit forms. When filling in forms, we always ask the constituent what the issues are, and they explain them to us. Although we might need to know more about the COPD, the issue becomes clear when we are talking face to face with our constituent and he or she is gasping for breath. We are able to be agile and athletic. People tell me they go for runs, and others tell me they go for walks, but I am one of those who goes for a dander, which is the third category. But people suffering from COPD cannot even do that. That is the issue.

Throughout the pandemic we often forget about other health conditions that must be awarded awareness. Covid has taken over our lives; everywhere we look there is something related to covid. That is not a criticism; it is a fact—an observation. There must be sustainable support for those who, sadly, suffer from other respiratory diseases, such as bronchitis and emphysema.

The British Lung Foundation is the leading charity in the UK highlighting the impacts of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Statistics show that an estimated 1.2 million people in the UK—wow, that’s a big figure—live with diagnosed COPD, with thousands more not yet diagnosed. I wonder sometimes whether we are just scraping at the figure, which may or may not be there. That figure equates to 4.5% of all adults over 40.

Intense research by the British Lung Foundation shows that prevalence is growing. I hope the Minister will give us the answers we seek, and I know she will endeavour to produce them. One thing I always ask about is prevention, and it is important that we address it, because it prevents costs further down the line. Perhaps she can tell us what has been done on that. The research also shows that COPD diagnosis has increased by 27% in the last decade, so additional resources and funding are needed to improve research into it.

I always make the comment—although that does not make this any less of an issue—that research and development is so important in, hopefully, addressing some of the issues for those with COPD. Last Friday I had a lady in my office with severe COPD who has an issue with housing She is in a flat, and when she moved there I suppose the issue was not apparent, but she is now a prisoner in her flat and cannot get out unless someone takes her. She is overwhelmed by exhaustion whenever she goes anywhere, and I am trying my best to help get her relocated to a property at ground level that is nearer the centre of the town, where perhaps her quality of life can improve.

The Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority for Northern Ireland has stated that 37,000 people have been diagnosed as having COPD. Half as many as the number already on the COPD registers are thought to be living with COPD without the disease being diagnosed —a point I made earlier—bringing the total to approximately 55,500. Those figures are just for Northern Ireland, where 37,000 people have it, but 55,500 might have it—one third more. If that is replicated in the rest of the United Kingdom, the figures will be almost 2 million. I am not the greatest mathematician in the world, but I think those figures are fairly approximate.

The Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke charity, which does incredible work, has nicknamed COPD the “creeping killer”, as it is the fifth biggest killer in the UK, but very often people are completely unaware of its severity. When we see constituents in the advanced stages of COPD or living on 24/7 oxygen, we very quickly understand the severity of it.

The all-party parliamentary group for respiratory health, which I chair, has recently gained mass support from respondents for a lung cancer action plan to draw together all the different strands of respiratory policy and make them into one strategy. The British Lung Foundation has strongly supported that plan. The Primary Care Respiratory Society also supported the need for a national NHS action plan, claiming it would help to improve rates of earlier diagnosis and reduce the rates of death from lung cancer. If we adopt, pursue and fund those twin goals, we can try to address the issue, reduce the numbers and give people a better quality of life. It was also felt that any action plan should consider a pathway for people who are found to have non-cancer respiratory symptoms that need investigating.

We often find that constituents do not have just one issue; they have a complex number of issues, and central to that for those with COPD is the COPD. People with COPD who have been active for most of their days suddenly have issues with mobility, anxiety and depression and cannot be active any more. Some of the most prominent ways to help slow the progression of the condition are often the simplest.

The summarised treatment options from the NHS include encouraging people to stop smoking. We had a debate in this Chamber yesterday morning on the tobacco control plan and it was clear—certainly to me as a Northern Ireland MP—that the figures for those stopping smoking have not reached the targets we hoped they would. The consensus among parties on both sides of the Chamber yesterday was clear.

Treatment options also include taking up the use of inhalers and tablets, lung rehabilitation and transplants. The NHS long-term plan addresses the need for early diagnosis and more suitable treatment. Given the figures stated earlier, the long-term plan must be implemented as soon as possible. I ask the Minister—I usually try to ask a couple of questions in my contribution—when will the long-term plan be implemented? We need to see a timescale for that so that we know whether the right strategy has been adopted. I am not criticising anybody—I want to make that quite clear—but if we are committed to the long-term plan, can we have the timescale, please?

Much of our time and funding has been dedicated to covid, and there is no doubt that it falls under the umbrella term of respiratory disease. Our lungs are one of our most vital organs—needed to keep us alive—and there must be better awareness of the symptoms of COPD. The main ones include increasing breathlessness and a persistent phlegmy cough—we get that with colds or flu, but those with COPD have it every day of their lives, and every hour of every day. Those are not normal symptoms to have for a prolonged period.

I want to conclude by thanking the charities that do significant work in providing support for those who suffer from COPD, such as the British Lung Foundation, the National Association for the Relief of Apnoea—the breathing charity—and the COPD Foundation. I call on the Minister and the Government to study the figures and strongly consider allocating additional funding. We must help those constituents and patients with COPD. That, if we can do that, is the most essential way of preventing serious illness or even death. Our lung health is something that we should all make a priority.

Like so many speakers before me, I will begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for bringing forward this important debate on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and on World COPD Day. World COPD Day is intended to raise awareness of the fact that this condition is chronic, because it is long term and does not go away; it is obstructive, because the airways are narrowed, making breathing difficult; and it is pulmonary—it affects the lungs.

The theme of World COPD Day is

“Healthy Lungs—Never More Important”.

This year’s aim is to highlight that the challenge of COPD remains, despite the ongoing global covid pandemic. Even as we continue to battle covid, COPD remains a leading cause of death worldwide. It is a terrible condition affecting millions, and the pandemic and long covid have highlighted this condition, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

The condition cannot be cured or reversed but, with treatment, it can be managed so that it does not severely limit daily activities. However, we also know that despite treatment, COPD can deteriorate, eventually having a significant and debilitating effect on quality of life and leading to life-threatening challenges.

As we have heard today from almost every speaker, while the main cause of COPD is smoking, some cases are caused by long-term exposure to harmful dust or fumes. Worryingly, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence found in 2016 that an estimated 3 million people have COPD in the UK, of whom 2 million are undiagnosed. There are an estimated 140,000 cases in Scotland, with another estimated 200,000 people undiagnosed.

The Scottish Government are taking action through the development of their respiratory care action plan, which sets out priorities to support the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of respiratory conditions. It is vital that those with these conditions can access safe, effective and person-centred care, treatment and support. To that end, the Scottish Government’s respiratory care action plan for Scotland, published in March, outlines the strategy for improving prevention, diagnosis, care and treatment for those living with respiratory conditions such as COPD.

The Scottish Government are working with partners across health and social care and the third sector, as well as with people with lived experience, to develop an implementation programme, which will make clear the funding commitments that will be brought forward to promote the plan. Important work is also going on to learn more about COPD, such as work with the EU—which provided €7.7 million of funding for the project last year—to discover why, strangely, Stranraer in Scotland has higher than average rates of the condition, despite average smoking rates.

The Scottish Government will move forward with the implementation of the respiratory care action plan for Scotland over the course of this Parliament and continue to tackle smoking in Scotland. I pay tribute to the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group on lung health, established and so ably chaired by Emma Harper MSP. Lobbying by the cross-party group was instrumental in the publication of the respiratory care action plan.

We all understand the correlation between COPD and smoking, but despite the UK having one of the lowest smoking rates in Europe, smoking leads to a significant number of deaths across the UK every year, including through COPD. However, we have come far in the fight against smoking. For example, around 15% of UK adults are smokers, which is one of the lowest rates in Europe. The figure is slightly higher in Scotland, at 19%, so we have a wee bit more work to do.

We must bear in mind that there is a higher concentration of smokers in socially disadvantaged communities. Of course, we know that there is a clear link between poverty and health outcomes. That helps us to understand why 35% of adults in the most deprived areas are smokers, compared with 10% in the least deprived areas. Smoking accounted for 16% of all deaths in Scotland in 2018—around 10,000 deaths a year—and the figures in England are much the same. Scotland’s target is to be smoke-free by 2034, with smoke-free defined as 5% or less of the adult population being smokers. To that end, a new tobacco strategy will be published in the next parliamentary Session in Scotland.

We continue to make progress with smoking rates, which have fallen 9% since 2003, but of course we are all want the pace of that decline to continue to increase. Scotland was the first part of the United Kingdom to prohibit smoking in enclosed public spaces, in 2006. That measure was introduced in the Scottish Parliament by a certain MSP called Kenneth Gibson. The rest of the UK followed in 2007. Although the measure was controversial at the time, the banning of smoking in enclosed public spaces is now accepted and is the undisputed norm. Such measures can help us as we strive to help people live healthier lives and give up smoking.

I wish to end by paying tribute to the British Heart Foundation, which does so much valuable work to promote the importance of clean air and healthy lungs. It is appropriate to do that on World COPD Day. All year round, the British Heart Foundation works to raise awareness of this condition, to ensure that everyone with COPD has access to the care and information that they need to manage their condition well and to ensure that those of us who do not have the misfortune to suffer from it are more aware of it in our communities.

It is pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Ms Nokes. I would like to add my congratulations to those already offered to my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), for securing this debate on COPD on World COPD Day, when awareness should of course be raised of the condition. Debates and days such as this are important in ensuring that people with COPD have access to the care and information they need to manage their condition well.

My hon. Friend gave an excellent introduction and raised many issues, which many other hon. Members raised in various guises, and which I will return to during my contribution. He wanted to focus on public health issues, to avoid our constituents contracting COPD in the first place; improving diagnosis rates, to ensure that it is caught at an earlier stage; transforming treatment, to help patients manage their condition; and investing more in research, so that we can develop groundbreaking diagnostics and treatments. I think we all agree that those are worthy aims that we ought to cover in the debate.

We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones). She rightly raised the link between lung conditions and air pollution, and she provided some shocking statistics about the number of maternity units that exceed WHO air quality guidelines, particularly after recently updated guidelines were issued. She also raised a whole series of other statistics that set out the scale of the challenge that we face in improving air quality.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) spoke about her region and how the staggering levels of health inequality in this country mean that the north-east has much higher rates of COPD than many other areas. She rightly highlighted the importance of helping people to stop smoking as part of this battle. As Members referred to, a decade of cuts to public health grants has led directly to a reduction in smoking cessation services. She also raised the importance of spirometry testing and how this needs to be conducted in primary care; otherwise, issues related to a failure to diagnose conditions early, which we have talked about, will continue.

It was a pleasure, as always, to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who talked about the prevalence of COPD in his constituency and the various factors that have led to that. He rightly mentioned how the condition leads to many more unplanned emergency admissions; as we know, pressure on A&E at the moment is immense, and that is before we even get into the depths of winter. He also spoke about the excellent work of the community rapid response teams, which can help reduce that pressure on A&E, which will ultimately deliver better patient outcomes. He was right to highlight the additional demands on GPs and the additional numbers of patients they now see, which of course contributes to the difficulty of getting those early diagnoses that all Members referred to.

COPD is the name for a group of lung conditions, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis, that cause breathing difficulties and a permanent narrowing of the airways. Symptoms include shortness of breath when doing simple, everyday things such as going for a walk or housework; a cough that lasts longer than a week; wheezing, particularly in cold weather; and producing more sputum, or phlegm, than usual. My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale highlighted the case study of Chris, which highlights how we sometimes take good respiratory health for granted; only when we lose it do we realise how critical it is.

As we heard, a significant number of people in the UK—more than 1.3 million—have a COPD diagnosis. As many Members said, at least a similar number are estimated to have the condition but are currently undiagnosed. In 2016, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence estimated that 3 million people in the UK had COPD, of whom around 2 million remain undiagnosed. As we heard, numbers are higher in the north of England and in areas of deprivation. It is estimated that prevalence in the most deprived 10% of areas is almost double that in the least deprived 10%.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon referred to the British Lung Foundation’s survey of 8,000 people with COPD between December last year and May this year. It found that, before the pandemic, around 70% of people diagnosed with COPD said they faced barriers in getting their diagnosis, 14% experienced an initial misdiagnosis, and others had symptoms mistaken for a chest infection or cough or were sent away by their GP after raising COPD symptoms. Worryingly, the Government’s own figures show that diagnosis rates, which I think we accept were too low to start with, have plummeted—understandably—during covid, and so far show little sign of recovery. This month, the British Lung Foundation reports that diagnostic tests such as spirometry have not yet resumed, which many Members touched on.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halton mentioned that there was a 51% reduction in COPD diagnosis in 2020 compared with the previous year, meaning that around 46,000 people in England alone missed out on a diagnosis. Over two years, that is around 92,000 people missing out on a diagnosis. As we know, receiving a diagnosis late means the disease has progressed, which means there is a greater risk of early mortality, never mind the impact on quality of life. Later diagnosis is also linked to higher levels of COPD exacerbations, which can result in lung damage and longer hospital stays. In fact, COPD is currently the second largest cause of emergency hospital emissions, which have risen three times faster than general admissions, putting enormous strain on our NHS, at an estimated cost of £1.9 billion every year.

As we have heard from other Members today, not only late diagnosis impacts hospital admissions; the BLF survey found that those patients who reported receiving the basic standard care—the five fundamentals of COPD care—had fewer flare-ups and better understood what to do when their symptoms worsened.

It is not acceptable that current levels of care mean that, even when a patient has a confirmed COPD diagnosis, they are likely to struggle to access the care they need, resulting in people needlessly ending up in hospital. When national guidelines are in place, it should not be the case that over three-quarters of those who responded to the BLF survey said they were missing out on some aspect of this care. Those with a recent diagnosis were the most likely to receive the lowest levels of care and there was a clear relationship between the length of time since diagnosis and receiving the five fundamentals of COPD care, so we can see that the situation is deteriorating. The BLF report suggests that this may be because people with COPD have to learn how to navigate the NHS to get the care they need. The report also finds that those who received the basic standards of COPD care had fewer exacerbations, were able to manage their condition, and better understood what to do when their symptoms worsened than those who did not, so it simply is not good enough that that group only received the right care eventually, leaving them vulnerable to a deterioration in their health as a result.

We already know that an estimated 420,000 people in the UK may have had their working lives cut short by COPD, and more than half who responded to the BLF survey said their mental health had worsened since suffering a COPD diagnosis. Clearly, we need to do better than this. As Members have said, it is absolutely vital that the right support and treatment are put in place at the right time.

The NHS long-term plan includes commitments related to respiratory disease, including to detect and diagnose respiratory problems earlier and increase access to pulmonary rehabilitation. Will the Minister update us on what progress has been made towards meeting those commitments? It is important to note that the plan was written before covid-19 struck. As my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale said, this plan is very good for sitting on the shelf, but what happens on the ground and how it is delivered are what really matter.

The Minister will know that services were already severely strained before covid-19. We went into the pandemic with the NHS already on its knees, with 17,000 fewer beds, 100,000 full-time NHS staff vacancies, hospitals crumbling, public health services cut and GP numbers down. Members have picked up on all these things today, so we know that the crisis we are in is not simply the result of covid.

We know that NHS waiting lists are now at a record high, with 5.8 million people waiting for treatment. Hospital leaders have warned in recent days that our services are at breaking point, and we know that the coming winter weeks are going to be some of the most challenging in the history of the NHS.

We need to see a plan to get the NHS through the winter without compromising patient care. We need a realistic plan to tackle the backlog in non-covid care and a dedicated plan to tackle the huge backlog in respiratory care. In a written answer in January this year, the Government said they were working with partners to develop and implement policy on the provision of pulmonary rehabilitation services in England. Almost a year on, I hope the Minister will be able to update us on what progress has been made on that plan.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, for the first time. I add my thanks and congratulations to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) on securing this debate, particularly on World COPD Day. We very much appreciate his support for the taskforce for improving lung health. It was also a pleasure to hear hon. Members’ contributions to the debate, and I will try my best to answer their questions.

The Government are dedicated to supporting those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which is a lot easier to say. In the last 10 years, we have rolled out guidance and initiatives to support and improve this area.

In 2011, a Department of Health outcomes strategy for COPD and asthma set out a proactive approach to early identification, diagnosis, intervention, proactive care and management at all stages of the disease. A wrong diagnosis will result in patients not getting the care they need, as a number of Members mentioned. That is why in 2013 a guide to performing quality-assured diagnostic spirometry was produced by the NHS, with several charities and other stakeholders. The guide was published to support accurate diagnosis of respiratory conditions and tackle the effects of misdiagnosis.

The national asthma and COPD audit programme was launched in March 2018. Led by the Royal College of Physicians, it aims to improve quality of care, services and clinical outcomes for patients with asthma and COPD by collecting and providing data on a range of indicators. As part of the national COPD audit programme, NHS England and NHS Improvement have developed a best practice tariff for COPD. The tariff is applicable to hospital trusts, in order to promote best practice and ensure improvements in care. Best practice will be considered to have been achieved when 60% of patients admitted for an exacerbation of COPD receive specialist input to their care within 24 hours of admission, and where COPD patients receive a discharge bundle before actually being discharged.

The NHS long-term plan sets out the NHS ambition to improve access to treatments for COPD patients. A date was requested by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). As part of the long-term plan, access to pulmonary rehabilitation will be expanded by 2028. Pulmonary rehabilitation, an exercise and education programme, is one of the most effective treatments for COPD, with 90% of patients who complete the programme experiencing improved exercise capacity or increased quality of life. By expanding pulmonary rehabilitation services over 10 years, 500,000 exacerbations can be prevented and 80,000 admissions avoided.

I take the Minister’s point about pulmonary rehabilitation being so important—an integral part of the management of these long-term chronic conditions—but 10 years is a long time. People need help now, so what is she thinking in terms of immediately putting into place the extra staff and resources required for pulmonary rehab?

I will come to that, and I will also come to the questions about recovery and catch-up, which a number of people mentioned.

To increase access to pulmonary rehabilitation, a population management approach will be used in primary care to find eligible patients from existing COPD registers who have not previously been referred to rehabilitation. New models of providing rehabilitation to those with mild COPD, including digital tools, will be offered to give support to a wider group of patients with rehabilitation and self-management support.

The use of COPD discharge bundles, where appropriate, will also help to increase referrals to pulmonary rehabilitation, and the NHS long-term plan will build on a range of existing national initiatives focused on respiratory disease. The quality and outcomes framework, or QOF, ensures that all GP practices establish and maintain a register of patients with a COPD diagnosis, and the QOF for 2021-22 includes the improved respiratory indicator, including the recording of the number of exacerbations and assessments of breathlessness, and an offer of referral to PR.

NICE quality standards have been published, with the aim of raising the standard of care that those with COPD receive. The NHS RightCare Pathway for COPD is being rolled out nationally. This pathway defines the core components of an optimal service for people with COPD, and it includes timely access to PR as part of the optimal treatment pathway. It provides resources to support local health economies, and the pathway also concentrates improvement efforts on addressing variation and population health.

At the beginning of the pandemic, NICE published rapid guidance on COPD, which outlines how to communicate with, treat and care for patients suffering from COPD. It also outlines how healthcare workers should modify their usual care and service delivery during the pandemic.

I am listening carefully to what the Minister is saying, but one of the problems that I referred to briefly in my speech is that of being able to see a GP—not necessarily just for diagnosis, but when someone becomes ill. I wonder how she can square that circle in terms of what has been put in place, if people cannot get to see a GP in person in the first place.

Of course, access to GPs’ services is a concern that all Members will have heard a number of their constituents raise. That is why we put in place £250 million to increase access to face-to-face GP appointments as part of the recovery plans, which are quite extensive for the NHS.

The guidelines I was talking about aim to highlight ways to support people with COPD, such as signposting charities and support groups for better health and wellbeing. They recommend using technology to reduce some in-person appointments, while making sure not to provide a service that would increase health inequalities through a lack of digital access—it is additional, not instead of—as well as offering advice on how to modify care during the pandemic.

A number of questions were raised about the recovery plan, and how to restore services for patients and restore the diagnostics to pre-pandemic levels, or above them. The 2021-22 priorities and operational planning guidance set the priorities for NHS England and NHS Improvement, and includes tackling the backlog for non-urgent treatment such as services for lung disease patients. That plan aims to stabilise total waiting lists, and eliminate waiting times of two years or more and the increase in waiting times of more than one year. We have made £1.5 billion available to assist local teams to increase their capacity and invest in other measures to achieve those priorities, and the 2021 spending review announced £2.3 billion to increase the volume of diagnostic activity and open community diagnostic centres to provide more clinical tests, including for patients with lung disease.

Targeted lung health checks are running in the parts of the country with the highest rates of mortality from lung cancer. However, those projects will not just identify more cancers, but pick up a range of other health conditions, including COPD. People aged between 55 and 74 who have ever smoked are now offered a free lung health check closer to where they live. They may then have a lung cancer screen scan if that check shows that they need one. A review undertaken by Professor Sir Mike Richards highlighted that patients with respiratory symptoms would benefit from community diagnostic centres, due to the number of diagnostic tests that will be made available. As well as supporting patients with COPD, the Government are committed to strategies that will help to prevent that condition, as a number of Members have mentioned.

Just for clarification, following on from the question that the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) has asked, does the Department of Health proactively—perhaps even aggressively—contact smokers to follow through, rather than those smokers contacting the health service? I am not sure whether that would always happen. What is the Government’s policy on that?

Obviously, there would be a relationship between the GP and the smoker, but that can go either way. Anybody who is in those age groups needs to be made aware that they are entitled to this free lung health check, and it is the responsibility of us all to make sure those checks are available. I am sure we will all ensure that that is understood.

In 2019, 85% of deaths due to COPD were attributable to smoking, and in 2019-20, 84% of hospital admissions with COPD were attributable to smoking. The proportion and the number have remained quite similar over the past five years, and as has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, smoking is a key factor in many cases of COPD. This Government are committed to reducing the harms caused by tobacco, and have made good long-term progress in reducing smoking rates, which are currently 13.9%, the lowest on record. However, with 6.1 million smokers in England, tobacco is still the single largest cause of preventable mortality, and a radical new approach is needed to address the stark health disparities associated with tobacco use. As such, we have set out the bold ambition for England to be smoke free by 2030. To support that ambition, we have announced the publication of a new tobacco control plan, which will include an even sharper focus on tackling health disparities and will support the Government’s levelling-up agenda.

The NHS long-term plan commits to delivering NHS-funded tobacco treatment services to all inpatients, pregnant women and people accessing long-term mental health and learning disability services by 2024. COPD is responsible for around 33% of annual deaths from respiratory diseases and is the single largest cause of occupational lung disease. There are an estimated 17,000 annual new cases of self-reported, work-related breathing or lung problems, which is why our colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions are also helping to tackle the causes of COPD in the workplace.

I thank the Minister for recognising that a proportion of COPD cases are caused by work-related issues, which will of course affect the north and the north-east most of all because of their industrial heritage. I assume she will tell us what steps the Department will be taking to pursue that.

Yes, indeed. In fact, one of my own family members—my uncle—has COPD and has never smoked. As we are from the north-west, it is likely to be due to his workplace conditions.

Tackling occupational respiratory disease remains one of the Health and Safety Executive’s health priorities, and the aim is to reduce the number of new cases of occupational-related lung disease. To help achieve that, HSE focuses its inspection and enforcement activity where it can have the most effect. It continues to work with a broad range of partners to extend its reach and raise awareness of the need to prevent exposure. HSE’s WorkRight campaign, which includes occupational lung disease, uses communication and social media channels to promote the benefits of good health and safety, and a range of initiatives are being undertaken to support reducing mortality rates among patients with lung disease—for example, HSE undertook interventions in 2019-20 to address the carcinogenic risks from welding fume exposure.

I hope that what I have set out answers the many questions that right hon. and hon. Members had, but clearly it is work in progress. We are working hard to ensure that COPD care improves for all, as outlined in the NHS long-term plan, and that people have access to the very best care available.

I thank the Minister for her detailed response and for taking a number of interventions—she was generous with her time. I also thank right hon. and hon. Members of different parties for championing the cause and for highlighting cases in their constituencies across the UK.

Some of the key asks on World COPD Day were for a dedicated, detailed and resourced plan. Everybody spoke about the need for early diagnosis and access to GPs. We all have examples in our constituencies, and it was interesting that the Minister talked about resources going forward in her response, but we know that COPD is a real issue here and now in our constituencies. The British Lung Foundation said that over 70% of those diagnosed with COPD were struggling to access services, particularly the NICE-recommended COPD five-point plan.

Regional disparities are a big issue. The Government talk about levelling up, and here is a real opportunity to level up the life chances and health chances of people right across the UK. COPD is particularly prevalent in the north, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

We mentioned other factors such as workplace, and the Minister spoke about some personal family experience in the industrialised north-west. We also spoke about the link with poverty.

The Government have to address these issues effectively, and we will continue to hold their feet to the fire. They have been in power for 11 years. It is right to say that this is a journey, and we are not where we need to be for the millions of constituents who face this awful, debilitating disease.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered support for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Sitting suspended.

Supporting Single Parents into Work

Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking, which is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Members are also expected by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the estate, which can be done at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please do give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.

I will call Dr Rupa Huq to move the motion and I will then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up. We have had an indication, however, that Stella Creasy would like to speak and I am happy to call her for a short speech.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of supporting single parents into work.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. The full effects of covid are not yet all known, and the pandemic is not over, but this debate will examine some of the key concepts around employment, such as furlough, universal credit, 30 hours and flexibility, in relation to single-parent families. The pandemic and lockdowns in the last two years have been hard for everyone, but for the UK’s 1.8 million single parents, who work and care solo, some of the pre-existing financial, practical and emotional pressures have been exacerbated.

The Government like to trumpet their jobs miracle. It is true that at the start of the pandemic, 69% of single-parent families were in work, but many of those jobs were in sectors such as hospitality, high street retail and travel, which were hard hit by the pandemic. Single parents were more likely to work part time to combine caring and working on their own.

I welcome yesterday’s figures, which show that unemployment has fallen for the last nine months. I recently visited the Elim Hope Church in my constituency, which runs a job club to increase the skills of Staffordshire residents and to help them with job applications. Does the hon. Lady agree that such community outreach programmes are vital for helping people, particularly single parents and carers, who need specific support to re-enter employment?

It is great that the hon. Lady has been to her local job club in a church; I have been to mine and I would advise all hon. Members to do the same. The figures are encouraging, but there is often a “but” hanging around. I will come on to part time and full time; she has slightly anticipated what I will say.

As I said, single parents are more likely to work part time: some 50% of them work part time compared with 25% of coupled parents. I thank Gingerbread, which arose from the film “Cathy Come Home” and is the main pressure group on these issues. Throughout the pandemic, it has undertaken four research projects: in December, February and May—and there is an ongoing one. The previous projects looked at debt and poverty, and the current one is a longitudinal study of qualitative interviews funded by Standard Life. It is due in September 2022, but I have some of the findings and I will draw on them.

Gingerbread found that the unemployment rate of 12% for single parents is double that for main carers in couples—the non-single-parent variety. The labour force survey does not completely capture the effects of the end of furlough, because it is published three months behind, so that will be interesting to see.

I will turn to the number of single parents on universal credit since the pandemic. As we know, universal credit is an in-work benefit paid a month in arrears. It causes a whole load of problems and its rate was recently cruelly slashed.

The hon. Lady is perhaps about to tell us that a child of a single parent family is much more likely to grow up in poverty. She also pointed out that single parents are much more likely to work part time. In view of that, does she agree that it is important for young single parents to have the same standard allowance for universal credit as parents over 25 years old?

Yes, the hon. Lady makes a very good point. There are a lot of anomalies with universal credit; I think our last manifesto said to do away with it because it is not fit for purpose. The differential rates are not fair on the children. We called our group the all-party parliamentary group on single parent families because it is about the families and is not just a parent support club.

The hon. Lady makes an important point about differentials. Does she agree that the differentials according to age on national minimum wage rates could also have a profoundly difficult impact on younger single parents and their ability to afford to work?

Yes, the hon. Lady makes a good point. Again, it is the children who will suffer if these rates are cruelly different for people of different ages. The national minimum wage does not apply to the very youngest workers. We keep being told about the minimum wage, which the Government call a living wage, although it is not quite the same as the real London living wage that our party espouses. If it does not apply universally, that needs urgent fixing, because it is the children who will go without.

We have 1.3 million single parents on universal credit, and this change means that more single parents will be expected to work. When talking of differentials, there is the age of the child before a parent works a given number of hours. For example, if the child is three, that is 16 hours. When that child reaches five, the parent is expected to work 25 hours, and when the child is over 13, it becomes full time. That is a blunt and clumsy instrument for people who are doing all the caring and earning in one household. Research by the consultancy Timewise shows a dire shortage of part-time vacancies.

Single parents are more likely to have been furloughed than coupled parents, and for longer. That reflects the sectors they often work in. They are more likely to have needed to go on furlough for childcare reasons, because they are parenting on their own. They are less likely to be able to work from home. We had the luxury of being able to work on laptops last year but, in caring or shopwork, where there is a preponderance of single parents, that is not going to happen.

The Timewise research into flexible working also showed that there is little evidence of a long-term shift in the prevalence of job flexibility. We hear about such jobs, but they are very difficult to come by.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for being so generous with her time. She makes a really important point about work flexibility and how vital that is for single parents. Does she, like me, welcome the trial of a four-day working week, without loss of pay, in Scotland? Does she agree that that kind of initiative will enable a different way of looking at work? Not only will single parents be able to work but their employers can benefit from their skills.

The hon. Lady raises an interesting point. In the previous Parliament I signed an early-day motion for more research on the four-day working week. There is evidence that it creates better mental wellbeing. I would be interested to see more research. I do not think I would steamroll right into it, but it will be interesting to compare what happens in Scotland and see whether it could be expanded. Was Scotland not a guinea pig for the poll tax?

Let’s not go there. If what the hon. Lady has mentioned is tested first in Scotland and we bring it here, I am not averse to that.

The way the welfare rules operate and the “first work” agenda mean that there is pressure to move into any job as quickly as possible. That means that many single parents are moving into flexible jobs below their skill levels, so they are over-qualified: there is a mismatch between their qualifications and what they end up doing. I do not want this to be a load of moaning, so I will propose some solutions.

The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), gave a bubbly, well-received presentation to our APPG on single parent families. She outlined a range of different measures to support claimants into work. There is job entry targeted support for people who have been unemployed for three months. There is Restart for those who have been unemployed for a year. Again, there are anomalous situations where, for instance, someone who has been furloughed for 18 months would not qualify for Restart despite technically not having worked. Those sort of loopholes need to be fixed.

There are schemes to get disabled people back into work. Why not have more programmes for helping single parent families? There could be more tailored support, and more single-parent awareness among job coaches. There is also an issue with the variability of job coaches; perhaps there should be more standardisation there.

We all know that good quality, affordable childcare is vital in getting parents back into work. Childcare costs are paid in arrears under universal credit.

I, too, am a member of the all-party parliamentary group that the hon. Lady mentioned. Childcare and getting back into work is a massive issue. I look back to my own situation over a quarter of a century ago when my mum was trying to get back into the workplace after she and my dad separated. Once, when I was 12 or 13, she secured a new job and I was off school sick—whether I was actually sick or not, I cannot remember. She went to work, and one of our neighbours phoned the police because I was in the house alone. The police turned up, phoned her work, and she had to come home absolutely mortified, and gave up her job. There is a real issue with childcare.

I want to praise Home-Start Renfrewshire and Inverclyde in my constituency, which I have met with a few times and does a great job. However, the hon. Lady is absolutely right—agencies like that need a lot more support from the Government than they have currently.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. He is an officer of our APPG on single-parent families, and it is interesting to hear his own experience. I hope that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children did not cart him away. The readaptation programme into work can be a big deal when someone has taken time out, and more tailored support needs to be provided.

There is a legal challenge under way to prevent childcare costs from being paid in arrears, which was initially won but was then lost on appeal. We are still hopeful that the Government will see sense on that. I have often heard the flexible support fund touted as a way to get people back into work, but looking at the sums involved, it is for something like getting a pair of shoes or a bus fare to an interview. I do not know whether the Minister has had to pay childcare costs recently, but they are blooming expensive. We need a distinctive fund for childcare costs or, better still, for them to be paid upfront. We could take a leaf out of Northern Ireland’s book, where just last week a £1,500 non-refundable lump sum was announced to help people who have found a job get back into work.

All of those options would be much better than the current skills underselling we appear to have. The Government’s flagship 30-hours policy seems to be very elusive in terms of finding a provider which can offer it, as there are such complex eligibility criteria for that entitlement. Only 20% of families at the bottom third of the earnings curve are eligible for that at all. That policy needs to become reality.

Universal credit being paid in arrears means many parents are caught in a trap, as shown by many of the rich, qualitative studies in the Gingerbread findings. One woman found her dream job, correct for her skill level, but she could not do it because the childcare costs would have left her unable to pay her rent. I hope that the Minster will look at redressing those things.

Some parts of the Budget, I must confess, are welcome. However, tinkering around with the taper rates, although an improvement, is not as good as the money that was taken away—£1,000 a year for the poorest, or £20 a week. I urge the Government to look again at reinstating that. There is nothing to address the high upfront costs of childcare that make moving into a job difficult for parents. We need more support to help single parents back into work that reflects their skills, with specialist single-parent advisers, as there used to be in job centres. That would be a good starting point.

Does the hon. Lady agree that as well as the measures she is talking about, organisations such as the Department for Work and Pensions and the child maintenance service need to get better and more robust at supporting single parents who are fleeing domestic abuse?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. One sad by-product of the pandemic is the rise in domestic abuse, with people locked up at home more. Yes, those organisations need proper domestic awareness training and to be sympathetic; they tend to have very much a “computer says no” mentality. In the civil service—the Minister’s officials might know about this—job sharing is incentivised, and there is even a register of jobs. Perhaps we could universalise that across all workplaces.

I have not had time to go into the mental health issues that we have seen post pandemic, or rocketing food bank use. Pre-pandemic, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, found that 14.2 million of our fellow citizens are in extreme poverty. Who knows where that is now? With safety nets such as furlough and the £20 uplift now gone, single parents and their children are more vulnerable than ever to being pushed into poverty. Gingerbread estimates that 1.1 million single parents will be hit by the loss of the uplift, losing £1 billion over the next 12 months. Remember: the Government used to champion the just about managing. They need to do so again.

The APPG’s point is that all families matter. That is why we champion single-parent families. We heard from Adrian Chiles, Robert Peston and Shappi Khorsandi, and we would love one day to welcome that well-known opposition politician and son of a single parent, Marcus Rashford, to our APPG. We live in hope. We want to show that it is not always only the man from the Ministry who should make policy; some things get flagged as anomalies, but the single mum at the school gates often knows best. As we steer out of this pandemic, although the Government go on about the plan for jobs, they need to address the 1.8 million single parents—a quarter of all households. That really would be levelling up.

Thank you, ma’am. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmadamship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) on securing this crucial debate, which highlights an example of the disjuncture between what happens here in Westminster and what happens in real life. In real life, over the past two years, families across all our constituencies have really struggled, and those people having to lead a family on their own have struggled most.

The single parents in our communities are utter heroes for being able to manage a family, trying to keep in work and trying to stay sane, given the pressures we put on them. A number have been outlined, including the craziness of saying that, somehow, for a single parent under the age of 25 on universal credit, it must be cheaper, so they do not need the same level of entitlement. I have never known a child to be cheap only because of the age of the parent; perhaps, at 44, I should have learned my lesson. We also pay childcare costs retrospectively, so someone who does not have savings—as single parents disproportionately do not—cannot get childcare so that they get back into work, as they want to.

In my short contribution, I flag to the Minister that there might be one parent, but it is the same bill, particularly when it comes to childcare. In this country, the cost of childcare and nursery fees for the under-fives has risen three times faster than pay in the past decade. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that, when splitting the cost, that might be marginally more manageable than just one wage trying to cover the bill. Childcare is not just a nice add-on, it is not just good for children, it does not just help women—mainly—get back into work. It is, economically, one of the best investments we can make, because universal childcare pays for itself, as Women’s Budget Group research shows. We get a higher tax take, and crucially for this debate, it lowers welfare bills.

I say to the Minister: not only do we desperately need urgent reform to universal credit, particularly for single parents—penalising a parent for being under 25 penalises their child; I hope he thinks of the children when he does that—but we need to reform childcare costs so that we can actually get people into work so they can earn the money to not need universal credit in the first place. We also need to see universal childcare as one of the best investments we can make, and one of the best things that his Department can lobby the Treasury for, to make sure that not only single parents but all parents can manage their children. However, single parents in particular face these costs, and it is absolutely right that we recognise that childcare is the cost of living crisis for most families.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes—or should I call you ma’am? I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) for securing this debate. I am grateful for the work that she does in chairing the all-party parliamentary group on single-parent families, and for the contributions from Members of the APPG that we have heard today. Like them, I recognise the heroic work that so many single parents do across the country, supporting businesses and organisations in the work they do—and supporting their children as well. We recognise that important contribution.

We want everyone to be able to find a job, progress in work and to thrive in the labour market—whoever they are and wherever they live. It is good to see the proportion of single parents in employment increasing. It has grown by 11.4% since 2010, and is now at 68.5%. However, we want to go further. Through the support that we are providing as the economy bounces back from the debilitating effects of the pandemic we will see employment rates continuing to improve. We are committed to continuing to see an increase in the number of single parents in the workforce, which is why we have a comprehensive package of support that helps lone parents to enter and, importantly, progress in employment.

First, I reiterate that universal credit provides incentives to work as part of its fundamental design. In the Budget, as has been recognised by the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton, we have gone further; we have taken decisive action to ensure that work pays by cutting the universal credit taper rate from 63% to 55% and increasing universal credit work allowances by £500 a year. This is essentially a tax cut for the lowest- paid in society, worth around £2.2 billion in 2022-23; it means that 1.9 million households will keep, on average, around £1,000 on an annual basis. This will be complemented by a generous increase to the national living wage. The Government are extending the national living wage, from April 2022, to £9.50 per hour to all those aged 23 and over. We want people to be able to work, and we are making work pay.

The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), cannot be here today as she is attending a Select Committee hearing. Crucially, she is pushing hard for our comprehensive £30-billion plan for jobs, which will enable more single parents to take advantage of the nearly 1.2 million vacancies we currently have in the labour market. As part of our plan for jobs, the rapid estates expansion programme has led to the opening of around 180 new job centre sites all around the country; I am sure Members will be experiencing that in their own constituencies.

Those job centres will help us to meet the growing demand for our employment services, and help to ensure that all claimants looking for work receive the right support. The new estates are helping us to house the 13,500 new work coaches whom the Department for Work and Pensions recruited in the last financial year. I recognise the important contribution that they make; I am sure that the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton does as well. They are real heroes in our local communities, and in my view they are too often unsung. Our plan for jobs programme will support more single parents to find the role that is right for them, no matter what their age or their experience.

We agree with the Minister about the importance of helping people get into work. Can he explain why he thinks that, during that process¸ the universal credit support we give to families, and particularly to single parents, should be assigned by age? What is it about a child of someone who is under the age of 25 that makes the Government think that they are cheaper, and do not need the same rate of universal credit—can he justify that anomaly? This is something that makes it harder for parents under the age of 25 to get into work because they do not have the money to pay those up- front child care costs. Why is it that the child of an under 25-year-old is cheaper?

The hon. Member makes an important point, and asks her question with characteristic commitment to the cause—I understand where she is coming from. We want to make sure that this safety net is available to everyone, and that we help people get into work—that is the most important thing. The lower rates for younger claimants who are under 25 reflects the fact that they are more likely to live in someone else’s household and have lower earning expectations. I will repeat: what we want to do is help more people get into work and then progress in that work so they have more money of their own in their pocket.

The other way that we can help young people, in particular, is through the kickstart scheme. I hope that hon. Members can see the effect that that is having in their constituencies, by helping 16 to 24-year-olds to secure fully-funded six-month job roles. The good news is that we have now seen over 100,000 young people supported into kickstart jobs. To complement this, our new DWP youth offer is providing extra wrap-around support to young people.

For older single parents who are looking to return to employment, the restart scheme offers a fresh start, helping more than 1 million people who have been unemployed for over 12 months. That is in addition to our job entry targeted support scheme—JETS—which supports people who have been unemployed for at least 13 weeks.

It is important to understand the success of the plan for jobs at a macro level, but it is also important to share the excellent work that our jobcentres are doing at a more local level for single parents in particular. Some of the case studies are very interesting. In Merseyside, for example, we have dedicated sector-based work academy programmes—SWAPs—that support lone parents to apply for and move into employment opportunities, with working hours that work for them and their childcare needs. In Birmingham, we support the YMCA to deliver a programme called parent journeys, which aims to provide tailored work and lifestyle-focused support for 42 lone parents over a 12-month period. There are many more examples of these tailored, local approaches, but time does not permit me to elaborate; I would be more than willing to share them with the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton. I would also like to recognise the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke), who talked about the importance of community outreach. We see examples of that in our own constituencies, and those should be praised.

I turn now to in-work progression, which is also a very important priority for members of APPG. We are enhancing our programme of support for workers on universal credit. Starting in April 2022—just a few months’ time—more people who are in work and on universal credit, including single parents, will be able to access work coach support, focused on progression advice and removing barriers. That could include signposting to careers advice and job-related skills provision, and helping claimants overcome practical barriers to progression, for example childcare costs, which we have discussed. Jobcentre Plus specialists will also work with local employers and other organisations, including skills providers, to identify opportunities for people to progress in work.

I am grateful to the Minister for describing those programmes. However, rather than a one-off programme in Merseyside that acknowledges single parents, surely we should have a strategy that acknowledges them at every stage. A one-size-fits-all approach means, for example, I think, that two people each earning £39,999 receive their full child benefit as a couple, but a single parent on £40,000 starts to have it wrenched away. Those anomalies need to be ironed out. Will the Minister commit to a strategy that acknowledges single parents all the way through?

The point of raising the case studies was to show that there are tailored, local approaches that are working and are based on local circumstances. The situation in Merseyside is different from that in rural Lincolnshire, so we need to find ways that work in those different communities. However, I am sure that this is a subject to which we can return.

In the few minutes that remain, I would like to highlight the fact that the Government are considering carefully the recommendations of Baroness McGregor-Smith’s in-work progression commission. We will respond formally to the commission’s report in the coming months. We are doing a lot more to help with skills and, particularly through the national skills fund, to make sure that we can provide opportunities for all generations of adults who have previously been left behind.

Many hon. Members discussed childcare. I will not spill the beans on the childhood experiences of the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), but he makes an important point. We must find ways to help lone-parent families. The childcare situation has improved dramatically since his day—and thank goodness for that. Childcare is available through universal credit, and free childcare is available through the Department for Education. The flexible support fund can also be used to provide for childcare up front—as we know, most childcare is paid for in arrears. There is support available.

We are also doing a lot of work to support the consultation by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on flexible working, which is another issue that hon. Members have raised. That consultation is important. The Scottish Government have their approach to flexible working, which we recognise, but we need to do more to look at part-time work, job sharing and other flexible working arrangements, which have become a norm for those who have been able to work from home during the pandemic—not everybody. We need to look at the responses to that consultation, and see what we can do to create more options for single parents, which is a really important priority.

I welcome today’s debate and thank the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton for her contributions. I hope that she can see that we are making significant strides in helping more people.

Sitting suspended.

Stop and Search: West Midlands

[Christina Rees in the Chair]

I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. That is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week, if coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done either at the testing centre on the estate or at home. Please also give one another and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the use of Stop and Search in the West Midlands.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and to have secured the debate. I begin by referring to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I am a board member of West Bromwich town’s business improvement district.

The bottom line for this debate that I want to highlight is: stop and search saves lives. It is one of the most effective methods police officers have to take dangerous weapons and drugs off our streets quickly, as I have witnessed in my constituency. At its core, stop and search is about pre-empting dangerous situations before they happen. It also acts as a deterrent to violent individuals, if they know that the police are willing to use the powers effectively. Not only does stop and search protect members of the public, it also saves some perpetrators, who might be vulnerable adults and children, from becoming further involved in crime and illicit activities, perhaps giving them the chance to change their path, once they face up to the consequences of their actions.

I felt compelled to apply for this debate after reading the comments of the West Midlands police and crime commissioner about stop and search in the Express & Star on 2 November. That came out of the recently published new crime plan for 2021 to 2025, in which he stated that

“if searches are only leading to an action in about a quarter of cases, then it is legitimate to ask if the ‘reasonable grounds’ threshold for a lawful search has been met in connection with many of the searches that take place.”

That concerns me, because not only can little be taken away from those metrics, but officers going about their job to protect our communities are undermined and the zero-tolerance messaging that we should be seeing is compromised. Let me explain why I feel that the police and crime commissioner’s comments on the ratio of positive searches are not proportionate.

Were the police to pull over a car of four people because of suspicious activity, and found either drugs or a weapon on just one occupant of the car, that is treated as a 25% positive outcome of the overall search under the official police definition, as four people were searched in total. If a weapon were found or recovered after the event took place, that would not be recorded as a positive outcome at all, even if police suspicions were right.

That shows that none of the data can be taken at face value, but must always be viewed with nuance and context. If the police and crime commissioner bases his measure of success solely on positive search rates, he will in effect be limiting the use of stop and search artificially to create more positive searches from a pool of fewer overall searches. The statistics do not back up that approach, and I am concerned that the policy will lead to more knives and drugs on our streets, unchecked.

I believe that there is a positive story to tell about stop and search in Sandwell in particular, where police officers use the powers well: 751 searches were conducted in July to September this year, with a 29.8% rate of positive outcomes over the past six months. In Sandwell, officers use body cameras to capture footage of searches; they have taken time to invest in training to fill in any knowledge gaps; and they use the acronym GOWISELY when conducting all searches to ensure that they act appropriately and proportionately.

I will explain what GOWISELY stands for. This is what is to be said as the stop and search takes place: grounds, a clear example of the reasons for the search; object, what the officer is looking for; warrant, production of a warrant card if officers are plain-clothed; identity, the name and collar number of the officer; station, the police station where they are based; entitlement, the person must be informed they are entitled to a copy of the record; legal, stating the legislation that permits the search to take place; and you, the officers must explain to someone that they are being detained for the purpose of the search.

Like all other communities, we have a local stop-and-search scrutiny panel that aims to ensure that stop and search is being used fairly and effectively, and GOWISELY is also in place. In these scrutiny panels, randomly selected body footage is shown to the committee, which includes members of the public among others, and the chair of the panel is always a member of the public. The community hold the police to account, which is how it should be. Sandwell has one of the most rigorous scrutiny committee panels in the region, which even offers advice on best practice to neighbouring panels. Any learnings or concerns are fed back to officers directly.

However, I know that some panels struggle with retention of members and some were not particularly well established before the pandemic, which has caused difficulties. We therefore need to invest in and expand such schemes truly to get the most out of such vital resources. That is an idea I hope the police and crime commissioner will take up, using Sandwell as an example for other areas.

To add a further layer of best-practice sharing and scrutiny to this process, each committee chair attends a meeting twice a year at the Stop-and-search Commission, where they share best practice and consider wider issues across the force. Scrutiny panels also provide career opportunities for members of the public to get involved in some really positive community work. If a young person has chaired or been otherwise involved in one of these panels, what a fantastic thing for them to have on their CV. Indeed, local police inform me that one former chair of a local scrutiny committee has gone on to become a special police officer himself, because he was so inspired by the work the committee did. That is the kind of story we want to hear. In fact, I have accepted an invitation to sit on one of the local panels in Sandwell next year, to observe what such panels do.

One thing remains true in all of this—proportionality is clearly based on consensus, with both the public and the police being confident about the methods and means being used. Indeed, complaints against police officers in Sandwell over stop and search are few and far between, which is really good to see. It shows that the proportionality is there, that police feel confident about using these powers, and that the body camera footage boosts faith in the police and gives our communities protection, as it will evidence the fairness and the proportionality of any search.

However, in the police and crime commissioner’s crime plan, the PCC cites complaints about stop and search as something to be improved. Of course complaints need to be heard and responded to, and lessons learned, but I am not confident that the life-saving nature of stop and search is fully appreciated in the west midlands, and that could lead to worse outcomes for local people.

It is such outcomes that worry my constituents deeply. Despite the fact that crime has been falling across most of the country over the last year, in the west midlands we have seen a huge increase in overall crime, and crime is an issue that floods the inboxes of most west midlands MPs on most days. Our constituents are worried, and rightly so.

I cannot stress enough the importance of backing our police officers and giving them the confidence to act with conviction. They need to have the confidence to know that their decisions, when they are reasonable and proportionate, are backed by their political leaders, which is the only way in which we can make our zero- tolerance approach truly felt by all.

It would be a travesty if an officer were to be worried about searching a suspicious individual because of the seeds of doubt that the police and crime commissioner has placed in their mind with their stance on the use of stop and search. The West Midlands police and crime commissioner’s own website says:

“West Midlands Police was one of the first forces to adopt the Home Office’s ‘best use of stop and search’ scheme. As part of the scheme, it introduced a raft of measures to improve its use of the power…There are also ongoing projects that are improving scrutiny, teaching young people their rights when stopped and searched, researching disproportionality, and increasing the range of data we publish.”

That is all available to view on the website.

As I have just set out, there has been a lot of work in recent years around stop and search, especially in Sandwell. I regularly speak to local police officers in Sandwell and they are confident about their grounds for stopping people and about the proportionality of searches, and when they have not been confident they have undertaken training to bolster their knowledge.

It is no secret that we have seen some horrendous incidents of violent crime in West Bromwich town centre in the last few months alone. Only a few months ago, there was a horrendous incident in New Square, West Bromwich, when a group of three men turned on police with machetes after the police approached them. The brave police officers at the scene handled themselves brilliantly, and thankfully the wounds that they suffered were not fatal. However, we should consider what would have happened if those individuals had not been spotted. Those knives would have been taken right into the heart of our communities.

That group of men was stopped by behavioural detection officers. BDOs do what it says on the tin—they are trained to spot “out of place” behaviour in the community and to challenge anyone suspected of suspicious activity. They are specialists in behavioural studies. It was a group of BDOs on patrol who stopped this group of young men who were carrying machetes in the town centre. The group of young men were noticed because of their suspicious behaviour, including wearing thick, heavy clothing on what was a warm day. After the officers managed to force the group into a safer area of the shopping centre in order to stop them, the men produced large knives from their bags and proceeded to attack the officers. The officers’ training, knowledge and bravery, and the actions of some brave members of the public, meant innocent bystanders were not hurt that day.

It is important to mention that without the deployment of Project Guardian to West Bromwich, those individuals might not have been spotted, apprehended and taken off our streets. For Members who may not know about Project Guardian, it is the West Midlands police team that works across the region to tackle youth violence and get dangerous weapons off our streets. If hon. Members need a reason to back stop and search, they should take the opportunity briefly to scroll through their Twitter account to find out more.

The team are out every day using stop and search, among other powers, to seize drugs and knives. They are on the front line, assisting our local police teams to tackle this scourge on our streets. Their work should be shouted about loudly so they have the confidence to keep doing what they are doing to keep us all safe. If officers are not confident in using stop and search, the outcomes will not be successful. Training should be expanded to help them learn from the best or, better still, to promote the training of behavioural detection.

I would like to place on record my thanks to Lisa Hill from the business improvement district, Chief Super- intendent Ian Green and PC Rich Philips, who have led on stop and search in our area, along with all our local police officers in Sandwell, who are doing some amazing work in our community. The business improvement district, local schools, colleges and MPs are backing our police officers all the way. I thank the Minister and the Home Secretary for their personal support and engagement with me on these issues.

The use of stop and search is a major tool in fighting back against county lines. Young people especially are exploited across the west midlands and forced to live in towns and cities outside their area to sell drugs. They go missing from school or college, sometimes for weeks on end. Stop and search can help save them when others in their lives have been unable to. That is why it is important to view stop and search not just as a tool to apprehend criminals but as a way to rehabilitate vulnerable people who sometimes, through no fault of their own, have become trapped in a life they do not wish to lead.

The use of stop and search in a proportionate and respectful way saves lives. It takes dangerous weapons and drugs off our streets and makes us all safer. Those who hold public office must send a message loud and clear that bringing violent weapons and drugs into our communities will not be tolerated. I do not think the police and crime commissioner’s statement sent anything like the right message. We should invest in training to get more BDOs on the street, expand and promote internal training opportunities for officers, and engage with the public even more through the positive use of the stop-and-search scrutiny committees. That is at the same time as putting 20,000 more police officers on our streets by the end of this Parliament, which we are well on track to deliver. We cannot just look at the figures when assessing stop and search. Context is crucial. To quote again from the West Midlands police and crime plan:

“How we measure, analyse and improve public confidence in policing and public satisfaction with police services will get better.”

I can tell police and crime commissioner that nothing promotes public confidence more than using stop and search. I could go on all day about my community’s experience with violent crime, but it is important that we hear from others. I am looking to hearing about other Members’ experiences.

On 31 May this year, a fine young man, Dea-John, was hunted down and knifed to death on the streets of Kingstanding. The following day, I met his distraught mother, and the weekend following, I was with thousands of others both to celebrate his life and to bring the community together in opposition to the rising threat of knife crime.

Only today, the police are carrying out a major operation—a knife search, as they call it—in the Finchley Park area. I regularly talk and work with our local police service on how they use stop and search on the one hand, and on initiatives such as knife arches in a number of local secondary schools, on the other. There is no question but that stop and search remains essential to effective policing, acting as a valuable tool in combating pervasive, violent crime and keeping our communities safe as a consequence. The key is that the use of stop and search has to be appropriate. The need for the police to carry communities with them remains paramount. Historically, that has not always been the case, which has damaged police-community relations. Stop and search remains, however, an important tool in our armoury, with the caveat that its successful application requires ongoing dialogue with communities. I am pleased that the West Midlands police and crime commissioner has made clear commitments to that end.

Although I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) has secured the debate, I disagree with her interpretation of what the police and crime commissioner said. There has also been no mention thus far of the single biggest problem facing the police service, to which I will return. The police and crime commissioner has given no direction to the chief constable to reduce or scale back stop and search. It has been suggested in some quarters that he has, but that is simply not true.

How does the hon. Gentleman interpret the parts of the police and crime commissioner’s plan where he quotes reports that say that stop and search does little or nothing to tackle crime, and where he says that the measure of whether “reasonable grounds” have been met should be whether at least 50% of stop and searches result in further action?

Point made. The police and crime commissioner has said clearly in his plan:

“Stop and search can be an appropriate and necessary tool to detect and investigate crime and remove weapons from our streets.”

I was with him on the streets of Erdington for most of the day on Saturday last week. He was sending an unmistakeable message that we should use whatever tools we have in our armoury to protect the public, but that crucially, we must get the use right and ensure that there are not counterproductive consequences as a result of getting it wrong. His plan is about making stop and search more efficient and effective with the intention of removing more dangerous weapons from our streets.

The single biggest problem confronting the police service is the loss of more than 20,000 police officers. Only last week, the police and crime commissioner wrote to all hon. Members in the west midlands—Labour and Conservative—to ask us to act together. He detailed the unfairness of funding for the West Midlands police, which is attributable to a decade of devastating austerity for the police service. For example, over and above the cuts that have been made to the police service, because of the damping formula, it has lost out by an additional £40 million. The west midlands is treated unfairly compared with some of the leafy southern shires.

The facts are undeniable. Since 2010, the West Midlands police service has lost £175 million and 2,221 police officers—25% of the workforce—as a consequence. Many examples stick in my mind, including the several hundred A19 officers whom I will never forget. Seven years ago, just when crime was rising, people such as Tim Kennedy, an outstanding detective constable, and Mark Stokes, an outstanding inspector and expert in designing out crime, were forced out of the police service in their prime at 52 or 53. It was a catastrophic mistake by the Government of the hon. Member for West Bromwich East that should never have been made.

The truth is that there has been a devastating impact on the west midlands and my constituency in particular. The hon. Lady pointed to the impact on her constituency too. Those cuts by a Conservative Government have had a severe impact on neighbourhood policing. Time and again—all hon. Members will have experienced this —members of the public, who are overwhelmingly supportive of the police service, say, “We rang and they took forever to come out.” Or, “We rang and they told us they could not come out.” Or, “Where are they? We never see them on the streets any longer.”

That is the impact of years of Tory cuts to neighbourhood policing. In parallel, there have been huge cuts to services that really matter to crime prevention, for example, youth services, youth clubs, mental health facilities and the probation service. The human consequences are sad and all too obvious: knife crime up, 17%; possession of weapons, up 28%.

The contrast with what a Labour Government did could not be more stark. That Government, under Blair and Brown, saw 17,000 extra police officers, 16,000 police community support officers, the development of neighbourhood policing, and crime falling in this country by 43%. As a consequence of the cuts made, that era of progress has been thrust into reverse.

While we are all enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s reminiscences of the good times, what is the police and crime commissioner’s plan to get the positive outcomes up to 50% on stop-and-search cases? We have not heard that; it is not in his plan. It has not been mentioned today. How do we get there?

There are two things. First, on stop and search, it would happen in exactly the way I have said—I have quoted the police and crime commissioner’s own words and I have heard him say it personally. It is about the vigorous but appropriate use of stop and search—getting it right; avoiding counterproductive outcomes. Secondly, he cannot put right all the wrongs of the past era since 1997, but he is committed to recruiting an additional 450 police officers, which I welcome.

Why does the hon. Member think that Labour police and crime commissioners in the west midlands have seen rapid increases in the recorded crime rate over the past 12 months, where Labour police and crime commissioners and Mayors in other urban areas, such as Merseyside and Greater Manchester, have seen falls during the pandemic? Why is the west midlands different?

The size of the cuts that have been made to the police service is one answer to that. Can I throw a question back? If it is right, as is undoubtedly the case, that the police service has been starved of the necessary resources—and what the Government are proposing will still leave us 1,000 short in the west midlands—why do Government Members not join us to speak with one voice and say to the Government, “Back our police service; invest in our police service. We want to see a return to 2010, and an end to an era where the public have been put at risk as a consequence of those cuts.”? I throw that question back.

It is right for the hon. Member for West Bromwich East to bring this debate. Are we simply going to focus on a crucial issue, and then have no regard to the cost and consequences to the police service of being starved of the necessary resources, and all that has flowed from that? That cannot be the case. Hon. Members must make up their minds, because we will probably have the police grant settlement before Christmas. We need to stand together to influence the Government. Would any hon. Member like to respond to that? Why not unite with Labour colleagues to put the safety and security of the people of the west midlands first?

I certainly welcome the hon. Gentleman’s appeal to put partisan political point scoring to one side. He may remember that back in the distant days of January 2016, we had a similar debate in this very Chamber—I was sitting here, and he was sitting nearby as shadow Policing Minister—at a time when the previous Labour police and crime commissioner for the west midlands had asked us all to come together on a cross-party basis to support a £5 increase in the police precept for the west midlands. I did so, and my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) also did so. Can the hon. Gentleman remember how he briefed the local media after Conservative Members had supported the Labour police and crime commissioner’s increase in the precept?

Correct me if I am wrong, but was there universal support from Tory colleagues at that point in time? No, there was not. Were there some truly honourable hon. Members who took a stand in support of proper funding of the police? Yes, there were, and I welcome that.

I say this one final time: all Government Members are going to have to make their mind up. The case for additional resources and a reversal of the cuts of the past 10 or 15 years is overwhelming, and the consequences being felt by our communities are likewise overwhelming. Therefore, we need to stand together and say to the Government that we badly need additional investment of resources in our police service, not least because the first duty of any Government is the safety and security of their citizens. The Government often talk tough on crime, but the reality is sadly the opposite. Our priority must be to return the police service in the west midlands to 2010 levels.

The hon. Gentleman has said that the Government are not tough on crime, but what I am saying is that the police and crime commissioner wants to get a positive outcome for 50% of stop and searches, with no plan to achieve that. It is fine to speak warm words about working with the community and better communication, but what I am asking for is a plan, and until a plan is produced on issues such as stop and search and others that we are concerned about, we are not going to lobby for more money to go into the Labour police and crime commissioner’s bottomless pit. Will the hon. Gentleman join us in asking his colleague to explain what the plan is?

I can say without hesitation that I want to see a vigorous and proportionate use of stop and search—there is no doubt about that. That is what the police and crime commissioner was arguing for in Erdington only last Saturday. Crucially, the hon. Lady has just said that she will not give a commitment to stand up to the Government and argue for the necessary additional resources. In a matter of weeks, a decision of immense consequence will be made for the safety and security of our citizens in the west midlands. We need to influence that decision, so I urge all Members, irrespective of party, to come together and make the case to Government to back our police service through proper investment in it. There is no question that we have to increase activity in crime prevention, and a commitment to rebuild neighbourhood policing will also be crucial.

The Dea-John killing is one of many that will always stick in my mind. As Members of Parliament, we have all seen the heartbreaking consequences for our communities of what has been happening in recent years, in particular the growth of violent crime as the number of police officers has decreased. Of course, there are different views, but the communities that we represent want to be able to live in safety and security. That means—I stress this one final time—putting the public interest first and backing the call for fair funding for the west midlands. I hope that all Members of Parliament from the west midlands will join together to do precisely that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) for securing today’s debate.

I will start by talking about stop and search as a tool that the police are able to use to tackle crime. Just this week in the Northfield constituency, we have seen our local police force working with the National Crime Agency. They have conducted a successful operation on the Cock Hill estate, taking four criminals and weapons in the form of a gun and knives off the streets. That is an example of how these powers are used every day to bring down crime in this country and to make our streets much safer.

We have also seen the powers being used in areas such as the Three Estates in Kings Norton, in my constituency. This time last year, my inbox was full of messages from people who were worried and concerned about the safety of their children and their families on the streets of Kings Norton. However, in the course of the last year, we have seen crime coming down, thanks to our local police, including the impact team and the neighbourhood team, who have been working together hand in hand to bring down crime, using the powers that they have to make our streets safer.

I want to say thank you to Inspector Michelle Cassidy and Chief Superintendent Steve Graham, who have been an enormous support to our local teams in the area; people such as Councillor Adrian Delaney in Rubery and Rednal who have worked with the police and local communities to bring down crime in Cock Hill and ensure that we make it a safer place; and local residents such as Natalie Chambers on the Three Estates, who helped to organise an online Facebook group, sharing information with different residents, empowering them and organising them in order to ensure that the police have the correct information at the right time, so that they can decide how to execute their powers and how to bring down crime locally.

As many speakers have said so far, stop and search is a vital tool. We have seen nationally how it saves lives. Last year, more than half a million stop and searches were conducted—that equates to 11 in 1,000 people—and 11,000 weapons were taken off the streets of this country. There were 74,000 instances of people being arrested also.

We see locally how this power is being used proportionately and responsibly by our local police in the form of the GOWISELY initiative, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East mentioned. It is these sorts of initiatives that, as local politicians and community groups, we can help to scrutinise through the panels. I am glad that my hon. Friend brought up the panels, because they are certainly going to be picking up some of the issues that she raised. I am going to have a look at my own Birmingham panel and see how I can help and engage with it, to see what we can all do to ensure that the powers are being used wisely. It also means that local community groups feel that they are having input into the process.

I am very glad that the police are being protected in these incidents through police body cameras. I was glad that the Government listened to the calls from the Police Federation to have the images stored on a camera published, so that there are checks and balances. Unfortunately, we did see many incidents in which police were being filmed and the videos were being put online, but the police were not able to publish their own video footage to protect themselves from people making allegations against them in relation to stop and searches and other incidents. I am glad that the Government listened to the Police Federation in that respect and moved forward.

Knife crime is a real concern in Birmingham. It is something that has been around for as long as I can remember. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) knows that I was born and raised in his constituency, and lived there for 30 years. Five people I went to school with—we were in the same year group—are currently inside for murder. All those crimes were committed with a knife. People I went to school with have been slain in Finchley Park over arguments. The hon. Gentleman always gives very impassioned speeches about resources, but these incidents were pre-2010, in the times of plenty, when these sorts of things were never addressed properly. They affected people and children, and included the killing of children in local parks. We need to address these issues, and these powers are at the heart of the efforts to combat them.

It has been said that the police and crime commissioner is fully supportive of the initiative of stop and search. If that is the case, why has he thrown a cloud of doubt over stop and search recently? Why has he thrown this cloud of doubt over the entire process locally? He did not have to do so. He could have carried on with the way it is at the moment without revising his action plan. What has happened is that locally, in the media, it has thrown a cloud of doubt over the process. I can imagine that it really demoralises our local police, who go out day in, day out, and face these challenges. They need political leadership as back-up for what they are doing day in, day out, and it is incumbent on all of us to make sure that they have that political leadership behind them.

Unfortunately, with the current police and crime commissioner, as with the last, we have seen a lack of political leadership. There has always been a void between the decisions that they make and the distancing away from those decisions and trying to blame the Government all the time. There is not a single police station left in my constituency. Decisions are made in Lloyd House in Birmingham, which, coincidentally, had £30 million spent on it to do it up at a time when the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington said there were cuts. There was £30 million spent on an office in the middle of the city centre. Local police stations were taken away. My entire constituency does not even have a base that the police can call home.

The hon. Member makes an interesting point. I do not want to score a point, but I have listened to debates, as have lots of us, about police stations. How many police officers and staff does he think are required to resource a basic local police station? Our areas—his and mine—are served at the moment by Bournville police station. If we had another half dozen satellites, how many staff does he think would be required to staff those? How long should they be open and what would that cost?

The hon. Member makes an interesting point. I do not have the figures to hand, but that £30 million would have gone a long way to providing local police stations. Even if it is not an entire police station that is open in the constituency—somewhere on the high street, in the community, in an impact area—that money could have been spent in local communities across the west midlands, particularly in my section of Birmingham, rather than being spent on a city centre office.

I have listened to the impassioned speeches of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington since I was a young man—or boy, even. However impassioned he is, that does not make his point any more right than anybody else’s. He has portrayed doom and gloom since 2010, and there is a reason why people, including me and my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East, rejected his doom and gloom argument. People do not believe the arguments that the hon. Gentleman has deployed over the last 11 years, because there is always a void between the rhetoric and the actual doing. We have had a Labour police and crime commissioner in the west midlands from day one. When the hon. Gentleman goes around knocking on doors, giving TV interviews and blaming the Government all the time, they can see the gap between the rhetoric and the actions locally. That is why they did not believe him during the elections, and that is why I and my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East are in this Chamber at the moment.

It is incumbent on all of us to make sure that our police force has the political leadership.

First, the hon. Member talks about what the police have to say. If one listens to the Police Federation, the Police Superintendents’ Association and the National Police Chiefs’ Council, they all speak with the same voice about the importance of additional resources over and above what the Government have thus far committed to. Secondly, does he agree with me that, rather than engaging in political games, the thing that matters is the safety and security of our citizens? Is it or is it not true that as the numbers of police have radically diminished in the west midlands, crime has significantly risen?

I thank the hon. Member for that intervention, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) pointed out, that is not replicated in other areas. Local decisions are made that have local consequences. That is the void between rhetoric and reality that I am talking about, which we see across all our constituencies in the west midlands.

Finally, stop and search is an invaluable tool. It is needed to make sure that our streets are safer, and the political leadership needs to make sure that the police know that, when it is required, we have got their backs.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I thank the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) for securing this important debate. As we have all said, stop and search is a constructive and useful power. The police service, with their cameras on, should be trained properly to respect the level of search they will be conducting and how that will be reflected in their numbers. It is important, it is needed and we should be working together to do that.

I had a meeting with the PCC last Friday and that was one of the issues we discussed. Another was resourcing my local areas with more police officers and more police community support officers. The reason I say that is that, on its own, stop and search is a weak tool. In the past, we had local PCSOs walking up and down the streets, speaking to people in their local areas and understanding what the issues were, where there was instigation of crime and what people were engaged in. What prevented the stop-and-search process was the intelligence that we had on the ground.

In my constituency, we had Rob Capella, who used to be a party member—in my first election, he delivered a lot of leaflets and I was sad to see him become a PCSO, but he is fantastic in the job that he does. He has built a huge relationship and a huge amount of trust in his local community and people come and speak to him. Unfortunately, about 85% of his team is no longer there. It is essentially just Rob doing most of the job that he had wanted to do. He does not have the police officers to report back to and carry out some of those necessary actions.

My constituency contains Lozells, Handsworth and Aston, which have had particularly high levels of crime. When I took over the constituency, very early on, we had the killings of Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare—a hugely tragic event, which was difficult for me as a new Member of Parliament to handle. I got the community together, I got the black churches together, we got the local enterprise people together and worked to deliver that process. We delivered that because we all got over it together. We did the same recently, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) said earlier, with the murder of Dea-John, where we got the churches, the community and the police together and we responded very quickly. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) also joined us in that process. It was the right thing to do.

We are prepared to bring together whatever is needed to ensure that anything that happens is dealt with in a proportionate manner and the communities understand what has gone on. We are quite prepared to do that. However, the PCC explained to me how difficult it is for the officers to do that policing work without the support of additional resources and additional police officers on the streets. While we confine ourselves to stop and search, that is a small tool in the police’s armoury.

My colleague from the Westside business improvement district works very hard. He has a huge amount of entertainment venues in his BID district, mainly around Broad Street in Birmingham, which most people will know is quite well frequented from Thursday until at least Saturday night and sometimes Sunday as well. There is a huge challenge in trying to resolve some of the issues with people. He employs wardens to work alongside the officers in the area, but there are not sufficient resources. When the officers come in and try to apply stop and search, it causes issues for a number of people in the area and makes the situation tense, so other people come in, with the risk of causing another incident. We have to look at where and when we can apply stop and search.

In my constituency, in January of this year, we lost Keon Lincoln, a young boy of 15 who was shot and stabbed. It was another hugely tragic event, not just for his family but for the community as a whole, so we need to look at giving support. To that effect, at my meeting on Friday, I also had the violence reduction unit present to look at forging a multi-agency approach to dealing with this issue. I want youth services, social services, educationalists and the police to work together to provide a resolution. I know it works, because when we had real issues in the early ’00s, we got those teams together and it worked. By 2008-09, we had some of the lowest crime rates in my constituency because we worked together.

No one mechanism is good enough to effect change. I think we would all say that stop and search has a place but has to be done by properly trained officers. Again, more resources are needed to do that. We also need to have enough officers to do that properly, so that we can provide positive outcomes. In much of the city, it is probably not safe enough for officers to do that. They are professional servants of the community, but at times they put themselves at risk because they do not have enough support. It is very difficult. I praise them for the great work that they do in protecting us all, but they need sufficient resources.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Gary Sambrook) mentioned the issue of lower crime rates. The way that crimes of domestic abuse have been reclassified has had the effect of lowering some of the crime figures in Birmingham and around the west midlands. That is something that we need to look it, rather than saying we are reducing crime.

We have a huge amount of work to do. I commend the police service, which does a fantastic amount of work in our area. The PCC is engaging with us all, and I hope the Minister will engage with him constructively to ensure that we all work together to provide the best possible policing for all our communities.

I would like to call the Opposition spokesperson at 3.38 pm at the latest, and we have two Back Benchers left to speak. Please bear that in mind. I call Mike Wood.

Thank you, Ms Rees. I shall be very brief.

My father was a constable with West Midlands police for 29 years and was stationed for much of that time in the constituency of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood), working in Aston, Handsworth and some challenging parts of the city at a particularly challenging time in the late ’70s and early ’80s. An awful lot has changed about policing since he retired, but it is still the case that stop and search remains a vital tool for combating the scourge of serious violence and keeping people safe. We do not need to hear politicians saying that. The public know that that is common sense. The police know it to be true. Deputy Chief Constable Adrian Hanstock, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for stop and search, said:

“The authority to stop and search people in appropriate circumstances is a necessary power that allows police officers to tackle violence in our communities and prevent people from becoming victims of crime. Every day officers across the country seize horrifying weapons and are preventing further injuries and deaths by using their search powers.”

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) referred to parts of the police and crime commissioner’s crime plan for 2021 to 2025. The commissioner is right in one regard: stop and search is clearly an intrusive process. However, on the scale of interventions open to the police, it is very much at the lesser end of intrusion. Given its impact on both individuals who are stopped and searched and on perceptions of policing and fairness in the wider community, we must ensure that the powers are used appropriately, as the deputy chief constable said.

Certain individuals or groups of individuals should not be repeatedly targeted and stopped such that it almost becomes harassment. However, I fear that the language used by the police and crime commissioner in his plan sends out a signal to the many hard-working constables and officers in our communities across the west midlands, and to our neighbourhood policing teams in particular, that they should be extremely nervous of stop and search and use it only if they have almost seen a person carry a knife around a town centre—they need such a high level of certainty.

The commissioner writes in the plan:

“If searches are based on a reasonable suspicion of finding something or some other action following, then at least half would need to generate a positive outcome. This is not the case.”

That 50% positive searches test is not generally shared by practising barristers or criminal solicitors, and it is certainly not shared by the majority of police officers, yet by putting that in his formal plan for the police force area, he introduces such a note of caution that, in circumstances where an officer has good grounds to believe that an individual may be carrying an offensive weapon in one of our streets, town centres, communities or pubs, they are more likely to avoid stopping and searching than to carry out a stop and search. Even if there were positive results in only 20% of cases, that could be a significant amount of harm avoided and, indeed, lives not lost.

Proportionality is central to how appropriate the measures are. Inevitably, as the deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan police force, Sir Stephen House, said, if such powers are being used properly and in the areas with high crime rates, certain groups are far more likely to be stopped and searched than if people were being stopped and searched in St James’s park—the outer edges of the police force area—and the same applies in the west midlands. We know that parts of the region have far higher levels of crime and that, if we took a random sample in those areas, we would find that on a demographic, ethnicity or socioeconomic level, certain groups would be likely to be stopped more often than if a similar exercise were done on the streets of Pedmore in Dudley, or perhaps in parts of Meriden. We must ensure that these powers are not being used discriminatorily. We have to ensure that our police are comfortable and confident in exercising these powers when they are needed—when they feel that they have good and solid reasons to think that an individual may be carrying a weapon. We have also to ensure that police will have people’s backing, and that they will have the backing of decision makers and politicians. Sadly, some sections of the police and crime commissioner’s plan damage that confidence. They threaten to make our region less safe. I hope that he will reconsider and edit his plan.

On that last point about making the region less safe, the simple fact is that, as the police service’s resources have substantially diminished, crime has risen. Will the hon. Gentleman therefore be joining fellow Tory colleagues and Labour colleagues to make strong representations to Government to reverse the cuts that have been made to our police service since 2010?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I have a long history of pushing Ministers, of arguing in private and indeed in this Chamber, for greater funding and for changes in the funding formula to benefit West Midlands police. I shall continue to do so; I know that a number of my colleagues will continue to do so. However, I would remind him—I think that it probably slipped his mind—that five years ago, he, I think as a shadow Minister, attacked me and my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for calling for council tax hikes because we were backing the police and crime commissioner’s call for a £5 increase in the policing precept.

We need a good level of funding. We have had increased funding in the west midlands. The number of officers in the west midlands is increasing. The previous West Midlands police and crime commissioner failed to translate that into safer streets and communities. I genuinely wish the new commissioner well; we need him to succeed, and we need him to improve policing and safety in our region. However, I fear that he is making the same mistakes as his predecessor. Our constituents deserve better.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) for securing the debate. It is nice to have a focus on the west midlands. Listening to her, there was very little difference between her positive view of stop and search as a police tool and my own view. To be perfectly honest, there is not that much difference across this Chamber in that respect.

If I have a criticism of Conservative Members, it is that that they suffer a little from selective and collective amnesia. I wonder whether I can tell you a short story, Ms Rees. I have been struck by the account given by some hon. Members—that the police and crime commissioner may be putting at risk the valuable tool of stop and search and may be undermining the confidence of the police. You will remember, Ms Rees, that in April 2014, after record falls in knife crime, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), the then Home Secretary, announced her dissatisfaction with stop and search. She demanded a much more complex recording system, with the deliberate aim of reducing the number of stop and searches. The police were instructed that they could use stop and search only when they believed that a crime would take place, rather than when they believed that a crime may take place.

I agree with Members that stop and search is essentially a preventive tool, so it follows that there will be some occasions when it is used and the people stopped will not be found to be in possession of illegal items. However, it also serves as a deterrent. That is especially important if we are talking about youth crime and particular types of street crime. It is worth while as well, and I would defend that.

I remind hon. Members that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead said that the power should be used only when the police were absolutely confident that a crime would take place. That had a dramatic effect. There were 600,000 fewer recorded stop-and-search exercises as a direct result of that intervention. It resulted in a spiralling epidemic of knife crime that we are still suffering from today. I say in all seriousness to Conservative Members that if they are worried about the risk of misplaced judgments on stop and search that could lead to a curtailment, they are seven years too late. The former Home Secretary and Prime Minister did that and created damage and a lack of confidence in police forces across the country.

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield, who said that the Opposition are taking up too many scares, that the public do not believe us and that that is the explanation for his and his colleagues’ election results in 2019. If people do not believe what we say about crime, I would like to hear his explanation of the election of the third Labour police and crime commissioner in the west midlands 18 months later. The assumption is that people may have some doubts about what has been said in other areas, but when it comes to police and crime, they do not trust the Tories, but they trust the Labour candidate. Is that not a logical conclusion to draw?

Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman’s selective amnesia. Let us not forget who has been in power for 11 years and takes overall collective responsibility. Let us not forget who scrapped ID cards, abandoned neighbourhood policing, and cut our police force in the West Midlands by over 2,000. Let us not forget that, even if we get the money that has now been promised, we will still be 1,000 officers short of the target. That is the overall reason why we have a crime problem in our communities these days—there simply are not enough police.

The hon. Gentleman made a reasonable claim—I hear it often—about opening more local police stations. I asked him what that would cost and to be fair, he said, “I haven’t a clue”. However, he also said, “Well, it could be paid for with that £30 million.” I want to make two points about that. First, staffing is a recurring cost, so £30 million cannot keep being spent. Once you’ve spent it, you’ve spent it. I did a quick, back-of-a-fag-packet calculation and I assume that in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, my neighbouring constituency, if we could open another four satellite stations—eight in all—at a very minimum for safety, we would need about four staff in each. That is another 32 officers, or officers and civilian staff. In addition, of course, there would be the on-costs of rent, heat and lighting.

Secondly, it is worth pointing out that the Minister for Crime and Policing’s predecessor was tackled on the question of the £30 million. He pointed out at the time that it would save money because the police headquarters could retreat into a central body and the police could refurbish some of their equipment, so that they could use high-tech policing, and create an environment where they could do their job more efficiently. I did not say that; it was the Minister’s predecessor, Mr Nick Hurd.

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of costs for rent etc. Would it not be far more logical to combine some of the services in the community, and team up with the fire brigade, ambulance services and community hubs for the local authority? Maybe, if we were really revolutionary, we could even merge some of the roles of the police and crime commissioner into that of the mayor, which would be much more sensible.

At a time when we are waiting six to eight hours to get an ambulance for a 90-year-old woman, I am not sure that talking about merging services is the best strategy. I am quite happy to see certain resources shared, but in my view, that does not mean concentrating them all in the hands of a single person. I would point out that the reason we have separate police and crime commissioners is that this Government forced it upon people at a time when they did not want it. They were asked whether it should be put to a public consultation, and they said, “No, we’re having it anyway”. That is why we have police and crime commissioners. It is part of the collective selective amnesia.

I am proud of the three elected Labour police and crime commissioners in the west midlands. The late Bob Jones had a reputation for decency and integrity; David Jamieson worked hard to bring communities together and showed real concern on issues such as knife crime or illegal Traveller settlements; and I hope that Simon Foster is not being attacked because he is making fair funding and equipping the police with the right resources the centrepiece of his first term.

I simply contrast that with the North Yorkshire Tory PCC who had to resign after victim blaming; the Wiltshire PCC candidate who had to resign on the eve of the count for failure to disclose a conviction; and, of course, the Tory incumbent in Cleveland who is a person of interest to the very force he is supposed to be holding to account.

I hope that demonstrates how easy it is to politicise these issues in a cheap and nasty way. It will not help any of us. We should find the common ground that is staring us in the face. We should work together on stop and search. There is an argument for asking how we get to that aspiration of a higher conviction rate. I am actually in favour of that, and the hon. Member for West Bromwich East alluded to some of the ways in which we could do that. I would not have too much trouble working with her on that.

However, there must also be a recognition of the resource deficiency in the west midlands. We are not doing our constituents any favours if we decide to play party politics and do not make the effort to work together. I will be dead straight—that goes for us as well. We have to work on behalf of our constituents because they are the people who are losing out at the moment.

It is a pleasure as always to serve under you as Chair this afternoon, Ms Rees. It is also a pleasure to follow what I thought was a brilliant speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). I thank the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) for securing this debate. She made some really important points about the value of stop and search and, like her, I am taking part in a Zoom scrutiny panel about stop and search at 5 pm. Those meetings bring local officers together with members of our communities, and play a very important role. I share the hon. Lady’s sentiment that long may that continue.

The hon. Lady and others are also right to send our thanks to the frontline officers who have to take the decisions around stop and search in real time, out on our streets. We should never lose sight of that. In facing someone who may be carrying an offensive weapon, officers very much put themselves at risk, and we pay tribute to them for their service. Like the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood), my father is a retired police sergeant. I also have an uncle who is still serving on the frontline, so I am thinking of them and the support they need from us as they go about the work in our communities.

To be absolutely clear, Labour supports evidence-based and intelligence-based stop and search. I very much recognise that it can save lives. When stop and search is guided by those principles, it is a vital tool in halting acts of violent crime and in building trusted, consensus- led policing that is supported and trusted by all local communities.

The commissioner’s new police and crime plan, which we have heard so much about today, notes that only 25% to 30% of searches in the west midlands area resulted in any policing outcomes, which include cautions, arrests, drugs found and weapons seized. In only 3% of all searches did officers find an offensive weapon. Moreover, a freedom of information request released by West Midlands police this year showed that, of those stopped and searched per 1,000 of population, about 11 were black, eight of Asian heritage and three white.

The duty of any police and crime commissioner is to consider those statistics and to ask what the figures tell us about how stop and search is being used. Is it proportionate? Is it effective? Is it correct and is it prudent to assess whether the reasonable grounds threshold is being met in connection with the searches that take place?

In the commissioner’s new police and crime plan, he laid out three targets to make stop and search more effective. West Midlands police will aim, as we have discussed, to increase: the positive outcome rates for reasonable grounds stops and searches to no less than 50%; the proportion of reasonable grounds stops and searches where an offensive weapon is the object of the search; and the number of weapons found.

Despite what has been suggested, the commissioner has no plans to scale back stop and search, nor does he wish to abandon it entirely. Instead, he is thinking to create a more efficient policy. An effective policy will focus on taking more weapons off our streets, while we build in the community policing that became so difficult thanks to 10 years of austerity under this Government.

The commissioner is taking those steps because, in his constabulary and across the UK, the Government have made stop and search a less effective and trusted tool. The beating crime plan released by the Government in July 2021 permanently relaxed conditions for the use of section 60 stop-and-search powers, under which officers may search someone without reasonable grounds in some circumstances. That dismantled the best use of stop-and-search scheme, introduced by the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), in 2014, which introduced evidence and intelligence-based stop and search.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich East noted the increase in crime in her constituency and across the region. In the West Midlands police force area, crime is up. Specifically, instances of violence against the person and crimes recorded involving the possession of weapons rose from 111,934 in the year ending December 2020 to 137,549 in the year ending June 2021, according to the Office for National Statistics. Those are indeed somewhat shocking figures, and I appreciate the hon. Member’s efforts to raise the issue with the Minister today. The fact is, however, we are seeing increases in violent crime across the country.

In Cleveland, we saw an increase from 24,359 instances of violence against the person and crimes recorded involving the possession of weapons, to 25,360 in the year ending June 2021. The area covered by Cleveland police was the second worst place in the UK for knife crime in the year ending March 2021. According to the Office for National Statistics, proportionate to the population, the force area experienced more crimes involving bladed weapons than Greater Manchester police or London’s Metropolitan police. Between April 2020 and March 2021, 122 incidents of knife crime were recorded per 100,000 of the population. Indeed, only the West Midlands police recorded more, at 156.

More generally, the Office for National Statistics reported that between April 2009 and March 2010, 13 per 1,000 people were victims of violence against the person; and between July 2020 and June 2021, 32 people per 1,000 were victims of violence against the person. I am sure that all hon. Members will recognise that those increases are serious and I know that the hon. Member for West Bromwich East’s police and crime commissioner is keen to engage with her and all hon. Members about how we drive forward the effectiveness of the stop-and-search approach in order to address the systemic factors that have caused such a marked increase in crime, in not only the west midlands, but so many areas of the country.

Since 2010, West Midlands police has lost 2,221 of its officers as a consequence of the Government’s cuts, and we have lost 21,000 police officers nationally, as so many Members have said. The force is due to receive 1,200 back over the coming years, leaving West Midlands police with more than 1,000 missing officers. Since first coming to power in 2010, the Government have reduced the nationwide police budget by £1.6 billion in real terms. Since 2010, West Midlands police has lost spending power of £175 million.

I am afraid to say that the Conservatives’ negligent underfunding of our police forces means that the country is experiencing record levels of knife crime and that nearly nine in 10 cases are going unsolved, which has contributed to the stark increase in crime in the west midlands. There has been no levelling up when it comes to the West Midlands police and instead we have left our communities less safe.

Can the Minister update the House on when the long-overdue revised police funding formula might be ready? I understand that Simon Foster, the police and crime commissioner, recently wrote to all the region’s MPs on a cross-party basis to ask for a fair deal for West Midlands police. I hope that all hon. Members, as other hon. Members have said, will join his plea in that letter to the Government.

As the hon. Lady said, there has been an increase in crime in the west midlands. For violence with injury, the number of offences in the west midlands was up 10% on the previous year. In her own police force area, it was down 5% on the previous year. What does she think that her police force is doing better than West Midlands police?

It is an interesting question. One size does not fit all when it comes to tackling knife crime, as the dynamics of it are different in different areas. It might be the approach to the use of weapons, unfortunately, in domestic violence or to gang crime, or it might be related to drugs. To suggest that one size fits all when it comes to tackling knife crime is misguided.

We need to look to violence reduction units, community partnerships, police officers, police forces and police and crime commissioners around the country to find out what the most effective tools are to address knife crime and violence and to truly drive it down. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has pointed to the great work done by West Yorkshire police. I share his sense that it is doing a fantastic job and I will pass that on to my local officers.

I thank hon. Members for their contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) made a typically passionate contribution about how we have to take local communities with us on stop and search if we are to be truly effective, and about the devastating consequences of cuts to policing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) told us the story of his local police community support officers and the valuable work that they do to establish trust in communities. We should never lose sight of their contribution, which is valued by communities and policing alike. I come back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak that the west midlands will still be 1,000 officers short by the time the Government have finished restoring the police officer numbers that they have cut since 2010.

I very much hope that we can have a productive discussion about how to improve stop and search. I am reassured that there is a great deal of consensus in the Chamber and a commitment to work with the police and crime commissioner to do that in the west midlands. It can be a vital tool in keeping our communities safe, but it must be driven by evidence and intelligence, and have public support, for it to be effective.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to think that stop and search is the silver bullet for crime prevention. Although it can be incredibly effective as a last defence against violent crime, the Government must begin to tackle the systemic factors that have driven the increase in crime under their watch. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Gary Sambrook) made a point about police station closures. I have lost a police station in my constituency—

I certainly will, Ms Rees. If the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield thinks that those decisions are not based on the cuts imposed on police and crime commissioners and regional forces by the Conservative Government, he is mistaken. I hope that we can all make the case for well-funded police forces doing that work in our communities in future.

Thank you, Ms Rees, for presiding over a tight and passionate debate about crime in the west midlands. Given that I devote pretty much every waking hour to crime generally, it has been great to hear. I start by paying tribute to the police officers who are tackling the incidents in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards), as she outlined. She and I have conversed often about crime in her part of the world, and I will do my best to try to help her now, as in the past.

I am pleased to hear that Project Guardian is now in play in my hon. Friend’s constituency and I hope that it will have an effect. Notwithstanding its impact, she is right to bring her constituents’ concerns to this place, along with other hon. Members. Fighting crime is a priority for most of my constituents, as it is for all hon. Members present. As a result, it is one of the chief priorities that the Prime Minister has placed before the Government for us to make progress on and drive numbers down.

I am very pleased that hon. Members are feeling the effect of Operation Sceptre, our national programme of weeks of intensification in the fight against knife crime, which has been mentioned. However, it is obviously always tragic to hear about these terrible incidents, particularly the killing of young people.

I make no apology for being a stout defender of stop and search, and I am very pleased to hear that consensus across the Chamber today. It has not always been thus, and I hope that Opposition Members who have spoken passionately about the use of stop and search will speak to their colleagues who have, for example, opposed our recent proposed expansion of section 60 stop and search—the deregulation, as it were, of section 60 to a certain extent to make it more dynamic and usable. As a number of Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, stop and search is about saving lives, particularly against the background of knife crime.

I have seen that effect for myself: back in 2008, when I became Deputy Mayor for policing in London, we were facing a rising tide of knife crime and teenage killings in London. That was at a time of enormous expenditure by the then Labour Government, with the numbers in London at an all-time high, yet the number of young people being killed was rising on a weekly basis. Against the background of the previous Mayor’s rather relaxed attitude, we came in and sorted that out, driving numbers down. In 2008, 29 teenagers were killed, and by 2012 we had got that figure down to eight. That was eight too many, but that decrease was due to the assertive use of that particular tactic in a critical emergency situation. That is why stop and search, particularly section 60 stop and search, is so important. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) mentioned, it is preventive. We know that the knives are out there tonight in people’s hands. We need to find them and remove them, because otherwise some of them may be used, often to deadly effect.

Stop and search is also preventive because taking knives away from people means they are less likely to be victims. A person is much more likely to be stabbed and injured, or even killed, if they are carrying a knife themselves. Stop and search is unequivocally about saving lives, but it is also preventive because of the psychological effect of raising the likelihood of being caught—the perception of detection. We know that the perception of the likelihood of being caught is the greatest deterrent to any type of crime, so by making sure that stop and search is high-profile—that it is seen, that there are knife arches at transport nodes and at schools, and that stop and search is being done in the community—we will stop people carrying knives in the first place, because they will think they are more likely to be caught. I urge all parts of the country where there is a violence problem to use stop and search judiciously and proportionately, but nevertheless recognise it for the vital tool that we all agree it is.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East has said, we need to be careful about the use of data on stop and search, because although data can inform when properly interpreted, it can also deceive. There is a famous case of a pair of drug dealers who went from London to the Purbeck coast, down in the south-west. They were intercepted, stopped and searched, and drugs were obtained. However, because they were from a different background from the local population, being stopped and searched in that part of the world became 44% more likely for a person of black, Asian or minority ethnic background, just because of those two cases.

Understanding what the data is telling us is key to maintaining the legitimacy of stop and search, and while we often talk about the disproportionality in those who are stopped, searched and found with knives, or stopped and searched anyway, we never seem to talk about the other side of the argument, which my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) outlined. That is the disproportionality of victimisation: those people who, sadly, are killed also display a disproportionality that the police cannot ignore. Understanding what is actually happening in the data is a critical part of the mission.

Stop and search can be done well—there is no doubt about it. There are parts of the country where it is done extremely well. Liverpool, for example, prides itself on the way it conducts, handles and promotes in the community its stop and search. Of course, transparency with local people is absolutely critical. Buying in their consent is critical, particularly in those communities and neighbourhoods that are disproportionately affected by knife crime. As a number of Members have said, that takes political leadership. If the police are going to get out there and do this work, they need the political top cover. We politicians are the living consent, by the people of the areas we represent, to do this kind of work and we should be the interlocutors, as should police and crime commissioners.

All those years ago, when we were doing this work in London, the then Mayor, who is now Prime Minister, and I toured London, speaking to audiences large and small, in village halls and the Brixton Academy, to buy in this idea that what we were about was saving the lives of their young people. That is the mission that we all need to be joined on, shoulder to shoulder, including police and crime commissioners. I know that the actions of the police and crime commissioner in the west midlands is the subject of this debate, but I know that he will stand for that purpose and that he will do his best to try to sell this tactic, as Government Members have said, as a critical one for the police to use.

I say that because we are all concerned about crime in the west midlands. We need to reinforce constantly the often difficult and confrontational things that the police do, underline the legitimacy of what they do, and illustrate to our electors and the wider community that the police have a difficult and challenging job, which sometimes involves doing unpalatable things, but that fundamentally their purpose is to save life and build neighbourhood safety. If we could all join on that mission together, I think we can point towards success.

I do not have time, I am afraid; I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

I am hesitant to engage in what I have to say is this rather hackneyed debate about cuts, which I have heard the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak engage in many times, and I have certainly heard his party’s Front Benchers engage in it many times. It is now getting on for over a decade that that debate has been had, through numerous elections, most of which we have won, not least the last one. Indeed, we also won the last round of police and crime commissioner elections, when—I must point this out to the hon. Gentleman—we won 70% of the seats available. By the way, the votes for the Conservative candidate in the west midlands increased to 239,000, from 44,000 back in 2008, so we might catch his party at the next election—let us see where we get to.

Notwithstanding that, we have given commitments at the Dispatch Box about the funding formula. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East and other Government Members from the west midlands have certainly engaged with me about the need for that change in the funding balance, and we will be running that programme over the next couple of years. I have given a commitment that we will have the formula in place before the next election, assuming that the next election is at the end of this Parliament—who knows when that will come?

However, I urge Members to recognise that police and crime commissioners make a difference, and that someone cannot walk away from the decisions that were made in the intervening 10 years and say, “Nothing to do with us, Guv.” Decisions made over that decade by police and crime commissioners mean that as we get into a time of investment in policing—I am very happy about that, and we are now over halfway through our growth in the number of police officers—where we start from is a product of those decisions. There are some forces in the country that fought hard to preserve police officer numbers, not least in London, where I did the same, because we faced the same cuts during our time, or the same reduction in resources, because of the crash and the needs of the country’s finances. We fought to preserve numbers and, as a result, London is in a better position now to advance on police officer recruitment. I am afraid that the west midlands made a different set of decisions during those 10 years, driven by the thinking and the priorities, or whatever it might be, of the police and crime commissioner there.

I understand that the imperative on the Opposition side is to blame us for everything that goes wrong, and we want to blame the Opposition, but I am not walking away from some of the decisions we made during those 10 years—absolutely not. They were driven by bigger issues than us: geopolitics and economics; and a desire to get the country’s balance sheet back into good shape. At the same time, Opposition Members have to accept that the police and crime commissioners of those years—there have been three of them—made a set of decisions that put the west midlands in the position it is in now. If that is not the case, I am not sure what they were saying to people in elections about what difference they were going to make.

I hope that in future, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak quite rightly said, all of us can focus on making sure that the west midlands is as safe as it can possibly be, and I will join with everyone here on that mission.

I am sorry, Nicola Richards, but there is no time left for you to wind up. I apologise.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the use of Stop and Search in the West Midlands.

Funeral Director Services Regulation

Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government and House of Commons Commission guidance. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the regulation of the provision of funeral director services.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, I think for the first time. Over recent years, I have had more to do with funeral directors and the service they provide than I would have liked. I start by placing on record my thanks for the work that they do, particularly during the covid pandemic, when they have dealt very sensitively with families in very difficult situations. Funeral directors are in charge of assisting families at some of the most difficult times in our lives, and the vast majority of them do so with an exceptional level of service and sensitivity.

I want to talk about an unfortunate case—an example of how it does not always go right—that happened to a family from Darwen, in my constituency. The family came to me with a complaint against K.C. Funeral Services, following an incident that happened at the burial of their uncle in Darwen cemetery on 22 January 2021. The incident was caused by the snapping of the straps used to lower the coffin into the grave. After the straps snapped at the mouth of the grave, the coffin fell more than eight feet into the open grave, resulting in the exposure of the remains of the deceased. Understandably, many family members and other mourners immediately left the funeral. The family had been led to believe by K.C. Funeral Services that enough members of staff would be in attendance to assist at the graveside, but the family did not believe that was the case. They felt, understandably, very distressed about the situation.

The family also noted that, in any event, even if they had not snapped, the straps used to lower the coffin into the grave were not long enough. In fact, if they had had to lower the coffin into the grave themselves, because of the lack of assistance from the funeral directors, they would have ended up lying on their stomachs at the graveside, lowering the coffin to the floor. It was a three-person grave, so it was very deep, and my deceased constituent was the first person to be interred.

This was an appalling incident, and I pay tribute to Father Brian, who is a well-respected and widely liked parish priest based at St Joseph’s and St Edward’s in Darwen. He assisted the family, arranged for the majority of them to go home, sent away the mourners who had come to pay their last respects, and organised the removal of the deceased’s body from the grave, which had to be undertaken by cemetery workers and the remaining family members. The body was then returned to the funeral directors and another coffin was sought. The body was cleaned, having been at the bottom of the grave, and a team of pallbearers completed the burial the following day, which was Saturday 23 January.

It is absolutely apparent to my constituents that K.C. Funeral Services had been lacking in many areas. Given the distressing story I have just recounted, I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members can see why they would come to that conclusion. It is their view that the minimum standards required by law, or by decency in many cases, had not been met. The incident was exceptionally traumatic for the family, who were already grieving the loss of a well-loved family member. Following the incident, they went back to see Emma Childerley at K.C. Funeral Services on 28 January, in order to ask her some questions about the normal operating practices of her business. They were made aware at the meeting that K.C. Funeral Services was not a member of the National Association of Funeral Directors or the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors. She confirmed to the family—it was the first time they had heard it, and I must admit that it was the first time I had heard it—that both registration schemes are voluntary. Some funeral directors, including the one I have mentioned, do not join such schemes, largely because of the cost burden of doing so.

In what I hope will be a relatively brief contribution, I want to address the gap in the regulations that enables some providers to operate with limited or no regulation. The regulations do not enable families who have suffered in this way, or who have any other grievance, to pursue the funeral directors through a professional body. That is what I hope the Minister will address as we move through the debate.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I spoke to him beforehand, and the case that he has outlined is absolutely horrific. It beggars belief what happened. There is a need for regulation, and not just for those who are not members of funeral directors organisations. Does he agree that although it is welcome that funeral services are bringing in greater regulation of funeral provision, the date of July 2020 will potentially leave thousands of people with no redress, and this should also be retrospectively applied? Although there are independent funeral directors who are not members of an organisation, there are others who are members of an organisation and who pay into that, and they are not getting redress either.

The hon. Gentleman’s intervention highlights how complicated this space is. There are competing interests trying to become the regulator of choice. I am not proposing, and do not intend to propose, the introduction of state regulation, but a strong indication from the Government on the direction of travel in relation to regulation would assist the funeral sector.

Let us be absolutely clear, as per my opening remarks, that the vast majority of funeral directors provide an exceptional level of service. The reason the story of what happened to the family in my constituency is so shocking is that it is so rare. Many of us who have had interactions with a funeral director, maybe when burying a family member or friend, can understand that having to deal with an appalling incident of this kind at the moment of maximum grief is a terrible thing.

My right hon. Friend might not know that I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for funerals and bereavement. There are two things that I wish to draw to his attention. The first is to endorse and amplify what he has said about the funeral and bereavement sector during the pandemic, because it rose to meet what was an extraordinary challenge, as he described.

The second thing, which is highly pertinent to my hon. right Friend’s remarks, is that one of the problems—this is highlighted in our all-party parliamentary group’s annual report, which was published recently—is that responsibility for funerals and similar matters crosses several Government Departments. The Minister is in his place, but of course this issue is affected by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and the Department for Work and Pensions—several Departments have responsibilities in this field. It is important that there is a cross-Government approach to funerals and bereavement. That is something the all-party parliamentary group has called for, and it is something the Minister might want to reflect on during the course of the debate.

I thank my right hon. Friend for an excellent intervention. Picking up on both interventions, this is a very complicated space—the Department of Health and Social Care, of course, will have some input as well. In this sort of complicated space, things often get missed, so I hope that the Minister, who I know is not a believer in Government silos, will look to work across Government to ensure that we can bring some regulation to this area.

When I spoke to my constituents about this, both those affected and others, they were shocked and surprised to find out that this sector, which people access at such a vulnerable moment, is largely unregulated. We should seek to close the gap that allows people to opt out of all regulation for financial reasons—and they may have very valid business reasons for doing so—leaving people with limited redress. In all fairness, the two best known regulating bodies, the National Association of Funeral Directors and the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors, are seeking to address the issue. They have been proactive, which is good. It is not just those two bodies that are calling for regulation, of course. The Competition and Markets Authority recently looked at funeral services, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) will know from his work with the all-party parliamentary group for funerals and bereavement. We should seek more regulation in this space.

I am aware of the work being undertaken by David Heath, the former Member for Somerton and Frome, who is the chair of the Independent Funeral Standards Organisation. I understand from David, who is doing excellent work with that organisation, that it will be up and running from January, trying to regulate and work with the sector to seek further regulation. Of course, there is no compulsion on any funeral director to take part in that organisation, and there is no compulsion on funeral directors and other bereavement services to join the existing trade bodies.

I hope that the Minister will take up the excellent suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings: to seek to work across Government to ensure that we find a solution to the doubt in this area in relation to regulation. What would be exceptionally helpful for the industry—and if he cannot do it today, it may be something for another day or something on which he could write to me—is to set out a direction of travel on regulation for all of those competing organisations. They should be given a period of time to get their own house in order, but they should understand that that is a limited period of time. Different regulators have competing interests, and they need some Government direction to work together, come together and be forced to talk to one another. If they fail to find an industry-led solution, which would be my preferred route, there should at least be an understanding that the Government will keep this under review and may, at some point in the future, intervene.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that we should celebrate best practice among funeral directors and the work that they do to serve their communities in very difficult times for families?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Everyone who has spoken today understands the brilliant work that the funeral and bereavement sector does on behalf of families, and it has been through a very difficult time. On the point about best practice, a form of industry-led regulation that people are compelled to join would naturally lead to the sharing of best practice. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider what has been said today. I know he will join me in passing on condolences to a family that I have not named because of the graphic and distressing nature of the case in Darwen. They are having a very difficult time because a dearly loved and valued member of our community died, and that was compounded by an appalling graveside incident.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I will start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) for securing a debate on a most important issue for his constituents. He is absolutely right to draw the House’s attention to such a serious issue this afternoon. He has highlighted an experience with which we will almost all inevitably have to deal at some time in our lives—the burial or cremation of a loved one. Very sadly, that has become a reality for many families over the past 20 months. I offer my sincere condolences to all who have been bereaved, and pay tribute to the fortitude with which they have faced a most distressing experience during the difficult circumstances of recent months.

The loss of a loved one is a painful burden that, naturally, we prefer not to consider until we are forced to do so. When it does happen to us, we are often at our lowest ebb, so it is never easy. The pain that comes with losing someone we love or care for is something that all Members of this House will be familiar with. However, in the vast majority of cases, we are supported by the commitment and professionalism of the funeral director in whom we put our trust at this most difficult of times. They have an enormously important and significant position of responsibility at what is a very distressing time for all those involved.

As right hon. and hon. Members have done this afternoon, I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the crucial contribution of the funeral sector throughout the difficult circumstances of the pandemic response, and also more generally. We can all think of examples of funerals for our loved ones or friends and associates where services have been conducted sensitively and sympathetically and with real professionalism. The sector has been central to the Government’s objective of ensuring that the deceased are treated with dignity and respect, and the bereaved with compassion. Again, I want to record my sincere gratitude and that of the entire Government for that work.

Unfortunately, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen illustrated in his speech, things can sometimes go wrong. First, may I offer my sincere condolences on the death of his constituent’s relative and say how shocked and sorry I am for what the family have been through? The events that he described are truly shocking, and no family suffering real grief following the death of a loved one should ever have to go through that. I can only imagine how difficult and traumatic the experience has been for them, without that being compounded by the events that he described. It will have been distressing not only for them, but for all the individuals in attendance. I note the professionalism of the individual in charge of the ceremony in helping all those affected to deal with it, and the professionalism that they showed in the impossible circumstances that they were presented with. I trust it was a rare and isolated incident, but that does not diminish or excuse the impact on those involved.

Quality standards in the provision of funeral director services are not prescribed by law. However, there is a broader regulatory framework with which funeral directors must comply, including health and safety legislation covering the safe handling and storage of bodies by funeral directors and their staff, and consumer protection measures, about which I will say more in a moment.

Inconsistency in quality standards was one of the issues identified in the report by the Competition and Markets Authority on its market investigation into the funeral sector, published last December. The report recommended that independent regulation of funeral director provision was needed to raise and maintain standards, and to standardise some practices, for example in the transport and storage of bodies

The Government’s response to the Competition and Markets Authority’s report was published on 7 April this year. While we accepted that there could be improvement in the sector, we did not propose moving to a full independent regulator at this stage. Given the impacts of the extreme pressure on the sector during the pandemic, the Government considered that this was not the time to implement significant changes. However, the pressures of the pandemic have undoubtedly strengthened the relationship between the funeral sector and Government, which is, of course, a good thing. We have built on this to support the sector in improving the effectiveness of its self-regulation of quality standards. In our response to the Competition and Markets Authority, we said that we would introduce a set of quality standards and principles to which funeral directors should subscribe. We planned to do so by the end of this year, and to review its effectiveness within 18 months of implementation.

The Minister is talking about a set of standards and principles to which funeral directors should subscribe. Does he mean “should” subscribe or “must” subscribe?

At the moment we are looking at a self-regulation approach to this issue. There are challenges in going down the route of formal regulation, which, of course, takes time because it needs statutory underpinning, often involving primary legislation. We expect the sector to look intensively and at speed to improve the situation. There is an onus on all those providing these services to live up to the standards that we would all expect funeral directors taking care of our loved ones or friends to live up to, for the reasons so eloquently outlined by my right hon. Friend.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) has done a great service to his constituents. He has been their champion and drawn this tragic case to the attention of the House. Out of the tragedy, the family will be hoping that something positive will come, and today can be the beginning of that. My right hon. Friend drew attention to the work of David Heath, who recently met the all-party parliamentary group. Will the Minister agree to meet the all-party parliamentary group to take these matters further, in exactly the spirit of my right hon. Friend’s speech?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I want to really engage with this issue in the spirit in which all Members have come to the debate. With that in mind, I would be delighted to meet the APPG and to hear the concerns of its members. In fact, my right hon. Friend has pre-empted what I was going to offer later in my remarks. As a parliamentarian, he is very good at teasing out these sorts of commitments.

My right hon. Friend has indeed. He has managed to extract that commitment from me and I will certainly look forward to that discussion. As he has described, none of us in this House wants to see any other family go through the wholly unacceptable distress that the family in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen have been through, at a most difficult time for them. We cannot allow that to happen in future. There is an enormous onus on the sector to drive forward this improvement and these quality standards. At this point, we think it is right that they take responsibility for achieving that, but we reserve the right to have a greater involvement in these matters if we do not see the sort of improvement that I think we would all expect.

In light of the Competition and Markets Authority’s recommendations, both the sector’s representative organisations—the National Federation of Funeral Directors and the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors—are taking positive steps to introduce and embed improved self-regulation and complaint-handling arrangements. Encouraged by the sector’s proactive approach to the Competition and Markets Authority’s findings, we are continuing to work closely with it throughout the implementation of its new self-regulation regimes, with a view to assessing their effectiveness once they have bedded in. I hope that that gives some reassurance as to the improvement that my right hon. and hon. Friends are seeking.

Where funeral directors are not members of these representative bodies, I would expect them to look to the standards that the bodies are developing and to adopt and advance those standards within their own set-ups. I think that that is an important point to make. Cost, which Members have raised, is of course a matter for the representative bodies, but I know that the NAFD in particular is looking to make improved regulatory structures accessible across the profession, which again is very welcome.

In addition to its findings on quality standards, the Competition and Markets Authority made recommendations to address the lack of accessible and comparable information on the products and services that funeral directors provide. In the light of pandemic pressures on the sector, the Competition and Markets Authority has not pursued remedies to address that issue fully. Instead, it has introduced a range of “sunlight” provisions to support customers in making choices about funerals, and to ensure that the pricing, business and commercial activities of funeral directors, as well as the quality of the service that they provide, are exposed to greater public and regulatory scrutiny. The remedies include an obligation for all funeral directors to set their prices out clearly and prominently so that families needing to arrange a funeral can, if they wish, compare that information before deciding which provider to use. The Competition and Markets Authority has also recommended that, once conditions are more stable, it should consider whether a further market investigation is needed to identify whether additional customer protections are needed.

To return to the regrettable experience of the constituents of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen, there are numerous pieces of legislation with which all traders, including funeral director businesses, must comply. In particular, the Consumer Rights Act 2015 sets out the standards that consumers can expect when they contract with a trader or business for the provision of services, and the remedies if those rights are breached. Where a trader or business fails to meet the standards for the supply of a service required by the 2015 Act, or the service does not conform to the contract, that could potentially be a breach of contract, and if so, the consumer is entitled to seek a remedy. If that cannot be agreed in correspondence, the consumer could then pursue a claim against the funeral director in the courts.

I want to pick up on the point made about the cross-Government nature of this issue, which again is important. I have made the point that, as a result of the pandemic, what we have seen is a stronger working relationship between Government and the sector. It is essential that that is reflected across Government, given the fact that elements of policy in this area intersect with various Departments. My right hon. Friend referred to there being silos and the fact that we do not want operations within silos. I hope that he will be slightly reassured by the fact that, as a joint Minister, across both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, I am quite well versed in ensuring that elements of Government do not act in silos. In that spirit, I would want to engage with colleagues across Government to ensure that we get this right, and that is precisely what I intend to do. He has my reassurance on that.

I conclude by again thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen for introducing this debate this afternoon. It would be impossible for anybody—any Minister or any Member of this House—not to be affected by hearing about the experience that he has described with real understanding, care and sympathy for his constituents who have been caught up in this terrible situation. I am very grateful to him for bringing this to the House’s attention. I want him to know that I am very mindful of the situation that he has described, that this is something that I want to go away and look at further, that I do want to engage with the APPG that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) chairs, and we will ensure that that happens, and that, as I have described, there is a piece of work going on at the moment around self-regulation, but we need to monitor that closely, to see whether it achieves the objectives that I think all of us wish to see, and if that is not the case, we reserve the right to look at this issue again and to take matters from there.

I hope that that will provide my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen with some reassurance. I would also ask whether he could please express my condolences to his constituents family. They have been through a terrible time, and it really is very important that no other family go through the experience that they have.

Question put and agreed to.

Palestine: Road Map to Peace

[Relevant documents: e-petition 585314, Introduce sanctions against Israel, e-petition 585313, UK Government to formally recognise the State of Palestine, e-petition 300450, Call for the UK Government to formally recognise the State of Palestine, and e-petition 585309, Condemn Israel for their treatment of Palestine and Palestinians.]

Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming onto the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of a roadmap to peace in Palestine.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. The long-standing conflict between Israel and Palestine remains one of the greatest foreign policy challenges faced by the UK and the international community. The conflict has been costly in terms of human life, as well as for the stability and security of the region. It is therefore clear that a road map for peace is desperately needed. The necessary steps have never been clearer, but there remain significant obstacles to the peace process that I will spend some time outlining.

The most recent round of violence between Israel and Palestine cost countless lives. The attack on Al-Aqsa mosque by Israeli authorities sparked a wave of violence that culminated with renewed bombing in Gaza. This violence has emerged as a result of the ongoing injustices faced by Palestinian people, injustices which continue to make peace in the region impossible. For months, Palestinian families have been illegally evicted from their homes and businesses in several historically Palestinian neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem. Those evictions are being driven by illegal state-backed settler organisations whose sole aim is to displace all Palestinians from their rightful home in east Jerusalem.

This process goes hand in hand with the growth and consolidation of illegal Israeli settlements on the west bank and Golan Heights and the land that was stolen from Palestinian families. If we are serious about achieving a lasting and just peace between Palestine and Israel, it is abundantly clear that the injustices, such as the evictions in east Jerusalem, must be stopped and all land stolen from the Palestinian people must be returned to them.

The UK Government can certainly play a positive and leading role in working out a road map to peace in Palestine. First, our trade relationships with Israel mean that we can make use of sanctions to exert leverage over the Israeli Government to ensure that the human and civil rights of Palestinians are respected and that all illegally seized land is returned.

It is unfortunate to have to resort to sanctions, but it is clear from the ongoing violence and evictions that imposing sanctions is the start of the process to bring about change in the region. That is why I am pleased to see the Israeli Arms Trade (Prohibition) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), which would end all arms trade between the UK and Israel until a meaningful solution to the conflict has been found.

Furthermore, I believe it is time for the UK to follow many other countries around the world in finally recognising the state of Palestine. Many like to speak about the two-state solution to the conflict, but how can we commit to that if we do not even recognise Palestine as a rightful state? Moreover, how can peace be achieved if Israel refuses to recognise the state of Palestine? It is a prerequisite to peace that the statehood of Palestine be recognised and respected. The two-state solution has never been so imperilled as it is today. Recognition of the state of Palestine is not only the right thing to do, but perhaps a means of salvaging what is left of the two-state solution.

When speaking of a road map to peace in Palestine, we must consider what we can do to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people and ensure that diplomacy and dialogue can defeat the drive towards more violence. A meaningful peace process between Israel and Palestine can occur only when the two meet as equal partners, which in turn can occur only when the rights of Palestinians are upheld and respected, when illegally occupied lands are returned and when the sovereignty of Palestinian people is recognised. I believe that once these conditions are met and the rights of the Palestinian people are firmly respected, we will see strides towards peace in the region. I still believe we can see peace between Palestine and Israel within my lifetime, but in order to see this hope fulfilled we must be willing to take strong and decisive action now.

I remember that in 2003 when the first road map to peace was introduced, there were some 50,000 settlers occupying the west bank. Eighteen years on, there are now close to half a million. What was a possible route to peace seems to have been lost greatly by the vast numbers taking land in the west bank. Does my hon. Friend not feel that the situation is far worse now than it was when the road map was first talked about, and is it not the case that we have seen Israeli Prime Ministers since who are not interested in the two-state solution, but instead in a one-state solution, and that is Israel?

I agree with the comments my hon. Friend makes on the two-state solution. As I have said, it is possible that a two-state solution can be a means of progress if Palestine is recognised as a state. Without that recognition, the peace process is going nowhere.

When we speak of a road map to peace in Palestine, we can no longer repeat the failed mantras. I believe that progress can be made, but only if the peace process is recentred around the human rights of Palestinian people rather than simply on territorial or security considerations. A human rights-based approach to brokering peace between Palestine and Israel would focus on securing civil and political rights for the Palestinian people, and would place justice at the very heart of the peace process. That, of course, would mean recognition from both sides of the conflict of the centrality of the principles enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights.

The peace process must centre around equality, non-discrimination, participation, and accountability and the rule of law. That would be a clear set of criteria by which the peace process could be monitored by both Israel and Palestine, and would establish a universally held basis for a solution to the crisis. Instead of focusing on security and stability, the international community should be seeking strategies that instead focus on human lives and the rights and wellbeing of individuals and families. That means drawing into the peace process groups from civil society that are often excluded from negotiations. That means including charities, non-governmental organisations, women’s organisations and other groups in the peace process, from both sides. With that approach, the traditional actors—Governments and political parties, with the hostilities between them—can be meaningfully held in check by the interests and concerns of Israeli and Palestinian civil society.

That humanitarian approach, however, is clearly not being adopted by Israel, Palestine or the international community as a whole. It is a step that needs to be taken, and it is one that the UK could be the first to take towards bringing about a peaceful resolution for Palestine and Israel. Only if Israel recognises the humanitarian injustices being committed against Palestinians can new steps be taken towards peace.

I will call the SNP spokesperson to speak at 5.08 pm, so I have to put a time limit of about two and a half minutes on those who want to speak. I call Jim Shannon.

Thank you, Ms Rees. I did not expect to be called first, but I appreciate the opportunity. Indeed, I am astounded.

This matter is close to my heart. I seek to be a tool for the building of bridges between two nations, not tearing them down. My opinions may be clearly different from those of others, but I respect everyone’s opinion and hope that they will respect mine. I will not claim any superiority of knowledge or compassion over any other Member of this House, but I represent a part of our United Kingdom that has known the harsh reality of conflict. With some experience, I can say that we cannot deliver peace or a road map to peace by ignoring the history of appeasing aggressors or by repeating meaningless phrases.

History records the facts. In May 1948, Israel was attacked by multiple Arab armies. In ’67, it was forced to defend itself when Arab armies again gathered on its borders to attack. In 1973, it was attacked on Yom Kippur. In between those events and since 1973, Israel has been at the centre of more acts of terror than any other nation in the world. As a young boy, I remember watching the news about the six-day war, wondering how that tiny nation was defending itself against all the odds. The images of women and children on the streets, defending themselves and their neighbours, is imprinted on my mind.

I do not support early-day motion 300, calling on the UK not to sell arms to the most threatened state on the planet. The incongruity of it is that Israel sells more military technology to us than we sell to them. Similarly, in America the Democratic party wants to stop military aid to Israel that funds the Iron Dome, a defence system that saves lives. Can you believe that, Ms Rees? Some of my fellow parliamentarians—in advance of what they will say, but based on what they have said in the past—want to strip the world’s only Jewish state of the means to defend itself. For the life of me, I cannot understand that.

I have always been taught to focus on the ties that bind, rather than the things that divide. I believe that everyone in the House can subscribe to these. First, Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian Authority must accept and respect Israel’s right to exist; there is no other starting point. Secondly, all armed terror groups must lay down their weapons. Thirdly, peace talks without preconditions on either side must be opened to reach a full and final peace settlement between the state of Israel and the Palestinians.

In the 25 seconds I have left, I conclude with this comment: when Israel led the vaccine roll-out, it was notable that that roll-out rightly included people from every faith and political persuasion. The greater good was put above all else. That has to be reciprocated and the greater good of peace and change must be put above personal belief and political aspiration. That is what I am calling for from Members present today—in advance of what they say. That is what I believe, and I hope that someone else who is present to speak believes the same.

In my constituency, the Palestinian flag is flown proudly by people for whom a viable internationally recognised state of Palestine is a life-long dream. I want that dream to be turned into reality, but I am under no illusion about how distant it feels and how difficult the path to achieving it is.

The illegal occupation continues, and the dignity and human rights of the Palestinian people are trampled on each and every day. If we have learnt anything from the long and delicate road to peace in Northern Ireland, it is that progress is impossible without first establishing a sufficient degree of trust for genuine dialogue to take place. Long-standing and apparently irreconcilable differences can be unpicked, but only if the will to do so is there from all parties.

There are clearly people of good will and good sense in both Israel and Palestine who recognise that, and their voices must be heard as we work towards a two-state solution of an independent internationally recognised Palestine alongside a safe and secure Israel. When it comes to political leadership, however, sadly that good sense does not always prevail. As long as leaders see political advantage in their own communities from exacerbating differences rather than seeking areas of agreement and common ground, the road to peace will remain blocked.

It breaks my heart that the rights of ordinary Palestinian men, women and children are being denied, and their hopes of a better future are being crushed. With no voice of their own, they rely on human rights defenders to speak up for them, which is why the Israeli Government’s attack on six leading civil society organisations must be unequivocally condemned.

Cases of covid-19 are rising in Gaza and the health system is almost broken. The people of Gaza deserve much better. Does my hon. Friend agree that Israel must stop the blockade now so that the health authorities can get in there and people can get vaccinations and proper healthcare?

I agree entirely that we have to end the blockade of Gaza. It is every individual’s right to healthcare, particularly during the pandemic.

We have a decision to make. Will we condemn another generation of Palestinians to a future full of fear, insecurity and hopelessness? Or will we stand shoulder to shoulder with those demanding the democratic space to criticise the status quo and defend the human rights of a people who deserve better than continued oppression and suffering because political leaders lack the courage to recognise that a better future is possible?

I will do my best to set out the case in two and a half minutes. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) for initiating the debate.

The principal point must be that Britain should give unconditional full recognition to the state of Palestine. It was in the Labour party manifesto and it is something that I believe strongly in. Most countries around the world have no problem with that and have recognised the state of Palestine, as does the United Nations—it is generally accepted. We should do exactly the same, so that we are seen as honest brokers and proper participants in the whole process.

The occupation of the west bank by Israel has gone on since 1967. Let us try to imagine what it is like to live under occupation. Everywhere someone goes there is a checkpoint, an occupying force or a soldier who will stop them. A law that they have not voted for, and that does not have their consent, can be used against them. Many people are in prison for many years and are abominably treated there.

Similarly, the siege of Gaza goes on. I have had the good fortune to visit Israel, the west bank and Gaza on many occasions. I am always struck by the number of people in Gaza who suffer from profound mental health conditions because of the siege that they are under and the inability to travel or work. It is the most educated population in the world with the highest number of graduates of any country bar none, yet unemployment is between 60% and 70%. In fact, there is no real functioning economy in Gaza. That is another major factor, which has to end.

Some 600,000 people live in settlements. They are industrial and trading complexes and they have taken land and water away from Palestinian farmers. There are settler-only roads, which Archbishop Desmond Tutu recognised was like apartheid where people could not travel on certain roads. They are a breach of international law.

Many people in Palestine, in Israel and around the world are desperate in their search for peace. What I have noticed on the many Zoom calls I have had in the past two years is the unity of people all over the world demanding justice for the people of Palestine. That must be the basis for peace for the future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali)—in fact, my own MP—for bringing forward this debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) said, the idea of a free state of Palestine—the desire of my constituents and hers, and I am sure all of ours—seems so far away, so I wanted to focus on the things that we can do and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, and others have mentioned, how we in Britain should facilitate the development and support of civil society in the region.

My constituents, like many others, have been writing regarding Israel’s decision to criminalise six Palestinian human rights and civil society organisations and label them terrorists. When I was last in Palestine, I met Omar Shakir from Human Rights Watch, who was constantly facing deportation, the suggestion being that he had something other than peace and the people of Palestine at his heart, which was completely unfair, as it is unfair today. The accusation is that these are terrorist organisations, despite a 74-page dossier prepared by the Israeli security services providing little concrete evidence of links between Palestinian human rights groups and designated terrorist groups. These organisations include the most well-established Palestinian human rights groups that work in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. They provide healthcare to the most vulnerable communities, they organise legal support for those detained and they collect evidence of human rights violations—which I suspect is where the problem is.

The work that these organisations undertake is integral to supporting the most vulnerable and to understanding the reality on the ground for Palestinian people. As others have mentioned, what we have seen in other conflicts, such as in Northern Ireland, is that without strong, stable, supported civil society, a pathway and a plan to peace can never be realised on the ground, let alone around the world in fancy buildings such as this one. I ask the Government to seek to support capacity building of Palestinian civil society.

These debates on the middle east peace process used to be rather groundhog day-like events, where we recorded no progress or the Government having done nothing but repeat the same phrases over and over again. I look back on those times with nostalgia, because now we simply seem to be going backwards. After the appalling chaos of the Trump Administration, we should be getting back on track and supporting a two-state solution, the rule of law and human rights in the Palestinian territories. In the very short time I have, I want to ask the Minister to respond on the subject of the most egregious barriers to the peace process.

The first is recognition, which this House overwhelmingly voted for seven years ago. That should be a precondition —an attempt to negotiate on equal terms. The second is the establishment of new settlements. There are 13,000 about to be approved, and it is not just what is being approved; it is where. These are strategically placed to cut off East Jerusalem from Ramallah, or they are being built 20 km inside the west bank to ensure that a two-state solution becomes impossible.

What are the Government saying on settler violence, which is now endemic? There were 450 recorded attacks since early 2020—that is from B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation. Those attacks are specifically designed to terrorise Palestinian farmers or force them off their land. Why are we trading with illegal settlements? We are not talking about boycotts here; we are talking about settlements that are illegal under international law, but which the Government will do nothing to prevent British companies profiting from.

What has the Government’s response been to the six non-governmental organisations—respected civil rights and human rights organisations—being banned by the Israeli Government? What are they doing about the all-time highs in evictions and demolitions? They could start with the finding last week against JCB, in which it was found that that major British company had not shown human rights due diligence in ensuring that its equipment was not being used to demolish Palestinian homes.

These are the questions that the Government have to answer, and not just as a precursor to re-establishing a peace process; if they do not, they are abdicating responsibility, there is no hope for peace going forward, and they are effectively colluding with what the Israeli Government are doing.

It is pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) for calling this really important debate.

Next month will mark two years since I was elected to this place. In those two short years, I have been contacted by so many Vauxhall constituents who are concerned about the reality that many Israelis and Palestinians face. The fact is that none of us can fail to be appalled by the situation in Palestine: the continued blockade in Gaza, the deconstruction of homes, the eviction of Palestinian families, the construction of illegal settlements and the cruel treatment of children in detention. That should shame us. Those incidents are not just inhumane, but huge barriers to peace.

Peace in Palestine will never be found with the discrimination against and suppression of many people in the area. The actions will simply lead to resentment and the continuation of the toxic atmosphere that has allowed the current situation to exist for far too long. We all want to see peace in Palestine.

I appreciate that we are very short of time, so I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does she agree that unless we recognise Palestine as a state, we cannot make that route map towards peace?

I thank my colleague for that really important point. Both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to exist, and they can do so in a safe space. However, to do that, our Government and Governments across the world need to work tirelessly to facilitate the de-escalation of the conflict.

I have one simple question for the Minister. Will the Government commit to working with both Israeli and Palestinian groups to amplify the voice of the good faith actors who are working so hard on the ground to bring about this peace? We need to advance the two-state solution and bring peace for everyone in the region, not continue having debates in this Chamber.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali)—my neighbour—on securing the debate. I am the chair of Labour Friends of Israel, so I will be a lone voice here. Let me be straightforward. The debate sounds less like seeking conditions that might help create peace, and more like setting conditions as a prerequisite for peace. That is what is wrong with it.

We are told we must recognise Palestine, but what Palestine? Is it the bit controlled by the Palestinian Authority, or the bit under military occupation by Hamas? What kind of state would we be recognising, given its current condition? Why is it impossible, in a debate like this, to recognise that there is a new coalition Government in Israel? Why is it impossible to look at the arguments about the “economy for security” plan that was announced recently? Why are the Abraham accords automatically dismissed?

I listened to what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, and others said about co-existence, and I agree. I hope that means that they are also supporting the Alliance for Middle East Peace plan for an international peace fund to bring those opposing people together, as we did successfully in Northern Ireland. I hope we will be united in saying to the Government that Britain should seek to take up one of the places on the international body supervising that fund.

I hear people talk about recognition and sanctions; what I want to know is, when people are chanting, “From the river to the sea”, what do they think that actually means? We all know that it actually means the dismemberment of Israel—Israel not having a right to exist. No one can back that and a two-state solution simultaneously.

I genuinely want a two-state solution. I genuinely want peace. However, I also want recognition that the state of play is that Hamas is supported and financed by the Iranian revolutionary guard, and that its objective is the destruction of the state of Israel. We have to bear that in mind.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) on securing the debate, but I must say, very sadly, that the prospect of peace in Palestine looks more distant than ever. With each illegal home the Israelis construct, the dream of a viable Palestinian state is dealt another blow. The Palestinian people are subjected to yet more intolerable brutality and oppression, with Israeli forces giving settlers licence to attack Palestinian civilians.

The human rights group B’Tselem has documented a staggering 451 incidents of settler violence against Palestinians since early 2020, and Israeli forces failed to intervene to stop the attacks in two thirds of cases. The organisation has also recorded how settlers have been used as a tool of the state to expropriate 11 square miles of Palestinian farm and pasture land in the west bank over the past five years alone.

There is no other way to look at this than as a state-sanctioned project of colonisation and ethnic cleansing. A Human Rights Watch report published in April this year concluded that

“the Israeli government has demonstrated an intent to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians across Israel and the OPT”—

that is, the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The report goes on:

“In the OPT, including East Jerusalem, that intent has been coupled with systematic oppression of Palestinians and inhumane acts committed against them. When these three elements occur together, they amount to the crime of apartheid.”

The crime of apartheid cannot be allowed to stand, but thanks to the international community offering little more than hollow words of condemnation, the Israeli authorities wilfully continue to break the law, safe in the knowledge that they will not face the repercussion of proper sanctions.

If the Government will not provide moral and substantial leadership on this issue, it will be up to civil society to do so, through the boycott of, and divestment from, companies engaged in violations of Palestinian human rights. The Government need to lead the international community in providing more than mere denunciations. We need actions and sanctions, and we need them now.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali), on bringing forward the debate. For almost 30 years, we have been discussing, and there has been international consensus on, the prospect of a two-state solution. Most people in this Parliament, and most nations across the world, would endorse that approach. It is the approach that my party fully supports. However, we recognise that we have to consider that policy objective against the reality of what is happening on the ground. We cannot turn our eyes away and pretend that one of those states has not been engaged, ever since the Oslo accords, in systematically destroying the building blocks on which the other state will emerge and develop.

First, and most obviously, the Israeli state is occupying the lands designated to become the Palestinian state. Not only is it militarily occupying them, but it has no policy objective to ever end that occupation. Secondly, as has been referred to, the programme of settler colonisation has seen more than 600,000 people move into the militarily occupied areas, which has led to the displacement of the Palestinian populations that were there. The infrastructure that comes with that results in the de facto annexation of the territory, even if it is not legally claimed. Thirdly, there is the question of Jerusalem, as has been indicated. There is what can only be called the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities to remove them from the east of In East Jerusalem. That has been given a veneer of legitimacy and respectability by Israel’s law, although that law would not pass any international test of fairness.

Finally, the Israeli Government are, as a matter of policy, systematically trying to reduce and deny the capacity of Palestinian society to represent itself politically. That is why the recent criminalisation of six non-violent civil organisations is of so much concern. The extension of that criminalisation, by military law, to the occupied territories may well result in arrests and offices closing. All of that denies Palestinian people the ability to organise and be represented. I say to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), that all of that creates conditions in which young Palestinians have so much despair and so little hope that they are attracted to the ideas put forward by Hamas and others.

We need to try to do something about this. I expect that the Minister will say that the Government also believe in the two-state solution. If somebody says that they believe in a two-state solution in the middle east, and yet they do nothing—make no comment, take no action—about the things that are happening to actively undermine that objective, they are being insincere and not serious.

Our Government have to be seen to be taking action to make sure that the conditions are brought about in which a two-state solution could become a reality once again. First, they need to fully implement UN resolution 2334, and make a distinction between Israel proper and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, given the settlement economy that is going on there. The Government should take serious economic action to end economic trade with settlements in the occupied areas that sustain the occupation.

Secondly, as has been said, we should recognise the state of Palestine. Why not? If we believe that it should exist, we should recognise it, and try to help it and develop it, so that it becomes a proper state. Our not doing that puts the Palestinians always at a disadvantage.

Finally, it is time to understand that Israel, as a matter of Government policy, has been conducting its activities with impunity for many years in breach of international law. Its military action is in breach of the Geneva convention, and it has been undertaken with no sanction and no impediment. That must stop. We might wish to be good friends with the state of Israel, but we need to say to its Government, “You cannot continue with these policies. If you do, there will be consequences. This country will not stand by and idly watch this happen.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali), on securing this important debate.

I begin by reminding people that this debate has been about a road map to peace in Palestine. Over the past two decades, there have been a number of attempted road maps to peace between Palestine and Israel, but sadly, as we know only too well, none of them has brought about peace. We have in recent years seen initiatives by President Obama, supported by President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan; by President Abbas of Palestine; and by John Kerry. We even saw an initiative by President Trump, though it hardly merits that description, because it was rightly thrown in the dustbin by most responsible parties. I mention those points because they serve to underline that peace between Israel and Palestine cannot be a quick fix. It has to be thought out, well planned and based on certain principles, and the agreement must be acceptable to all parties concerned. That is the essence of achieving a peace settlement.

I am absolutely clear that there must be a negotiated peace. There are some who seek to destroy the state of Israel, and some who wish to deny any kind of statehood to the Palestinian people. Those who hold such views are profoundly wrong. Our aim should be the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel that can live in peace. I very much agree that there must be an emphasis on human rights. Now, in future negotiations and when the two-state solution becomes a reality, human rights should be at the top of the agenda.

I condemn the labelling of the six non-governmental organisations in Palestine as terrorist organisations by the Defence Minister of Israel, and I ask the Government to respond to that point, rather than take the holding position of, “We’ll see what the evidence is.” Others who have been told by the Israeli Government that there is evidence are yet to see it, and there is no evidence at all, I suspect, to justify that designation, so I ask for a firm Government response on that. It has been a number of weeks since the designation was made.

A two-state solution must therefore be the goal on which we continuously focus.

My hon. Friend says that our goal must be a two-state solution, and he mentioned the contributions of previous US Presidents in trying to broker a solution. He will be aware that the Biden Administration have voiced opposition to Israel’s settlement expansion plans, saying that they will damage the prospects for a two-state solution. Our Government can play a role. However, does he not think that the Biden Administration—the US Administration is the Government to which the Israelis probably listen the most—should play a major role in pursuing that and putting pressure on the Israelis to make it impossible for them to rule out the two-state solution through de facto developments on the ground?

I very much agree with all the points that my hon. Friend made, and I will touch upon each one in just a few moments.

Britain and the international community have to focus on a number of principles and key positions, so that we lay the groundwork for an eventual peace. Those must include, first, an adherence to the rule of international law—not ifs, no buts. There must be an adherence to international law by all parties, including the Palestinians, and including the state of Israel. Moreover, the forced evictions of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah and other communities in east Jerusalem and the west bank must stop. The ever-growing number of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are clearly illegal under international law, and the displacement of Palestinians from land that they have held for generations is clearly wrong. That is one principle—what follows from international law.

The second principle is that the city of Jerusalem must be shared by Israelis and Palestinians. The annexation of east Jerusalem by Israel cannot be accepted. Those two principles are the cornerstones on which any future negotiation has to be based. However, before we get to any meaningful negotiations, we have to press for a number of things.

That is a fairly balanced point of view. However, Israel is surrounded by enemies; there are rocket attacks and terrorist attacks on a regular basis. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the protection of Israel’s own people needs to be ensured before anything can happen?

Absolutely. I am a strong supporter of the state of Israel, as I am of a future state of Palestine. The state of Israel has a right to protect itself against Hamas, or anybody else for that matter, as any other state has according to international law. That is why international law is so important; it must apply to everyone in all circumstances.

The time is right for the state of Palestine to be recognised. Parliament itself has voted in principle in favour of recognising the state of Palestine, but it has not indicated a timescale, and the Government have paid, dare I say it, lip service to this principle. We now need to firm things up, and ensure that there is a recognition of the state of Palestine, which will give an impetus to the move towards meaningful negotiations.

We also need to press firmly for elections to be held in Palestine, so that those who are elected have a clear mandate to negotiate on behalf of their people. There is nothing like democracy, and nothing gives a mandate for negotiation as effectively as democracy. That is why the Palestinians need to have elections. The broadly based Israeli Government should do everything that they can to de-escalate tensions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and the new Government must place an embargo on all future settlements on the west bank.

It has to be said that the United States needs to be encouraged to be more proactive in the region, as touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Sir Mark Hendrick). The United States needs to work with allies in the region and build on the new relationships that are being established through the Abraham accords. I know that some Members have reservations about the Abraham accords, but they nevertheless exist, and we must use them as an opportunity to encourage the United Arab Emirates and others to raise the issue of Palestine directly with the Israelis. This is a new opportunity, and we must take every advantage of it. It might be an important avenue to explore with the UAE, because the country will be on the United Nations Security Council for two years, starting from this January.

Of course, our Government can do a heck of a lot more than they are currently doing. I was interested to read that the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa spoke at a conference this morning and issued a tweet in which he said it is important that we support the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. He said:

“Important we support UNRWA to deliver on its mandate until there is an agreed solution.”

That is all well and good, but I respectfully remind the Government that they have, quite disgracefully, just reduced their funding to UNRWA. I have the figures to prove it. The British Government gave $64.1 million to UNRWA in 2020—a reduction from $76.2 million in 2019—and the projection for 2021 is $39.1 million. The Government can say what they like about supporting UNRWA and the peace process, and about ensuring that the infrastructure is in place and that the groundwork is done for successful negotiations, but they are actually undermining it through their ham-fisted policies. I respectfully ask the Government to reconsider whether those cuts are morally justified and make any kind of sense whatsoever.

It is important for our Government to recognise that the peace process is a process. It will not happen overnight, and nor will it happen over weeks or months. It will happen over years, and it is absolutely essential that the groundwork is done to ensure that there is rapprochement between people on the ground. We have to learn lessons from the situation in Northern Ireland. Great progress was made in Northern Ireland, and not just because politicians came together, talked to one another and made compromises, which are essential in any negotiations. There was also investment in the means to bring people together, so that the old enmities of the past were put to one side, or at least minimised.

We have to do a something similar with regards to Israel and Palestine. That is why I think it is extremely important that the Government give their full-hearted support to the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. I know the Government say they support it, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green said, the Government have the opportunity to give their full-hearted support and to take up one of the seats on the board. They can support the initiative that has come from America to ensure that the essential groundwork is done, so that the Israeli people and the Palestinian people learn to come closer together. It is only when that happens that we can have a basis for a genuinely sustainable and fair peace, which is what we all want.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) for securing this important debate. This is an issue of great interest to the House, and I am grateful for the opportunity to lay out more comprehensively the UK’s current approach.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa would have liked to take part in this debate, but he is currently—right now—representing the UK at the ad hoc liaison committee in Oslo, where he is meeting the Palestinian Prime Minister and the Israeli Minister for Regional Cooperation, as well the Egyptian and Jordanian Foreign Ministers. It is good that dialogue is taking place. My right hon. Friend’s meetings will focus on tangible ways to develop the Palestinian economy, improving prospects for Palestinians and stability in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government.

The UK’s position on the middle east peace process is long standing and well known. We support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as a shared capital. We firmly believe that a just and lasting resolution that ends the occupation and delivers peace for both Israelis and Palestinians is long overdue. We also believe that the best way to make progress towards such a resolution is through bilateral negotiations that take account of the legitimate concerns of both sides.

We remain in close consultation with international partners to encourage a regional approach to peace. We are working through multilateral institutions, including the UN, to support resolutions and policies that encourage both sides to take steps that rebuild trust, which will be crucial if dialogue is to succeed. To that end, we welcome recent engagements between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian leadership. We urge further direct engagement and call on both parties to work together to tackle immediate and long-term threats to peace and stability. We consistently call for an immediate end to all actions that undermine the viability of a two-state solution, including acts of terrorism, antisemitic incitement, settlement expansion, and the demolition of Palestinian property on the west bank, including East Jerusalem.

A number of Members asked about civil society organisations. We are in contact with the Government of Israel to understand the basis of the designations of six civil society organisations. We have made it clear that human rights and civil society organisations have a vital role to play in the development of thriving and open societies.

We have only a short time, and this is the first time that the UK Government have been able to lay out our position on this specific issue in detail since the last change in Government in Israel. I believe there have been debates on specific issues, but this is the first more general debate, and I would like to put on the record the UK Government position.

The UK remains resolute in its commitment to Israel’s security. We condemn Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket attacks, and Israel does have a legitimate right to self-defence, but in exercising that right, it is vital that all actions are proportionate and in line with international humanitarian law. The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa is due to visit Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the coming months and is eager to discuss these important issues with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) asked about the UK’s views on trading with the settlements. The UK does not recognise the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including Israeli settlements, as part of Israel, so, for example, goods imported from the settlements are not permitted to benefit from trade preferences under the UK-Israel trade and partnership agreement.

A number of Members mentioned the humanitarian situation. The underlying causes of humanitarian crisis and economic decline in the Occupied Palestinian Territories must be addressed to improve the lives of Palestinians throughout the west bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and preserve the prospect of a negotiated two-state solution.

The UK remains a key development actor in the region. Our economic development programme aims to lift the overall standard of living for Palestinians, to increase trade and job creation, to enable greater movement and access for people and goods, and to enhance the supply of electricity and clean water. However, we remain concerned about the ongoing humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which was further exacerbated by the recent conflict and damage to civilian infrastructure. The UK will continue to work to address immediate humanitarian needs in Gaza, and to work towards a longer-term solution for recovery and reconstruction.

The Opposition spokesman asked about our commitment to UNRWA. Our contribution to UNRWA is helping to provide basic education, access to health services for Palestinian refugees and social safety net assistance—

I also point out to the Opposition spokesman that the UK contributed £3.5 million to the emergency appeal in May to meet the immediate needs of Palestinians in Gaza who were affected by the conflict at that time. And I also want to point out to him that, as the Chancellor set out in the Budget just last month, we are committed to returning to spending 0.7% on overseas aid as soon as the fiscal situation allows.

The Chancellor set that out, in detail, in the Budget last month, and took everyone through the protections. [Interruption.] It is on the record from the Chancellor in his Budget speech.

We also urge access into and out of Gaza, in accordance with international humanitarian law, for humanitarian actors, reconstruction materials and those, including Palestinians, travelling for medical purposes. We remain in close contact with UN agencies and key partners on the ground in order to assess the situation, and we will monitor that situation closely.

The Minister is so generous. Can I return her to the point that she originally made about the designation by the Israelis of six non-governmental organisations? It has to be said that they are highly respected organisations. She said that she was waiting for more information. How long will she wait before she makes a decision about whether or not the designation is correct?

With due respect, I think that really the most important thing is that right now—today—Israel and Palestine are talking, and talking about their future and moving towards peace. We believe, and we make it very clear to Israel, that human rights and civil society organisations have a vital role to play in developing thriving and open societies, and we support them. However, it is important that we continue to make it clear that a strong and vibrant civil society is in Israel’s own interest. We are concerned, and we have made that concern clear, about any developments that would undermine that commitment to being an open society. Israel is a fellow democracy, it has had a long-standing commitment to democracy and we make it clear that civil society has a vital role to play in open democracy.

To conclude, this occupation will not end and peace will not be achieved by symbolic measures. Peace will only be achieved by real movement towards renewed dialogue between the parties that leads to a viable Palestinian state living in peace and security, side by side with Israel—

On a point of order, Ms Rees. I find it quite remarkable that, given how much time was left, the Minister was first reluctant to give way to our Front-Bench spokesman, which is very discourteous, and in fact wanted to talk the debate out before I could make an intervention. She had already finished her speech earlier.

With respect, I had not finished my speech, and it is important that the Government make their point. I have accepted interventions and I would have liked to give the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, who secured this debate, a minute in which to respond.

The most important message that I want to give is that we urge all parties to continue this dialogue, because that is the pathway to peace and the two countries—the two parties—being able to live side by side.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of a roadmap to peace in Palestine.

Sitting adjourned.